United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
Levian Dockery filed this action pro se claiming
that the Social Security Administration ("SSA") has
unlawfully garnished his Social Security retirement benefits
since January of 2013. [ECF No. 3]. Mr. Dockery asserts that
SSA did not have a court order of garnishment, and that SSA
did not respond to his multiple attempts to contact the
Agency and resolve the issue. [ECF No. 3-1 at 1]. In
addition, Mr. Dockery presented evidence of, but did not make
any arguments regarding, an apparent overpayment of benefits
that was recouped by the Agency. [ECF No. 3-1 at 9-11]. SSA
filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction, arguing that the Government has not waived its
sovereign immunity with respect to Mr. Dockery’s
garnishment claim. [ECF No. 11]. Regarding the repayment
issue, SSA argues that, "This Court Lacks Subject Matter
Jurisdiction to Adjudicate Any Hypothetical Claim that Mr.
Dockery Might Have Concerning the Overpayment."
Id. at 8. In response, Mr. Dockery filed a motion
for summary judgment seeking "repayment of all monies
unlawfully garnished" by SSA. [ECF No. 19]. Pursuant to
Standing Order 2014-01, this case has been referred to me for
Report and Recommendations on the dispositive motions. No
hearing is deemed necessary. See Local R. 105.6 (D.
Md. 2014). For the reasons stated below, I recommend that
SSA’s Motion to Dismiss be granted, and that Mr.
Dockery’s Motion for Summary Judgment be denied.
Dockery is a recipient of Social Security retirement
benefits. On September 13, 2012, SSA received a court order
directing the Agency to withhold a total of $421.25 per month
from Mr. Dockery’s benefit payments for child support
("support order"). [ECF No. 11, Exh.
SSA sent Mr. Dockery a letter dated September 25, 2012,
notifying him that it had received a court order to reduce
his Social Security retirement benefit payments in order to
fulfill his obligation to pay child support. [ECF No. 11,
Exh. B]. The letter informed Mr. Dockery that if he
"disagree[d] with the decision of the court that issued
the garnishment order, [he would] need to contact them
directly or have a lawyer do it for [him]." Id.
The Agency sent two more letters on November 27, 2012-one
specifying that the Agency would withhold $408.20 from each
of Mr. Dockery’s monthly benefit payments beginning in
January of 2013, and another stating that, as a result, Mr.
Dockery’s total monthly benefit payment would be
$219.80 going forward. [ECF No. 11, Exh. C]. SSA did not send
additional correspondence regarding garnishment of Mr.
Dockery’s benefit payments until November of 2014. In a
letter dated November 28, 2014, SSA notified Mr. Dockery that
it withheld $420.60 from his November benefit payment and
would do so each month going forward to pay for child support
pursuant to a court order. [ECF No. 11, Exh. F].
addition to his claim about withheld benefits, Mr. Dockery
also presented evidence relating to an overpayment of
benefits by the Agency. On June 11, 2014, SSA sent Mr.
Dockery a letter stating that, based on his work history and
earnings in 2013, the Agency had overpaid his retirement
benefits by a total of $980.00. [ECF No. 3-1 at 9]. The
letter stated that the overpaid amount should be refunded to
SSA within 30 days, or the Agency would withhold the full
amount of any benefit payments until the overpaid amount was
refunded. [ECF No. 11, Exh. D at 3]. The letter also provided
information on how to appeal the overpayment decision or
request a waiver of his repayment obligation. Id. at
2. The record does not contain any evidence that Mr. Dockery
appealed the overpayment decision, applied for a waiver, or
arranged to pay the overpaid amount in installments.
Accordingly, SSA withheld Mr. Dockery’s entire benefit,
totaling $637.00, in August of 2014, and withheld the
remaining balance of $343.00 from his benefit payment in
September of 2014. [ECF No. 11, Exh. E]. Mr. Dockery filed
his complaint on September 8, 2015,  challenging all actions by
SSA that have reduced his Social Security retirement benefit
payments, including implementation of an Income Withholding
for Support Order and recovery of an overpayment of benefits.
Benefits Withheld Pursuant to Support Order
a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the Federal Government
and its agencies from suit." F.D.I.C. v. Meyer,
510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994) (citing Loeffler v. Frank,
486 U.S. 549, 554 (1988)). The "‘terms of [the
United States’] consent to be sued in any court define
that court’s jurisdiction to entertain
suit.’" Id. (quoting United States v.
Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586 (1941). Thus, absent a
waiver of sovereign immunity, a court does not have
jurisdiction to entertain suit against the Government.
Furthermore, any "waiver of the Government’s
sovereign immunity will be strictly construed, in terms of
its scope, in favor of the sovereign." Lane v.
Pena, 518 U.S. 187, 192 (1996).
respect to garnishment orders, 42 U.S.C. § 659(f)
the United States, nor the government of the District of
Columbia, nor any
disbursing officer shall be liable with respect to any
payment made from moneys due or payable from the United
States to any individual pursuant to legal process regular on
its face, if the payment is made in accordance with this
section and the regulations issued to carry out this section.
Id. at (f)(1). Section 659 sets forth a limited
waiver of sovereign immunity to allow for the garnishment of
proceeds due to an individual by the Government for the
enforcement of child support and alimony payments. See
Diaz v. Diaz, 568 F.2d 1061, 1062 (4th Cir. 1977)
("[T]he purpose and effect of 42 U.S.C. § 659 is to
waive the sovereign immunity of the United States for
garnishment and like purposes in a limited class of State
court actions involving support obligations of government
employees receiving, for example, federal pensions.");
Omega Accounts Servicing Corp. v. Koller,
503 F.Supp. 149 (D. Md. 1980) (noting that moneys due from
the United States may be garnished to provide child support
or make alimony payments). This waiver of sovereign immunity
specifically applies to garnishment of Social Security and
other Government-provided retirement benefits. See
42 U.S.C. § 659(h)(1)(A)(ii)(II) (allowing for
garnishment of funds due to an individual "under any
other system or fund established by the United States which
provides for the payment of pensions, retirement or retired
pay, annuities, dependents’ or survivors’
benefits, or similar amounts payable. . . "). Even so,
the waiver of sovereign immunity in § 659 only permits
the enforcement of garnishment orders, and does not provide a
federal cause of action or federal jurisdiction to entertain
an action against the Government regarding its garnishment of
federal benefits or other monies payable to an individual.
See U.S. v. Morton, 467 U.S. 822, 836 (1984)
(holding that the Government cannot be held liable for acting
in accordance with a garnishment order that is regular on its
face); cf. 42 U.S. § 405(g) (providing the
exclusive jurisdictional basis for judicial review of claims
arising under the Social Security Act).
a writ of garnishment may be enforced against Mr.
Dockery’s Social Security retirement benefits so long
as the writ was issued "pursuant to legal process
regular on its face." The Supreme Court has noted that
the words "legal process" must be interpreted in
light of the immediately following phrase "on its
face." Morton, 467 U.S. at 822. Thus, the
Government cannot be held liable for honoring a garnishment
order that appears, on its face, to be issued by a court of
competent jurisdiction and in accordance with state laws and
regulations, even if it is later proven that the issuing
court lacked jurisdiction or its decision was improper.
See, e.g., id. at 829 ("Inquiry into
the issuing court’s jurisdiction over the debtor cannot
be squared with the plain language of the statute, which
requires the recipient of the writ to act on the basis of the
‘face’ of the process."); see also
5 C.F.R. § 581.302(f) ("If a governmental entity
receives legal process which, on its face, appears to conform
to the laws of the jurisdiction from which it was issued, the
entity shall not be required to ascertain whether the
authority which issued the legal process had obtained
personal jurisdiction over the obligor."). Furthermore,
§ 659 expressly provides that the Government is to be
treated the same as a private citizen with respect to
garnishment orders. 42 U.S.C. § 659(a) ("the United
States or the District of Columbia . . . shall be subject, in
like manner and to the same extent as if the United States or
the District of Columbia were a private person . . .
."). Thus, requiring the Government to look beyond the
face of a garnishment order would be inconsistent with the
law applicable to private garnishees. Morton, 467
U.S. at 831-32.
instant case, the Commonwealth of Virginia electronically
filed a support order with SSA on September 13, 2012. [ECF
No. 11-1 at ¶ 5(a)]. The support order indicated that it
was for "Child Support Enforcement, " and was
directed to SSA at the Agency’s headquarters. [ECF No.
11, Exh. A]. The order directed SSA to withhold a total of
$421.25 per month from Mr. Dockery’s income, to be
remitted to the Treasurer of Virginia at the "Division
of Child Support Enf[orcement]." Id. The
support order listed Marilyn P. Blackwell as the
"Authorized Representative" who issued the order.
Id. Notably, the support order included language
stating "This IWO [(Income Withholding Order)] must be
regular on its face. Under certain circumstances you must
reject this IWO and return it to the sender. . . . If you