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Kirkland v. Railroad Retirement Board

decided: April 26, 1983.


Petition for review of a final order of the Railroad Retirement Board denying an application for a widow's annuity.

Kaufman, Timbers and Newman, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

This case presents the sad circumstances of a seventy-nine year old woman, who, following three decades of marriage, became eligible to collect a widow's annuity. Soon she discovered that the benefits she had received were to be discontinued because the Railroad Retirement Board determined her marriage was void. In addition to the grave consequences of this decision, petitioner has been frustrated in her efforts to challenge the termination of her benefits, and has been forced to litigate this issue for over seven years. Because we believe the Board's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, we vacate the contested order.


The underlying facts are important to the resolution of this petition for review. Accordingly, we set them out in some detail.

In late 1940 Mary Townes met James Kirkland at a church outing in Stamford, Connecticut. Both were residents of New York City. Eventually, Towne and Kirkland began a courtship which culminated in their marriage on June 7, 1941.

At the time James Kirkland took his vows of faithfulness and loyalty, he was married to another woman. In 1933 he married Ruth Watkins in Orange, New Jersey, but evidently this union was not a happy one, for in 1936 Kirkland left Watkins and never lived with her again. James, however, never divorced Ruth, and accordingly, the validity of his subsequent marriage to Mary was open to question.

A crucial issue in this case is whether Mary Townes was aware of James's previous marriage when she married him in 1941. The Railroad Retirement Board ("Board"), whose decision we shall discuss in some detail, concluded Mary was indeed, cognizant of her husband's prior marriage. Petitioner challenges this finding, asserting it is unsupported by the evidence on the record.

On June 6, 1941, one day before his marriage to Mary Townes, Kirkland attended a hearing of the Domestic Relations Court of New York City, where he agreed to pay his wife Ruth support payments totaling $5 every second week. Some time later, in February 1943, James was threatened with the possibility of imprisonment because he had been remiss in meeting his obligations to Ruth and their child. Mary agreed to guarantee her husband's payments and signed a suretyship contract. Several months later, in June 1943, Mary signed another agreement concerning her husband's support payments.

Ruth Watkins intruded on Mary and James's lives on only one other occasion. During Thanksgiving of 1943, Ruth appeared unannounced at the Kirklands' New York apartment with a concealed knife. She attacked James, stabbing him several times in the chest. James was hospitalized after this attack, and Ruth was arrested and eventually committed to the Pilgrim State Mental Hospital.

Mary and James lived together during the following 28 years, and enjoyed what appears, by all indications, to have been a happy marriage. Mary worked as a domestic and performed household chores. She also cared for James, and when he was hospitalized, visited him daily. James developed kidney difficulties in the latter part of his life, and Mary prepared special diets for him and otherwise attended to his needs. In February 1971 James died as a result of various ailments associated with his kidney disorders.

Shortly after Jame's death, Mary applied for a widow's annuity from the Railroad Retirement Board. The Board granted her request and commenced payment of the annuity. Mary also received social security payments based upon her employment history, and her stipend from the Board was reduced to account for this additional income. She was 71 years old when she began to receive her widow's benefits.

Mary continued to receive her monthly remuneration until September 1976, when she was informed by the Board's Director of Retirement Claims that it was being terminated, because the Board concluded Ruth Watkins was James's legal widow. Ruth had filed requests for benefits in 1975 and again in March 1976. Both requests, however, were denied because the Bureau of Retirement Claims determined that, despite Ruth's proof of her marriage to James, she was unable to rebut the presumption provided by New York law in favor of the validity of the subsequent marriage. Eventually Ruth ...

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