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Bynum v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 28, 2016

HENRY ALLEN BYNUM, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

          ORDER RESOLVING MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 24, 27

          JEFFREY S. WHITE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff Henry Allen Bynum (“Bynum”), and the Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and considered the parties’ papers and the relevant legal authority, the Court hereby DENIES Bynum’s Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS the Commissioner’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Bynum brings this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision to deny his request for waiver of overpayment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. section 405(g). Bynum, then 62 years old, applied for Social Security benefits on September 23, 2009. (Certified Administrative Record (“AR”) 16-17.) In doing so, Bynum acknowledged that “if [he] decide[d] to go back to work [he] must stay within the gross annual earnings limit of $14, 160.00 yr/$1, 800.00 mo.” (AR 17.) Additionally, he acknowledged that if there was a possibility that he may earn wages in excess of this limit, he “must contact Social Security right away” to avoid creating an overpayment. (AR 17.) In a letter that notified Bynum of his benefit award, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) stated “your benefits are based on the information you gave us. If this information changes, it could affect your benefits. For this reason, it is important that you report changes to us right away.” (AR 18.) Bynum began receiving Social Security benefits in October 2009. (Id.)

         During this time, Bynum continued to work and earned a gross paycheck in excess of the SSA’s prescribed earning limits. (AR 67-93.) On June 16, 2011, the SSA notified him that he had received an overpayment of $17, 652.00 in benefits for 2010. (AR 21.) The SSA explained that he had earned an actual income of $78, 983.00 despite reporting an income of $0.00. (Id.) Further, the SSA notified Bynum on April 24, 2012 that his future benefits would no longer be paid. (AR 32.) On May 11, 2012, Bynum submitted a request for waiver of overpayment due to “extreme hardship.” (AR 34.) He stated his net pay was merely $720 a month due to delinquent tax payments. (Id.) In his request, Bynum noted, “[m]y take-home [pay] is less than the monthly allowance for working individuals....” (AR 39.)

         On May 26, 2012, the SSA informed Bynum that the overpayment totaled $33, 921.00 for excess benefits paid between January 2010 and December 2011. (AR 56.) Five days later, Bynum filed a request for reconsideration to waive the payment. (AR 59.) In his filing, he stated that if he was required to pay, it would result in an inability to pay “bills for food, clothing, housing, medical care, or other necessary expenses.” (Id.) The SSA classified Bynum’s overpayment as an entitlement overpayment and denied his request for reconsideration. (AR 11, 97.) The SSA explained, “Mr. Bynum filed an application indicating that he was retiring when in fact it appears that he never stopped working.” (AR 98.) Additionally, the SSA stated Bynum received “clear instructions on his reporting responsibilities” when he applied for benefits. (AR 98.) On August 31, 2012, Bynum requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to appeal the SSA’s decision. (AR 108.) In this application, Bynum declared his “earning[s] are moot” due to tax garnishes placed upon his wages. (Id.)

         On August 30, 2013, the ALJ affirmed the SSA’s decision and denied Bynum’s request to waive the overpayment. (AR 11-15.) The ALJ found that Bynum was “not without fault” in creating the overpayment and therefore, was ineligible to receive a waiver. (AR 13.) Bynum requested review of the ALJ’s decision, which the Appeals Council denied on February 12, 2015. (AR 2.)

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Bynum commenced this action for judicial review of the ALJ’s decision. Bynum argues he was without fault for the overpayment and, therefore, repayment should be waived. He argues he “understood” and “was led to believe” that the SSA’s earning limit was calculated on net pay instead of gross pay. (Pl. Br. at 6.) For support, Bynum cites the capitalization pattern of the words “take-home” and “gross” on the SSA’s waiver application form. (Id.) Additionally, he claims that the SSA was negligent, because it failed to notify him that the limits were based on gross earnings instead of net earnings. Further, Bynum argues the ALJ “erred in his conclusion” that Bynum was “evasive” in his testimony. (Id. at 7.)

         On February 4, 2016, Bynum filed the instant motion for summary judgment. On March 3, 2016, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         A federal district court may not disturb the Commissioner’s denial of a waiver of overpayment request if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and without legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). Considering the administrative record as a whole, “[s]ubstantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Robbins v. SSA, 466 F.3d 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997). “[W]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation” and the ALJ has provided a rational interpretation, the district court must uphold the decision of the ALJ. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         B. The ALJ’s Determination That Bynum Was Not Without Fault Is Supported By Substantial Evidence and Free of Legal Error.

         Bynum argues that the ALJ erred in the decision to find him not without fault for the overpayment, and the ALJ’s decision to deny him a waiver of overpayment must be reversed. Conversely, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ’s determination that Bynum was not without fault for the ...


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