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Reich v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 2, 2019

M. ELIZABETH REICH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, in her official capacity as Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration; SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JANE J. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants Nancy A. Berryhill (“Berryhill”) and the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) (Doc. 10), filed on February 8, 2019. The Motion challenges the Court's subject matter jurisdiction under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 706, and the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361, [1] arguing that adequate alternative remedies exist for Reich's causes of action. Doc. 10, Mot., 7-8. Defendants argue that the appropriate remedy is either to bring a claim under the Tucker Act in the Court of Federal Claims[2] or in the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals (“CBCA”). Id. at 8, 10. Because the Court finds that adequate alternative remedies exist to Plaintiff's APA and Mandamus Act claims, Defendants' Motion is hereby GRANTED.

         I.

         BACKGROUND

         Reich is a former employee of the Social Security Administration. Doc. 1, Compl., ¶ 7. Reich worked for the SSA from 2000 to 2016 until Reich left to work for the City of Dallas. Id. ¶¶ 7, 9-10. In early 2016, the SSA relocated Reich from Woodlawn, Maryland to Dallas, Texas. Id. ¶ 8. The SSA provided Reich with relocation expenses totaling $17, 769.50, and Reich signed a Service Agreement that required Reich to repay the relocation expenses if she left “Government service” within twelve months. Id. ¶¶ 8, 17. Prior to leaving the SSA, Reich requested a waiver to the Service Agreement and Defendant Berryhill, then Deputy Commissioner, recommended approval to the Acting Commissioner. Id. ¶ 10.

         On September 3, 2016, the SSA provided a Notification of Personnel Action (NPA) to Reich that effectuated her separation and waived the Service Agreement provision for repayment of relocation expenses. Id. ¶ 11 (citing Ex. D, § 45). However, on September 16, 2016, Berryhill sent a letter to Reich denying the waiver for relocation expenses since “Government service” means the United States Government or the District of Columbia, not the City of Dallas. Id. ¶ 13; Id. (citing Ex. E). The SSA then sent a corrected NPA to Reich on October 5, 2016 that omitted the language for the Service Agreement waiver. Id. ¶ 15. Reich received a letter from the Director of Travel Services for SSA on November 12, 2016, that declared she owed a debt of $17, 769.50 and contained information on how to request a hearing. Id. ¶ 17. Reich requested a hearing on November 17, 2016, by submitting “(1) a summary of relevant facts of which she is aware; (2) authorities supporting her position; (3) a list of witnesses relevant to the dispute; (4) copies of documentary evidence in her possession; and (5) a description of relevant documentary evidence likely in SSA's control.” Id. ¶ 18. A year and a half passed without word from the agency until on June 1, 2018, Reich received a letter from the Department of the Treasury for a $23, 185.79 debt with no explanation for the $5, 416.29 increase in the debt. Id. ¶ 22 (citing Ex. J).

         On November 5, 2018, Reich filed her Complaint with the Court (Doc. 1), seeking: (1) a declaration that the SSA waived the Service Agreement; (2) a declaration that the SSA's actions violated the APA[3]; (3) an order enjoining defendants from collecting the debt; (4) an order for the SSA to contact credit agencies to fix Reich's credit rating; (5) an award for costs and attorneys' fees; and (6) other relief that the Court deems proper. Doc. 1, Compl., 12. The SSA filed its Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 10) on February 8, 2019. In its Motion, Defendants contend that the Court must dismiss Reich's Complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because Reich's action “is forbidden by the Tucker Act” and “Reich also has adequate remedies available elsewhere.” Doc. 10, Mot., 6. Plaintiff meanwhile frames this as a dispute over the SSA's “failure to provide her with the required process, not one where she disagrees with the Agency's conclusions resulting from the process, ” which is why, she argues, that “the APA provides subject-matter jurisdiction.” Doc. 11, Pl.'s Resp., 4. Since all briefing has been received, the Court now considers the Motion.

         II.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.” Stockman v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 138 F.3d 144, 151 (5th Cir. 1998). For that reason, they can adjudicate claims only when subject matter jurisdiction “is expressly conferred by the Constitution and federal statute.” Armstrong v. Tygart, 886 F.Supp.2d 572, 584 (W.D. Tex. 2012) (citing Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides the vehicle through which a party may challenge that jurisdiction. Id.

         A. Whether a Federal Court Has Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         To determine subject matter jurisdiction the court may look to: “(1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.” Ramming, 281 F.3d at 161. Additionally, “[a] Rule 12(b)(1) motion can mount either a facial or factual challenge.” MacKenzie v. Castro, 2016 WL 3906084, at *2 (N.D. Tex. July 19, 2016). A facial challenge occurs “[w]hen a party files a Rule 12(b)(1) motion without including evidence.” Id. A factual challenge, by contrast, occurs when a party supports its Rule 12(b)(1) motion with evidence. Id.

         In both cases, the burden of proof “‘is on the party asserting jurisdiction.'” Id. (quoting Ramming, 281 F.3d at 161). So Plaintiff must prove that jurisdiction exists. Here, Defendants filed their Rule 12(b)(1) motion without any additional evidence, so it is considered a facial attack. Thus, the Court considers just “the sufficiency of the allegations in the complaint because they are presumed to be true.” Paterson v. Weinberger, 644 F.2d 521, 523 (5th Cir. 1981). And “[i]f those jurisdictional allegations are sufficient the complaint stands.” Id.

         Since “subject-matter jurisdiction . . . involves a court's power to hear a case, [it] can never be forfeited or waived.” United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630 (2002). And if a federal court finds a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the complaint must be dismissed entirely. Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006).

         B. Sovereign Immunity Must be Waived for a Federal Court to Have ...


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