United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, E.D
November 23, 1982
MARIA SOKOLOWSKI, PLAINTIFF,
RICHARD SCHWEIKER, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bua, District Judge.
Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Secretary of
Health and Human Services (the "Secretary") denying plaintiff,
Maria Sokolowski, widow's insurance disability benefits under
Section 202(e) of the Social Security Act (the "Act").
42 U.S.C. § 402(e). Since this Court finds that the Secretary's conclusion
that Mrs. Sokolowski is not a "widow" as defined by Section
216(c) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416(c), was based on an improper
interpretation of the law, the Secretary's decision is reversed.
The case is remanded for a hearing on Mrs. Sokolowski's
disability, the next stage in determining her entitlement to
benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e); 42 U.S.C. § 423.
No material facts are in dispute. Maria Sokolowski, and Longin
Sokolowski were husband and wife. (R. 50). Mrs. Sokolowski first
met her husband in 1976, three years before they were married.
(R. 40). During the several years prior to their marriage, the
two spent five or six hours together on a daily basis. (R. 40).
Mrs. Sokolowski helped to take care of her future
husband's domestic needs. She cooked, cleaned and did shopping
for him. (R. 40). Eventually they decided to marry. Initially,
the marriage was to take place in December of 1978. (R. 41).
However, Mr. Sokolowski was ill at the time and, because of his
medical condition, the marriage was postponed until he was in
better health. (R. 42). In July of 1979, Mr. Sokolowski's
condition had improved and they were married on the morning of
July 17, 1979. (R. 69). It was Mr. Sokolowski's first marriage.
(R. 51). Mr. Sokolowski died of heart failure on the afternoon of
April 16, 1980. (R. 70).
Plaintiff filed for widow's insurance disability benefits on
May 9, 1980, based on the earnings of her deceased husband. (R.
50). Mrs. Sokolowski's application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (R. 61). A hearing was held on this matter on
May 5, 1981, and on August 27, 1981 the ALJ ruled that plaintiff
was not a "widow" and therefore not entitled to widow's insurance
disability benefits. (R. 20). A timely Request for Review was
filed with the Appeals Council. (R. 18). In a decision dated
February 9, 1982, the Appeals Council affirmed in all respects
the findings of the ALJ, letting the ALJ decision stand as the
final decision of the Secretary.
The decision of the ALJ and the Appeals Council ruling
upholding that decision were based on the belief that the
plaintiff's marriage to Longin Sokolowski was not of sufficient
length to satisfy the nine month duration of relationship
requirement of Section 216(c)(5) of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 416(c).
That statutory section provides that:
(c) 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.
In calculating the length of the Sokolowskis' marriage, both
the ALJ and the Appeals Council felt that Congress' use of the
words "prior to the day of" death (as opposed to "prior to the
death") prohibited them from counting the day Mr. Sokolowski died
in delineating the statute's nine-month requirement. (R. 3 and
36). Thus, the Appeals Council concluded that "the marriage would
have had to have occurred no later than July 16, 1979 to meet the
nine month duration test." (R. 3). This Court believes that the
Appeals Council conclusion was in error, because the computation
of the nine-month period must include the day of the
wage-earner's death. Therefore, the duration of relationship
requirement is satisfied, and plaintiff qualifies as a "widow"
under 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(5).
As the above discussion indicates, the issue presented to this
Court is a narrow one: whether or not the statute's nine-month
period includes the day Mr. Sokolowski died. As with any case of
statutory interpretation, the Court's analysis must begin with
the language of the statute itself. Touche Ross & Company v.
Redington, 442 U.S. 560, 568, 99 S.Ct. 2479, 2485, 61 L.Ed.2d 82
As has already been stated, Section 216(c)(5) states that the
marriage must have been in existence for "nine months immediately
prior to the day on which he [the wage earner] died." It is a
general rule of statutory construction that Congress is assumed
to use words in their ordinary and common sense way. Shea v.
Vialpando, 416 U.S. 251, 260, 94 S.Ct. 1746, 1753, 40 L.Ed.2d
120 (1974). This Court believes that such a reading of the
statute must recognize that the language "immediately prior to
the day on which he died" is the usual way to denote the time
immediately preceding death. It is certainly quite uncommon to
define this period by reference to the exact moment or hour of
death. Rather, much more typical is the language used by
Congress. The import of this analysis is that the nine-month
limit may be satisfied by counting any and all time before death
of the wage earner.
Additionally, it must be noted that an interpretation of the
quoted language which would exclude the day of the insured's
death would essentially create a nine month and one day
seems inconsistent with Congress' intent, discussed in the
legislative history, to impose a durational requirement of "nine
months." H.R.Rep. No. 544, 90th Cong. 1st Sess., 56 (1967). The
legislative history, quoted extensively in the plaintiff's brief
and in note 1, supra., also indicates that the clear purpose of
the nine-month requirement was to measure the duration of the
couple's marital relationship.*fn1 As plaintiff points out, in
light of congress' apparent intent to look to the entire time
span of the marriage relationship, it would be incongruous to
compute that relationship's duration to exclude any day on which
the marriage had in fact existed. It is this Court's belief that
the marriage's duration clearly includes both the day of the
marriage and the day on which one of the parties to that marriage
The interpretation suggested by the language of the statute and
its legislative history finds additional support in the
Secretary's regulations. As both parties have noted, "[i]n
August, 1980, the Secretary promulgated revised regulations
[under Section 216(c)(5) of the Act] to make them easier to read
and understand . . ." Kirk v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 667 F.2d 524, 527, n. 1 (6th Cir. 1981). One of the
regulations which resulted from this revision is
20 C.F.R. § 404.335 which sets out the Secretary's definition of when a
surviving spouse will be determined to be a "widow" under the
statute. The regulation states:
You may be entitled to benefits as the widow or
widower of a person who was fully insured when he or
she died. You are entitled to these benefits if: (a)
you are the insured's widow or widower based upon a
relationship described in § 404.345-404.346, and one
of the following conditions is met: (1) Your
relationship to the insured as a wife or husband
lasted for at least 9 months immediately before the
insured died . . . (emphasis added)
The underlined language indicates that the Secretary has
interpreted Section 216(c)(5) to mean that the nine month
duration requirement may be satisfied up to and including the
day of the wage earner's death. "[T]he interpretation of a
statute by an agency charged with its enforcement is a
substantial factor to be considered in construing the statute."
Miller v. Youakim, 440 U.S. 125
, 144, 99 S.Ct. 957, 968, 59
L.Ed.2d 194 (1979), quoting Youakim v. Miller, 425 U.S. 231
235-236, 96 S.Ct. 1399, 1402, 47 L.Ed.2d 701 (1976) citing New
York Department of Social Services v. Dublino, 413 U.S. 405
421, 93 S.Ct. 2507, 2516-2517, 37 L.Ed.2d 688 (1973); Columbia
Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Democratic National Committee,
412 U.S. 94
, 121, 93 S.Ct. 2080, 2095-2096, 36 L.Ed.2d 772 (1973);
Investment Co. Institute v. Camp, 401 U.S. 617
, 626-627, 91
S.Ct. 1091, 1097, 28 L.Ed.2d 367 (1971). This is especially so,
when the interpretation is a matter of "public record." Udall v.
Tallman, 380 U.S. 1
, 17-18, 85 S.Ct. 792, 801-802, 13 L.Ed.2d
For the foregoing reasons, this Court believes that the
decisions of the ALJ and the Appeals Council were contrary to law
and must be reversed. Therefore, the case is remanded for further
proceedings consistent with this order.
IT IS SO ORDERED.