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Harrison v. United States Social Security Administration

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

January 2, 2014

GEORGE O. HARRISON, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, and UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES R. SPENCER, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 11), on pro se Plaintiff George O. Harrison's ("Harrison") Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint ("Motion to Amend") (ECF No. 17), and on Harrison's Motion for Leave to File Second Amended Complaint ("Second Motion to Amend") (ECF No. 19). Harrison brought suit against the United States Social Security Administration ("SSA") and Department of Education ("DOE") asserting due process and equal protection violations for the application of an administrative offset to Harrison's social security benefits in order to pay a debt owed to the DOE.[1] A hearing on the matter was held on December 19, 2013. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and DENIES both Plaintiff's Motion to Amend and his Second Motion to Amend as futile.

I. BACKGROUND[2]

Harrison is legally blind and applied for Social Security Title II disability benefits on August 21, 2009. On July 7, 2011, Harrison was awarded disability benefits based on a disability onset date of May 1, 2010, entitling him to benefits payments beginning in October 2010. Harrison does not indicate the amount of this disability payment but alleges that beginning in October 2011, the SSA began reducing his monthly benefits distribution by approximately $350. Harrison asserts in the Complaint that the SSA and the DOE have unlawfully seized $350 per month since October 2011 and that this seizure violates the Constitution's guarantees of due process and equal protection. He asserts jurisdiction by stating, "This Court has jurisdiction to hear and decide this action under the provisions of applicable statues (sic) of the United States Code." (Compl. ¶¶ 3, 8.) The Complaint requests compensatory and punitive damages of at least $450, 000 and such other relief as the Court deems appropriate.

Defendants assert that the SSA has not imposed any reduction in Harrison's Social Security benefits. Rather, Defendants indicate that his payments have been offset pursuant to the Treasury Offset Program ("TOP") to satisfy Harrison's past-due obligations. The federal government may collect debts by administrative offset pursuant to the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, 31 U.S.C. § 3716 (c)(6). Pursuant to this statute, the TOP authorizes collection of debt by administrative offset after notifying the debtor of the possibility of offset and providing an opportunity to dispute the debt or make alternative payment arrangements. While Social Security benefits are subject to offset, see Lockhart u. United States, 546 U.S. 142, 145 (2005), the DOE is Harrison's creditor agency, making it responsible for the deduction in the amount of Harrison's Social Security benefits payment. See Johnson v. Dep't of Treasury, 300 F.Appx. 860, 862 (nth Cir. 2008).

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a defendant to raise a number of defenses to a complaint at the pleading stage, including lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The standard used to evaluate each defense varies. While a court must typically construe the pleadings of a pro se plaintiff liberally, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), a court considering a motion to dismiss must still evaluate the pro se plaintiff's pleadings according to the standards developed under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Robinson v. Johnson, No. 3:07CV449, 2009 WL 874530, at *2 (E.D. Va. Mar. 26, 2009); cf. Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274 (4th Cir. 1985). When a defendant moves for dismissal pursuant both to Rule 12(b)(1) and also to other Rule 12 defenses, the court resolves the 12(b)(1) motion first, because if the court lacks jurisdiction, the remaining motions are moot. See Sucampo Pharms., Inc. v. Astellas Pharma, Inc., 471 F.3d 544, 548 (4th Cir. 2006).

It is well settled that the United States, as sovereign, is immune from suit except to the extent that it has consented to be sued by statute. See United States v. Dalm, 494 U.S. 596, 608 (1990); Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U.S. 156, 160 (1981); United States v. Mitchell, 445 U.S. 535, 538 (1980); United States v. Testan, 424 U.S. 392, 399 (1976); United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586 (1941). Such statutory waivers of sovereign immunity "cannot be implied but must be unequivocally expressed." United States v. King, 395 U.S. 1, 4 (1969). Moreover, they must be construed strictly in favor of the sovereign and may not be enlarged beyond what the statutory language requires. Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 463 U.S. 680, 685-86 (1983). The terms of the waiver define the Court's jurisdiction to entertain the suit. Sherwood, 312 U.S. at 586.

A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted challenges the legal sufficiency of a claim, rather than the facts supporting it. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 464 (4th Cir. 2007); Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992). A court ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must accept all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, see Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999); Warner v. Buck Creek Nursery, Inc., 149 F.Supp.2d 246, 254-55 (W.D. Va. 2001), in addition to any provable facts consistent with those allegations, Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984), and must view these facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002). In contrast, the court does not have to accept legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, or "unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments, " E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. 678.

The Court may consider the complaint, its attachments, and documents "attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic." Trimble Navigation Ltd., 484 F.3d at 705. To be "integral" to the complaint, an attached document must be "explicitly relied on, " CACI Int'l, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins., Co., 566 F.3d 150, 154 (4th Cir. 2009), or must be central to the claim "in the sense that its very existence... gives rise to the legal rights asserted, " Fisher v. Md. Dept. of Pub. Safety and Corr. Servs., et al., 2010 WL 2732334 (D. Md. July 8, 2010) (quoting Walker v. S.W.I.F.T. SCRL, 517 F.Supp.2d 801, 806 (E.D. Va. 2007)) (collecting cases that distinguish between integral and non-integral documents).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants assert two grounds on which the Court may dismiss Harrison's Complaint. First, they argue that sovereign immunity bars Harrison's complaint, and therefore, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Second, they argue that Harrison's Complaint fails to plausibly allege facts showing that a constitutional violation has occurred. As a final matter, Defendants argue that Harrison cannot maintain a suit against SSA because it is not a creditor agency responsible for Harrison's debt, but merely carried out its duties pursuant to the TOP. Harrison opposes Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and also requests leave to amend his Complaint. However, Harrison's two proposed Amended Complaints fail to show that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, the Court must grant Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and deny both of Harrison's Motions to Amend as futile.

A. MOTION TO DISMISS

Harrison has asserted a claim for constitutional violations by two federal agencies and has sought relief in the form of money damages. In order to survive Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Harrison must show that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction, that sovereign immunity does not bar his claim, and that there are plausible facts supporting his allegation of constitutional violations. ...


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