5 F.3d 235 (7th Cir. 1993), 91-3238, Smith v. Shalala

Docket Nº:91-3238.
Citation:5 F.3d 235
Party Name:Charles W. SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Donna E. SHALALA, [*] Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:September 15, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
 
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Page 235

5 F.3d 235 (7th Cir. 1993)

Charles W. SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Donna E. SHALALA, [*] Secretary of the United

States Department of Health and Human Services,

Defendant-Appellee.

No. 91-3238.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 15, 1993

Argued June 8, 1993.

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Jerold S. Solovy, Laura A. Kaster, Avidan J. Stern (argued), Jenner & Block, Chicago, IL, for plaintiff-appellant.

Duane N. Bruce (argued), Dept. of Health and Human Services, Region V, Office of the Gen. Counsel, Chicago, IL, K. Tate Chambers, Asst. U.S. Atty., Office of the U.S. Atty., Peoria, IL, J. William Roberts, U.S. Atty., Office of the U.S. Atty., Springfield, IL, for defendant-appellee.

Before CUDAHY and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges, and ESCHBACH, Senior Circuit Judge.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

Charles Smith is a disabled man who was deemed married under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1382c(d)(2) to a disabled woman for purposes of supplemental social security income. This determination qualified them for benefits as an "eligible couple" rather than as "eligible individuals" and resulted in a reduction in the benefits that they received. Mr. Smith exhausted available administrative review and the district court affirmed the decision of an administrative law judge that there was sufficient evidence that Mr. Smith and his companion had held themselves out as married and thus were correctly awarded benefits as an eligible couple. The court also held that Sec. 1382c(d)(2) and its corresponding regulations are constitutional. The district court granted summary judgment to the Secretary

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and Mr. Smith appeals from that decision. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I

BACKGROUND

  1. Facts

    Mr. Smith and his companion, Cindy Smith, live together but are not married. The fact that they have the same last name is simply happenstance. Both are severely disabled and unable to maintain gainful employment: Mr. Smith suffers from chronic arthritis with bone deterioration in his hips and joints; Cindy Smith has severe diabetes which has left her mentally retarded. Both Mr. Smith and Cindy Smith applied for and received social security benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act which provides supplemental security income (SSI) to disabled persons based on their indigence.

    Under 20 C.F.R. Secs. 416.410 and 416.412 (1993), the amount of benefits granted depends upon the marital status of the individuals seeking assistance. A lower rate than the rate to unmarried disabled individuals is applicable to a married couple in which both individuals are disabled. Under the regulations, an eligible couple together may receive $504 per month, while an eligible individual will receive $336 per month. 20 C.F.R. Secs. 416.410, 416.412. Generally, the monthly amount of benefits allocated to an eligible couple is divided equally and paid separately to the two individuals. 20 C.F.R. Sec. 416.502. Two disabled individuals are considered to be an eligible couple if they are married, are both eligible for benefits, and have lived in the same household as husband and wife within the past six months. 20 C.F.R. Sec. 416.1802(b). The definition of "married," however, for SSI purposes is contained in 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1382c(d):

    In determining whether two individuals are husband and wife for purposes of this subchapter, appropriate State law shall be applied; except that--

    ....

    (2) if a man and woman are found to be holding themselves out to the community in which they reside as husband and wife, they shall be so considered for purposes of this subchapter notwithstanding any other provision of this section.

    The corresponding regulations further note that a person will be considered to be a spouse for SSI purposes if

    [y]ou and an unrelated person of the opposite sex are living together in the same household at or after the time you apply for SSI benefits, and you both lead people to believe that you are husband and wife.

    20 C.F.R. Sec. 416.1806(c).

    On August 4, 1987, after ascertaining that Mr. Smith was eligible for SSI benefits, the Department notified him that he was entitled to those benefits as an "eligible spouse." The notification of benefits received by Mr. Smith stated that he was classified as a disabled spouse for purposes of payment. Cindy Smith received a similar letter, dated August 5, 1987, that informed her that her benefits were being reduced and overpayments were being deducted because it had been determined that Charles Smith was her husband and that they had been living together since September 1986. Mr. Smith contested this classification and asserted that he and Cindy Smith had never been married. In the subsequent administrative review, the Secretary affirmed the classification. The ALJ held that Mr. Smith and Cindy Smith were deemed married for purposes of SSI benefits because they held themselves out to the community as husband and wife and had thus satisfied the criteria under 20 C.F.R. Sec. 416.1806(c). The reduction in benefits, the ALJ ruled, was therefore proper.

    After exhausting his administrative remedies, Mr. Smith appealed the classification to the district court and asserted that the "deemed married" provisions were unconstitutional. The court granted summary judgment to the Secretary and held that substantial evidence existed to support the Secretary's finding that Mr. Smith and Cindy Smith held themselves out as married to each other. Smith v. Sullivan, 767 F.Supp. 186, 189 (C.D.Ill.1991). The court listed numerous instances in support of this determination: in Mr. Smith's application for SSI benefits, he had indicated that he was married to Cindy Smith, although the application

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    noted that it was not a "ceremonial marriage"; Cindy Smith's application for SSI benefits specifically stated that, although she and Mr. Smith were not married, they did "hold themselves out to the community as husband and wife," 767 F.Supp. at 188; in refiling Cindy Smith's application, Mr. Smith listed her marital status as married and noted that she was living with her spouse; in applying to be selected as Cindy Smith's payee, Mr. Smith indicated that he and Cindy had been living together as man and wife and would continue the relationship indefinitely; in a visit to a hospital emergency room, Mr. Smith complained of chest pains and told the doctor that they had begun when his wife delivered their first child stillborn in an emergency procedure; and finally, in a psychological evaluation, Cindy Smith told the examiner that she and Mr. Smith were married. On the basis of all of this evidence, the district court determined that Mr. Smith and Cindy Smith had indeed held themselves out as husband and wife.

    Additionally, the court held that the SSI "deemed married" provisions did not violate Mr. Smith's due process and equal protection rights and thus were not unconstitutional. Mr. Smith does not contest the district court's finding that he and Cindy Smith held themselves out as married; however, he does appeal the court's determination that the "deemed married" classification...

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