United States District Court, D. Maryland
M. Mansfield, Esq.
20, 2017, Plaintiff Victoria Rummel, who proceeds pro
se, petitioned this Court to review the Social Security
Administration's final decision to reopen and vacate a
prior decision awarding her a closed period of disability
benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the
Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, in addition
to two filings made by Ms. Rummel, which are not formal
motions, but have been considered in full. [ECF No. 20, 21,
23]. I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.
R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This Court must uphold the decision
of the Agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and
if the Agency employed proper legal standards. See
42 U.S.C. §§ 4051(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that
standard, I will grant the Commissioner's motion and
affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my
November 22, 2010, an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) issued a fully favorable decision
awarding disability benefits to Ms. Rummel for a closed
period between July 20, 2008-June 1, 2010. (Tr. 35-41). At
the November 2, 2010 hearing prior to the ALJ's decision,
Ms. Rummel testified that she worked at Pets on Wheels as
“the coordinator” and that she worked “from
home, and the hours are whenever I'm up to it.”
(Tr. 382). She testified that she was currently earning
“$1, 000 a month.” (Tr. 383). Due to her low
salary, the ALJ determined, in relevant part, that Ms. Rummel
“has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
July 20, 2008” as a result of her “ulcerative
colitis, colectomy, ilestomy, hypertrophic obstructive
cardiomyopathy, and status-post myomectomy.” (Tr.
38-39). Following the ALJ's 2010 decision, Ms. Rummel
received a lump sum payment of benefits for the closed
result of some factual developments described below, on
December 23, 2015, the Commissioner notified Ms. Rummel of a
proposed revision of the prior decision granting her the
closed period of benefits. (Tr. 96-98). According to that
correspondence, if the 2010 decision were to be vacated, Ms.
Rummel would be charged with an overpayment of benefits.
Id. The letter explained that Ms. Rummel had the
right to request a hearing within ten days of the date of the
letter. Id. Because Ms. Rummel did not respond, an
ALJ issued a written decision on the case without holding a
hearing. (Tr. 18) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
assessing this appeal, I have carefully reviewed the
ALJ's opinion and the entire record. See Elam v.
Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 753 (E.D. Tex. 2005)
(mapping an analytical framework for judicial review of a
pro se action challenging an adverse administrative
decision, including: (1) examining whether the
Commissioner's decision generally comports with
regulations, (2) reviewing the ALJ's critical findings
for compliance with the law, and (3) determining from the
evidentiary record whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's findings). For the reasons described below,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.
proceeded in accordance with applicable law at all steps of
the sequential evaluation. The ALJ ruled in Ms. Rummel's
favor at step one, and determined that she had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity during the relevant period,
since her earnings did not exceed the threshold. (Tr. 21);
see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i),
416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ then considered the
severity of each of the impairments that Ms. Rummel claimed
prevented her from working. (Tr. 21); see 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The ALJ
determined that, during the relevant period, Ms. Rummel
suffered from the severe impairments of “ulcerative
colitis, colovesical fistula, status post colectomy and
ileostomy and hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy status
post myomectomy.” (Tr. 21). At step three, the ALJ
reviewed the applicable listings and determined that none had
been met. (Tr. 21-22).
four, the ALJ found that, during the relevant period from
July 20, 2008 through June 1, 2010, Ms. Rummel “had the
residual functional capacity [“RFC”] to perform
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can
frequently balance, stoop, kneel and crouch, occasionally
crawl and climb, except can never use ladders, ropes and
scaffolds.” (Tr. 22). That RFC assessment differed
materially from the more restrictive RFC assessment in the
2010 opinion. Compare (Tr. 22) with (Tr.
39). In determining the RFC in 2016, the ALJ reviewed Ms.
Rummel's medical records and her statements, during the
relevant time frame, about her limitations. (Tr. 23-24). The
ALJ assigned either “partial weight” or
“great weight” to the opinions of the
non-examining State agency physicians, both of whom
determined that Ms. Rummel would be capable of performing a
restricted range of light work. (Tr. 25).
addition, in the 2016 opinion, the ALJ cited to substantial
evidence supporting a finding that Ms. Rummel's testimony
about her limitations was not credible. In 2015, the
Baltimore County Police Department (“BCPD”)
investigated an allegation that Ms. Rummel and her
then-husband, David Rummel, were embezzling funds from Pets
on Wheels. (Tr. 111-16). In the course of that investigation,
Ms. Rummel told the BCPD that her job at Pets on Wheels was a
full-time job, and that she had been promoted to Executive
Director around 2010. (Tr. 111). Her husband, David Rummel,
told the investigator that Ms. Rummel's job is
“24-7. It's a full time gig.” Id.
David Rummel told the investigator that he did some part-time
IT work for Pets on Wheels, and that his salary for serving
as a part-time employee was higher than the salary Ms. Rummel
received as Executive Director. Id. Ms. Rummel also
told the BCPD that “one year she worked over 400 hours
outside the home and that did not include the time she spent
working at home.” (Tr. 112). The report further states,
“Special Agent Shanahan asked her if she had purposely
kept her salary low in fear of losing her disability
benefits. She stated[, ] ‘yes, but I believed in what I
was doing.' When asked if she was working the system, she
stated, ‘Yeah but that isn't what this is
about.'” Id. An investigator from SSI
reviewed the SSA database and found that Ms. Rummel had
earned $9, 350 from Pets on Wheels in 2008, and then
approximately $12, 000 annually from 2009-2013. (Tr. 119).
The investigator interviewed Melvin Knight, the president of
Pets on Wheels, who stated that Ms. Rummel “should have
been paid a much larger salary because she was putting in
more than 40 hours per week.” (Tr. 120). A volunteer
and board member for Pets on Wheels, Barbara Waskiewicz, told
the investigator that she worked closely with Ms. Rummel and
estimated that Ms. Rummel “was working approximately
40-50 hours a week.” Id. Finally, the
accountant for Pets on Wheels, Ken Tabler, told the
investigator that the prior Executive Director had received a
salary of $23, 500. Id. In 2010, the Board of
Directors attempted to increase Ms. Rummel's salary, but
Ms. Rummel told the board that she was on disability and that
her salary was “capped.” (Tr. 121). Around that
time, David Rummel became a paid part-time computer support
employee, and received an annual salary of $13, 000.
Id. When the Rummels left Pets on Wheels, the new
Executive Director was paid $27, 000 per year and the new IT
specialist received only $6, 000 per year. Id.
light of the substantial evidence demonstrating that Ms.
Rummel was working fulltime and was artificially limiting her
earnings to remain eligible to receive disability benefits,
the ALJ found Ms. Rummel capable of performing her past
relevant work as a volunteer coordinator. (Tr. 26). The ALJ
also made alternative findings, based on a written
questionnaire to a vocational examiner, that Ms. Rummel would
have been capable of other jobs existing in significant
numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 27). All of those
findings are supported by the substantial evidence cited
Rummel's filings, and the attached exhibits, focus
largely on her medical condition in 2017. [ECF Nos. 20, 23].
None of that information is relevant to the only question
presented to this Court, which is whether the ALJ's 2016
determination that Ms. Rummel was not disabled in 2008-2010
was supported by substantial evidence. Any assertions
regarding her alleged disability in 2016 or 2017 will have to
be adjudicated in the form of a new application for benefits
at the Social Security Administration.
Rummel also contests some of the factual assertions made by
the Pets on Wheels employees regarding the number of hours
she worked and the reasons for the amount of her salary.
These new statements from Ms. Rummel were not presented to
the ALJ in 2016, because Ms. Rummel did not request a
hearing. Even if Ms. Rummel's new allegations were to be
assessed under the standard of “new and material
evidence, ” the allegations would not qualify as
“material” because they would be unlikely to
change the ALJ's conclusion. See Meyer v.
Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 705 (4th Cir. 2011)
(“Evidence is only material where there is ‘a
reasonable possibility that the new evidence would have
changed the outcome.'”) (quoting Wilkins v.
Sec'y, Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 953
F.2d 93, 96 (4th Cir. 1991) (en banc)). Here, the ALJ cited
to ample substantial evidence, from several independent
sources, substantiating the position that Ms. Rummel had
worked full-time and had asked to receive a lower salary than
the Executive Directors serving immediately before and after
her term. (Tr. 24-25). In addition, the fact that Ms.
Rummel's husband received a much higher salary than the
computer support employee succeeding his tenure corroborates
the notion that Ms. Rummel's salary was intentionally and
artificially depressed. All of the facts cited by the ALJ,
then, support his adverse credibility assessment. Ms.
Rummel's new assertions, years after the fact,
contradicting that substantial evidence would not have
altered the ALJ's ultimate conclusion. Accordingly, the
ALJ's decision must be affirmed.
reasons set forth herein, Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment, (ECF No. 21), is GRANTED. The Commissioner's
judgment is AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as