Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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In November 2010, Hayes engaged Cybriwsky to represent him related to the denial of Hayes’s application for Social Security disability benefits. In February 2011, the case was remanded for further administrative hearings (42 U.S.C. 405(g)) because faulty recordings of the hearings rendered the record inaudible. On remand, the Administrative Law Judge entered a fully favorable decision for Hayes in August 2011. The district court affirmed in April 2012. The next month Cybriwsky sought attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2414. The court granted attorney’s fees of $2,225 in August 2012. In April 2017, Cybriwsky moved, under 42 U.S.C. 406(b), seeking more than $11,000. in fees. He subsequently provided documentation of the fee arrangement, benefits paid to Hayes, and an itemized description of the work performed. By the time Cybriwsky filed his 2017 motion, the SSA had released the 25% of past-due benefits normally reserved to pay attorney’s fees; $5,300 was awarded to Hayes’s attorney at the administrative level and the remainder was released to Hayes. Any fees awarded to Cybriwsky would have to be recovered from Hayes, either directly or by having fees taken from Hayes’s monthly disability payments. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of the motion as untimely and determined that the circumstances did not merit the exercise of equitable tolling. View "Hayes v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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The VA determined that West, a Viet Nam veteran, was eligible for a disability pension. Two days later West died. Four days later—without knowing that West had died—the government sent West a check for $8,660--his pension benefit retroactive to June 2013. In March 2014, a Kentucky probate court appointed West’s ex-wife, Brenda, as the Estate's executor. Brenda endorsed the VA check, the estate’s only cash asset, and deposited it into an escrow account. After three months, the VA determined that West’s estate was not entitled to the money, 38 U.S.C. 5121(a), and directed the bank to wire the $8,660 back to the U.S. Treasury. The bank complied. The Estate did not learn until later that its account had been drained of funds. More than 18 months later, the Estate obtained a Kentucky probate court order requiring the government to return the funds. The government removed the matter to the district court, which remanded the matter back because the $8,660 was already subject to the probate court’s jurisdiction. The Estate unsuccessfully sought attorneys’ fees. The Sixth Circuit reversed the remand order; the dispute can be litigated only under the procedure set forth in the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act, 102 Stat 4105. The court noted “concerns about the government’s expropriation of the Estate’s funds without any advance notice or process.” View "Estate of West v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Earley applied for disability benefits, 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B) . In 2012, an ALJ rejected the application on the ground that Earley, who suffered from fibromyalgia, mild carpal tunnel syndrome, panic disorder, degenerative disk disease, and major depression, did not have a covered disability. She applied again for a new period of time. The same ALJ denied her benefits, citing Sixth Circuit precedent (Drummond) as requiring him to give preclusive effect to the work-capacity finding he had made during the first proceeding absent “new and material evidence documenting a significant change in the claimant’s condition.” The district court reversed, concluding that the Drummond “principles of res judicata” apply only when they favor an individual applicant, not the government. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The key principles protected by Drummond—consistency between proceedings and finality with respect to resolved applications—apply to individuals and the government but do not prevent the agency from giving a fresh look to a new application containing new evidence or satisfying a new regulatory threshold that covers a new period of alleged disability while being mindful of past rulings and the record in prior proceedings. View "Earley v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Raymond, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was born in 1947 and was a long-term resident of Middlesboro, Kentucky. He worked in the coal-mining industry for over 20 years and developed severe respiratory issues. Raymond, a non-smoker, sought benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901, but died while his claim was pending. Raymond’s claim was consolidated with a claim for survivor’s benefits submitted by his widow, Joanna. The ALJ awarded benefits to Joanna, on both Raymond’s behalf, and as his surviving spouse. The Benefits Review Board affirmed. Zurich, the insurer of Straight Creek Coal, sought review. The Sixth Circuit denied Zurich’s petition, upholding the ALJ’s conclusions that Zurich failed to rebut the presumption of timeliness, that Raymond had worked for at least 15 years in qualifying employment, and that Raymond had a total respiratory disability. Raymond worked only in surface mines or coal-preparation plants during his career; the ALJ properly relied on 20 C.F.R. 718.305(b)(2) and determined whether Raymond’s mining employment was “substantially similar” to underground mining. View "Zurich American Insurance Group v. Duncan" on Justia Law

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In 1990, an Ohio state court ordered Jacobs to pay Collin $13,800 in child-support payments. Jacobs subsequently began to receive social security benefits, but, by January 2014, Jacobs’s arrearage totaled $45,356. The state court directed the Commissioner to garnish Jacobs’s social-security payments, 42 U.S.C. 659. In October 2015, the Commissioner mistakenly terminated the garnishment. A year later Collin asked the court to order the Commissioner to resume the garnishment and to pay a lump sum equal to the amount the Commissioner had failed to garnish. The Commissioner voluntarily resumed the garnishment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal, holding that Collin’s demand was for “money damages,” so the United States was immune from suit. Section 659(a) provides that moneys payable by[] the United States . . . to any individual . . . shall be subject, in like manner and to the same extent as if the United States . . . were a private person, to withholding . . . to enforce the legal obligation ... to provide child support"; but 5 C.F.R. 581.305(e)(2) states “Neither the United States ... nor any governmental entity shall be liable ... to pay money damages for failure to comply with legal process.” The relief Collin seeks is not enforcement of “the statutory mandate itself” but instead damages for the failure to withhold, for which the government has not waived its immunity. View "Collin v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Biestek, age 54, worked for most of his life as a carpenter and a construction laborer, frequently transporting scaffolding, panels, and other construction materials around work sites. He completed at least one year of college and received additional vocational training as a bricklayer and carpenter. He stopped working in June 2005, allegedly due to degenerative disc disease, Hepatitis C, and depression. Biestek applied for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits in March 2010, alleging a disability onset of October 2009. A Social Security Administration ALJ denied Biestek’s application. The district court remanded because the ALJ had not obtained necessary medical-expert testimony and did not pose a sufficiently specific hypothetical to the vocational expert. The ALJ subsequently issued a partially favorable decision finding Biestek disabled starting in May 2013, on his fiftieth birthday, the point at which the Agency deems an applicant “closely approaching advanced age” and presumptively disabled under 20 C.F.R. 404. The ALJ found that Biestek was “not disabled” before that date. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s finding the that Biestek did not meet or medically equal the back-pain-related impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. 404. The ALJ properly evaluated the testimony of medical experts and a vocational expert. View "Biestek v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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In 1988, an ALJ awarded Smith supplemental security income (SSI). Smith received benefits until 2004 when he was found to be over the resource limit. Smith filed another SSI application in 2012, alleging additional medical conditions. The application was denied on March 26, 2014. Smith claims that he mailed a request for review on April 24, 2014. On September 21, Smith faxed a correspondence to the Social Security Administration, inquiring about the status of his appeal, with a copy of his request, dated April 24, 2014. A representative informed Smith that his request was not in the “electronic folder,” that if the Council had received the request, it would have mailed a receipt, and that his appeals request was filed as of October 1, 2014. The Council dismissed the request as untimely, finding no good cause to extend the deadline because Smith could not provide evidence that it was sent within the appropriate time. The district court determined that there was no judicial review available because the dismissal did not constitute a final decision and Smith made no colorable constitutional claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that Smith suffered due process violations because his request was timely submitted, different ALJs presided over his hearing and signed his decision, and the ALJ referenced the 1988 decision but failed to attach a copy as an exhibit. View "Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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In 1988, an ALJ awarded Smith supplemental security income (SSI). Smith received benefits until 2004 when he was found to be over the resource limit. Smith filed another SSI application in 2012, alleging additional medical conditions. The application was denied on March 26, 2014. Smith claims that he mailed a request for review on April 24, 2014. On September 21, Smith faxed a correspondence to the Social Security Administration, inquiring about the status of his appeal, with a copy of his request, dated April 24, 2014. A representative informed Smith that his request was not in the “electronic folder,” that if the Council had received the request, it would have mailed a receipt, and that his appeals request was filed as of October 1, 2014. The Council dismissed the request as untimely, finding no good cause to extend the deadline because Smith could not provide evidence that it was sent within the appropriate time. The district court determined that there was no judicial review available because the dismissal did not constitute a final decision and Smith made no colorable constitutional claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that Smith suffered due process violations because his request was timely submitted, different ALJs presided over his hearing and signed his decision, and the ALJ referenced the 1988 decision but failed to attach a copy as an exhibit. View "Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Kerr sought judicial review of the final determination that Kerr’s husband was not disabled and not entitled to any Social Security disability insurance benefits before his death. Kerr was due to receive any payment owed to Mr. Kerr. The parties stipulated to reversal and remand under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Kerr then sought an award of $3,206.25 in attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2412(d), with any fees awarded “be made payable to Plaintiff’s counsel,” attaching an “Affidavit and Assignment of EAJA Fee.” The Commissioner did not oppose the motion. The district court granted the award, declined to honor Kerr’s assignment, and concluded that it was required to order payment to Kerr as the prevailing party. The court held that it could not “ignore the Anti-Assignment Act,” which prohibits “an assignment of a claim against the United States that is executed before the claim is allowed, before the amount of the claim is decided, and before a warrant for payment of the claim has been issued” but “le[ft] it to the Commissioner’s discretion to determine whether to waive the Anti-Assignment Act and make the fee payable to Mr. Marks.” The Commissioner responded that she would accept [Kerr’s] assignment and suggested that the court deny as moot Kerr’s Rule 59(e) motion. The district court and Sixth Circuit agreed that Kerr’s motion was moot, and did not reconsider the application of the AAA to the EAJA assignment. View "Kerr v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Bowling worked as a coal miner for 29 years, most recently for Island Fork. In 2002, Bowling unsuccessfully sought Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) benefits. In 2010, Bowling filed the current claim. In the meantime, the Affordable Care Act amended the BLBA to reinstate a rebuttable presumption that claimants with respiratory disabilities and 15 years or more of underground coal-mining work experienced those disabilities as a result of pneumoconiosis, 30 U.S.C. 921(c)(4). The District Director designated Island Fork as the responsible operator and awarded benefits. At a hearing, the ALJ learned that Island Fork and its insurer, Frontier were insolvent. Frontier declared insolvency after the Proposed Order issued. At the initial stages, if the District Director determines that an operator is not financially capable, the Director can select another operator—such as a previous employer—to be the responsible operator; once the claim reaches the ALJ, there is no mechanism to designate a different responsible operator. The Trust Fund, created by the BLBA, provides benefits when there are no responsible operators available, including when an operator is deemed at the ALJ stage not to be financially capable. KIGA, created by the Kentucky Insurance Guaranty Association Act, provides benefits when a member insurance company is insolvent. The ALJ decided that Island Fork was still the responsible operator because benefits could be paid by KIGA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The exclusions in the Guaranty Act do not apply; KIGA is liable. View "Island Fork Construction v. Bowling" on Justia Law