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Betty L. W. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 27, 2019

BETTY L. W., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSION OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael J. McShane, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Betty W. brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Title II Widow's Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. Because the Commissioner concedes error, and because remand for additional findings is unnecessary, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for the immediate payment of benefits.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On January 7, 2014, plaintiff applied for Widow's Insurance Benefits, alleging that she is the surviving wife of Fay W., a deceased wage earner. Tr. 20-23. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 29-31, 35-36. On April 26, 2016, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 156-70. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified.[2] Id. On May 18, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not married to Fay W. at the time of his death and therefore not entitled to Title II benefits. Tr. 10-17. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Tr. 3-6.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         Born on November 22, 1946, plaintiff was 67 years old as of the application date and 69 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 21. Plaintiff was found disabled by the Social Security Administration on December 21, 2005, and has been receiving Title II benefits under her own account since May 1, 2004. Pl.'s Reply Br. 9 n.3 (doc. 20). Plaintiff alleges that she was married to Fay W. in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on January 29, 1976, by a justice of the peace named Don Edwards. Tr. 65, 161. She alleges further that she lived with Fay W. as husband and wife, raising five children together, for 38 years until his passing on November 22, 2013. Tr. 61, 65-66, 161-62, 166.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         As it pertains to the issues in this case, a widow seeking disability benefits must prove that she is the unmarried surviving wife of a deceased wage earner and has attained age sixty. 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(e), 416(c).

         The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ first determined Fay W. “is a deceased wage earner, fully or currently insured under the Social Security Act, who was a permanent resident of the State of Oregon” at the time of his November 22, 2013, death. Tr. 11.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff did not have a valid ceremonial marriage to Fay W. under the laws of Oregon because the marriage certificate she submitted “had been altered” and “there was no record of a marriage between [plaintiff] and the deceased wage earner” in the “three possible counties where the marriage might have taken place.” Tr. 12-15.

         Next, the ALJ resolved that no non-ceremonial marriage existed because neither Oregon nor Arkansas recognize common law unions. Tr. 15-16.

         Finally, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have a valid deemed marriage to Fay W. because “there was no allegation of a legal impediment to [plaintiff's] purported marriage” and “the evidence suggests that a marriage ceremony did not take place, as there is no record or a marriage license or certificate between [plaintiff] and the deceased wage earner . . . in their former ...


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