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O'Neal v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

May 30, 2019

WENDELL DWAYNE O'NEAL Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Wendell Dwayne O'Neal, proceeding pro se, commenced this action against the United States of America and Nancy A. Berryhill, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), based on allegations that the defendants have wrongfully withheld disability benefits he is entitled to receive and refused to respond to his Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests. Doc. 1. This is the second time O'Neal's claims have come before this court; O'Neal filed a previous action that the court dismissed without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See docs. 47 and 48 in No. 5:18-cv-00479-TMP. Based upon purportedly newly discovered evidence, O'Neal has filed this new lawsuit, and has moved for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. See doc. 3. Consistent with its obligation to review the complaint of plaintiffs moving for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), the court finds that it does not have subject matter jurisdiction over O'Neal's claims related to his request for disability benefits and damages, that O'Neal cannot state a viable FOIA claim against the United States, and that O'Neal's FOIA's claim against the Commissioner is moot. As such, O'Neal's claims are due to be dismissed without prejudice.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A federal district court “‘should inquire into whether it has subject matter jurisdiction at the earliest possible stage in the proceedings.'” Bochese v. Town of Ponce Inlet, 405 F.3d 964, 975 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Univ. of S. Alabama v. Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 410 (11th Cir. 1999)). “If the court determines . . . that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). In addition, district courts are required to dismiss the complaint of any plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis if the court determines that the complaint “(i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(iii). A complaint is frivolous when “it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact, ” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), or “when it appears that ‘the legal theories are indisputably meritless.'” Ghee v. Retailers Nat'l Bank, 271 Fed.Appx. 858, 859-60 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Carroll v. Gross, 984 F.2d 392, 393 (11th Cir. 1993)).

         II. Procedural and Factual Background

         Before turning to O'Neal's claims and pending motions, the court first addresses the procedural history of this action. O'Neal filed his first application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) in 1995, which did not result in an award of benefits. See doc. 1 at 1. O'Neal filed a second application for SSI in 1999. Id. at 4-5. An ALJ denied O'Neal's 1999 application, and the appeals council denied review. Doc. 41-1 in No. 5:18-cv-00479-TMP at 3.[1] O'Neal filed a third application for SSI on November 21, 2001, which the SSA granted. Id. at 3, 7.

         In 2005, long after filing the third application, O'Neal initiated an action in this court appealing the decision denying his 1999 application. Id. at 3. See also doc. 1 in No. 2:05-cv-02127-VEH. Because the Commissioner was unable to locate the claim file for the original hearing on the 1999 SSI application, Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins remanded the action to the Commissioner for reconstruction of the administrative record. Doc. 41-1 in No. 5:18-cv-00479-TMP at 7; Docs. 6 and 7 in No. 2:05-cv-02127-VEH.[2] Ultimately, after a new hearing in December 2007, an ALJ granted O'Neal's 1999 application for SSI, finding O'Neal disabled and awarding him retroactive benefits from September 14, 1999, the date of his second application. Doc. 41-1 in Case. No. 5:18-cv-00479-TMP at 10, 15-16. In reaching that decision, the ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Kessler, a medical expert who testified at the December 2007 hearing, and who opined that O'Neal's depression with psychotic features meets the criteria of Section 12.03 of the Listing of Impairments. Id. at 16.[3] Thereafter, Judge Hopkins affirmed the decision awarding benefits, and entered the decision as a final judgment pursuant to Rule 58. Doc. 12 in Case. No. 2:05-cv-02127-VEH. O'Neal did not appeal the court's judgment.

         In January 2018, the SSA notified O'Neal that it was conducting a continuing disability review to redetermine O'Neal's eligibility for SSI, and O'Neal appealed the SSA's decision. See doc. 1 at 6-7. O'Neal contends that he learned about his October 1995 application for benefits during a phone call with an SSA employee on February 22, 2018. Doc. 1 at 9, 13. Based on that discovery, O'Neal filed a “renewed back pay petition” with the SSA on March 1, 2018, which the SSA refused to process. Id. at 7, 9, 11. O'Neal alleges that the SSA “ignored multiple petitions for reconsideration and administrative hearings regarding back pay.” Id. at 9-10. Allegedly, a SSA employee told O'Neal that the SSA had denied his 1995 application, he “does not qualify for back pay, ” and his claims regarding the application were untimely. Id. at 11. Subsequently, O'Neal filed a motion for relief in his 2005 action in this court, arguing that he is entitled to relief from the judgment affirming the award of benefits as of September 14, 1999, because the Commissioner misrepresented the date of his first application for benefits. Doc. 13 in No. 2:05-cv-02127-VEH. Judge Hopkins denied the motion as untimely. Doc. 20 in No. 2:06-cv-02127-VEH. O'Neal then filed a new lawsuit in this court, asserting claims against the Commissioner under the FTCA and FOIA. Docs. 1 and 9 in 5:18-cv-00479-TMP. As mentioned above, Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam dismissed that action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Docs. 47 and 48 in 5:18-cv-00479-TMP.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Claims Related to Social Security Benefits

         O'Neal generally alleges that the defendants wrongfully concealed his first application for social security benefits, which he filed in October 1995, and thereby withheld “back pay” he should have received when the SSA approved his 1999 application for benefits. See doc. 1. O'Neal further alleges that the SSA refused to process his March 2018 petition for “back pay, ” or respond to his requests for reconsideration and administrative hearings and his “Petition for Response to Exhaust Administrative Remedies under the FTCA.” Id. at 7-12, 14. Based on those allegations, O'Neal asserts claims under the FTCA for negligence, misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, and negligent training and supervision. See Id. at 2-3, 8, 13-14. For his relief, O'Neal seeks payment of social security benefits beginning from October 1995, monetary damages, and an order directing the SSA to correct findings regarding when his disability began. Doc. 1 at 18.

         O'Neal's claims relating to his request for “back pay” clearly arise from the Social Security Act (the “Act”). But, as Judge Putnam explained in his opinion dismissing O'Neal's prior claims:

The [Act] limits the extent to which the court may review decisions that arise under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Act provides that a party may seek judicial review of a “final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security” in the District Court within 60 days. [Id.] The Act further clarifies that § 405(g) is the sole mechanism under which the court has jurisdiction to review claims that arise under the Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(h); Heckler v. Ringer, 466 U.S. 602, 614-15 (1985). Specifically, the Act forbids any action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1331 for any claims arising under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(h). The Supreme Court has found that the “arising under language in § 405(h) is very broad and ‘extends to any ‘action' seeking ‘to recover on any Social Security Claim' . . . .” Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749, 762 (1975). This precludes claims brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) where the civil action ...

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