United States District Court, S.D. New York
January 12, 2004.
BLANCA ESTHER COLON, Plaintiff, -against- JO ANNE B. BARNHART,[fn1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD CASEY, District Judge
*fn1 Jo Anne B. Barnhart became the Commissioner of Social Security on
January 3, 2001. She is therefore substituted for Kenneth S. Apfel as
Defendant. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 25(d)(1).
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
Blanca Esther Colon ("Plaintiff), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
challenges a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
("Commissioner") denying her benefits as a disabled widow.*fn2 After
Plaintiff had exhausted the Social Security Administration's hearing and
appeals process, the Commissioner determined that she did not satisfy the
"nine-month duration of marriage requirement," a
prerequisite to Plaintiff receiving widow's disability benefits. 42
U.S.C. § 416(c)(5). Appealing that decision, Plaintiff now moves for
judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c); the
Commissioner cross-moves for the same relief.
For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs motion is DENIED; the
Commissioner's cross-motion is GRANTED.
Plaintiff married Pedro Rodriguez on November 28, 1995. (Record [R.]
13, 19-20, 53.)*fn3 Less than a full nine months later, on August
27, 1996, Rodriguez, the wage earner, died. (Dkt. No. 1: Compl. ¶ 4;
R. 54.) On July 7, 1998, at the age of fifty, Plaintiff applied to the
Social Security Administration for widow's insurance benefits, claiming
she was a single, disabled widow. (Compl. ¶ 4; R. 24-27.)
It is undisputed that Plaintiff meets three of the requirements
necessary to receive widow's benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)
(enumerating various prerequisites to receiving widow's insurance
benefits). These three requirements are that Plaintiff: (1) is a disabled
widow between fifty and sixty years old, (2) has not remarried, and (3)
has applied for benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e). It is disputed,
however, whether Plaintiff satisfies the nine-month duration of
marriage requirement under 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(5), necessary
to qualify her as a "widow" under the statute. That section provides that
to be a "widow," the surviving spouse must have been married to her
deceased husband for a period of "not less than nine months immediately
prior to the day on which he died." 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(5).
In light of this disputed issue, Plaintiff pursued her claim through
all levels of administrative review.*fn4 During this process, three of
the four administrative decisions denied Plaintiff widow's
benefits. First, the Social Security Administration ("Administration")
denied Plaintiff's application on the ground that she was just shy of
satisfying the nine-month duration of marriage
requirement. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested reconsideration of this
determination, and upon review, the Administration affirmed. (R. 28-32.)
Plaintiff then exercised her right to a de novo hearing before an ALL
(R. 33.) In a hearing held on September 30, 1999, Plaintiff testified
that she married partly because her late husband wanted to leave her
widow's Social Security benefits, and that she "wanted him to have his
wish." (R. 22.) Approximately one month after this hearing, on November
3, 1999, the ALJ reversed the Administration's decision, concluding that
Plaintiff was, in fact, entitled to widow's benefits.*fn5 (R. 8-14.)
Finally, on May 25, 2000, the Appeals Council, consisting of two
administrative appeals judges, upon its own motion, reversed the decision
of the ALJ, concluding that Plaintiff failed to satisfy the nine
month duration of marriage prerequisite. (R. 5-7.) The
Commissioner adopted the Appeals Council decision as the final decision.
Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing a decision by the Social Security Administration, a
district court gives substantial deference to the factual determinations
of the Commissioner, provided such factual
determinations are supported by substantial evidence. See Morris v.
Barnhart 2002 WL 1733804, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2002). With regard to
legal conclusions made by the Commissioner, the Court will review the
issues de novo. Accordingly, the Court will not defer to the
Commissioner's determination if it is "the product of legal error."
DeLeon v. Apfel 2000 WL 1873851, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2000).
A. The Nine-Month Duration of Marriage
The central issue is whether Plaintiff qualifies as a "widow" as
defined under section 416(c), and thus may be awarded widow's insurance
benefits under the Social Security Act. For Plaintiff to be considered a
"widow" under the statute, she must have been married to her deceased
husband for nine months prior to his death. Plaintiff's marriage lasted
from November 28, 1995, the day she was married, until August 27, 1996,
the day her husband died. To determine whether Plaintiff qualifies as a
"widow," the Court must determine precisely how to measure the section
416(c)(5) nine-month requirement.
"The starting point in every case involving construction of a statute
is the language itself." Blue chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores,
421 U.S. 723, 756 (1975) (Powell, J., concurring). Section 416(c), in
pertinent part, provides: "The term `widow' . . . means the surviving wife
of an individual, but only if . . . (5) she was married to him for a
period of not less than nine months immediately prior to the day on which
he died." 42 U.S.C. § 416(c). "[W]here, as here, the statute's
language is plain, `the sole function of the courts is to enforce it
according to its terms.'" United States v. Ron Pair Enters., 489 U.S. 235,
241 (1989) (quoting Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485
(1917)). In addition, when the language of the statute is plain and
precise, "no resort to legislative history is
necessary where the statutory language clearly resolves the dispute." See
United States v. Oregon, 366 U.S. 643, 648 (1961).
On its face, section 416(c)(5) requires that a widow be "married to
[the deceased husband] for a period of not less than nine months
immediately prior to the day on which he died. . . ."
42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(5) (emphasis added). The Court concludes that the
statute's language is precise and speaks directly to the issue before the
Court. If a statute "speaks clearly `to the precise question at issue,'"
courts "`must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of
Congress.'" Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217 (2002) (quoting Chevron
U.S.A., Inc v. Natural Res. Def. Council Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43
The statute specifies that counting stops on the day "prior to the day
on which [the wage earner] died." To comply with the plain meaning of the
statute, Plaintiff must have been married to the wage earner no later
than November 26, 1995, in order for the marriage to have been of
nine-months duration on August 26, 1996, the day immediately preceding
the day the wage earner died. The marriage, however, occurred on November
28, 1995; the plain meaning of section 416(c)(5) is, therefore, not
fulfilled. Because Plaintiff does not satisfy the clear and unambiguous
requirement enunciated in section 416(c)(5), "that is the end of the
matter." Id. at 842.*fn6
Nevertheless, the Court also notes that the Commissioner's public
policy manual further supports the Court's holding. The Program Operations
Manual System ("POMS") states the following:
For the purposes of this duration provision, a month
is a period ending with the day of the succeeding
month numerically corresponding to the day of its
beginning, less one. Count both the day of the
marriage and the day preceding the day of death in
figuring the 9-month period.
POMS GN 00305.100, Dkt. No. 6: Ex. A to Br. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot.
for J. on the Pleadings & in Supp. of the Commissioner's
Cross-Motion for J. on the Pleadings.
Rodriguez died on August 27, 1996, just prior to the nine-month
anniversary of his November 28, 1995 marriage to Plaintiff. As previously
stated, in order to satisfy the standard as set forth in section
416(c)(5), the marriage would have had to have occurred no later than
November 26, 1995. This would have allowed for the nine-month
anniversary of the marriage date to fall on August 26, 1996, the
corresponding calendar date nine months later, and one day before the
date of death. A marriage of this duration would have satisfied the
statute. Plaintiff, however, married the wage earner on November 28,
1995. In light of the wage earner's date of death, the marriage date is
just shy of the Social Security Act's clearly enunciated, bright
line nine-month duration of marriage requirement.
Under section 416(c)(5), Plaintiff does not qualify as a "widow," and
thus is not entitled to widow's insurance benefits.
B. Accidental Death and Due Process
The Court also finds Plaintiffs alternative arguments lack merit.
First, Plaintiff argues that this Court should determine that the wage
earner's death was accidental, thus obviating the need for Plaintiff to
meet the nine-month duration of marriage
requirement. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(k)(1)(a);
20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(2)(i)
(crafting an exception to the nine-month duration of
marriage requirement when the insured wage earner's death was
accidental). Here, the wage earner's death was not accidental, but rather
stemmed from an illness which afflicted him before the marriage. See
42 U.S.C. § 416(k); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(2) (stating that if
the nine-month duration of marriage requirement
is not met, the surviving wife may recover insurance benefits if, at the
time of marriage, the wage earner was "reasonably expected to live for 9
months" and the death was accidental, i.e., it was caused by an event
that the insured did not expect"). Plaintiff herself testified that her
husband was not accidentally killed, but rather, died from an illness
which afflicted him before the marriage. See R. 21 (Q. Okay. Okay. How
did you husband die? A. He got sick. His liver. . . . Q. Okay. So it was
a sickness. It wasn't an accident. Is that right? A. Yes, it was not an
accident. He was sick.) Therefore, the record in this case does not
permit the Court to determine that the wage earner's death was
Second, Plaintiff argues that she has been denied due process in this
case. As discussed earlier, Plaintiff proceeded through all levels of
administrative review, receiving notice of hearings (R. 15, 40-42, 56,
59-63) and the opportunity to be heard at these hearings. (R. 16-23.) In
addition, despite her contention, Plaintiff is not being denied an
interest in continued receipt of Social Security benefits. In order to
successfully assert a due process claim under the Fifth Amendment, a
property interest in receiving benefits must already exist. Plaintiff has
not been awarded benefits, and therefore has no constitutionally
protected interest in "continued receipt" of them. Furthermore, Plaintiff
cites no authority when claiming that property interests in widow's
benefits can exist based on a wage earner's income. As a result,
Plaintiffs due process arguments lack merit.
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs motion for judgment on the
pleadings is DENIED; the Commissioner's cross-motion is GRANTED.
The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment accordingly and to
close the case.
*fn2 This case involves the issue of whether Plaintiff may receive
insurance benefits as a disabled widow. Plaintiff has been receiving
Social Security Insurance benefits of her own since 1991 given her
"disabled" status. (Dkt. No. 3: Record [R.] 12, 20-21.)
*fn3 The page citations to the Record are to the administrative record,
which the Commissioner has filed with the Court. (See generally Dkt. No.
*fn4 The Social Security Administration maintains an extensive hearing
and appeals process. First, the Administration reviews the application
and renders a decision. After the initial decision, a motion for
reconsideration may be made to the Administration. After the
Administration's second decision, a claimant may appeal to an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") for de novo review. Finally, a claimant
may appeal an ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, the highest level of
administrative review. The Appeals Council may also review an ALJ's
decision on its own motion, pursuant to
20 C.F.R. § 404.969-404.970.
*fn5 The ALJ based his decision on what he believed to be an analogous
duration requirement set forth in Social Security Regulation,
20 C.F.R. § 404.335(c)(2). He interpreted that regulation to imply a
distinction between "full months" and "partial months" because its
language requires that a fifty to sixty year-old widow be
disabled during a waiting period of "5 full consecutive months" before
being entitled to disability benefits. (R. 13.) The ALJ then applied this
regulatory distinction to interpretation of the nine-month
marriage requirement set forth in section 416(c)(5), finding that the
nine-month requirement was satisfied because Plaintiff was
married during part of nine separate months, from November 1995 through
*fn6 Despite the plain and unambiguous language of section 416(c)(5),
Plaintiff points to the regulations promulgated by the Commissioner,
which address the duration of marriage requirement. The
Social Security Agency promulgated 20 C.F.R. § 404.335, which, in
relevant part, states that a surviving wife is entitled to widow's
benefits if her "relationship to the insured as a wife . . . lasted for
at least 9 months immediately before the insured died."
20 C.F.R. § 404.335 (emphasis added). The Court concludes that the
Commissioner's regulations echo section 416(c). Therefore, the regulatory
language is consistent with the statutory language. Nevertheless, even if
the regulation was inconsistent, the more specific and authoritative
words in the statute govern. See Bell v. Reno, 218 F.3d 86, 90 (2d Cir.
2003) ("Under the now familiar test of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural
Resources Defense Council Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842 (1984), when we examine
an agency's interpretation of a statute it administers, we ask first
whether `the intent of Congress is clear' as to `the precise question at
issue.' If . . . we determine that Congress's intent is clear, `that is
the end of the matter.'"); see also Lewis v. Barnhart 285 F.3d 1329, 1333
(11th Cir. 2002) (concluding that even if the Social Security
Commissioner's regulations interpreting section 416(c)(5) were
inconsistent with the statute, section 416(c)(5) would nonetheless
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