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Faison v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 20, 2016

LONNIE FAISON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH A. ROBINSON United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Lonnie Faison, seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Widow’s Insurance Benefits based on the earnings record of deceased wage earner, Purcyle Peake. See Complaint (ECF No. 1) ¶¶ 3-4; Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment of Reversal (“Pl.’s Mem.”) (ECF No. 10-1) at 1. After Defendant filed the administrative record (“AR”) (ECF No. 8), Plaintiff moved for judgment of reversal of the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), or, in the alternative, for remand to the Social Security Administration for a new administrative hearing, and Defendant moved for judgment of affirmance of the final decision. See Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment of Reversal (ECF No. 10); Defendant’s Motion for Judgment of Affirmance (ECF No. 14).[1]

         Plaintiff, in the memorandum in support of her motion, claims that she lived with Mr. Peake continuously from about 1974 until his death on August 5, 2008. Pl.’s Mem. at 2. Plaintiff further claims that they held themselves out as husband and wife, were natural parents of a son born in 1978, and Mr. Peake always listed her as his spouse when he filed tax returns. Id. Finally, Plaintiff and Mr. Peake got married in a civil ceremony on June 18, 2008. Id.

         In support of her claim that Mr. Peake was her common law spouse and that they later got married in a civil ceremony, Plaintiff submitted (1) a Certificate of Marriage, (2) the Obituary for Mr. Peake, and (3) letters from three of her sisters, Mr. Peake’s sister, Mr. Peake’s mother, and a clinical research associate who interacted with the couple. See AR at 79-86. Plaintiff also submitted copies of individual income tax returns in which Mr. Peake claimed “three exemptions, including his spouse Lonnie Faison, and their son.” See Pl.’s Mem. at 8; AR at 87 -103. Plaintiff submits that the ALJ who conducted the administrative hearing (1) applied an improper standard in determining that Plaintiff was not entitled to widow’s insurance benefits; (2) failed to support the determination that Plaintiff had not established a common law marriage by substantial evidence, and (3) failed to properly develop the administrative record. See Pl.’s Mem. at 3-13.

         Defendant, in support of her motion and in opposition to Plaintiff’s motion, maintains that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to widow’s benefits because she did not establish the existence of a common law marriage between herself and Mr. Peake prior to August 5, 2008. See Memorandum in Support of the Motion and in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment of Reversal (“Def.’s Opp’n”) (ECF No. 15) at 3.[2]

         Plaintiff, in reply, submits that Defendant, in failing to respond to two out of three arguments in Plaintiff’s memorandum, has conceded that the ALJ applied an improper standard and failed to develop the record. See Plaintiff’s Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Judgment of Affirmance and Reply to Defendant’s Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment of Reversal (“Pl.’s Reply”) (ECF No. 16) at 2-3. Finally, Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ, with respect to Plaintiff, failed to consider the requirements of a common law marriage in the District of Columbia namely: (1) express mutual present intent to be husband and wife, and (2) good faith cohabitation. Id. at 3-4.

         Upon consideration of the entire record herein, the court will grant Plaintiff’s motion and deny Defendant’s motion.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, a district court has the power to review “any final decision” of the Commissioner of Social Security. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Settles v. Colvin, 121 F.Supp. 3d 163, 169 (D.D.C. 2015). The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision where it is “supported by substantial evidence” and “not tainted by an error of law.” Perry v. Colvin, No. 15-0372, 2016 WL 471280, at * 3 (D.D.C. Feb. 8, 2016) (citing Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987). “The Commissioner's ultimate determination will not be disturbed if it is based on substantial evidence in the record and correctly applies the relevant legal standards.” Settles, 121 F.Supp. 3d at 169 (citing Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Butler, 353 F.3d at 999 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “The test requires more than a scintilla, but can be satisfied by something less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if supported by substantial evidence, however, the court will not uphold the Commissioner's findings if the Commissioner reached them by applying an erroneous legal standard.” Jackson v. Barnhart, 271 F.Supp.2d 30, 33 (D.D.C. 2002) (citation omitted).

         To determine whether the Commissioner's decision is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the court must “carefully scrutinize the entire record, ” but “may not reweigh the evidence and replace the [Commissioner's] judgment regarding the weight of the evidence with its own.” Id. at 34 (citation omitted); see also Perry v. Colvin, 2016 WL 471280, at *3.). “The Plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that the Commissioner’s decision [was] not based on substantial evidence or that incorrect legal standards were applied.” Simpson v. Colvin, 121 F.Supp. 3d 31, 37 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting Muldrow v. Astrue, No. 11-1385, 2012 WL 2877697, at *6 (D.D.C. July 11, 2016) (citation omitted). A district court has discretion “to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding the case for a rehearing.” Ademakinwa v. Astrue, 696 F.Supp.2d 107, 110 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

         The court has discretion to remand for the purpose of an award of benefits rather than for further proceedings “where the evidence on the record as a whole is clearly indicative of [the eligibility of the claimant] and additional hearings would serve no purpose other than to delay the inevitable receipt of benefits[.]” Espinosa v. Colvin, 953 F.Supp.2d 25, 35-36 (D.D.C. 2013) (quoting Hawkins v. Massanari, No. 00-2101, 2002 WL 379898, at *4 (D.D.C July 2, 2013). Reversal instead of remand is appropriate “where the record in the case is thoroughly developed, and a hearing would merely function to delay the award of benefits[.]” Ademakinwa, 696 F.Supp.2d at 110 (quoting Martin v. Apfel, 118 F.Supp.2d 9, 18 (D.D.C. 2000) (citation omitted).

         II. DISCUSSION

         The court finds that Defendant, in her opposition to Plaintiff’s motion, does not contest Plaintiff’s claims that the ALJ (1) applied an improper standard and (3) failed to develop the administrative record, and for those reason alone, the court has discretion to deem those claims as conceded. See, e.g., Keys v. Donovan, 107 F.Supp. 3d 62, 66 (D.D.C. 2015) (treating as conceded an argument offered by movant which the opposing party failed to address in its opposition); Wright v. District of Columbia, 799 F.Supp.2d 1, 6 (D.D.C. 2011) (treating as conceded a party’s claims for failure to respond to opposing party’s arguments, pursuant to LCvR 7(b)). Accordingly, the court finds that Defendant has conceded those claims.

         With respect to whether the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, the court finds, after a careful scrutiny of the entire record, that it cannot affirm the ALJ’s findings because the ALJ gave no consideration to Plaintiff’s entitlement to widow’s insurance ...


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