Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

ENCARNACION v. BARNHART

January 11, 2002

ELISA ENCARNACION O/B/O ARLENE GEORGE AND ANA FELIPE O/B/O VICTORIA FELIPE, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHER PERSONS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
JOANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT. CLARICE GARNER O/B/O TYLEKE HARDMON, A MINOR, PLAINTIFF, V. JOANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Laura Taylor Swain, U.S. District Judge.

OPINION ON MOTION TO CONSOLIDATE CASES, MOTION TO DISMISS THE GARNER ACTION, AND MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE SECOND AMENDED COMPLAINT IN ENCARNACION ACTION

Encarnacion v. Barnhart, 01 Civ. 6597, is a putative class action in which the named plaintiffs challenge certain regulations of the Commissioner of Social Security pertaining to the provision of disability benefits to children and seek review of the Commissioner's determinations with respect to their individual applications for Social Security disability benefits. Garner v. Barnhart, 01 Civ. 0821, was commenced as an individual action for review of a social security disability benefit determination and challenges the subject regulation as well. The Encarnacion plaintiffs' motion for class certification is pending before the Court, as is defendant's cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings.

This Opinion addresses the application of the Encarnacion and Garner plaintiffs*fn1 for consolidation of Garner with Encarnacion, as well as defendant's cross-motion to dismiss the Garner action as moot. Oral argument on the motions was heard on November 28, 2001. The Court has considered thoroughly all submissions and arguments made in support of and in opposition to the motions. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's determination in Garner will be reversed and remanded for a finding that Tyleke Hardmon is disabled, Plaintiffs' motion for consolidation will be denied, and Plaintiffs' motion to amend the Encarnacion complaint will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs in each of these actions assert that they were wrongfully denied Social Security disability benefits because, in reaching the determination that their children*fn2 are not disabled, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") applied what plaintiffs characterize as a "non-combination policy," which, according to Plaintiffs, gives no weight to functional limitations that are less severe than "marked" in deciding applications for Social Security Income ("SSI") benefits based on childhood disability.*fn3 The Encarnacion plaintiffs also seek declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the Commissioner to discontinue the "non-combination" policy, promulgate regulations "that ensure that children with multiple impairments will receive fair and accurate consideration of the combined effects of all of their impairments, including impairments that impose less than marked limitations of function," and review all unfavorable determinations made pursuant to the PRWORA and the challenged regulations. (Am. Class Action Compl. at 20.) With respect to each named plaintiff, the complaint in each action further identifies alleged defects in the agency's adjudication of the individual applications for disability benefits and seeks judicial review of the denial of benefits on individual bases.

Defendant has moved to dismiss the Garner complaint in its entirety, alleging that the claims are mooted by the Commissioner's proffer of an agreement to have the underlying adverse benefit determination reversed and remanded for a finding of disability. Plaintiffs move to consolidate Garner, an individual action, with the Encarnacion class action. In papers filed in support of their motion to consolidate, Plaintiffs propose that Clarice Garner, acting on behalf of Tyleke Hardmon, serve as a representative of the Encarnacion class. Plaintiffs also move to file a second amended class action complaint in Encarnacion adding as named plaintiffs and class representatives Sandra Perez, acting on behalf of Maurice Perez, and Margarita Guzman, on behalf of Eric Garcia. Because Plaintiffs' motion to consolidate and Defendant's motion to dismiss the Garner complaint are interrelated, they are addressed together; Plaintiffs' motion for leave to file a second amended complaint is discussed in turn.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs' Motion to Consolidate and Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Garner

The Encarnacion action was initiated by the filing of a complaint on September 1, 2000. The Garner complaint was filed on February 2, 2001.*fn4 Plaintiffs moved for class certification in Encarnacion on November 8, 2000, and for consolidation of Encarnacion and Garner on March 16, 2001. On April 30, 2001, the Commissioner proffered a stipulation reversing and remanding the adverse benefit determination in the Garner plaintiff's SSI case for the purpose of issuing a decision finding Tyleke Hardmon, the minor child on whose behalf the Garner action was commenced, disabled. (Decl. of Susan Baird, sworn to May 24, 2001, ¶ 5.) On May 24, 2001, Defendant moved to dismiss the Garner action, on the grounds that the Commissioner's offer leaves the Garner plaintiff without a personal stake in the claim, thereby depriving the Court of jurisdiction under Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution, which restricts the jurisdiction of federal courts to cases and controversies.

Plaintiffs concede that an award of benefits would moot the individual claim in Garner but maintain that the Commissioner's proffer of individual relief should not preclude the Garner plaintiff's service in a representative capacity. They argue that, under Second Circuit precedent, an offer of individual relief that postdates a motion for class certification does not impair a plaintiff's ability to serve as a class representative. Defendant argues that the mootness exception upon which Plaintiffs rely is inapplicable to the Garner plaintiff because his claim was brought in an individual capacity only and that Plaintiffs used an improper procedural vehicle to propose him as a class representative.*fn5 Concluding that the offer therefore moots his claim, Defendant urges denial of the motion to consolidate and dismissal of the Garner action.

"The mootness doctrine is derived from Article III of the Constitution, which provides that federal courts may decide only live cases or controversies." Van Wie v. Pataki, 267 F.3d 109, 113 (2d Cir. 2001). With limited exceptions, "[a] case becomes moot when interim relief or events have eradicated the effects of the defendant's act or omission, and there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur." Id. (quoting Irish Lesbian and Gay Org. v. Giuliani, 143 F.3d 638, 647 (2d Cir. 1998)). "Although the `case-or-controversy' requirement has itself been a fertile ground for controversy through the years, at its uncontroverted core lies the principle that, at all times, the dispute before the court must be real and live, not feigned, academic, or conjectural." Russman v. Bd. of Educ., 260 F.3d 114, 118 (2d Cir. 2001). When a claim becomes moot, the court loses jurisdiction over the suit, which therefore must be dismissed. Id. at 118-19.

Plaintiffs concede that the Commissioner has offered relief that moots Tyleke Hardmon's individual claims. (See Pls.' Mem. in Further Supp. of Mot. to Consolidate and in Opp. to Deft.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Pls.' Br."), at 2.) Plaintiffs argue that Hardmon is not precluded from serving as a class representative in the Encarnacion action, however, because in the Second Circuit, a class action and a litigant's ability to represent a class may survive a defendant's offer of full relief where the offer is made (or other mooting act occurs) after the filing of a motion for class certification but before the court has decided such a motion.

The exception urged by Plaintiffs is, indeed, uniquely applicable in the class action context. See, e.g., White v. Mathews, 559 F.2d 852, 857 (2d Cir. 1977) (finding that, in Social Security class action where named plaintiff's individual claim was mooted by grant of full relief before class was certified, "[t]he existence of a controversy [when plaintiff moved for class certification] was sufficient . . . to enable [the] suit to proceed as a class action"); Crisci v. Shalala, 169 F.R.D. 563, 567 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) ("In the context of a class action, . . . the Supreme Court has adopted a `flexible' approach to the mootness doctrine. . . ." (citing Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 402 n. 11 (1975)).

Notwithstanding the broad assertions in the Garner complaint of impropriety of the Commissioner's non-combination policy and its effect on the adjudication of Hardmon's claim, a finding that Hardmon is disabled and the grant of benefits addresses his claim of entitlement to receive disability benefits. Garner is pleaded as an individual lawsuit rather than as a putative class action. The complaint does not include prayers for declaratory or injunctive relief. Nor is Tyleke Hardmon mentioned, let alone named as a putative class representative, in the plaintiffs' proposed Second Amended Complaint. Because the Garner pleading asserted no class claims and Plaintiffs have not proposed him as a named representative in the proposed Second Amended Complaint, the mootness exception, which recognizes and permits the pursuit of class-based elements of a claim even though a plaintiff's individual claim has been satisfied, is simply inapplicable to Tyleke Hardmon's claims. Given the particulars of the procedural posture of this case, ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.