United States District Court, S.D. New York
URSZULA L. GEERTGENS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JAMES C. FRANCIS, IV, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Urszula Geertgens brings this action under Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), seeking review of the determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for Widow's Insurance Benefits. The parties have submitted cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons that follow, I deny the defendant's motion, grant the plaintiff's motion, and remand the case to the Commissioner.
A. Personal History
Ms. Geertgens was born on September 23, 1946. (R. at 40). She married Glen Geertgens on January 23, 1970. (R. at 89-90). They were married for approximately twenty-seven years before being divorced on February 28, 1997. (R. at 91-95, 112).
Ms. Geertgens applied for disability benefits on December 15, 1997. (R. at 16). She was deemed to be disabled beginning August 1, 1982, and entitled to benefits effective December 1996. (R. at 16, 113).
On April 5, 2003, at the age of fifty-six, Ms. Geertgens married Carmen J. Recce. (R. at 98, 112). They remained married as of March 2014. (Affidavit of Urzula Geertgens dated March 24, 2014, attached to Notice of Motion, ¶ 4). Mr. Geertgens died on August 28, 2009. (R. at 70).
B. Procedural History
On November 16, 2010, Ms. Geertgens filed an application for benefits as the surviving divorced wife of Mr. Geertgens. (R. at 39-44). A notice of disapproved claim was issued by the Social Security Administration ("the Administration") on November 17, 2010. (R. at 49-51). At Ms. Geertgens' request, the Administration reconsidered her application, but issued a second notice of disapproved claim on June 18, 2011. (R. at 53-55).
Ms. Geertgens requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (R. at 56), and appeared pro se before ALJ Brian W. Lemoine on October 17, 2011 (R. at 104-20). On October 25, 2011, ALJ Lemoine issued a decision finding that Ms. Geertgens was not entitled to benefits as a surviving divorced spouse. (R. at 35-37). Ms. Geertgens, through counsel, requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on December 16, 2011. (R. at 7-9). The Appeals Council denied her request on June 19, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 3-5).
A. Standard of Review
A federal court "may set aside a decision of the Commissioner if it is based on legal error or if it is not supported by substantial evidence." Hahn v. Astrue, No. 08 Civ. 4261 , 2009 WL 1490775, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. May 27, 2009) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); see also Longbardi v. Astrue, No. 07 Civ. 5952 , 2009 WL 50140, at *21 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2009); Bonet v. Astrue, No. 05 Civ. 2970 , 2008 WL 4058705, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 22, 2008). Judicial review therefore involves two levels of inquiry. First, the court must decide whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard. Tejada v. Apfel , 167 F.3d 770, 773 (2d Cir. 1999); Calvello v. Barnhart, No. 05 Civ. 4254, 2008 WL 4452359, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. April 29, 2008). Second, the court must decide whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence. Tejada , 167 F.3d at 773; Calvello, 2008 WL 4452359, at *8. While the Commissioner's "findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are binding.... [t]his ...