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Gable v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

September 28, 2018

ERNESTINE GABLE
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

          JAMES JUDGE.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PATRICK J. HANNA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the Court is an appeal of the Commissioner's decision to terminate the claimant's Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits during the time period from July 2012 through January 2014 on the basis that the claimant had resources in excess of the amount permitted for SSI eligibility. Considering the administrative record, the briefs of the parties, and the applicable law, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and that benefits be awarded for the relevant time period.

         Background

         The claimant, Ernestine Gable, is a 53-year-old woman who lives in Franklin, Louisiana. According to the decision of Administrative Law Judge Nancy M. Pizzo, which was rendered on March 18, 2015,

The claimant received supplemental security income disability payments from February 1989 through October 2011. Her benefits were ceased beginning November 2011, and the claimant was charged with an overpayment of benefits from April 2010 through October 2011 because the Social Security Administration determined that the claimant had resources in excess of the allowable amount of $2, 000.00 during that period of time.

         The record does not include any evidence concerning the adjudication of Ms. Gable's application for Social Security disability benefits that resulted in her being paid benefits starting in February 1989. And the only evidence related to the termination of her disability benefits in November 2011 is Ms. Gable's hearing testimony that her benefits were terminated because she purchased a lot worth more than $2, 000 and a mobile home to place on the lot, but the mobile home was never delivered, precluding her ability to live on the lot.[1]

         In July 2012, Ms. Gable filed a new application for SSI benefits, alleging that she became disabled on February 2, 1989.[2] In January 2014, Ms. Gable was found to be under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act since July 9, 2012.[3] At that time, ALJ John R. Burgess found that she had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, illiteracy, and obesity.[4] Ms. Gable's counsel also contends that she has mental impairments[5] including diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder[6] and intellectual challenges.[7] She has only a sixth grade education[8] and during school was always in special education classes.[9]

         The following undisputed facts are established in the record. Ms. Gable lived at 312 Easy Street in Franklin, Louisiana from at least 2005 forward. She owned the mobile home that she lived in, but she did not own the lot on which the mobile home was located. After a hurricane destroyed Ms. Gable's mobile home, [10] she received disaster relief funds of slightly more than $30, 000. In April 2010, she used a portion of those funds to purchase for approximately $12, 000 the same lot where her trailer had previously been located. She also purchased a different mobile home to be placed on the lot for approximately $15, 000. The person from whom she purchased the mobile home, Reginald Thomas, absconded with Ms. Gable's money. Ms. Gable pursued criminal charges against Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas pleaded guilty, and he was ordered to pay restitution to Ms. Gable. When he failed to do so, he was then ordered to provide a mobile home to Ms. Gable. He did so, and Ms. Gable moved in on January 14, 2014. However, the mobile home provided by Mr. Thomas is in such poor condition that it is virtually uninhabitable. Therefore, on October 30, 2014, Mr. Thomas was ordered to remove the mobile home from Ms. Gable's lot and to pay her $14, 135.00. It is not known whether the court-ordered restitution has been paid.

         According to the ALJ, the Social Security Administration denied the payment of SSI benefits to Ms. Gable from July 2012 through January 2014 because she had resources in excess of the amount allowable for SSI eligibility. In other words, so long as the lot was vacant and there was no dwelling on the lot that would meet the definition of a home as that term is used in the relevant statutes, the lot constituted a resource that disqualified Ms. Gable's from receiving SSI benefits. Ms. Gable asked the Appeals Council to review the decision. The Appeals Council found no basis for changing the ALJ's decision, noting that “existing regulations and policies do not provide for an exclusion of non-home real property due to being a victim of a crime.”[11] What the ALJ and the Appeals Council both failed to grasp is that the only reason Ms. Gable was not able to live at 312 Easy Street in a mobile home that she owned situated on a plot of ground that she also owned is because she was a victim of crime.

         The Applicable Law

         Every individual who meets certain income and resource requirements, has filed an application for benefits, and is determined to be disabled is eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits.[12] To qualify for SSI, a person cannot have resources exceeding a value of $2, 000.[13] The value of a person's home is excluded from the calculation of his or her resources, regardless of the value of the home.[14] The rules define the term “home” to include “any property in which an individual (and spouse, if any) has an ownership interest and which serves as the individual's principal place of residence.”[15] If the person moves away from her home without the intent to return, the value of the home is no longer excluded from the resource calculation.[16] The implication of that rule is that if the person moves away from her home but retains the intent to return, the home continues to be an excludable resource. If a home is damaged due to a catastrophe declared by the President of the United States to be a major disaster, any disaster relief funds (and any interest earned on those funds) are excluded from the resource calculation.[17] If an excluded resource is lost, damaged, or stolen, any cash or in-kind replacement for that resource is also an excluded resource - but only if repairs or replacement of the resource occur not more than a maximum of eighteen months after receipt of the cash or in-kind replacement.[18]

         The issue now before the court requires an analysis of these rules as applied to the facts presented in the record. The first step in statutory interpretation requires a court to examine the plain meaning of the statutory language.[19] A court is “authorized to deviate from the literal language of a statute only if the plain language would lead to absurd results, or if such an interpretation would defeat the intent of Congress.”[20] Additionally, it is well settled that the Social Security Act is to be broadly construed and liberally applied.[21] “When assessing Social Security disability claims, the ALJ and the courts must give due regard for the beneficent purposes of the legislation and apply a more tolerant standard than that which is used in a typical suit.”[22]

         Analysis

         In her ruling of March 18, 2015, the ALJ found that Ms. Gable waited an unreasonable length of time before attempting to make improvements on the property she purchased with her disaster relief funds and took no action to divest herself of the excess resource - the lot located at 312 Easy Street - for an unreasonable length of time. On that basis, the ALJ found that the parcel of land owned by Ms. Gable at 312 Easy Street in Franklin, Louisiana, cannot be excluded from the calculation of her resources and disqualified her from receiving SSI benefits during the time period from July 2012 (when she applied for benefits) through January 2014 (when she moved into a mobile home on the lot).

         Had Ms. Gable simply put the disaster relief funds she received after the hurricane in a bank account, they would not have counted against her. Had Ms. Gable used the funds to purchase a mobile home from someone who did not defraud her, her ownership of the mobile home and the lot on which it was situated would not have counted against her. Had the criminal justice system acted more swiftly and provided Ms. Gable with the means to acquire a habitable dwelling ...


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