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Howell v. Astrue

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 27, 2013



DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.

Plaintiff brings this pro se appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Social Security Administration's decision to deny his claim for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits.[1] Having reviewed the record and the parties' dispositive motions (Docs. # 12, 13), the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


Plaintiff has sought benefits in one form or another from the Social Security Administration for over twenty-seven years. His efforts have been successful at times while futile at other times. He is currently appealing the Administration's December 7, 2011 decision denying him Title II Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). However, to fully understand the claims Plaintiff presents in this appeal, it is helpful to review Plaintiff's protracted history with the Social Security Administration ("SSA").

On January 18, 1985, Plaintiff was working on a hillside when a tree fell and hit him in his lower back. (Doc. # 1 at 1). Plaintiff was knocked unconscious. ( Id. ). He was treated at a hospital in Pikeville, Kentucky for nine days after the injury, though the treatment allegedly did not cure his injuries. He alleges that he still suffers disabling back pain as a result of the accident, which continues to worsen.

As a result of his back injury, Plaintiff filed a claim for benefits[2] with the SSA on January 13, 1987, which was denied by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Doc. # 1 at 2). Plaintiff appealed that decision to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The court remanded Plaintiffs claim to the ALJ for further consideration. On remand, an ALJ conducted an evidentiary hearing and then denied the claim on December 7, 1988. The United States District Court affirmed the ALJ's decision on November 3, 1989. (Doc. # 1 at 2).

Plaintiff filed a second application for DIB on February 7, 1990, primarily alleging that he was disabled because of the back injury. (Doc. # 1-3 at 1); Howell v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 37 F.Appx. 765, 766 (6th Cir. 2002). This claim was denied by an ALJ on June 17, 1991, but later remanded by the United States District Court for further consideration. On September 8, 1992, while Plaintiff's remanded claim for DIB was pending, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). An ALJ considered the SSI application and the remanded DIB claim in tandem, denying both claims in a March 23, 1994 decision. However, that decision was also remanded "for further consideration of [Plaintiff's] alleged mental impairments and the different time frames that were covered by his [DIB and SSI] claims." Howell, 37 F.Appx. at 766.

Upon remand, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing a limited range of light work, and that there were a significant number of available jobs that he could perform. Id. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled and denied his claim for SSI and DIB. Id. On appeal, the district court affirmed the ALJ's decision concerning DIB, but remanded the case for an award of SSI benefits for a period beginning on June 30, 1997. Id. In doing so, the district court concluded that Plaintiff was medically disabled as of June 30, 1997. The district court's decision was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 19, 2002, Howell, 37 F.Appx. at 767, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari on June 13, 2003, Howell v. Barnhart, 537 U.S. 1124 (2003).

Based on the district court's decision, Plaintiff was entitled to receive SSI benefits beginning on June 30, 1997. Plaintiff apparently assumed he would be awarded past-due benefits up to the present day-sometime in early 2000. However, after considering the district court's decision, the SSA only provided Plaintiff with SSI benefits through September 1999 because, starting in October 1999, his wife's income exceeded the maximum amount to remain eligible for benefits.

After being advised that he would only receive SSI benefits through September 1999, Plaintiff filed a third claim for benefits on February 15, 2006. (Doc. # 1-2 at 4). Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of June 30, 1997-the date the district court previously determined as his disability onset date. The SSA construed the claim as one for SSI, and denied the claim because Plaintiff and his wife had excess resources. (Doc. # 1-3). Plaintiff subsequently filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ, which was conducted on May 10, 2007. ( Id. ). On July 17, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision construing Plaintiff's February 15, 2006 claim for SSI benefits as a request for reinstatement of benefits awarded "[u]nder the application for Supplemental Security Income filed February 7, 1990." (Doc. # 1-3 at 7). So construed, the ALJ reinstated Plaintiff's SSI benefits beginning September 31, 2004. ( Id. ).

Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's favorable decision to the SSA's Appeals Council, apparently because the ALJ failed to consider whether he was entitled to Title II DIB. (Tr. 15). The Appeals Council found a number of errors in the ALJ's decision. First, the Appeals Council found that the ALJ should have considered whether Plaintiff was entitled to Title II DIB, which he failed to do. Second, the Appeals Council found it was unclear whether Plaintiff even intended to appeal the original denial of his SSI claim. If he did not intend to appeal the denial of SSI benefits, the Council suggested that the ALJ improperly awarded SSI benefits on appeal. Finally, even if Plaintiff intended to appeal the denial of SSI benefits, the Council held that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in reinstating those benefits. As a result, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ on remand to consider (1) whether Plaintiff intended to have the ALJ consider the Administration's initial denial of SSI benefits and (2) whether Plaintiff was entitled to SSI or Title II DIB.

On March 16, 2011, ALJ Charlie Paul Andrus issued his decision from the Appeals Council's remand. After conferring with Plaintiff at an October 12, 2010 hearing, ALJ Andrus concluded that Plaintiff did not intend to appeal the Administration's initial denial of his SSI claim. Additionally, the ALJ held that Plaintiff was not entitled to Title II DIB because he was not insured at the time of his alleged disability onset date. Therefore, ALJ Andrus denied Plaintiff's application for both Title II DIB and SSI.

Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed ALJ Andrus' unfavorable decision to the SSA Appeals Council. Plaintiff also submitted additional evidence for the Council's consideration, including a letter he drafted and medical reports from Doctors Ira B. Potter and Duane Densler. (Tr. 8). On December 7, 2011, the Appeals Council notified Plaintiff that it found no reason under its rules ...

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