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Thorton v. United States Railroad Retirement Board

March 24, 1997

LENILL L. THORNTON,

PETITIONER,

v.

UNITED STATES RAILROAD RETIREMENT BOARD,

RESPONDENT.



Petition to Review Decision of the Railroad Retirement Board of the United States of America

RRB No. A-320-30-0769

Before COFFEY, MANION and KANNE, Circuit Judges.

COFFEY, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED FEBRUARY 11, 1997

DECIDED MARCH 24, 1997

Lenill Thornton petitions for review of the affirmance by the United States Railroad Retirement Board ("the Board") of its hearing officer's decision denying his application for a disability annuity under the Railroad Retirement Act ("the Act"). *fn1 Petitioner argues that the Board erred by affirming the hearing officer's decision denying his disability annuity application without the benefit of an oral hearing. We affirm.

I. Background

Thornton was employed by the railroad from 1965 until 1982 and filed an application for a disability annuity under the Act after suffering a heart attack some three months earlier on November 18, 1993. Twelve days later on the 30th of November, 1993, Thornton returned a "Self-Employment and Substantial Service Questionnaire" *fn2 with his application, wherein he stated that, prior to his heart attack, he had been the "Head Minister" of the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church ("the church") in Peoria, Illinois. His services to the church included preaching on Sundays, infrequently performing weddings and funerals, and making hospital visits. On occasion, he was required to be on duty 24 hours per day. In his application he reported that his weekly earnings were $247.50, that his prorated monthly earnings were $1072.50, and that these figures had remained consistent for all of 1992 until August 1993 when he suffered his heart attack. He admitted in his application that he did not report these payments to the IRS as income because, in his words, they were characterized as a "love offering." After August 1993, Thornton continued to receive a "love offering" in the same amount he received before his heart attack. He alleged, however, that he was unable to perform his ministry after his heart attack.

On May 26, 1994, the Board's Bureau of Retirement Claims ("Bureau") denied petitioner's application, determining that, based upon objective medical findings, Thornton was able to perform "past relevant work or other work in the national economy." R. at 84. The Bureau denied petitioner's request for reconsideration on August 19, 1994, with a medical finding that he was still "capable of doing light work such as [his] past work as a minister." R. at 89. On October 7, 1994, Thornton appealed the Bureau's denial of his disability annuity application to the Board, which in turn assigned a hearing officer to investigate his claim. On January 11, 1995, while his appeal was still under investigation by the hearing officer, Thornton applied for an age and service-based annuity under the Act and was awarded a reduced early retirement benefit. *fn3 On his application for this annuity, petitioner reported that he was employed by the church at a salary of $200 per week and stated that "I am still working." R. at 254.

On March 2, 1995, the hearing officer wrote Thornton, advising him that he would be receiving further information regarding a hearing as soon as one was scheduled, and that he had the right to be represented by counsel at such hearing. The letter further requested a monthly breakdown of any earnings received from the church from 1993 until the present time. Upon being advised that Thornton was represented by counsel, the hearing officer wrote a letter to petitioner's attorney on March 27, 1995, requesting copies of tax returns and a signed statement from the petitioner addressing the nature and terms of his work for the church and of any remuneration received. On April 24, 1995, the hearing officer again wrote Thornton's attorney, asking for a signed statement from petitioner concerning his relationship with the church and the nature of his income, and also requested the names and addresses of the church's governing board. Petitioner's counsel declined to provide the names of the church's board members, instead providing two documents: (1) a letter from Thornton to the church's board dated September 15, 1993, wherein he stated that he was resigning as pastor, but would be continuing as "Pastor Emeritus"; and (2) a letter from the church's financial secretary that ostensibly confirmed the resignation and indicated that for Thornton's "past and continuing stewardship the church gives him a love offering of $247.50 per week, to assist in his living expenses, as well as various other expenses." *fn4

On June 30, 1995, the hearing officer ruled without the benefit of an evidentiary hearing, based upon the two annuity applications submitted by the petitioner, that pursuant to the Board's regulations (which preclude a finding of disability if the applicant's monthly earnings exceed $500), *fn5 he was not entitled to a disability annuity. The hearing officer found that Thornton's statement that his income from the church was a "love offering," as well as the letter that appeared to be issued by the church's financial secretary confirming his retirement and the continued "love offering," was "less than credible." R. at 24. Further, the hearing officer found the payments petitioner was receiving from the church to be "too large, regular in disbursement, and consistent in amount" to be considered gratuitous. R. at 21. Moreover, the hearing officer found that Thornton's age and service annuity application, which was filed after his disability annuity application, served to confirm that he was still employed by the church.

On July 20, 1995, petitioner appealed the hearing officer's decision to the full three-member Board, which, on May 16, 1996, adopted and affirmed the hearing officer's decision with additional comments. The Board found that petitioner receives approximately $245 per week from the church and agreed with the hearing officer that Thornton works exclusively and full-time for the church, and further that the regular weekly payments received from the church cannot be characterized as a "love offering" or gift. The Board also ruled in agreement with the hearing officer that there were no questions of fact warranting a hearing and that Thornton was not disabled as a matter of law because the level of his reported earnings exceeded the $500 maximum permitted under the Board's regulations. Accordingly, the Board concluded that petitioner was not eligible for a disability annuity under the Act. His appeal was denied and Thornton now petitions this court for review.

II. Discussion

When reviewing a final decision of the Board, "[t]he findings of the Board as to the facts, if supported by evidence and in the absence of fraud, shall be conclusive." 45 U.S.C. sec. 355(f). We will reverse the decision of the Board only if it is not supported by substantial evidence. Stith v. United States R.R. Retirement Bd., 902 F.2d 1284, 1287 (7th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Thornton argues that the Board denied him the due process provided by both statute and the Board's ...


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