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Manning v. Fanning

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 29, 2016

Martin L. Manning, Plaintiff,
Eric Fanning, [1] Defendant.


          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.


         In late 1997, Plaintiff Martin L. Manning became eligible to participate in a survivor benefit plan, based on his years of service in the Armed Forces. At that time, Plaintiff selected his paraplegic daughter as the beneficiary of the plan, listing her as a “dependent child” on the relevant form. Fifteen years later, in 2012, Plaintiff applied to the Army Board for Corrections of Military Records (“ABCMR” or “the Board”), requesting that it change his beneficiary selection, based, in part, on the fact that his daughter had not met the criteria for a “dependent child” at the time Plaintiff filled out the form. After several rounds of review by the ABCMR-all of which resulted in denial of Plaintiff's application for modification-Plaintiff now brings suit in this court. Among other requests, he asks the court to void his beneficiary selection, as well as order various changes to ABCMR forms and regulations. In response, Defendant Eric Fanning, Secretary of the Army, has filed a Motion to Dismiss and for Summary Judgment. After consideration of the parties' pleadings and the administrative record, the court grants Defendant's motion in its entirety.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         At various times since 1969, Plaintiff Martin L. Manning has served his country honorably in the U.S. Army, the Arizona National Guard, and the U.S. Army Retired Reserve. Administrative Record, ECF No. 18 [hereinafter A.R.], at 208-09, 370-72, 382, 410. Based on this service, in September 1997, Plaintiff received a letter notifying him that he was “eligible for retired pay upon application at age 60.” Id. at 325. As part of his retired pay benefit, Plaintiff also became eligible to participate in a “Survivor Benefit Plan.” See Id. Accordingly, on October 31, 1997, Plaintiff completed a “Survivor Benefit Plan Election Certificate” (“Form 1883”), on which he listed his paraplegic daughter as his sole beneficiary, writing her name in the box for “unmarried dependent children.” Id. at 63, 321; see also Am. Compl., ECF No. 13, ¶ 5. Plaintiff further chose “immediate coverage” under the plan, selecting the option that would “provide an immediate annuity beginning on the day after [the] date of [his] death, whether before or after age 60.” A.R. at 321. Form 1883 expressly advised Plaintiff that his decision was “a permanent irrevocable decision” and warned him to “consider [his] decision and its effect very carefully.” Id. Plaintiff, however, asserts that his unit's Personnel Staff Noncommissioned Officer, SFC Stephen F. Schrader, told him that “if he did not name [his] daughter as [his] beneficiary no one would ever be able to collect any benefits . . . and that [he] would be able to make another election when [he] turned 60.” Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 7-8; A.R. at 63, 4.

         In 2004, Plaintiff was honorably discharged from the Arizona National Guard, and, later that year, married his current wife. A.R. at 209. Seven years later, in 2011, during the application process for retired pay, Plaintiff filled out a form selecting his wife as the sole beneficiary of the Survivor Benefit Plan. Id. at 275. In July 2012, however, Plaintiff learned that he was not entitled to change his previous selection of his daughter as his beneficiary. Id. at 5.

         B. Procedural History

         A month later, Plaintiff sought relief from the Army Board for Corrections of Military Records (“ABCMR” or “the Board”), requesting that his original Form 1883 be modified to state that he “decline[s] to make an election at this time.” Id. at 213. After his application was denied on March 27, 2013, id. at 206-212, Plaintiff submitted a request for reconsideration, id. at 138-141. The Board re-reviewed Plaintiff's application, but once again, on May 28, 2014, the Board denied Plaintiff's request to void his beneficiary election. Id. at 128-137.

         On November 20, 2014, Plaintiff filed suit before this court, challenging the ABCMR's decision. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. Several months later, on February 2, 2015, pursuant to a request by Defendant, the case was remanded to the ABCMR, so that the Board could better explain how it had distinguished Plaintiff's case from a previous, similar, ABCMR case. See Order of Feb. 4, 2015, ECF No. 7. Plaintiff also was permitted to submit additional arguments and materials to the Board. See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss and for Summ. J., ECF No. 14 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.], Def.'s Statement of Facts, ECF No. 14-1, ¶ 19 (citing A.R. 22-124). Nonetheless, on September 17, 2015, the ABCMR again denied Plaintiff his requested relief. A.R. at 3-21. A month later, Plaintiff filed his Amended Complaint, challenging the ABCMR's decision, as well as a related procedural regulation concerning requests for reconsideration. See generally Am. Compl. In response, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss and for Summary Judgment. See generally Def.'s Mot.


         In its Motion, Defendant contends that: (1) Plaintiff lacks standing to bring his claims regarding the ABCMR's procedural regulation and, therefore, those claims should be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1); and (2) Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims regarding the ABCMR's decision not to modify his records, because the ABCMR did not act arbitrarily and capriciously or otherwise contrary to law. See generally id.

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         On a motion to dismiss for lack of standing brought under Rule 12(b)(1), a federal court must presume that it “lack[s] jurisdiction unless the contrary appears affirmatively from the record.” DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 342 n.3 (2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The burden of establishing the elements of standing “rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). A plaintiff must establish standing “for each claim” and “for each form of relief sought, ” DaimlerChrysler, 547 U.S. at 352 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), “with the manner and degree of evidence required at the successive stages of litigation, ” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561.

         When assessing a motion to dismiss predicated on lack of standing, the court must accept “well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor.” Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015). The court is not required to assume the truth of legal conclusions or accept inferences that are not supported by the facts set out in the complaint. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Islamic Am. Relief Agency v. Gonzales, 477 F.3d 728, 732 (D.C. Cir. 2007). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of [standing], supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. If a complaint lacks sufficient facts “to state a claim [of standing] that is plausible on its face, ” the court must dismiss it. Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Arpaio, 797 F.3d at 19. When a court is assessing a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, it has broad discretion to consider materials outside the pleadings if they are competent and relevant. Finca Santa Elena, Inc. v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 873 F.Supp.2d 363, 368 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing 5B Charles Wright & Arthur Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1350 (3d ed. 2004)).

         Although pro se complaints are held to a less strict standard than lawyer-drafted complaints, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (“A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed . . . .”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), a court need not make or accept inferences that are unsupported by allegations of fact, see Henthorn v. Dept. of Navy, 29 F.3d 682, 684 (D.C.Cir.1994). Ultimately, however, a pro se plaintiff “must present a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Review of the ABCMR's Decision

         It is well established that federal courts have the competency to review the decision of a military board of correction using “familiar principles of administrative law.” Kreis v. Sec'y of Air Force, 866 F.2d 1508, 1511.[2] Such review is limited, however. As stated in Kreis: “Adjudication of these claims requires the district court to determine only whether the Secretary's decision making process was deficient, not whether his decision was correct.” Id. The court performs “nothing more than the normal review of agency action” and “require[s] only that the agency exercise its discretion in a reasoned manner, but . . . defer[s] to the agency's ultimate substantive decision.” Id. at 1512. “The focal point for [such] judicial review should be the administrative record already in existence, not some new record made initially in the reviewing court.” Camp v. Pitts, 411 U.S. 138, 142 (D.D.C. 2010).

         Summary judgment is the “mechanism” by which the court may review the agency action to ensure that it “is supported by the administrative record and is otherwise consistent with the APA standard of review.” Se. Conference v. Vilsack, 684 F.Supp.2d 135, 142 (D.D.C. 2010). Under the APA, a court must set aside an agency action, finding, or conclusion if it is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A) (2012). Judicial review under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard is “highly deferential” and “presumes the agency's action to be valid.”[3] Envtl. Def. Fund, Inc. v. Costle, 657 F.2d 275, 283 (D.C. Cir. 1981).


         The court first considers Plaintiff's arguments regarding the Board's denial of his application for correction. It then turns to his challenge of the Army regulation concerning requests for reconsideration.

         A. The ABCMR's Decision

         Defendant contends that summary judgment should be entered in its favor because the Board's decision not to amend Plaintiff's Form 1883 “was supported by substantial evidence” and “was not arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law or regulation.” Def.'s Mot. at 1. Plaintiff, on the other hand, as best the court can tell, offers three reasons why the ABCMR's decision was, in fact, unsupported, arbitrary, and capricious. See generally Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, Statement of Facts, ECF No. 16 [hereinafter Pl.'s Opp'n]. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that Defendant: (1) inappropriately applied the definition of “dependent child” under 10 U.S.C. § 1447, id. at 10-13; (2) neglected to refer to ...

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