476 U.S. 340 (1986), 84-1905, Bowen v. Owens

Docket Nº:No. 84-1905
Citation:476 U.S. 340, 106 S.Ct. 1881, 90 L.Ed.2d 316, 54 U.S.L.W. 4499
Party Name:Bowen v. Owens
Case Date:May 19, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 340

476 U.S. 340 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 1881, 90 L.Ed.2d 316, 54 U.S.L.W. 4499

Bowen

v.

Owens

No. 84-1905

United States Supreme Court

May 19, 1986

Argued February 26, 1986

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE

CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

Syllabus

Certain provisions of the Social Security Act in effect between 1979 and 1983 authorized payment of survivor's benefits to a wage-earner's widowed spouse who remarried after age 60, but not to a similarly situated divorced widowed spouse. After being administratively denied survivor's benefits under these provisions because she had remarried, appellee divorced widow filed a class action in Federal District Court, challenging the constitutionality of the provisions. The court upheld the challenge, reasoning that, because Congress in 1977 had chosen to treat surviving divorced spouses and widowed spouses in the same manner upon the wage-earner's death, there was no logical basis for distinguishing between the two classes of individuals upon their subsequent remarriage.

Held: The provisions in question did not violate the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 345-350.

(a) When Congress decided to create some exceptions to the rule under which widowed spouses would lose their entitlement to survivor's benefits upon remarriage, it was not required to take an all-or-nothing approach, but instead had valid reasons for proceeding more cautiously. Faced with concerns about the increase in the benefits that would ensue if the remarriage rule were completely eliminated, Congress reasonably could decide to concentrate limited funds where the need was likely to be greatest. Pp. 346-348.

(b) Because divorced widowed spouses did not enter into remarriage with the same level of dependency on the wage-earner's account as widows or widowers, it was rational for Congress to treat these groups differently after remarriage. Any inference that, because both divorced widowed [106 S.Ct. 1883] spouses and widowed spouses were entitled to survivor's benefits, Congress viewed the groups as equally dependent on the wage-earner, is belied by the history and provisions of the Act. Pp. 348-350.

Reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL,

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J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 350. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 364.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Certain provisions of the Social Security Act in effect between 1979 and 1983 authorized payment of survivor's benefits from a wage-earner's account to a widowed spouse who remarried after age 60, but not to a similarly situated divorced widowed spouse. The question in this case is whether those provisions violated the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

I

The Social Security Act (Act) originally provided only primary benefits to qualified wage-earners. Congress later provided secondary benefits to wives, widows, dependent children, and surviving parents of the wage-earner. At that time, widows and other secondary beneficiaries would lose their entitlement to survivor's benefits upon a subsequent marriage. In 1950, Congress extended secondary benefits to dependent husbands and widowers, subject to the same restriction. In 1958, Congress created an exception to this remarriage rule so that, if a widow or widower married an individual who received benefits under the Act, neither would forfeit survivor's benefits.

Until 1965, divorced wives, including those who had outlived their former spouse (divorced widows), were not eligible for the same benefits provided to wives and widows. In that year, Congress amended § 202(b) of the Act to extend

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wife's benefits to a divorced wife and survivor's benefits to a divorced widow if the recipient had been married to her former husband for at least 20 years, and had received more than one-half of her support from him or an agreement or court order required him to make substantial contributions to her support. Pub.L. 89-97, § 308(a), 79 Stat. 375-376.1 Divorced wives and divorced widows were also subject to the same remarriage rule that had been applied to widows and widowers. In these amendments, however, Congress changed the remarriage rule as it applied to widows and widowers. The new rule provided that, if a widow or widower over age 60 married someone who was not entitled to receive certain benefits under the Act, she or he would not completely forfeit survivor's benefits. Instead, the benefits were reduced to half of the primary wage-earner's benefits. §§ 333(a)(1) and (b)(1), 79 Stat. 403, 404.

In 1977, Congress again relaxed the remarriage provision for widows and widowers, allowing them to receive unreduced survivor's benefits if they remarried after [106 S.Ct. 1884] age 60. The effective date of that amendment was 1979. Pub.L. 95-216, §§ 336(a)(3), (b)(3), (c)(1), 91 Stat. 1547.2 But Congress retained until 1983 the provision that generally barred a divorced wife or divorced widow from receiving benefits upon remarriage. See §§ 202(b)(1)(C), (b)(3), §§ 202(e)(1)(A), (e)(1)(F). The present case involves this temporary disparity in benefits received upon remarriage.

As a result of a pair of District Court sex discrimination opinions that invalidated portions of the Act, Ambrose v. Califano, CCH Unempl.Ins.Rep. ¶ 17,702 (Ore.1980); Oliver

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v. Califano, CCH Unempl.Ins.Rep. ¶ 15,244 (ND Cal.1977), the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) promulgated regulations providing that divorced husbands and divorced widowers would receive husband's benefits and survivor's benefits to the same extent as divorced wives and divorced widows received wife's benefits and survivor's benefits. 44 Fed.Reg. 34480, 34483-34484 (1979); see 20 CFR §§ 404.331, 404.336 (1985). In 1983, Congress amended the Act to incorporate these regulatory changes. Pub.L. 98-21, § 301(b)(1), 97 Stat. 111. In the same bill, Congress provided that divorced widowed spouses who remarry after age 60 are eligible to receive survivor's benefits in the same manner as widows and widowers.

II

Appellee Buenta Owens married Russell Judd in 1937, and was divorced from him in 1968. In 1978, when she was 61, she married appellee Kenneth Owens. Judd died on June 19, 1982. On July 30, 1982, Owens applied for widow's benefits on Judd's earnings account as a divorced widow. Her claim was denied on August 27, 1982, because she had remarried. She sought administrative reconsideration, contending that the statutory provision denying benefits because of her remarriage was unconstitutional. Her claim again was denied. Subsequently, Owens and the Secretary entered into an agreement stipulating that the only disputed issue was the constitutionality of the provisions of the Act that at that time denied widow's benefits to divorced widows who remarried. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(e)(1)(A), (e)(4). The parties also stipulated that, but for the relevant provisions, Owens' right to the benefits had been established. Based on that agreement, the parties waived any further administrative review. On April 19, 1983, Owens filed this action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California,

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and sought to represent a nationwide class of divorced widowed spouses.3

On December 23, 1983, the District Court rejected Owens' constitutional challenge. Applying the rational basis standard of review, the court reasoned that Congress was justified in taking one step at a time in extending benefits to spouses who had remarried. While Owens' motion to alter or amend the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 was pending, the 1983 amendments to the Act went into effect, so that all otherwise eligible members of the class became entitled to receive monthly survivor's benefits beginning in January, 1984. Subsequently, the court certified a nationwide plaintiffs' class consisting of all divorced widowed spouses who remarried after age 60 and who were denied [106 S.Ct. 1885] benefits between December, 1978, and January, 1984.4

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On October 5, 1984, the District Court reversed its prior ruling on the merits and held the challenged provisions unconstitutional. The court agreed with the Secretary that Congress rationally could assume that widowed spouses are generally more dependent on income from the deceased wage-earner than are divorced widowed spouses. It reasoned, however, that, because Congress, in 1977, had chosen to treat surviving divorced spouses and widowed spouses in the same manner upon the death of the wage-earner, there was no logical basis for distinguishing between the two classes of individuals upon their subsequent remarriage. The Secretary appealed directly to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1252. We noted probable jurisdiction, Heckler v. Owens, 474 U.S. 1046 (1985). We now reverse.

III

Congress faces an unusually difficult task in providing for the distribution of benefits under the Act. The program is a massive one, and requires Congress to make many distinctions among classes of beneficiaries while making allocations from a finite fund. In that context, our review is deferential.

Governmental decisions to spend money to improve the general public welfare in one way and not another are

not confided to the courts. The discretion belongs to Congress, unless the choice is clearly wrong, a display of arbitrary power, not an exercise of judgment.

Mathews v. De Castro, 429 U.S. 181, 185 (1976), quoting Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, 640 (1937). As this Court explained in Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 611 (1960):

Particularly when we deal with a withholding of a noncontractual benefit under a social...

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