Torres v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 2/27/2014. (MSN)
2014 Feb-27 PM 12:13
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
The plaintiff, Sandra Torres (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se, appeals from the
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for Survivor’s Insurance Benefits
(“SIB”). Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the
decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
On January 8, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for widow’s insurance benefits
as a surviving divorced spouse of wage-earner/insured John Marchlowska (“the
insured”), who died on December 5, 2001 in New York. (Tr. at 10.) On her
application for SIB as a divorced widow of the insured, Plaintiff stated that she
married the insured in October 1962 and that the marriage ended by a Mexican
divorce in October 1963. (Tr. at 14.) She additionally stated that she remarried on
three separate occasions: first, to Robert DiPietro in February 1964, ending in divorce
in January 1966; second, to Frank Umbrecht in January 1971, ending in divorce in
January 1972; and finally, to Chris Korovessi in January 1973, ending in divorce in
January 1976. (Id.) Plaintiff further stated in her SIB application that the insured
remarried in January 1965, and that marriage ended in divorce in January 1986. (Id.)
The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff’s application on
the grounds that she had not been married to the insured for the minimum ten (10)
years required to qualify for SIB as a divorced widow. (Tr. at 21.) Plaintiff requested
reconsideration, arguing that the Mexican divorce from the insured was invalid under
New York law, and that she was therefore still the insured’s wife. (Tr. at 24.) The
SSA again denied her application on the alternative grounds that either 1) the divorce
was valid under New York law, or 2) that Plaintiff was estopped from challenging the
validity of the divorce because both she and the insured had remarried other people
in reliance on the divorce. (Tr. at 27-28.)
Plaintiff appealed the SSA’s decision to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).
Page 2 of 11
During the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff again argued that her divorce from the
insured was invalid, and that she was therefore still married to him. (Tr. at 42.)
Plaintiff testified at the hearing that she was unsure about the marriage and divorce
dates that she had provided in her initial SIB application, and that she had estimated
the dates at the time of the application because she could not remember them. (Tr. at
52.) The ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was not validly married to the insured for the
requisite ten years required to qualify for benefits, and noted that even if her divorce
from the insured was invalid, she was estopped from denying its validity because she
had remarried. (Tr. at 11.)
Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council was
denied, (tr. at 3), and this appeal followed. On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff proceeds
pro se, and has not filed a brief. Plaintiff has instead filed a letter detailing her
experiences with the SSA and reiterating her contention that she remains legally
married to the insured, and is thus due benefits, because the divorce procured in
Mexico is invalid. (Doc. 9 at 1.)
Standard of Review
This Court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is
Page 3 of 11
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The Court approaches the factual findings of the
Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See
Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts,
weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The
substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with
considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions
from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being
supported by substantial evidence.’” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir.
1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607,
620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against
the Commissioner’s decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for
“despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court
scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision
reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to
Page 4 of 11
apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d
629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
An individual may qualify for survivor’s insurance benefit payments if she is
either a widow (as defined in 42 U.S.C. § 416(c)) or a surviving divorced wife (as
defined in 42 U.S.C. § 416(d)) to an insured decedent. Plaintiff’s initial application
for benefits indicated her marriage to the insured began on October 6, 1962, and ended
by divorce on October 1, 1963. (Tr. at 14). Her initial application was treated as an
application for benefits as a divorced wife. (Tr. at 21). On appeal, Plaintiff contends
that her divorce from the insured was not valid, and therefore her claim is for benefits
as a widow to the insured and not as his surviving divorced wife. If Plaintiff is entitled
to benefits as the insured widow, she would also meet the requirements for benefits
as a surviving divorced wife.
See 42 U.S.C. § 416(c); 42 U.S.C. § 416(d).
Accordingly, this Court continues to treat Plaintiff’s application as an application for
benefits as a surviving divorced wife.
In holding that Plaintiff is not entitled to SIB because she was not validly
married to the insured for the requisite period of ten years, the ALJ applied the correct
legal standards, and substantial evidence in the record supports his decision. To
Page 5 of 11
qualify for widow’s insurance benefits as a surviving divorced spouse, an individual
must have been validly married to the wage-earner/insured for at least ten years before
the divorce became final. 20 C.F.R. § 404.336. The validity of the putative spouse’s
marriage is governed by the laws of the state where the insured was domiciled at time
of death. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(1)(A)(I); 20 C.F.R. § 404.345. Because the insured was
a resident of the State of New York at the time of his death, the law of New York
governs with respect to the duration of Plaintiff’s marriage to the insured. (Tr. at 55.)
In New York, a divorce decree is invalid and void if obtained in a foreign
country upon the ex parte petition of a spouse who is present but not domiciled in that
country where the defending party is not present and has not been served with
process. Rosenbaum v. Rosenbaum, 309 N.Y. 371, 376 (N.Y. 1955) (holding that
plaintiff was not entitled to an injunction to restrain her husband from prosecuting a
Mexican divorce action because the divorce action was a “clear legal nullity” where
neither party was domiciled in Mexico). Plaintiff indicated in her application for
benefits that her divorce from the insured occurred in Mexico, and that she had been
told that the divorce was invalid, but she did not at that time provide any explanation
as to why the divorce would be invalid. (Tr. at 14-15.) In her request for a hearing by
an ALJ, Plaintiff explained that she had not appeared at the divorce proceeding in
Page 6 of 11
person nor through an attorney. (Tr. at 30.) Asuming these facts to be true, Plaintiff’s
divorce from the insured would be void under New York law because it was procured
upon the ex parte petition of the insured, who was domiciled in New York at the time.
309 N.Y. at 376.
However, where a person enters into a second marriage, there is a presumption
in favor of the second marriage over a preceding marriage. Fishman v. Fishman, 368
N.Y.S.2d 756, 758 (App. Div. 1975). This presumption is rebuttable, but the burden
of proof is upon the party asserting the continuing validity of the first marriage. Id.
Moreover, this presumption is said to be among the strongest in New York law. 45
N.Y. Jur. 2d Domestic Relations § 72; Shepard v. Shepard, 47 N.Y.S.2d 947 (Sup. Ct.
1944) aff’d 47 N.Y.S.2d 624 (App. Div. 1944). Plaintiff bore the burden of
overcoming this strong presumption, but presented no evidence, other than her own
(often inconsistent) testimony, that her divorce from the insured was invalid.
For example, in her application, Plaintiff reported that she married the wage
earner on October 6, 1962, and the marriage ended in divorce on October 1, 1963. (Tr.
at 14.) Plaintiff also reported that she then married another individual on February 13,
1964, and that marriage ended in divorce in 1966. (Tr. at 14.) She also reported she
married a third time to a different individual in 1971, with that marriage ending by
Page 7 of 11
divorce in 1972, and she married a fourth time in 1973, with that marriage ending by
divorce in 1976. (Tr. at 14.) Plaintiff ultimately affirmed that all the information she
provided in her application was true. (Tr. at 15.) Plaintiff also testified under oath
that she married another individual in 1968. (Tr. at 52, 54.) Plaintiff also testified that
her second marriage ended in either 1971 or 1972, and she married a third individual
“right afterwards.” (Tr. at 54.) Plaintiff, who was represented at her hearing, did not
at any point indicate that either her second or third marriage was invalid due to any
procedural deficiency with the marriage licenses she obtained for either marriage.
Plaintiff failed to provide any evidence or relevant legal authority to support her most
recent assertions in her complaint regarding the validity of her divorce from the wage
earner in 1963 or the timing and validity of her second, third, and fourth marriages.
(Doc. 1, at 1-2.) In fact, Plaintiff admitted she obtained a New Jersey marriage license
in 1968 with another individual. (Doc. 1, at 2.) Although Plaintiff asserted the
individual she married in 1968 was “in parole and not allowed to marry,” (doc. 1, at
2), Plaintiff failed to cite any evidence or authority showing the individual she married
in 1968 was actually legally precluded from entering into that marriage or that New
Jersey issued the marriage license in conflict with its own rules.
The ALJ relied on Plaintiff’s own statements that she affirmed to be true in
Page 8 of 11
determining that she was not validly married to the insured for ten years. Plaintiff has
not subsequently presented any evidence to support her uncorroborated allegations
that her second marriage (or her third or fourth marriages) was legally deficient. This
Court may not re-weigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its own
judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if it finds that the evidence
preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision. See Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d
1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990); Baker o/b/o Baker v. Sullivan, 880 F.2d 319, 321 (11th Cir.
1989). The Commissioner’s factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial
evidence. See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529; Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir.
Moreover, the ALJ correctly stated the law when he noted that Plaintiff would
be estopped from challenging the validity of her divorce, even if he she had proven it
to be invalid, because she had remarried in reliance on the divorce. (Tr. at 11.) A party
may be estopped from challenging the validity of a foreign divorce decree if the party
remarries in reliance on the decree’s validity. Carbulon v. Carbulon, 293 N.Y. 375,
377-78 (N.Y. 1940) (holding that the plaintiff “could not . . . assert that the marriage
relation . . . remained unaffected by the foreign decree and at the same time assert that
she had the legal capacity to marry another”); Capalbo v. Capalbo, 549 N.Y.S.2d 794,
Page 9 of 11
795 (N.Y. App. Div 1990) (holding that a husband who relied on a Mexican divorce
decree by remarrying was estopped from challenging the validity of the decree more
than 20 years later). The principles supporting application of estoppel are more
strongly present where a party challenges the validity of a divorce for the purpose of
asserting some collateral rights incident to the marital status, rather than for the
purpose of establishing marital status. Packer v. Packer, 179 N.Y.S.2d 801, 804 (App.
Div. 1958) (noting that although a mail-order divorce from a foreign country lacks
“sufficient vitality to create an estoppel . . . in an action to establish marital status . .
. it may suffice to preclude the spouse from asserting a private claim or demand arising
out of the marriage”). Here, Plaintiff herself stated that she had remarried within ten
years of her marriage to the insured, in either 1964 or 1968. (Tr. at 14, 52, 54.) The
ALJ correctly noted in his opinion that, whether she had remarried in 1964 or in 1968,
the second marriage would have been within ten years of her first marriage. (Tr. at
11.) Moreover, Plaintiff made her reliance on the divorce clear, stating that she “took
it for granted” that she was divorced from the insured. (Tr. at 46-47.) Therefore, on
the basis of Plaintiff’s own statements, and in the absence of any contrary
documentary evidence, the ALJ had substantial evidence to conclude that Plaintiff had
remarried, in reliance on the divorce, within ten years of her marriage to the insured.
Page 10 of 11
On this basis, the ALJ correctly noted that Plaintiff would be estopped from attacking
the validity of the divorce for the purpose of acquiring widow’s insurance benefits as
the surviving divorced spouse of the insured.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Plaintiff’s
arguments, the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and is in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will be entered.
Done this 27th day of February 2014.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
Page 11 of 11
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?