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Perkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 23, 2018

DAVID L. PERKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE DENIAL OF BENEFITS

          CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiff David L. Perkins's application for widower's benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) conclusion that Plaintiff failed to establish a common law marriage to a decedent who died as a fully insured individual under the Social Security Act was erroneous. (Doc. # 13.) Because the ALJ's analysis was supported by substantial evidence and because the ALJ used the correct legal standards, the Court rejects Plaintiff's arguments and affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATION AND INITIAL DENIALS

         Plaintiff filed an application for widower's benefits of the deceased wage earner, Carolyn J. Seawell, on February 27, 2014. (Doc. # 9 at 39-40.)[1] Plaintiff stated in his application that he and Ms. Seawell were married on May 1, 1979, in Colorado, and remained married until Ms. Seawell's death on August 29, 1992, also in Colorado. (Id. at 40.)

         The Social Security Administration initially denied Plaintiff's claim on March 9, 2014, stating that “[t]he facts . . . d[id] not show” that Plaintiff and Ms. Seawell were married under the laws of the state where Ms. Seawell lived when she died. (Id. at 46- 47.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel Larry Daves, see (id. at 49-50), requested reconsideration of the agency's determination on March 17, 2014, and explained that he had a common law marriage with Ms. Seawell until her death. (Id. at 50-51.) Upon reconsideration, the Administration again determined that Plaintiff was “not entitled as the common law spouse of Carol Seawell” to widower's benefits. (Id. at 57-59.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ on May 7, 2014. (Id. at 63-66.) ALJ Earl W. Shaffer conducted the hearing on April 27, 2016, in Pueblo, Colorado. (Doc. # 9-1 at 189-226.) Plaintiff and Betsy Rich, Ms. Seawell's sister, testified, and Plaintiff's counsel was present. (Id.)

         B. THE EVIDENCE BEFORE THE ALJ

         Plaintiff explained to the ALJ-and still maintains-that his first marriage, to Roberta Price, “broke up in 1977, ” and in 1978, he and Ms. Seawell began a romantic relationship. (Doc. # 9-1 at 182.) In late 1978, they moved into the house Ms. Seawell had been living in. (Id.) Plaintiff stated:

Shortly after my divorce with Roberta Price was finalized in 1979, [Ms. Seawell] and I had a discussion in which we mutually agreed that from that point on, we would live together and present ourselves as husband and wife and all that that entails. W e both understood that we were commencing on a common law marriage.

(Id.); see also (id. at 199-202, 208-09.) Plaintiff and Ms. Seawell lived for the entirety of their relationship in the “Libre Community, ” a 360-acre collective community founded in 1968 “as a not for profit Colorado corporation for the . . . purpose of building and developing a [sic] artistic community.” (Id. at 194.) He explained that the residents of the Libre Community “were there to build a whole new world from scrap basically, . . .we were counter culturist, . . . or hippies would be another way to look at it. . . . [W]e didn't have resources. We . . . basically took a vow of poverty.” (Id. at 213.) Plaintiff also testified that between 1980 and 1986, he helped raise Ms. Seawell's son, Bo Seawell, in their residence in the Libre Community; that Bo had been born in California to Ms. Seawell and Brent Seawell; and that Ms. Seawell believed that she had previously been in a common law marriage with Mr. Brent Seawell. (Id. at 206, 211-12.)

         Ms. Rich, Ms. Seawell's sister and a resident of the Libre Community, also testified. (Id. at 221-25.) She explained to the ALJ that she and others in the Libre Community annually receive property tax assessments in their names from Huerfano County, Colorado, and that they then pay those taxes. (Id. at 221-22, 225.) Upon Plaintiff's counsel's questioning, Ms. Rich testified that she believed that Ms. Seawell was married to and lived with Plaintiff. (Id. at 223-24.) She also stated that Ms. Seawall “wasn't always” in her right mind when she was ill at the end of her life and had no explanation for why Ms. Seawall did not address her marriage to Plaintiff on her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. (Id. at 224.)

         Plaintiff provided documents in support of his contention that he and Ms. Seawell had a common law marriage. The ALJ accurately summarized this documentary evidence:

To support his allegations, the claimant provided copies of vehicle purchase agreements and vehicle registration, titling, and insurance records that he and the claimant purchased, owned, and/or renewed together [(Doc. # 9-1 at 126-38)]. He also provided copies of annual tax receipts of property tracts in the "communal" community, Libre, in which they lived. These tracts each were titled individually in the decedent's name, the claimant's name, and that of an individual named "Meyer," which the claimant stated he also paid [(id. at 145-79)]. Additionally, he provided a copy of a bank signature card in the name of the decedent, with the claimant's name seemingly added in later, given that it was typewritten in [(Doc. # 9 at 28)]. He also provided a copy of the decedent's death certificate and a copy of the claimant's obituary, each of which lists the claimant as the husband of the decedent [(id. at 29-30)]. He provided a Power of Attorney form, in which the decedent gave the claimant full authority to act on her behalf on all personal, financial, and legal affairs [(Doc. # 9-1 at 106-07)]. He provided copies of motel receipts, indicating the decedent used the claimant's surname [(id. at 141-44)]. The claimant also provided statements from various members of the communal community where the decedent and the claimant lived, including statements from the claimant's sister [(Doc. # 9 at 80-81)], son [(id. at 82- 83)], and former significant other/husband/father of son [(id. at 76-77)], each of whom indicated that the claimant and the decedent lived as husband and wife.

(Doc. # 9 at 19 (internal citations replaced with citations to the Administrative Record).)

         Finally, the ALJ also had before him evidence that Ms. Seawall had applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits on June 23, 1992, approximately two months before she passed away.[2] (Id. at 24-27.) On that application in 1992, Ms. Seawall listed Mr. Brent Seawell as her spouse and indicated that they were married in 1965 by clergy or a public official in California. (Id. at 25.) She stated that she was currently married to Mr. Brent Seawell at the time of her application, that her marriage to Mr. Brent Seawell had not ended, and that she did not have any other marriages. (Id.)

         C. THE ALJ'S UNFAVORABLE DECISION

         The ALJ issued an adverse decision on June 9, 2016, concluding that Plaintiff failed to meet the eligibility requirements for widower's benefits because Plaintiff had not put forward evidence sufficient to prove that he and Ms. Seawell had a common law marriage prior to her death. (Id. at 13-23.) The ALJ specifically found that there was scarce evidence that Ms. Seawall “mutally and openly assume[d] a marital relationship” and that Ms. Seawall's failure to make any “mention of the [Plaintiff] being her spouse or common law husband” in her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits was “[m]ost compelling.” (Id. at 21.) He rejected Plaintiff's documentary evidence as establishing only “[t]he fact that the decedent and the claimant lived in a communal environment, ” ...


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