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SMITH v. SULLIVAN

June 17, 1991

CHARLES W. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LOUIS M. SULLIVAN, M.D., SECRETARY FOR THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mihm, District Judge.

ORDER

Before the Court is the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Reversal and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance. For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Reversal is denied and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance is granted.

BACKGROUND

The Plaintiff Charles W. Smith ("Smith") filed for Supplemental Security Income on September 3, 1986. At the time he filed for this income he was living with a woman named Cindy Smith, although the two were not married and their same last name was merely coincidental. Smith's claim for Supplemental Security Income was initially denied on December 10, 1986, and this denial was affirmed on reconsideration on January 8, 1987. A hearing to review this determination was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and on June 19, 1987, the ALJ entered a written decision holding that Smith was in fact disabled as of his September 3, 1986 application.

On August 4, 1987, the Secretary sent Smith a notice indicating that, pursuant to the ALJ's ruling, he was eligible for benefits as a disabled spouse. The letter also indicated that Cindy Smith's disability payments would be reduced to reflect her status as the spouse of an individual also receiving benefits.

On September 28, 1987, Smith requested reconsideration of this finding that he and Cindy Smith were eligible for benefits only as a married couple. On March 9, 1988, the Secretary issued a Notice of Reconsideration which affirmed the earlier finding that they were eligible only under spouse status. The Plaintiff and Cindy Smith filed a request for hearing on March 31, 1988, and a hearing was held before an ALJ on August 16, 1988. On November 8, 1988, the ALJ issued a ruling affirming the Secretary's decision to reduce the Plaintiff's and Cindy Smith's benefits. In so ruling, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff and Cindy Smith were conducting themselves as though they were married, and that they were therefore to be treated as though they were married for purposes of Social Security benefits. The Appeals Council denied Smith's request for review on April 18, 1989.

Smith then sought to challenge the Secretary's findings through the judicial system. In late June, 1989, Smith filed an action in the Circuit Court of Knox County and an appeal in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Smith's § 405(g) action in this Court was assigned civil docket number 89-1149. On August 9, 1989, the Secretary filed a Petition for Removal of the state court action. This removal action was assigned civil docket number 89-1178. Since the two separate actions were one and the same, the cases were consolidated and the briefing proceeded under the title of 89-1149. This order disposes of both actions.

DISCUSSION

In his Motion for Summary Reversal, Smith argues two bases for reversing the ALJ's finding. First, Smith argues that the ALJ's factual determination that he and Cindy Smith were holding themselves out as married was unsupported and therefore erroneous. Second, Smith argues that the provisions which reduce benefits for those not actually married inflict an unconstitutional deprivation of due process and equal protection rights.

I. Statutory Provisions

Congress and the Social Security Administration have determined that disability benefits payable to individuals will fluctuate depending upon that person's marital status. If that individual is married to (or the equivalent of married to) an individual of the opposite sex who is also receiving disability benefits, then that individual will receive less assistance. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.410; 20 C.F.R. § 416.410; 20 C.F.R. § 416.412. The purpose behind this reduction is "to take account of the fact that two people living together can live more economically than they would if each lived alone." H.R.Rep. No. 92-231, 92d Cong., 2d Sess., reprinted at 1972 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 4989, 5136. Congress has determined that "if a man and woman are found to be holding themselves out to the community in which they reside as husband and wife," then they shall be considered as though they are married for purposes of Social Security benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(d)(2).

The regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration which implemented the congressional statute determine that an individual who lives in the same household with an unrelated person of the opposite sex will be considered as married if the two individuals "both lead people to believe that [they] are husband and wife." 20 C.F.R. § 416.1806(c). In determining whether two individuals have so conducted themselves, the Secretary examines various factors listed at 20 C.F.R. § 416.1826(c)(1), such as names used, real property arrangements, and the couple's customary conduct with respect to their relationship. Individuals so classified as being constructively married can terminate this classification by no longer sharing a residence or by becoming the spouse of another person. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1830(a). Based upon these provisions, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff and Cindy Smith were conducting themselves as a married couple and thus they were only entitled to reduced benefits.

II. ALJ Conclusion

Smith first argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that he and Cindy Smith held themselves out to others as being married. Smith claims that the record contains "no valid evidence of holding out." Smith does not dispute that he and Cindy Smith are two unrelated persons of the opposite sex living together in the same household. However, as the Secretary noted in his Motion for Summary Affirmance, the ALJ had ample evidence in the record to ...


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