Victoria G. Collin, Petitioner-Appellant,
Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent-Appellee.
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Ohio at Cleveland. No. 1:16-cv-02508-Christopher
A. Boyko, District Judge.
S. Potash, Beachwood, Ohio, for Appellant.
E. Brizius, Ruchi Asher, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE,
Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellee.
Before: SUTTON, KETHLEDGE, and LARSEN, Circuit Judges.
KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judge.
Collin brought suit against the Commissioner of Social
Security to recover moneys she says are "due and
owing" as a result of the Commissioner's failure,
for about a year, to garnish certain benefits paid to her
ex-husband. The district court dismissed the suit on grounds
of sovereign immunity. We affirm.
divorced James Jacobs several decades ago. In 1990, an Ohio
state court ordered Jacobs to pay Collin $13, 800 in
child-support payments and attorney fees. Sometime thereafter
Jacobs began to receive social-security benefits, but at no
time, apparently, did he pay Collin the money he owed her. By
January 2014, with interest, Jacobs's arrearage totaled
$45, 356. That month the state court entered an order
directing the Commissioner to garnish that amount from
Jacobs's social-security payments. In September 2014 the
Commissioner agreed to honor that order, and thus to withhold
approximately $700 per month from Jacobs's benefits
payments and to forward the funds to the Cuyahoga County
Clerk of Courts until the arrearage was paid off. See
generally 42 U.S.C. § 659. Accordingly, until
October 2015, the Commissioner sent garnished funds to the
state-court clerk, though on two occasions-in May and October
2015- the Commissioner paid a larger sum, apparently in each
instance to make up for the Commissioner's failure to
make payments in prior months. At any rate, in October 2015
the Commissioner mistakenly terminated the garnishment
later Collin brought this suit, which took the form of a
petition for mandamus in the district court. The petition
asked the district court to order the Commissioner both to
resume the garnishment and to pay a lump sum equal to the
amount the Commissioner had failed to garnish after the
October 2015 termination. In January 2017-three months after
the petition was filed-the Commissioner voluntarily resumed
the garnishment. Soon thereafter the district court granted
the Commissioner's motion to dismiss, holding that
Collin's request to resume the garnishment was moot
(because the Commissioner had done so already) and that
Collin's demand for a lump-sum payment was one for
"money damages, " as to which the United States was
immune from suit. We review the court's dismissal de
novo. S. Rehab. Grp., P.L.L.C. v. Sec'y of Health
& Human Servs., 732 F.3d 670, 676 (6th Cir. 2013).
doctrine of sovereign immunity removes subject matter
jurisdiction in lawsuits against the United States unless the
government has consented to suit." Haines v. Fed.
Motor Carrier Safety Admin., 814 F.3d 417, 425 (6th Cir.
2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, Collin argues
that the United States has consented to this litigation by
means of 42 U.S.C. § 659(a). That subsection provides in
relevant part that moneys
payable by the United States . . . to any individual . . .
shall be subject, in like manner and to the same extent as if
the United States . . . were a private person, to withholding
in accordance with State law . . . to enforce the legal
obligation of the individual to provide child support or
to § 659, the Office of Personnel Management has
promulgated a regulation (whose validity is not contested
here) that in turn provides: "Neither the United States,
any disbursing officer, nor any governmental entity shall be
liable under this part to pay money damages for failure to
comply with legal process." 5 C.F.R. §
581.305(e)(2). Thus, the parties agree, the question
presented here is whether Collin's demand for a lump-sum
payment is a demand for money damages.
Supreme Court has "long recognized the distinction
between an action at law for damages-which are intended to
provide a victim with monetary compensation for an injury to
his person, property, or reputation-and an equitable action
for specific relief-which may include an order . . . for the
recovery of specific property or monies[.]"
Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U.S. 879, 893 (1988)
(internal quotation marks omitted). Money damages are thus
compensatory relief, which serve as a
"substitute for a suffered loss, whereas
specific remedies are not substitute remedies at all, but
attempt to give the plaintiff the very thing to which he was
entitled." Id. at 895 (internal quotation marks
distinction is harder to make when, as here, the very thing
to which the plaintiff says she is entitled is the payment of
money. In Bowen, the Court held that "[t]he
State's suit to enforce § 1396b(a) of the Medicaid
Act, which provides that the Secretary [of Health and Human
Services] 'shall pay' certain amounts for appropriate
Medicaid services, is not a suit seeking money in
compensation for the damage sustained by the failure
of the Federal Government to pay as mandated; rather, it is a
suit seeking to enforce the statutory mandate
itself, which happens to be one for the payment of
money." Id. at 900 (second emphasis added).
Here the statutory mandate is different in kind.
Specifically, under 42 U.S.C. § 659, the government
obligated itself "to withhold" approximately $700
per month from benefits owed to Jacobs, and to pay those
moneys to the Cuyahoga County Clerk of Courts. The government
did not withhold those funds between October 2015 and January
2017, and cannot do so now because those benefits have
already been paid. The lump sum that Collin seeks now,
therefore, would be a substitute for moneys the government
should have withheld then. Thus, the relief she seeks for
those missed payments is not enforcement of "the
statutory mandate itself"-as to those payments, rather,
the time for "withholding[, ]" 42 U.S.C. §
659(a), is long since past-but instead money damages for the