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Fischer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 13, 2017

MARTIN FISCHER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Martin Fischer was not financially eligible for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, who was born on December 9, 1954, protectively filed an application for SSI benefits on October 2, 2012. Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level due a finding that, although Plaintiff was disabled due to thyroid disorders, his resources exceeded the limit for SSI eligibility. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on August 16, 2013. Plaintiff submitted a Waiver of Right to Appear at Hearing and did not appear at the hearing, but his attorney appeared on his behalf. By decision dated February 13, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had excess resources since the date he applied for SSI benefits. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied on August 19, 2015. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that, although the ALJ based her ruling in part on a lack of sufficient information regarding Plaintiff's assets, the ALJ never asked Plaintiff to provide such evidence. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not discuss all of the evidence that was submitted in support of Plaintiff's lack of resources, including two business checking account statements indicating balances of $.01 and $1.70, respectively.

         Record, Evidentiary Hearing, and ALJ's Decision

         The Court adopts Plaintiff's unopposed Statement of Facts (Doc. No. 23), as amended by Defendant (Doc. No. 28-1), and Defendant's unopposed Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. No. 28-2). Together, these statements provide a fair and accurate description of the record before the Court. The Court will discuss specific facts as they are relevant to the parties' arguments.

         DISCUSSION

         In reviewing the denial of Social Security disability benefits, a court must review the entire administrative record to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Johnson v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 991, 992 (8th Cir. 2011). “Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). A reviewing court “must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision. If, after review, [the court finds] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, [the court] must affirm the decision of the Commissioner.” Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016) (internal citation omitted).

         “The basic purpose underlying the supplemental security income program is to assure a minimum level of income for people who are age 65 or over, or who are blind or disabled and who do not have sufficient income and resources to maintain a standard of living at the established Federal minimum income level.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.110 (emphasis added). “Thus, a claimant not engaging in [substantial gainful activity] and otherwise eligible for the SSI program will be denied benefits if he or she has too much income or too many resources.” Dotson v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 571, 576 n.6 (7th Cir. 1993). Specifically, an unmarried individual is not eligible for SSI if the individual's resources exceed $2, 000 at the relevant time.[2] 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382 (a)(1)(B), (a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.1205. The regulations define “resources” as “cash or other liquid assets or any real or personal property that an individual (or spouse, if any) owns and could convert to cash to be used for his or her support and maintenance.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.1201(a).

         Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not eligible for SSI due to undisclosed excess resources. As the ALJ noted, Plaintiff's application for SSI disclosed a revocable trust in Plaintiff's name, which Plaintiff established and of which Plaintiff was the trustee. The trust gave Plaintiff the power to amend, alter, revoke, or terminate the trust; to cause property to be transferred to the trust; and to use the principal of the trust for Plaintiff's own care, comfort, medical needs, maintenance, and support. As the ALJ found and as Plaintiff does not dispute, the trust is considered a resource available to Plaintiff for purposes of determining Plaintiff's financial eligibility for SSI. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382b(e)(3)(A) (“In the case of a revocable trust established by an individual, the corpus of the trust shall be considered a resource available to the individual.”).

         The ALJ found that “the total value of assets held in the trust is unknown, despite the best efforts of the field office to obtain such information.” (Tr. 13.) The ALJ found that “[t]he record shows that the claimant has been asked to document additions/subtractions from the Trust on numerous occasions, but has failed to do so, ” and that “[w]ithout such information, the Social Security Administration cannot determine whether the claimant meets resource requirements.” Id.

         Substantial evidence supports these findings. When Plaintiff first disclosed the existence of the trust in his application for benefits, the agency asked Plaintiff to provide additional information about the trust, and Plaintiff responded in a manner that an agency employee described as “purpose[fully] vague.” (Tr. 34.) On November 30, 2012, Plaintiff submitted what appeared to be an ATM receipt from PNC Bank dated November 29, 2012, which indicated negative balance of $199.47 in a checking account, accompanied by a handwritten note from Plaintiff stating that this amount represented “the balance of the trust.” (Tr. 38.) Plaintiff also submitted a bank statement from a checking account held in the name of his trust, with an account number ending in 6815, which showed account balances between varying from $3, 394.03 to $1, 927.76 during the time period of September 20, 2012 and October 17, 2012.

         A February 8, 2013 report of contact indicates that an agency employee asked Plaintiff to submit complete records relating to his trust and that Plaintiff, up to that point, failed to make a full accounting for the assets of the trust. The agency employee also noted that Plaintiff claimed that the house he lived in was owned by the trust, but other records suggested that the house was in Plaintiff's name. (Tr. 61.) The employee noted that, although Plaintiff claimed that there was no money in the trust and had provided the ATM receipt showing a negative balance described above, the agency discovered bank account information from a different account of Plaintiff's showing that its balance went from $135.79 in October 2012 to $5, 836.67 in November of 2012, and Plaintiff was unable to explain where those funds came from. (Tr. 61-62.) Additionally, in denying Plaintiff's request for reconsideration on April 13, 2013, the agency noted that Plaintiff had thus far failed to provide a statement accounting for the balance of the trust. The agency further noted that, as discussed above, although Plaintiff had reported only one checking account, Plaintiff's financial records indicated that he had two such ...


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