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.
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 ...