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John J. Donnelly v. Michael J. Astrue

October 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim


The social security benefits framework provides a safety valve for people who do not timely apply for benefits because they are misinformed by employees of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") about their eligibility to receive them. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(j)(5). Where it is shown to the Commissioner's satisfaction that a claimant missed out on benefits after being misled by one of its employees, the claimant is deemed to have applied for the relevant benefits either as of the date on which the claimant was misinformed or the date on which he met all of the eligibility requirements-whichever comes later. Id. John Donnelly claims that staff at his local SSA office misinformed him about his eligibility to receive widower's insurance benefits beginning at age 60 and retirement insurance benefits beginning at age 62. He started receiving retirement insurance benefits at age 65, but now he seeks widower's insurance benefits he says he was entitled to receive from age 60 to 62 and back payment of the retirement insurance benefits he says he was eligible to receive from age 62 to 65. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(j)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.633. Currently before the court is Donnelly's motion for summary judgment challenging the SSA's rejection of his applications for those payments. For the following reasons, the motion is denied:

Procedural History

Donnelly applied for retirement insurance benefits on September 9, 2008, and he started receiving monthly benefit payments that same month. (A.R. 56, 74-76.) On November 3, 2008, Donnelly submitted a request for reconsideration, arguing that in 2003 and 2005 he was misled by SSA employees into believing that he was not eligible for earlier retirement and widower's insurance benefits. Donnelly sought to receive back payments of the benefits. (Id. at 92-93.) When he was told that his request for reconsideration had been lost, Donnelly submitted another request for reconsideration on November 13, 2008. (Id. at 79-91.) An SSA district manager denied his request in an initial consideration determination on March 27, 2009. (Id. at 290-92.) Donnelly asked for reconsideration of that decision (id. at 297-98), but the Great Lakes Program Service Center denied his request and affirmed the initial denial of his request for benefits, (id. at 421-32). Donnelly then requested, and was granted, a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). After considering Donnelly's documentary evidence and testimony, the ALJ concluded that he is not entitled to widower's insurance benefits or to an earlier entitlement date for retirement insurance benefits. (Id. at 39.) The Appeals Council denied Donnelly's request for review (id. at 14-21), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, see Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 695 (7th Cir. 2012). Two months after the Commissioner's decision issued, Donnelly requested additional time to file a civil action, and in April 2011 the Appeals Council granted him 30 days from the date he received the letter to file for judicial review. (A.R. 5-13.) On May 11, 2011, Donnelly filed the current suit seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


At his hearing before the ALJ, Donnelly-who at the time was proceeding pro se-submitted hundreds of pages of documents consisting mostly of lengthy, single-spaced letters that he had written to the SSA asserting that it had mishandled his claims for widower's and retirement benefits. The gist of those voluminous letters is that they convey Donnelly's belief that he would have received widower's insurance benefits ("WIB") from age 60 to 62 and retirement insurance benefits ("RIB") from age 62 to 65 had it not been for what he claims to be the misinformation he received from the SSA and its subsequent mishandling of his applications for those benefits. Specifically, Donnelly claims that he either called or went to his local SSA office in November 2003 and November 2005, and on those occasions SSA employees falsely told him that he was not eligible for WIB or RIB, respectively. Donnelly further claims that despite the SSA's misdirection, he filed an application for WIB in March 2004 and one for RIB in March 2006. According to Donnelly, the SSA never responded to his submissions. Based on his claim that the SSA misled him, Donnelly argues that he is entitled to an earlier filing date for his retirement benefits and back payments of the widower's benefits he says he should have received. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(j)(5); 20 C.F.R. § 404.633.

A. Donnelly's Documentary Evidence

In 1993 Donnelly applied for and received a lump sum death benefit of $255 on the record of his deceased wife. (A.R. 290.) According to the SSA's records, that was the last contact it had with Donnelly until September 9, 2008. (Id. at 56.) But Donnelly submitted two documents that he says show that he sought the SSA's assistance with his eligibility for benefits on at least four occasions between 1993 and 2008. The first is an SSA form OMB number 0960-0004, which is an Application for Widow's or Widower's Insurance Benefts. (Id. at 60.) Donnelly filled out the application and wrote the following in the section for remarks: "I called in last November (2003) for widower's benefits. I was told I was not eligible. I'm sending in this application just in case there may be other benefits I'm not aware of but I could apply for." (Id. at 65.) The form bears Donnelly's signature and is dated March 13, 2004, but bears no proof of mailing, filing, or receipt by the SSA. (Id.) The second document is an SSA form, Application for Retirement Insurance Benefits, bearing Donnelly's signature and the date March 15, 2006. (Id. at 66-71.) This time in the remarks section Donnelly wrote the following:

I had applied for widower's benefits in November of 2003 when I became 60.

I was told I was ineligible. I sent in an application in the beginning of 2004 for any other benefits I may have been eligible for. I did not receive a response.

I called again in November of 2005 when I turned 62 to see if I had any benefits coming. I was told to re-apply when I became 66 or at 65 for lesser benefits. I am send [sic] in this application to see if I could apply for any other benefits I may not be aware of. (Id. at 71.) Again, this application bears no evidence of mailing, filing, or receipt by the SSA. (Id. at 66-71.)

Other than the 1993 application for lump-sum benefits, the first recorded contact Donnelly had with the SSA took place on September 9, 2008. (Id. at 56.) On that day Donnelly went to the SSA district office located at 8658 S. Sacramento in Chicago ("the Sacramento office"). (Id. at 295.) He met with claims representative M. Maloy, who talked with him about his eligibility for widower's or retirement insurance benefits and helped him fill out the RIB application. (Id.) Donnelly's application was approved and he started receiving RIB that same month. (Id. at 74-76.)

In late 2008 and the early months of 2009 Donnelly made several additional visits to the Sacramento office. (Id. at 56-57, 302.) According to Donnelly, during one such visit in October 2008 an employee by the last name of Fontleroy told him that he should have been told that he was eligible for WIB, and that going forward, he should get everything in writing. (Id. at 82-83.) On November 3, 2008, Donnelly returned to the Sacramento office and submitted SSA form OMB No. 0960-0622, a form that allows a claimant to submit a request for reconsideration. (Id. at 92.) He attached to the form a letter stating that he had been misled by SSA staff into believing he was not eligible to receive benefits, when in fact he was. (Id. at 93.) He wrote that he called the SSA in 2003 to apply for WIB but was told he was not eligible. (Id.) He also wrote that in 2005, when he turned 62, he was again misinformed and told that he had to wait until he turned 65 to collect RIB. (Id.) He returned to the office on November 12, 2008, to check on the status of his request for reconsideration, (id. at 56), but according to Donnelly, an employee named Jamrozik told him that his application was lost. Donnelly resubmitted the OMB No. 0960-062 form, along with his summary of several contacts he says he had with employees at the Sacramento office who, according to him, informed him that he was entitled to the earlier benefits. (Id. at 79-91.)

On March 27, 2009, District Manager Jim Flynn issued a decision denying Donnelly's request for reconsideration and for benefits beginning in November 2003. (Id. at 290-92.) Flynn gave several reasons why he did not believe Donnelly's assertions that he had been misled in 2003 and 2005, or that he had filed benefits applications in 2004 and 2006 that were left unanswered. Flynn found suspicious both that Donnelly was unable to name the people he claimed to have spoken to in 2003 or 2005 and that he said that he had visited an office on South Western on those two occasions. (Id. at 290.) Flynn wrote that while Donnelly would have been in the South Western office when he applied for a lump-sum benefit in 1993, by 2003 the office had moved to the Sacramento location. (Id.) He also found suspicious that Donnelly wrote in the remarks section of his 2004 application that he had called the SSA office, but on other occasions he contradicted that statement by saying he had visited in person. (Id. at 291.) He also found it implausible that Donnelly would have submitted an application for benefits after being told he was ineligible, or that the SSA would have ignored a properly submitted application. (Id.) Flynn also noted that during one of Donnelly's 2008 visits to the Sacramento office he had requested, and received, blank benefit application forms of the same type he claims he submitted in 2004 and 2006. (Id.) In short, Flynn believed that Donnelly had filled out the two applications in 2008 and then back dated them to 2004 and 2006 to make it appear that he had submitted applications for WIB and RIB despite allegedly being misled about his eligibility for those benefits. (Id.)

On the day of and in the days following Flynn's decision, several employees at the Sacramento office provided written narrative descriptions of their interactions with Donnelly on a given date. For example, R. Madden wrote that beginning in September 2008 she had been speaking with Donnelly by phone and in person about his allegation that he received misinformation in 2003 and 2005 about his eligibility for benefits. (Id. at 293.) She wrote that she never told Donnelly that she agreed with his claim that he is entitled to back payments of benefits and that she had encouraged him to submit documentation to support his claim. (Id.) Similarly, M. Maloy wrote that he met with Donnelly in September 2008 when he filled out his application for retirement benefits, and noted that "if there had been any allegation of an earlier application filed by the number holder, I would have made additional documentation to the file." (Id. at 295.) Flynn described a "long and contentious interview" with Donnelly and said that "[h]e is quite agitated and obsessed with his case." (Id. at 296.) As for Donnelly's allegation that he filed applications for benefits in 2004 and 2006, Flynn wrote that "[w]e believe he completed those himself within the last ...

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