SSR 81-18c: SECTION 203(b) (42 U.S.C. 403(b)) WORK DEDUCTIONS -- DEDUCTIONS FROM SPOUSE'S BENEFITS BECAUSE OF WORKER'S EXCESS EARNINGS -- CONSTITUTIONALITY
20 CFR 404.415(b) and 404.416(a)
COOK v. HARRIS, (1980 Transfer Binder) Unempl. Ins. Rep. (CCH) ¶ 16,772 (2nd Cir 1980)
- Plaintiffs challenged section 203(b) of the Social Security Act (the Act), under which wife's benefits are subject to deductions if her husband has excess earnings. They contended that section 203(b) of the Act is unconstitutional because it discriminates between wives who are retired wage earners and spouses, like the plaintiff, who receive no credit for housework. If a spouse's entitlement is based on her own earnings record, her benefits are unaffected (or less affected) by her husband's excess earnings. The Court of Appeals held that since the Social Security system is essentially a contributory program rather than a General Welfare Program, it is not irrational for Congress to distinguish between the treatment of these two classes of beneficiaries. It further held that the deductions made from the wife's benefits because of her husband's excess earnings were logical since her entitlement was derived from, rather than independent of, her husband's entitlement.
Kathleen T. Cook and her husband, Robert S. Cooke, brought this action to challenge the constitutionality of section 203(b) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 403(b), as it applies to persons receiving social security benefits as the spouse of a retired wage earner. Robert Cook was granted full retirement benefits as a retired wager (sic) earner, beginning January 1, 1975. Subsequently, Kathleen Cook was also awarded benefits under section 202(b) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 402(b), as the wife "of an individual entitled to old-age . . . benefits." However, due to some post-retirement earnings of Robert Cook, the total benefits that the Cook's were eligible for in 1976 was reduced, and, pursuant to section 203(b), part of this deduction was charged against the benefits Kathleen Cook would otherwise be entitled to receive as the spouse of a retired wage earner.
In their complaint, the Cook's claimed that the statute unconstitutionally discriminated against Kathleen Cook and other similarly situated spouses by reducing their benefits to compensate for excess earnings by the retired wage earner. After a hearing in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, Chief Judge Curtin concluded that the application of the statute was constitutional and he therefore dismissed the complaint. We affirm that dismissal, since we find no constitutional informity in the reduction of spousal benefits to compensation for excess earnings by the retired wage earner.
Under the Act, Kathleen Cook is not independently entitled to social security benefits. Instead, she receives benefits solely because she is married to a retired wage earner who is entitled to benefits by virtue of his preretirement contributions to the system. Appellants argue that this statutory scheme unconstitutionally discriminates between those spouses who are retired wage earners and therefore independently entitled to benefits and those spouses, like Kathleen Cook, who receive no credit under the Act for housework and whose entitlement to benefits is therefore contingent upon and affected by the eligibility of their husbands. However, since the Social Security system is essentially a contributory insurance program rather than a general welfare program, see Califano v. Boles, _____ U.S. _____, _____, 99 S.Ct. 2767, 61 L.Ed.2d 541 (1979), it is not irrational for Congress to distinguish between the treatment of these two classes of beneficiaries. Since Kathleen Cook's entitlement to full benefits is affected by his post-retirement earnings. We agree with Judge Curtin that the failure to recognize "housework as compensable service . . . is a problem for the Congress to address and not the court."