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Michael Beattie v. Michael J. Astrue

February 28, 2012

MICHAEL BEATTIE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The four remaining claims*fn1 of plaintiff Michael Beattie's second amended complaint allege violations of the Due Process Clause and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, and a Bivens tort against an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA")*fn2 and five unnamed SSA employees. See 5 U.S.C. §§ 552, 552a; Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The Commissioner has moved under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) to dismiss*fn3 Beattie's second amended complaint*fn4 or, in the alternative, for a judgment affirming the agency's determinations. Because the second amended complaint fails to state claims upon which relief can be granted, the defendant's motion to dismiss will be granted.

BACKGROUND

The SSA began issuing supplemental security income ("SSI") payments to Beattie, a blind former lawyer, in 1993 or 1994. (2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 12; Def.'s Response to the Court's March 8, 2011 Minute Order ("Def.'s Response") at 2-3; Feb. 1, 2005 Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 8, 41.) Between June of 1995 and August of 1997, the SSA inadvertently overpaid Beattie a sum of $12,718.00. (A.R. at 8.) The agency warned him that his failure timely to supplement his financial records for that period could cause the SSA to terminate payments. (Id. at 4; see also 2d Am. Compl. ¶ 9.) Despite that warning, Beattie missed the deadline for providing supplemental documentation. (A.R. at 6; Def.'s Mot. at 6.) He was assessed with an overpayment and, upon reconsideration of the overpayment determination, the SSA concluded that Beattie's bank accounts exceeded the permissible resource limit for eligible SSI recipients. (A.R. at 16.)

Beattie requested and was granted a hearing before ALJ Christine Benagh to review the agency's overpayment decision. (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 13; A.R. at 22.) He represented himself at the hearing because, according to him, the local SSA office, believing that "he did not need a lawyer[,]" declined to provide him a list of nonprofit agencies providing free or low-cost legal assistance. (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 14.) During an April 9, 1998 hearing, the ALJ remanded the matter to the SSA to clarify how the agency computed the overpayment, and to allow Beattie time to produce his tax returns for the period in question. (Id. ¶ 17; A.R. at 38-39.) In turn, the agency requested tax and other financial information from Beattie. (A.R. at 48-49, 51.)

Emily Kaufman, Esq. was appointed Beattie's representative on June 29, 1999.*fn5 (Feb. 8, 2008 A.R. ("Second A.R.") at 20.) He and Kaufman produced "some but not all" of the documents the SSA sought. (Def.'s Mot. at 6; see also A.R. at 51, 53-54, 57 (stating that Beattie had "appoint[ed] [her] as his representative").) The agency thereafter upheld its overpayment determination. (Def.'s Mot. at 7 (stating that this fact "is undisputed" though the SSA cannot locate the document reflecting that decision).)

During a January 14, 2000 hearing before the same ALJ, Beattie spoke on his own behalf while Kaufman merely observed.*fn6

(A.R. at 66; see also 2d Am. Compl. ¶ 22 (stating that he was rebuffed upon "again request[ing] [from the local SSA office] the list . . . of attorneys providing free legal assistance").) Beattie alleges that the ALJ held the first portion of the hearing in his and his "two representatives'" absence and that, during the remainder of the hearing, she repeatedly violated his right to due process and asserted herself as "prosecutor, agency, attorney, and judge." (See 2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 23, 73.) For example, the ALJ allegedly threatened to discipline or disbar Kaufman, refused to allow his second representative to speak, barred Beattie from admitting evidence or calling witnesses, "stated that a decision affirming the overpayment decision had been made prior to the hearing," and threatened that Beattie "would be subjected to a criminal prosecution" if he declined to accept the local SSA office's settlement offer regarding repayment of the overpaid sum. (2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 25, 27*fn7 , 60, 63; Pl.'s Opp'n at 4.) The ALJ allegedly later destroyed the portions of the recording reflecting her "threats, belligerent tone and word choice, and misconduct." (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 26.) According to Beattie, Assistant United States Attorney Fred Haynes likewise threatened him with prosecution in order to secure settlement. (Id. ¶¶ 37-42.)

Kaufman wrote to the ALJ as Beattie's representative on May 21, 2000, stating that Beattie "wishe[d] to withdraw his request for [an overpayment] hearing and have his case remanded to the [local SSA] [o]ffice."*fn8 (A.R. at 78.) She added that Beattie "ha[d] agreed to repay the overpayment from June 1995 through August 1997." (Id.) On July 14, 2000, a second ALJ signed a notice dismissing Beattie's request for a hearing on the basis of representations made in Kaufman's letter.*fn9 (Id. at 80, 82.) Beattie unsuccessfully appealed the dismissal to the SSA Appeals Council, which concluded "that there [wa]s no basis under the above regulations for granting [his] request for review."*fn10 (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 33; A.R. at 87.)

Beattie claims to have requested orally and in writing, under FOIA and the Privacy Act, "all documents related to or mentioning him and all documents related [to] the handling of SSI overpayment claims[.]" (Pl.'s Opp'n at 4; see also 2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 18.) According to him, the local SSA office refused to provide him the requested documents because: 1) the file contained such "scandalous, offensive, or defamatory" information that "it would be medically counter-productive to allow him to see his file"; and 2) "claimant was mentally ill and he would find the contents too depressing to read." (2d Am. Compl ¶ 18; Pl.'s Opp'n at 4.) He alleges that the local office likewise declined to "transmit [his] FOIA and Privacy Act requests . . . to its Office of Disclosure." (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 21.) According to Beattie, he exhausted his administrative remedies after the SSA "issued two final decisions denying [him] access to [these] agency records." (Id. ¶ 81.)

Beattie's four remaining causes of action include alleged due process violations sustained during and after the January 14, 2000 administrative proceeding, claims under FOIA and the Privacy Act, and a Bivens tort against the first ALJ. The Commissioner argues that Beattie's failure to exhaust his due process claims at the administrative level precludes subject-matter jurisdiction over them, and that Beattie has failed to state claims for relief under FOIA, the Privacy Act, and Bivens. See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (describing the exhaustion requirement). Beattie contends that he has "exhausted his administrative remedies." (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 44.)

DISCUSSION

A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). While a pro se complaint should be liberally construed, it must nonetheless "present a claim on which the Court can grant relief." Link v. U.S., 539 F. Supp. 2d 360, 361 (D.D.C. 2008). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must "recite[] facts sufficient to at least 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).'" Am. Fed'n of State, Cnty., Mun. Employees Local 2401 v. D.C., 796 F. Supp. 2d 136, 139 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). "[D]etailed factual allegations" are unnecessary. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. However, "a complaint that offers only 'labels and conclusions,'" "tenders naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement," or advances nothing more than "an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation[,]" will not suffice. Mekuria v. Bank of Am., Civil Action No. 10-1325 (JEB), 2011 WL 4430868, at *3 (D.D.C. Sept. 23, 2011) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)). The court need not accept any inferences unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint. Marshall v. Honeywell Tech. Solutions, Inc., 536 F. Supp. 2d 59, 65 (D.D.C. 2008).

In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider "'the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint,'" Ward v. D.C. Dep't of Youth Rehab. Servs., 768 F. Supp. 2d 117, 119 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao, 226 F. Supp. 2d 191, 196 (D.D.C. 2002)), or "'documents upon which the plaintiff's complaint necessarily relies' even if the document is produced not by the plaintiff in the complaint but ...


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