record of his deceased wife, and his death certificate. While these items amount to some evidence in support of the ALJ's decision, they are hardly conclusive.
First of all, the application for widower's benefits is not even part of the record, so neither the ALJ nor this Court can tell exactly what statements are made on the application, or to what extent the social security representative's characterization of it consists of factual descriptions or of inferences. Even if the application expressly stated that Mr. Jackson had not remarried, we do not have the benefit of inquiry into Mr. Jackson's motives for this response. For instance, Mr. Jackson might have filed the application upon the belief that he was eligible for benefits because he had not entered into a ceremonial marriage with plaintiff. The point here is not that the ALJ erred in accepting the social security representative's statement as evidence against the existence of a common-law marriage, but that there are limits to the use of this evidence to support his decision. See, e.g., Morgan v. Richardson, 325 F. Supp. 128, 129 (N.D.Ala. 1971).
The death certificate presents similar problems, in that it is purportedly based upon another source, Mr. Jackson's medical records from the Veterans Administration. While the ALJ could presume that Mr. Jackson supplied the information in the records, there is no way of knowing whether Mr. Jackson listed himself as widowed because he did not consider plaintiff to be his wife, or because he had not entered into a ceremonial marriage with her.
Finally, the ALJ found the Easter card from Mr. Jackson to plaintiff to be a most persuasive piece of evidence in support of his conclusion, because it was addressed to "Julia Carelock" and it stated that it was "For a Special Friend."
As plaintiff points out, however, "we can only guess at the selection of Easter cards available at Mr. Jackson's hospital, and whether Mr. Jackson, by then confined to his bed with cancer of the lung, selected the card sent on his behalf." Plaintiff's Memorandum, filed May 9, 1988, at 13. Furthermore, the notion that a wife cannot also be a special friend seems to ignore one of the fundamental elements of a successful marriage, whether ceremonial or common-law. Even if Mr. Jackson did select the card, the sentiment which it expresses on the inside is one which could very well be expected to be found in a card specifically addressed to a spouse, and it might have been the most appropriate expression of Mr. Jackson's feelings for plaintiff.
This card appears to be one of the least substantial items of evidence relied upon by the ALJ.
In reviewing the record as a whole, the Court must also examine how or whether the ALJ dealt with evidence which supported the applicant.
The ALJ concluded that the evidence against the existence of a common-law marriage "clearly outweighs the statements obtained from individuals to whom the Administration was directed by claimant." (R. 10.) However, although he may have had a valid reason for discounting the statement of Parniece Jackson-Knox, Mr. Jackson's daughter,
the ALJ stated no reason to discredit the statements and affidavits of Mr. Jackson's aunt and sister, and he did not do so. Instead, he ignored them. Given the preferred nature of this evidence under the Agency's regulations, the ALJ's failure to address it other than by acknowledging its existence is a glaring omission.
Citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.708(e),
the ALJ also questioned the credibility of plaintiff's and Mr. Jackson's 1977 federal tax form because plaintiff's surname was "altered". The ALJ, however, found nothing that indicated that the surname was changed for the purposes of plaintiff's application, and clearly, plaintiff made no attempt to hide the change on the return. Despite his apparent doubts as to the credibility of the 1977 federal return, the ALJ did not question plaintiff about that return or any of the others. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.929 (1987) (ALJ may ask applicant questions). Even if the credibility of the 1977 federal return could be deemed questionable evidence of a common-law marriage, the ALJ stated no basis to discredit the two other tax returns that plaintiff submitted which were also filed under a "married" filing status. The federal returns were filed under penalties of perjury, and any falsehood on them subjected plaintiff to a $ 10,000 fine and one year in prison. 26 U.S.C. § 7207. There is no indication that the ALJ took this into account in determining whether the returns were convincing evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.708(c).
After reviewing the record as a whole, the Court cannot conclude that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. In light of the overwhelming evidence, much of it uncontradicted, that plaintiff and Mr. Jackson considered each other to be husband and wife and held themselves out as such, the contradictory evidence relied upon by the ALJ cannot be deemed substantial. There was uncontradicted evidence in the form of testimony, affidavits, and statements that the couple began living together when plaintiff was 45 years old and Mr. Jackson was 49 years old, and that they lived together and remained faithful to each other for an uninterrupted period of eleven years, until Mr. Jackson was hospitalized with a terminal illness. Nothing indicates that their relationship was not permanent. It does not appear that the ALJ gave any weight to the uncontradicted evidence that the couple expressed a mutual intent to be married by referring to and introducing each other as husband and wife, and that their reputation in their community was as husband and wife. This evidence was mentioned in the opinion, but virtually disregarded when the evidence was weighed.
This is not a case where there is substantial, but contradictory evidence on each side of an issue. The evidence upon which the ALJ relied is inconclusive, and when looked at in the context of the entire record, it is insufficient to support the decision that plaintiff and Mr. Jackson did not have a common-law marriage.
In view of the above, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision that plaintiff was not the common-law wife of Mr. Jackson should be reversed. Therefore, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be granted, and defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance will be denied. Plaintiff is entitled to obtain widow's benefits and this case will be remanded to the Agency for the entry of appropriate relief. A separate order has been issued consistent with this Memorandum.
Date: July 22, 1988
ORDER - July 25, 1988, Filed
This case is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. After carefully considering the motions, the opposition to them, and the administrative record, and for the reasons stated in an accompanying Memorandum, the Court concludes that plaintiff's motion should be granted, that defendant's motion should be denied and that the Administrative Law Judge's decision should be reversed.
In view of the above, it is hereby
ORDERED that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted; and it is further
ORDERED that defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance is denied; and it is further
ORDERED that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge to deny widow's benefits to plaintiff is reversed; and it is further
ORDERED that this case is remanded to the Department of Health and Human Services for the entry of appropriate relief for plaintiff consistent with this Order and the accompanying Memorandum.