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Hairston v. Social Security Administration Compass Pointe

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia, Martinsburg

February 28, 2019





         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Arthur Lee Hairston, Sr.'s (“Plaintiff”) pro se Motion [ECF No. 2] for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis.[1] Because Plaintiff seeks to proceed in forma pauperis, the undersigned must conduct a preliminary review to determine whether Plaintiff's pro se Complaint [ECF No. 1] sets forth any viable claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Because the undersigned concludes that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's complaint be dismissed, without prejudice, and Plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis be denied as moot.


         On January 4, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant pro se complaint alleging that Defendants Social Security Administration Compass Pointe Martinsburg, Mid-Atlantic Program Center, and unknown individuals (collectively, “Defendants”) have systematically discriminated against and extorted him. See ECF No. 1, at 2. In his complaint, Plaintiff alleges the following facts. Plaintiff was receiving Social Security benefits before he began employment with the VAMC in Martinsburg, West Virginia on December 27, 2015. Id. at 1. Plaintiff notified the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) of this employment, and he was placed on a test period of employment from January 1, 2016 until September 2016. Id. at 1-2. In a letter dated October 27, 2017, the SSA informed Plaintiff that as of January 1, 2017, he was no longer entitled to Social Security benefits because he was engaging in substantial work. ECF No. 1-1, at 1. That letter also stated that Plaintiff had an extended period of eligibility, during which benefits could be reinstated, until September 2019. Id. Finally, the letter indicated that Plaintiff had been overpaid Social Security benefits because the SSA did not stop his checks until October 2017 and therefore, Plaintiff was required to refund that overpayment to the SSA within 30 days. Id. at 2. In February 2018, Plaintiff ceased gainful employment, and in August 2018, Plaintiff requested to have his Social Security benefits reinstated. ECF No. 1, at 2.

         Plaintiff appears to make two distinct claims in his complaint. First, Plaintiff argues that Defendants' refusal to reinstate Plaintiff's benefits is discriminatory. Id. He alleges that Defendants have refused to reinstate his Social Security benefits without reason. Id. at 1. However, Plaintiff further argues that he is being denied reinstatement of his benefits because of the overpayment of benefits the SSA claims to have made to him between January 2017 and October 2017. Id. at 3. Second, Plaintiff alleges that the SSA letter sent to Plaintiff is part of a systematic pattern of discrimination against Plaintiff and is harassment and extortion of Plaintiff. Id. at 2. Plaintiff claims that it is Defendants' fault that benefit payments did not stop as of January 2017 and that Plaintiff never knew there was a test period or that payments would be stopped as of January 2017. Id. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants are using overpayment as a tool to discriminate against and extort him. Id.

         Plaintiff seeks monetary and compensatory damages, injunctive relief, and other damages. Id. at 1. In particular, Plaintiff seeks to be made whole and to be paid any and all benefit payments denied due to the alleged discrimination. Id. at 3.


         When filing a lawsuit in federal court, the plaintiff is required to pay certain filing fees. The court has the authority to allow a case to proceed without the prepayment of fees “by a person who affirms by affidavit that he or she is unable to pay costs . . . .” L.R. Gen. P. 3.01. The plaintiff files this affidavit along with her request or motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Id. The Supreme Court of the United States has explained that the purpose of the “federal in forma pauperis statute . . . is designed to ensure that indigent litigants have meaningful access to the federal courts.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324 (1989).

         When a plaintiff seeks to proceed in forma pauperis, the court conducts a preliminary review of the lawsuit before allowing the case to proceed. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). This includes cases filed by non-prisoners. See Michau v. Charleston Cnty., S.C., 434 F.3d 725, 727 (4th Cir. 2006) (holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it dismissed the non-prisoner complaints under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)). The court must dismiss a case at any time if the court determines that the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). A case is often dismissed sua sponte (i.e., on the court's own decision) before the defendant is notified of the case “so as to spare prospective defendants the inconvenience and expense of answering such complaints.” Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 324. When reviewing pro se complaints, the Court must construe them liberally. See Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).


         Liberally construed, Plaintiff's complaint alleges that Defendants engaged in discrimination and extortion by (1) denying him reinstatement of Social Security benefits and (2) seeking the repayment of an alleged overpayment of Social Security benefits to Plaintiff via the letter dated October 27, 2017. Before determining whether Plaintiff's complaint sets forth any viable claims, the undersigned must first determine whether this Court has subject-matter jurisdiction.

         If a “court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3); see also Brickwood Contractors, Inc. v. Datanet Eng'g, Inc., 369 F.3d 385, 390 (4th Cir. 2004) (stating that “questions of subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised at any point during the proceedings and may (or, more precisely, must) be raised sua sponte by the court”). Subject-matter jurisdiction in federal courts must be based on diversity jurisdiction or federal-question jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332. Federal-question jurisdiction only requires that the action “aris[e] under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Pursuant to the well-pleaded complaint rule, “a federal question must appear on the face of [the] plaintiff's . . . complaint.” Sharp v. AT & T Commc'ns, 660 F.Supp. 650, 650 (N.D. W.Va. 1987). Here, Plaintiff claims this Court has federal-question jurisdiction under § 1331. ECF No. 1, at 1.[2]

         The specific terms under which the SSA may be sued are set forth in 42 ...

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