affirmed an administrative law judge's finding that while a valid common law marriage could provide the basis for survivor's benefits, plaintiff was nevertheless ineligible because she could not demonstrate that an earlier marriage of Luther McGee had been properly terminated. Plaintiff appealed that decision to this Court and the case was remanded on two occasions with directions that the agency consider, among other things, a newly discovered State Department cable referring to McGee's divorce.
On the most recent remand, the Appeals Council examined the factual record in light of its interpretation of the Alabama common law marriage standard. Again denying plaintiff's claim for survivor's benefits, the Appeals Council found that the element of "present intent" could not be satisfied because no words of such intent could be found and because plaintiff had expressed doubt as to whether she was legally married and indicated that the couple had hoped to have a ceremonial marriage at some time.
In reviewing a decision of the Secretary to deny social security benefits, the Court's analysis is typically limited to an inquiry into whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence, a standard which merely looks to whether a reasonable person could find that the evidentiary record supports the conclusion. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971); NLRB v. Columbian Enameling & Stamping Co., 306 U.S. 292, 59 S. Ct. 501, 83 L. Ed. 660 (1939). When this standard is met, the Court is bound by the Secretary's conclusions.
Since the Secretary's decision in this case is founded upon the agency's interpretation of Alabama domestic relations law, however, the Court must engage in a threshold assessment of the validity of that interpretation. Where, as the Court determines in this proceeding, the agency's conclusions rest upon an incorrect interpretation of the law, those conclusions will not bind a court in its review of the decision. Under the interpretation of Alabama law which this Court concludes is compelled by an examination of the relevant case authority, the factual record compiled by the agency warrants a finding that plaintiff's relationship with Luther McGee embodied each of the elements for a common law marriage recognized in Alabama.
In deference to agency expertise, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) warrants affirmance of an agency decision as to the benefits where that decision is supported by substantial evidence. The same high degree of deference does not attach to an agency's interpretation of state law, particularly where a slight misinterpretation is dispositive.
In Wolf v. Gardner, 386 F.2d 295 (6th Cir. 1967), the Sixth Circuit acknowledged that the Secretary's findings of fact are conclusive when supported by substantial evidence, however, the court recognized no such obligation as to an erroneous conclusion of law. The agency decision in Wolf rested upon an interpretation of Ohio law as to the validity of the marriage of a claimant's parents and his corresponding status. Reversing the district court's affirmance of an agency denial of benefits, the court examined the administrative record and found that the application of what it considered the proper legal interpretation warranted reversal of the agency decision.
More recently, in Schmoll v. Harris, 636 F.2d 1146 (7th Cir. 1980), a denial of social security benefits was reversed notwithstanding the existence of sufficient evidence in the administrative record to support the agency's findings. Schmoll involved a disability claim arising out of a claimant's dependence upon medication. On review, the Court recognized that "(w)hen the Secretary ... commits an error of law, reversal is ... warranted irrespective of the volume of evidence supporting the factual findings." Id. at 1150.
The court determined that the agency failed to provide a thorough examination of medical evidence which could have supported plaintiff's claim and remanded the proceeding for that purpose.
In this proceeding, the Appeals Council ultimately found that Luther McGee and the plaintiff had engaged in a permanent and exclusive relationship and consistently held themselves out to the public as husband and wife. Relying on the leading Alabama case of Turner v. Turner, 251 Ala. 295, 37 So.2d 186 (1948), however, the Council concluded that the relationship failed to rise to the level of a common law marriage because the parties lacked present intent to be married.
In Turner, the Alabama Supreme Court set forth the standard as follows: "(there) must be a mutual understanding to presently enter into the marriage relationship, permanent and exclusive of all others, after which there is public recognition of the circumstances of the common-law marriage." Id. at 188 (citations omitted and emphasis in original).
In addition, in Piel v. Brown, 361 So.2d at 94 (emphasis in original), the court held that while a mutual understanding to presently enter into a marital relationship is indeed an element, "proof of actual words of agreement or consent has never been required by (the Alabama Supreme Court), rather, the test is one of intention ... "no ceremony and no particular words are necessary to constitute a valid common-law marriage.' "
The Appeals Council's decision as to the present intent element rested upon the absence of words of present assent voiced by the couple, plaintiff's doubts as to the legal effect of the relationship and a statement by the plaintiff that the couple had hoped to engage in a marriage ceremony. It is clear from the Appeals Council's reliance on these three factors in the face of significant countervailing evidence that its interpretation of Turner and its progeny is erroneous.
While the present intent of the parties is an element which is required for a common-law marriage under Alabama law, the Appeals Council's application of this standard to the facts contained in the administrative record demonstrates its reliance upon a narrow view of Alabama law which, consistent with Turner, has been rejected in subsequent decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court. Indeed, each of the factors relied upon by the Appeals Council has been expressly considered by Alabama courts.
A critical case which further defines the standard enunciated in Turner, is Skipworth v. Skipworth, 360 So.2d 975 (Ala.1978). That case has particular relevance here since the court found that ample evidence supported a common law marriage notwithstanding the fact that the case presented a situation where the parties had questioned the legal status of their relationship and planned a ceremonial marriage. The court emphasized that "a lawful common-law marriage is formed ... "without regard to what the parties consider the legal effect of such relation to be.' " Id. at 977, citing Smith v. Smith, 247 Ala. 213, 217, 23 So.2d 605, 609 (1945); White v. White, 225 Ala. 155, 157, 142 So. 524, 525 (1932). As set out in Skipworth, the Alabama standard for a common law marriage contemplates that:
No ceremony and no particular words are necessary. Instead, there must first have been a present agreement, that is, a mutual understanding to enter at that time into the marriage relationship, permanent and exclusive of all others. This agreement must be followed by public recognition of the existence of the "marriage" and cohabitation or mutual assumption openly of marital duties and obligations .... In many instances present agreement is simply inferred from cohabitation and public recognition.