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Shue v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

July 23, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         This case has been referred to the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rules 72.1(A), 72.2(D) and 72.3 of this court relating to review of administrative determinations under the Social Security Act (“Act”) and related statutes, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. It is now before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Act for review of a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Patricia Shue's application for survivor's benefits on the earnings record of her deceased husband, Frank Albert Shue.

         Upon review of the record before this court, it is the opinion of the undersigned that the findings of fact and determinations of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence; thus, the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.


         On October 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed her application for survivor's benefits. After her claim was denied, Plaintiff requested and was provided a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on February 26, 2016. On August 10, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff ineligible for survivor's benefits (tr. 11-18).[2] On February 1, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (tr. 4-6). Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this court. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007).


         On August 10, 2016 (the date of ALJ's decision), the ALJ made several findings relative to the issues raised in this appeal (tr. 11-18):

1) It was previously found that Plaintiff was the unmarried widow of the deceased insured wage earner;
2) Plaintiff shot the wage earner and killed him;
3) Plaintiff filed an application for survivor's benefit on October 9, 2014;
4) Plaintiff did not offer direct testimony at the hearing;
5) Plaintiff was convicted of a felony for the killing of her husband;
6) The application of the law is not limited to specific intent felony convictions;
7) Plaintiff's actions were not lawfully justified; and
8) Plaintiff is precluded from the receipt of survivor's benefits based on her felony conviction of Manslaughter, with the use of a firearm, of the deceased wager earner.


         Review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence from the record and was a result of the application of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or that proper legal standards were not applied.”); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.” Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision will not be disturbed if in light of the record as a whole the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986).


         The denial of Plaintiff's application for survivor's benefits was based on the fact that she was convicted of manslaughter in the death of the wage-earner, her husband Frank Albert Shue. Plaintiff was tried on charges of second-degree murder and the lesser included offense of manslaughter. On November 5, 2001, a Florida jury found Plaintiff guilty of manslaughter, with a firearm (tr. 31, 564). On January 10, 2002, Plaintiff was sentenced to prison and was released on July 9, 2014, after which she applied for survivor's benefits (tr. 32, 41, 43).

         The ALJ thoroughly reviewed the facts of the criminal case, including Plaintiff's trial, and he also reviewed Plaintiff's sworn statement, submitted in support of her claim for survivor's benefits. The court summarizes the ALJ's findings here. On October 23, 2000, Plaintiff shot her husband, and he died shortly thereafter (tr. 12). The evidence showed that Plaintiff was handling the gun when it was fired, striking the deceased in the abdomen at an upward trajectory, which indicated to the medical examiner that Plaintiff was sitting in a chair and shot her husband as he stood facing her (tr. 13). Because the bullet that killed her husband was found in a chair across the room, there was some question as to whether he was actually standing at the time he was shot, although no blood was found on the chair (tr. 13).

         The ALJ stated:

[Plaintiff] told several versions of events. Shortly after the shooting, as [Plaintiff] was being led out of the home, the victim reported to police that the shooting was an “accident, ” to which [Plaintiff] was reported to have remarked to her husband that the shooting “was no accident, ” although not all present apparently heard her remark. Similarly, [Plaintiff] testified at trial that she did not recall making such statement. In her statement of July 27, 2016, [Plaintiff] has since remembered responding to her husband, “you know it was an accident.”

(Tr. 13).

         Evidence also indicated that Plaintiff had been upset with her “controlling” husband in the three days that preceded the shooting (tr. 13). There were indications that Plaintiff had planned to leave the home with a packed bag, but her departure was delayed for several days because of car trouble. A “division of property document, ” evidently intended for Plaintiff and her husband, was discovered near Plaintiff's ...

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