HARLINGTON WOOD, Jr., Circuit Judge.
In June of 1968 the plaintiff-appellee, Minor Gressley, applied for social security disability benefits, alleging that he became unable to work in January of that year. The Social Security Administration denied the application, both initially and on reconsideration, on the ground that Gressley had not met the requirement that he have social security credits for twenty calendar quarters (five years) of work during a forty-quarter period (ten years) ending in or after the quarter in which he was disabled (20/40 requirement). 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(3) (1976). To meet this requirement, Gressley would have had to work twenty calendar quarters during the period of January 1958 to January 1968. However, his social security account indicated he was employed only from the second quarter of 1965 until January 1968. Nonetheless, Gressley would have been eligible for benefits had he been able to show that his condition was disabling in or before the third quarter of 1954, when he last met the 20/40 requirement. After a hearing, an administrative law judge affirmed the denial of benefits. The Appeals Council upheld that decision in October 1969. There the matter rested for more than three years.
In 1973 Gressley's wife wrote to President Nixon seeking his assistance in securing disability benefits for her husband. The White House referred her letter to the district office in Marion, Indiana. A claims representative from that office promptly contacted her and solicited her version of her husband's earlier travails with the Social Security Administration. The claims representative then reviewed Gressley's file and concluded that there were no irregularities in the process that culminated in the denial of benefits. He filed a report to that effect in March 1973, which appears to be a complete memorialization of his communications with Mrs. Gressley.
Mrs. Gressley, however, testified at trial that the claims representative told her that her husband could satisfy the 20/40 requirement if he filed amended tax returns reflecting self-employment income earned in 1963 and 1964 but not reported at that time. Mrs. Gressley filed the amended returns and sent checks to the Internal Revenue Service totalling $306.43 for back taxes. In June 1973 she filed a statement with the Social Security Administration requesting that her husband's record be credited with eight quarters of self-employment earnings for the period 1963-64. Accompanying the statement were copies of the recently filed amended tax returns. The Administration informed Mrs. Gressley in October 1973 that under section 205(c) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(c) (1976), the amended returns were ineffective to establish credits for self-employment because they were filed more than three years, three months, and fifteen days after incurrence of the tax obligation.
In February 1976 Gressley brought suit in federal district court seeking judicial review of the decision. Id. § 405(g). The district court remanded the case to the Administration to develop a clearer record for review. Each level of the agency review mechanism acted as it had before and the matter finally reached the end of the administrative process in January of 1978. The parties then resubmitted the case to the district court on cross-motions for summary judgment. In his motion, Gressley asserted that his reliance
At the outset, we note the duty of federal courts "to observe the conditions defined by Congress for charging the public treasury." Federal Crop Insurance Corp. v. Merrill, 332 U.S. 380, 385, 68 S.Ct. 1, 3, 92 L.Ed. 10 (1947). Where a party not otherwise entitled to a statutory benefit seeks to invoke the estoppel doctrine, courts tread lightly for fear of breaching this duty. See, e. g., Michals v. Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp., 413 F.2d 144 (7th Cir. 1969); Mahoney v. Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp., 393 F.2d 156 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 393 U.S. 837, 89 S.Ct. 112, 21 L.Ed.2d 107 (1968). Generally, reliance on misinformation provided by a Government employee does not provide a basis for an estoppel. See, e. g., Goldberg v. Weinberger, 546 F.2d 477 (2d Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 431 U.S. 937, 97 S.Ct. 2468, 53 L.Ed.2d 255 (1977).
Id. at 481.
This circuit is among the minority of jurisdictions that have applied the estoppel doctrine to the Government. See United States v. Fox Lake State Bank, 366 F.2d 962 (7th Cir. 1966). But we did so reluctantly, noting that "the doctrine of estoppel must be applied with great caution to the government and its officials." Id. at 965.
Unlike the present case, which involves a claim on the public treasury by one not statutorily entitled to draw on it, Fox Lake applied an estoppel to prevent the Government from suing to recover a statutory forfeiture and penalty. We find an important distinction. The invocation of estoppel in the latter circumstance does not result in the receipt of public funds by one otherwise not entitled to payment. Instead, the Government is merely barred from enforcing a claim that in fairness it should not be allowed to pursue. We recognize that forbearance to sue for a sum to which the Government is statutorily entitled may cost the Government as much as a direct payment to a statutorily ineligible person. The distinction lies in the fact that a Government right of action under a statute is usually a discretionary right. At any time, absent arbitrary and capricious action, it may choose to enforce or not enforce a right to sue. A congressional mandate to pay statutory benefits only to those so entitled presents a different case. Congress leaves no discretion in the agencies and courts but to limit payment of benefits to those statutorily entitled to them. When we estopped the Government in Fox Lake, we merely held that in light of the actions of the FHA it would be unfair for the Government to exercise its discretion to sue. Were we to estop the Government in the present case, we would instead be interfering with the duty of administrative agencies and courts to follow the mandate of Congress and limit payment to those whom our elected representatives have deemed eligible. See Federal Crop Insurance Corp. v. Merrill, 332 U.S. 380, 68 S.Ct. 1, 92 L.Ed. 10 (1947).
In light of the foregoing, we hold that the district court erred as a matter of law in applying the doctrine of estoppel to the facts of this case. Since we agree with the finding implicit in the district court's grant of summary judgment that Gressley was ineligible for disability benefits under the terms of section 216 of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(3) (1976), we need not remand.
The time limitation referred to above "means a period of three years, three months, and fifteen days." Id. § 405(c)(1)(B).