20 CFR 404.1501 and 404.1504

SSR 74-31c

Beulah Phillips v. Richardson, U.S.D.C., N.D., Tex., Dallas Div., Civ. No. 3-5143-A (7/3/73) (CCH U.I.R. Vol. 1A Fed. para. 17,347)

The plaintiff, whose claim for disabled widow's insurance benefits was administratively denied, contends that the statutory definition of disability application to a widow under section 223(d)(2)(B) of the Act, being more restrictive than that applied to a disabled wage earner, is unfair and arbitrary and that such discrimination is violative of the due process clause of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution. The court upheld the validity of the statute and the regulations requiring a widow to prove inability to engage in any gainful activity and stated that Congress was guided by legitimate economic considerations in deciding whether, and to what extent, widows should receive disability benefits; the court determined that plaintiff failed to show a lack of rational justification for the Congressional classification regarding requirements for entitlement to such benefits.

ESTES, District Judge: The plaintiff brings this civil action to review a final decision of the defendant Secretary denying her claim to widow's benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 402(e) and § 423(d)(2)(B). The jurisdiction of this court is based on 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). There being no genuine dispute as to any material fact, both parties have moved for summary judgment in their favor. Plaintiff has admitted that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision of the Secretary.

Plaintiff claims that the statutes providing for widow's benefits, 42 U.S.C. § 402(e) and § 423(d)(2)(B), and the Secretary's regulations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1504, are unconstitutional. Section 402(e) provides for certain survivor's insurance benefits for widows who have a "disability" as defined in § 423(d)(2)(B):

A widow, surviving divorced wife, or widower shall not be determined to be under a disability . . . unless his or her physical or mental impairment or impairments are of a level of severity which under regulations prescribed by the Secretary is deemed to be sufficient to preclude an individual form engaging in any gainful activity. [emphasis supplied]

The regulations promulgated by the Secretary provide in essence that a widow will be determined to be under a disability only if the impairment meets the duration requirement specified in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1501 and is one of those listed in the appendix to Subpart P of the regulations, or if the impairment is not listed but is determined by the Secretary to be medically the equivalent of a listed impairment.

In contrast to this statutory standard for determining disability of widows of workers, plaintiff points to the more flexible standard for determining disability of workers. These the Secretary is allowed to consider the age, education, and work experience of the individual in determining whether the impairments are of such severity that he will be unable to do his previous work or any other kind of "substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). [emphasis supplied] Plaintiff contends that if this standard had been applied to her, she would have been found to be disabled. The thrust of plaintiff's complaint is that the statutory definition of disability is specifically made more restrictive for widows than for ordinary wage-earners, and that this discrimination is unfair and arbitrary, and thus unconstitutionally deprives her of benefits to which she would otherwise be entitled.

Plaintiff claims that she has been denied "equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment." Since federal action, not state action, is involved here, the equal protection clause is not applicable, and we must examine the government's action by the standards developed under the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment. Detroit Bank v. United States, 317 U.S. 329 (1943); Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548 (1936). The Supreme Court has said:

. . . [T]he concepts of equal protection and due process, both stemming from our American ideal of fairness, are not mutually exclusive. The 'equal protection of the laws' is a more explicit safeguard of prohibited unfairness than 'due process of lay,' and, therefore, we do not imply that the two are always interchangeable phrases. But, as this court has recognized, discrimination may be unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.

Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499 (1954).

We are not without guidance from the Supreme Court sa to the standard to be applied in this type of case. "Particularly when we deal with a withholding of a noncontractual benefit under a social welfare program such as this, we must recognize that the Due Process Clause can be thought to interpose a bar only if the statute manifests a patently arbitrary classification, utterly lacking in rational justification," Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 611 (1960). In that case the Court specifically recognized that it was constitutionally proper and entirely appropriate for the Congress to consider the costs and economic effects of particular provisions for welfare benefits. When the statutes under consideration were introduced as a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives, Representative Wilbur Mills, Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, stated that:

a stricter test of disability than the present one for workers would apply to disabled widows and widowers. Under this test, a widow or widower would be considered disabled only if the impairment is one that is deemed sufficient to preclude him from engaging in any gainful activity -- rather than any substantial gainful activity, as is required for disabled workers. We wrote this provision of the bill very narrowly . . . because it represents a step into an unexplored area where cost potentials are an important consideration.

113 Cong. Rec. 23049 (90th Cong., 1st Sess., Aug. 17, 1967). Plainly, Congress was guided by legitimate economic considerations in deciding whether, and to what extent, widows should receive disability benefits. Plaintiff has failed to show a lack of rational justification for Congress' making this classification, and we must hold, as other courts have, that the statutes and regulations attacked are valid and not unconstitutional. Acosta v. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, 313 F. Supp. 1007 (D.P.R. 1970); Frasier v. Finch, 313 F. Supp. 160 (N.D.Ala. 1970).

Plaintiff's final contention is that the regulations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1504 and the appendix to Subpart P, are invalid because they do not carry out the intent of Congress to provide payments to widows who are unable to work in any manner. The plaintiff asserts that this is evident from the fact that she is a widow who has been found to be unable to work, and yet is prevented by the regulations from receiving payments. This argument is obviously superficial. Congress did have a general intent to begin providing benefits to such persons, but, as we have found, it also specifically intended that, due to the newness of the area and the potential costs of such benefits, there should be a more restrictive standard for widows and widowers than for workers. It is clear that Congress anticipated that not all widows and widowers unable to work would be able to meet the test. The Secretary's regulations are entirely consistent with the statute and the intent of the Congress.

Since the plaintiff's challenges to the statute and the regulations are without merit, and plaintiff has admitted that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the decision of the Secretary, that decision must be affirmed. The pleadings, record, and briefs show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the defendant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law; it is therefore;

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that the defendant's motion for summary judgment is hereby GRANTED, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is hereby DENIED, and the decision of the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare is hereby AFFIRMED, and that the plaintiff take nothing, with costs to be taxed against the plaintiff.

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