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Branch v. Acting Commissioner of U.S. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 29, 2018

Susan Branch
v.
Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration

          ORDER

          LANDYA MCCAFFERTY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Claimant Susan Branch seeks judicial review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her application for widow's survivor benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 402(e). Branch argues, among other things, that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons that follow, the court affirms the decision of the Acting Commissioner.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the final decision of the Acting Commissioner in a social security case, the court “is limited to determining whether the ALJ deployed the proper legal standards and found facts upon the proper quantum of evidence.” Nguyen v. Chater, 172 F.3d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1999); see also Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). The court defers to the ALJ's factual findings as long as they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Fischer v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 31, 34 (1st Cir. 2016). Questions of law presented by the ALJ's decision are reviewed de novo. See Fischer, 831 F.3d at 34.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from the parties' joint statement of facts (doc. no. 13), unless otherwise noted. In April 2013, Branch applied for widow's survivor benefits on the basis of her marriage to Jonathan Branch. Branch stated in her application for benefits that they had been married from April 20, 2003 to July 6, 2003, when Jonathan passed away. Her application was denied on the ground that she had not been married for the minimum nine months required to qualify for such benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)(1)(E); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(1).

         Branch requested reconsideration, arguing that she had a marriage of the requisite length because she and Jonathan had been in a common law marriage prior to their legal marriage. Branch's request for reconsideration was denied, after which she sought a hearing before an ALJ.

         The ALJ held a hearing in September 2014. Branch was represented by counsel. The ALJ examined whether Branch could qualify for benefits on the basis of her 2003 legal marriage. The ALJ also considered whether Branch's relationship with Jonathan prior to 2003 qualified as a common law marriage under New Hampshire law. Finally, the ALJ considered another avenue for benefits: a surviving spouse is entitled to benefits, even if the marriage was shorter than nine months, where “[a]t the time of [the] marriage the insured was reasonably expected to live for 9 months, and the death of the insured was accidental.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(a)(2)(i).

         At the hearing, Branch testified regarding her claim that she and Jonathan had been in a common law marriage long before their legal marriage in 2003. Branch and Jonathan began living together in 1985. Jonathan had three boys from a previous marriage, and Branch had two. Branch and her sons maintained a separate living space in one unit of a duplex, and Jonathan and his sons maintained a separate living space in the other unit. At some point after moving in, Branch and Jonathan installed a door between the units so they could move between their units. Branch testified that this arrangement allowed them to live together as a family while also ensuring that the children had their own private spaces.

         Branch also explained the reasons for their legal marriage in 2003. Initially, they decided not to marry because they were both self-employed and believed that the “Marriage Penalty Act” would negatively affect their finances. When Jonathan's cancer progressed in March 2003, Jonathan told Branch that he wanted her to have his name and, concerned about her finances, wanted to ensure that she would be entitled to Social Security benefits. They thus decided to marry in April 2003, and Branch changed her surname from Curter to Branch.

         Branch submitted other evidence for the ALJ's consideration. In one letter, Jamie Branch-one of Jonathan's sons-states that everyone “moved about as a single family” in the duplex, and that Branch and Jonathan shared a bedroom. Admin. Rec. at 75. In another letter, a family friend attests that Branch and Jonathan had a “loving relationship” and that they maintained “unique living arrangements.” Id. at 77. Other documentary evidence of note includes Jonathan's 2002 will, in which he refers to Branch as his “fiancée.” Id. at 79.

         The ALJ denied Branch's application for benefits. In order to have a common law marriage under New Hampshire law, the parties must have, for the three years preceding one partner's death, “(1) cohabited; (2) acknowledged each other as husband and wife; and (3) [been] generally reputed to be husband and wife in their community.” In re Estate of Bourassa, 949 A.2d 704, 706 (N.H. 2008). Regarding acknowledgement, the ALJ determined that Branch “knew she was not married” prior to the legal marriage in 2003. Admin. Rec. at 15. In support, the ALJ noted that Branch and Jonathan had explicitly declined to marry to avoid certain tax penalties, and that Jonathan had referred to Branch as his fiancée in his will. The ALJ also appears to have considered the requirement of general reputation: the ALJ noted that the family friend, who had described the loving relationship between Jonathan and Branch, “did not mention that the two held themselves out as husband and wife.” Id.

         Based on his review of the evidence, the ALJ made the following findings: (1) Branch “formally married” Jonathan on April 1, 2003; (2) the marriage did not last nine months prior to Jonathan's death in July 2003; (3) Jonathan's death was not accidental and he was not expected to live as long as nine months at the time of the marriage; and (4) Branch and Jonathan's relationship prior to their legal marriage did not constitute a common law marriage under New Hampshire law.

         Branch requested review from the Appeals Council. After the Appeals Council denied the ...


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