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Goldstein v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

May 30, 2018

STEVEN MICHAEL GOLDSTEIN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 84, 90, 91, 92

          HOWARD R. LLOYD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Steven Goldstein appeals a final decision by defendant Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his application for benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act). As will be discussed, this matter presents solely a legal issue as to whether plaintiff can collect, simultaneously and without any reduction, both disability insurance benefits on his own earnings record and child disability benefits on the earnings record of his (now deceased) father. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the matter was submitted without oral argument. Upon consideration of the moving and responding papers, and for the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion is denied and defendant's motion is granted.[1]

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1967. He receives disability insurance benefits pursuant to an application he submitted in 1992, alleging that he was unable to work since September 24, 1990.

         Plaintiff's father passed away on February 6, 2007. On August 24, 2010, plaintiff submitted a survivor's claim for child disability benefits. (AR 32-33). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied that claim on the ground that plaintiff was already entitled to an equal or larger benefit on his own earnings record. (Id. 34-36, 46-48). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ), and a hearing was held on June 21, 2011. In July 2011, the ALJ issued a decision upholding the denial of plaintiff's claim, concluding that 42 U.S.C. § 402(k)(3)(A) and 20 C.F.R. § 404.407(a) permitted plaintiff to collect only the highest benefit available, and that the amount of his disability insurance benefit was higher than the amount of child's benefits payable on his father's earnings record. (AR 62-63).[2] The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff then filed the present action for judicial review. The matter was remanded pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) sentence six, after defendant advised that the Commissioner was unable to locate the administrative record. (Dkt. 23). Subsequently, on April 17, 2015, the court issued an order directing the Commissioner, within 180 days from the order, to either re-create the administrative record or remand the matter to an ALJ to reconstruct the record and offer plaintiff a new hearing. (Dkt. 45). On July 24, 2015, the Appeals Council advised plaintiff that, despite an extensive search, the Commissioner was not able to locate all of the administrative record. Accordingly, the Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded the case to an ALJ for a hearing and a new decision. (AR 127-129).

         A hearing was held on October 4, 2016. Plaintiff was given an opportunity to submit additional evidence, and the ALJ held the record open for two weeks after the hearing for receipt of documents. (AR 213-14). Her March 8, 2017 decision notes that the present record is the best possible reconstruction of the prior administrative record. (AR 8).

         The ALJ once again found that plaintiff was not entitled to additional child disability benefits. She concluded that the prior 2011 decision was correct and incorporated it by reference. (AR 6-12, 197-237). According to the ALJ, 42 U.S.C. § 402(k)(3)(A) required the SSA to reduce the claimed child disability benefits by the amount of disability benefits plaintiff already was receiving. (AR 10). Because she found that plaintiff was entitled to a higher rate of disability benefits on his own record than any child disability benefit for which he might be eligible, she concluded that plaintiff was not entitled to any additional child disability benefits. (AR 11-12). Additionally, she found that 42 U.S.C. § 402(k)(2)(B)[3] did not prohibit the SSA from reducing disability insurance benefits or child disability benefits in order to prevent dual entitlement. (AR 9).

         The court subsequently granted the Commissioner's request to reopen the present action. (Dkt. 76). The Commissioner submitted the certified administrative record and moved to dismiss, or alternatively for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposed that motion. The court issued an order giving plaintiff an opportunity to file a cross-motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. 89). He has done so. Although plaintiff expresses concern that his childhood medical records are not in the administrative transcript, the only issue before the court is a purely legal one: whether the ALJ properly interpreted and applied the law in denying plaintiff's claim for concurrent payment of disability insurance benefits and child disability benefits, without reduction. The parties' motions having been fully briefed, the matter is deemed submitted without oral argument. Upon consideration of the moving and responding papers, as well as the record in this case, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grants defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. Generally, the standard of review provides that the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995). In this context, the term “substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance---it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

         This particular case, however, presents solely a legal issue. As previewed above, the parties dispute whether plaintiff is entitled to both disability insurance benefits on his own earnings record and child disability benefits on his father's earnings record, simultaneously and without reduction. The Commissioner maintains that 42 U.S.C. § 402(k)(3)(A) requires the SSA to offset child disability payments when an individual, such as plaintiff, is also entitled to disability insurance benefits. She noted that her conclusion is supported by federal regulations and by the SSA's Program Operations Manual System (POMS) DI10115.001. Plaintiff argues that defendant is misconstruing and misapplying the law and therefore, the POMS is also incorrect.

         42 U.S.C. § 402(k)(3)(A) provides:

If an individual is entitled to an old-age or disability insurance benefit for any month and to any other monthly insurance benefit for such month, such other insurance benefit for such month, after any reduction under subsection (q), subsection (e)(2) or (f)(2), and any reduction under section 403(a) of this title, shall be reduced, but not below zero, by an amount equal to ...

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