20 CFR 416.1007

SSR 81-4c

Vickers v. Harris, USDC, E.D. TENN NORTHERN DIVISION, CIV. NO. 3-79-479 (2/29/80)

In January 1979, A and B, who are both disabled, applied for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. Although they have lived together for about eighteen years, they have never been legally married, and the State where they reside does not recognize common-law marriage. The Social Security Administration (SSA) determined that A and B were holding themselves out to the community as husband and wife and that as a consequence, under section 1614(d)(2) of the Social Security Act (the Act), they must be considered as a married couple for purposes of determining their eligibility for SSI benefits. Accordingly, A and B were awarded SSI benefits as an eligible couple. In April 1979, SSA approved A's application for disability insurance (DI) benefits under title II of the Act and advised B that A's entitlement to DI benefits rendered them both ineligible for SSI benefits. (Under section 1614(f)(1) of the Act, B's income was deemed to include A's income, including his DI benefits; therefore, B was ineligible for SSI benefits because her income exceeded the limit provided by statute.) Consequently, B filed a civil suit, contending that the "holding-out" provision of section 1614(d)(2) of the Act was unconstitutional because it violated her Equal Protection rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. B claimed that she was being discriminated against because of her "disfavored social status," i.e., living with a man out-of-wedlock. Held, the provision in section 1614(d)(2) is consistent with the requirements of the fifth Amendment because its treatment of a man and a woman as husband and wife when they hold themselves out as such is reasonably related to Congress's goal in the SSI program of providing a family unit with a minimum standard of living; therefore, SSA's determination denying B SSI benefits is sustained.

TAYLOR, District Judge:

This Social Security case comes before this Court pursuant to the Expedited Appeals Process provided for in Chapter III of Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 416, 20 CFR §§ 476.1424 et seq. Pursuant to those provisions, plaintiff has agreed to accept the factual determinations of the Secretary with regard to her claim (Tr. 2, 13; 20 CFR § 416.1424c(b)(1)). In exchange, the Secretary admits that but for the effect of the challenged statute, § 1614(d)(2) (42 USC § 1382c(d)(2)), plaintiff would be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 USC §§ 1387 et seq.

The sole issue for determination by this Court is the constitutionality of § 1614(d)(2) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 USC § 1382c(d)(2). That section provides:

In determining whether two individuals are husband and wife for the purposes of this title [Title XVI of the Act], appropriate state laws shall be applied; except that --
. . .
(2) if a man and woman are found to be holding themselves out to the community as husband and wife, they shall be so considered for purposes of this title notwithstanding any other provision of this section.

Plaintiff is a 56-year old woman who has been living with one Dock Pilcher for some eighteen years. They have never been legally married, and Tennessee does not recognize common law marriage. The evidence in the record shows that they own their common home in joint tenancy under the names of Dock Pilcher and Laura Vickers (Tr. 10, 39), that plaintiff's automobile title is in the name of Vickers (Tr. 42), that plaintiff receives mail addressed to Laura Vickers at her residence (Tr. 6), that Dock Pilcher introduces plaintiff to others as Laura Vickers (Tr. 8), and that neighbors generally know her as Laura Vickers (Tr. 3). The evidence further shows that they filed their 1978 income tax return as "married, filing joint return" (Tr. 5), that Dock Pilcher has claimed plaintiff as a dependent on the return (Tr. 6), that the close-community understands who is referred to by the name Laura Pilcher (Tr. 3), that is someone refers to plaintiff in her presence as Laura Pilcher, she does not correct them (Tr. 6), and that merchants in their community believe that a husband and wife relationship exists between plaintiff and Dock Pilcher (Tr. 3). Based on this evidence, the Secretary determined that plaintiff and Dock Pilcher were "holding themselves out to the community as husband and wife" (Tr. 4), and that for the purpose of their SSI eligibility, they must be considered as a married couple (Tr. 4).

Plaintiff and Pilcher filed a joint application for SSI in January, 1979. The record indicates that the application was approved and plaintiff and Pilcher began receiving SSI benefits in 1979. (Tr. 27, 29). In April, the SSA approved the individual application of Dock Pilcher for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Act (DIB) and in June, 1979, sent plaintiff a Notice of Overpayment. SSA claimed that because the two must be considered as husband and wife, the DIB benefits received by Dock Pilcher rendered them both ineligible for SSI. (Tr. 21).

Plaintiff claims that the "holding-out" provision here in issue, 42 USC § 1382c(d)(2), violates her Equal Protection rights as embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, Johnson v. Robison, 415 U.S. 361 (1974). She appears to argue that (1) the statutory scheme of the Act which classified her as a spouse for the purposes of Title XVI SSI benefits, and at the same time as a non-spouse for the purpose of Title II DIB wife's insurance benefits, 42 USC §§ 402(b), 416(b), is arbitrary; and (2) that she has been the subject of invidious discrimination by reason of her "disfavored social status", i.e. living with a man out-of-wedlock.

First, it must be emphasized that the constitutionality of the provision allegedly precluding plaintiff from eligibility for Title II benefits is not properly before this Court. There is no allegation in the compliant, nor does it appear from the record, that plaintiff has ever applied for DIB. Therefore, the Secretary has rendered no final decision, and this Court is without jurisdiction to consider the issue. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

The sole issue before us, then is whether § 1614(d)(2) (42 USC § 1382c(d)(2)) and the regulations promulgated thereunder are invidiously discriminate against plaintiff in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Plaintiff claims that she is being discriminated against because of her "status", which, pursuant to the Expedited Appeals Process Agreement (Tr. 13), we must assume to be that of a woman living with a man and holding herself out as his wife (Tr. 4). Although her argument is not clear, she appears to be arguing that she is being treated differently from a woman who is living with a man, but no so holding herself out.[1] The precise question is whether the difference in treatment is invidious or arbitrary.

The Act embodies a social welfare scheme and delineates eligibility requirements for economic distribution, and in this sense is indistinguishable from an unemployment insurance program. thus, the categorizations defined by Congress need not be precise, but are sufficient if they are reasonably related to the purposes for which they are drawn. Califano v. Boles, _____ U.S. _____, 47 LW 4874 (1979); Idaho Dept. of Employment v. Smith, 434 U.S. 100, (1977).

The purpose of one SSI program, as defined in the regulation is to assure a minimum level of income for people who are age 65 or over, or who are blind or disabled and who do not have sufficient income and resources to maintain a standard of living at the established federal minimum income level. 20 CFR § 416.110.

It is for Congress, not this Court, to determine both the federal minimum income level and the criteria by which it will be established.

It is clear from the statutory scheme that Congress intended to utilize the family unit as a vehicle by which both to measure need and to distribute benefits. In doing so, Congress was justified in assuming that people living together and behaving as a family for some purposes, e.g., tax and credit, would likewise carry out the family role for other purposes including the distribution of SSI benefits. Thus, the conclusion is inescapable that the treatment as husband and wife of those persons holding themselves out as such is reasonably related to Congress' goal of providing a minimum standard of living for those people involved.

It may be that Congress' assumption does not precisely fit the lifestyles of all individuals involved. But that is not the test of constitutionality. As the Supreme Court has recently stated:

The process of categorization presents difficulties inherent in any linedrawing exercise where the draftsman congronts a universe of potential beneficiaries with different histories and distinct needs. He strives for a level of generality that is administratively practicable, with full appreciation that the included class members whose "needs" upon a statutorily defined occurrence may not be as marked as those of isolated individuals outside the classification. "General rules are essential if a fund of this magnitude is to be administered with a modicum of efficiency, even though such rules inevitably produce seemingly arbitrary consequences in some individual cases." Califano v. Jobst, 434 U.S. 47, 53 (1977). A process of case-by-case adjudication that would provide a "perfect fit" in theory would increase administrative expense to a degree that benefit levels would probably be reduced, precluding a perfect fit, in fact. (citations omitted) Califana v. Boles, supra, 47 LW at 4875.

For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the provision challenged by plaintiff is consistent with the requirements of the Fifth Amendment. Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the determination of the Secretary denying her SSI benefits be, and the same hereby is, sustained. It is further ORDERED that this case be, and the same hereby is, dismissed.

Order accordingly.

[1] It must be emphasized that the classification of which plaintiff complains is not based on the fact that she lives with Pilcher out-of-wedlock, but only on the fact that she holds herself out as his wife as defined in the Act.

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