The opinion of the court was delivered by: PARKER
Plaintiff Ruth Baber (McGee) challenges the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for survivor's benefits.
Her eligibility for the benefits turns on whether she entered into a common law marriage with Luther McGee, the deceased. The question presented is the validity of the agency's interpretation of Alabama law in determining whether a common law relationship had been established. The Court finds that the interpretation is flawed and that the factual record developed by the agency compels the conclusion that plaintiff's relationship with the deceased fully satisfied the requirements of a common law marriage under Alabama law. Accordingly, the denial to the plaintiff of survivor's benefits should be reversed.
Plaintiff is a citizen of West Germany where she currently resides. She was denied the survivor's benefits which she sought upon the death of Luther McGee. The couple lived together continuously, in several locations, from 1967 until McGee's death in 1976. Plaintiff's daughter, born in 1963, also lived with the couple throughout this period. One such location provides the focus for this proceeding. In May, 1975, approximately eight years after they began living together, the couple visited Alabama to be with Luther McGee's mother who was hospitalized with a fatal illness. Throughout the period in Alabama, the administrative record makes clear that the couple conducted themselves, as they had throughout their relationship, as husband and wife. Plaintiff was routinely presented as McGee's wife and the couple was regarded as married by those they came in contact with. They even applied for life insurance policies as a married couple. When Luther succumbed to a fatal illness in 1976, his body was released to plaintiff and she managed the necessary affairs of his death.
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 ...