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James v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

May 23, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Patricia L. James has submitted an Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (ECF No. 1) along with a proposed Complaint (ECF No. 1-1). The Application and Complaint are referred to the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and LR IB 1-3 of the Local Rules of Practice.

         I. Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis

         Ms. James's Application includes the affidavit required by § 1915(a) showing an inability to prepay fees and costs or give security for them. Accordingly, the request to proceed in forma pauperis (“IFP”) will be granted. The court will now review the Complaint.

         II. Screening the Complaint

         A. Legal Standards

         After granting a request to proceed IFP, federal courts must screen a complaint and any amended complaints before allowing a case to move forward, issuing summonses, and requiring a responsive pleading. Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1129 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). Courts are required to dismiss an IFP action if the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, is legally “frivolous or malicious, ” or seeks money from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). The standard for determining whether a plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under § 1915 is the same as the standard under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure[1] for failure to state a claim. Watison v. Carter, 668 F.3d 1108, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012). A screening under Rule 12(b)(6) is essentially a ruling on a question of law. Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001).

         A properly pled complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). To avoid dismissal, a plaintiff must allege enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim has facial plausibility when a plaintiff alleges factual content that allows the court to make a reasonable inference that a defendant is liable for the claim alleged. Teixeira v. County of Alameda, 873 F.3d 670, 678 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). This plausibility standard is not a “ ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Although Rule 8(a) does not require detailed factual allegations, it demands “more than labels and conclusions.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Here, Ms. James's Complaint challenges a decision by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. See Compl. (ECF No. 1-1) at ¶ 3. To state a valid benefits claim, a complaint must give a defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011) (noting that a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations “to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively”). A plaintiff must present sufficient detail for the court to understand the disputed issues so that it can meaningfully screen the complaint. See 4 Soc. Sec. Law & Prac. § 56:4 (2016); 2 Soc. Sec. Disab. Claims Prac. & Proc. §§ 19:92-93 (2nd ed. 2015). To do so, a complaint should state when and how a plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies with the SSA and the nature of her disability, including the date she claims she became disabled. The complaint should also contain a short and concise statement identifying why the SSA's decision was wrong and showing that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. See Sabbia v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 669 F.Supp.2d 914, 918 (N.D. Ill. 2009), aff'd by 433 Fed.Appx. 462 (7th Cir. 2011).

         B. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Before a plaintiff can sue the SSA in federal court, she must exhaust her administrative remedies. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bass v. Social Sec. Admin., 872 F.2d 832, 833 (9th Cir. 1989) (“Section 405(g) provides that a civil action may be brought only after (1) the claimant has been party to a hearing held by the Secretary, and (2) the Secretary has made a final decision on the claim”). Generally, if the SSA denies an application for disability benefits, a claimant can request reconsideration of the decision. If the claim is denied upon reconsideration, a claimant may request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). If the ALJ denies the claim, a claimant may request review of the decision by the Appeals Council. If the Appeals Council declines to review the ALJ's decision, a claimant may then request review by the United States District Court. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. A civil action for judicial review must be commenced within 60 days after receipt of the Appeals Council's notice of a final decision. Id. See also 20 C.F.R. § 405.501. The SSA assumes that the notice of final decision will be received within five days of the date on the notice unless shown otherwise; thus, an action commenced within 65 days is presumed timely. The civil action must be filed in the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides. 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g).

         In this case, Ms. James alleges that on March 13, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the request for review and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Compl. ¶ 8. Thus, it appears she has exhausted her administrative remedies. Ms. James timely commenced this action as the Complaint was filed on May 16, 2018, and the Complaint indicates that she resides within the District of Nevada. See Compl. ¶ 1. Accordingly, she has satisfied these prerequisites for judicial review.

         C. Grounds for Ms. James's Appeal

         The Complaint seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision benefits and asks the court to reverse that decision, or alternatively, to remand this matter for a new hearing. A district court can affirm, modify, reverse, or remand a decision if plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies and timely filed a civil action. However, judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether: (1) there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the ...

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