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WOODS v. GARDNER

June 28, 1968

Catherine M. WOODS a/k/a Catherine M. Scurfield, Plaintiff,
v.
John W. GARDNER, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare of the U.S.A., Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MARSH

 MARSH, District Judge.

 The plaintiff, Catherine M. Woods, commenced this action pursuant to § 205(g) *fn1" of the Social Security Act to review a decision of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare holding that plaintiff is not entitled to a waiver of recovery or adjustment of an overpayment of widow's benefits in the amount of $1,632.70 erroneously paid to her as the widow of one Ralph Scurfield, and that adjustment thereof should be made by deductions from her monthly old-age insurance benefits (Tr., p. 12). The Secretary has moved for summary judgment on grounds that plaintiff has failed to establish that recovery by the Secretary, as permitted by § 204(a), would defeat the purpose of the Act or be against equity and good conscience, as provided in § 204(b) of the Act. *fn2"

 Plaintiff maintains that the Secretary's decision requiring recovery of the widow's benefits erroneously paid to her is contrary to the purpose of the Social Security Act and against equity and good conscience. She also contends that she was denied due process because she was not made a party to the case of Cupler v. Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare, 252 F. Supp. 178 (W.D.Pa.1966), which decision determined that Catherine M. Woods, the plaintiff, was not the legal widow of Ralph Scurfield.

 We agree with plaintiff's first contention, and also hold that the issue of her widowhood should be remanded for consideration of additional evidence she believes she has which would result in a finding that she is the legal widow of Ralph Scurfield. *fn3"

 On October 29, 1962, Catherine M. Woods applied to the Social Security Administration for benefits as the widow of "Ralph E. Scurfield". Earlier, on August 20, 1962, she had filed a statement of claim with the Administration averring only that "Ralph Skurfeld was my first husband * * *" and indicating that though she had never divorced him, she neither knew if he had divorced her nor had any knowledge of whether he was then living or dead. Contemporary documents made part of the Secretary's record verify the marriage, on August 20, 1919, of Catherine M. Keenan (plaintiff's maiden name) and one whose signature on the marriage license application appears as "Ralph Skurfeld". The bridegroom is so identified on two other contemporary documents, but on the signed consent of the bride's father to the marriage of his minor daughter, he is identified as "Ralph Scurfield".

 The plaintiff's application for marriage license reveals that her husband, Ralph Skurfeld, was born at Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and that his deceased father's given name was Thomas and his mother's maiden name was Katie Leach and that she lived in Elizabeth. With remarkable coincidence, if Ralph Skurfeld and Ralph Scurfield were not the same person, the certified copy of application for marriage license of Ralph E. Scurfield and Alice Holliday shows that he resided in Elizabeth, Pennslyvania, was born in that community, his father's given name was Thomas and his mother's maiden name was Catherine Leach (Exs. B-25, p. 124, B-24, p. 122; see also, Ex. B-14, p. 105). The plaintiff asserted that she instituted a divorce proceeding against Ralph Scurfield at No. 1254 October Term, 1923, in Pittsburgh, but did not complete the action (Exs. B-40, p. 215, B-11, p. 97).

 On April 16, 1963, the Department advised Alice H. Cupler of its possession of this evidence and on July 30, 1963, notified her of its Reconsideration Determination that she was not the legal widow of Ralph Scurfield for the reason that his 1919 marriage to Catherine M. Keenan was still in force and effect at the time of his marriage ceremony with Alice on June 20, 1929. This was accompanied by notice that the mother's benefits paid to her were an overpayment and that she could not be relieved of responsibility for their repayment.

 Meanwhile, on March 22, 1963, the Administration had awarded Catherine M. Woods widow's insurance benefits in the amount of $37.30 per month as the legal widow of Ralph Scurfield, effective October, 1962, which, added to the $58.40 per month reduced old-age benefits she had received on her own account since October, 1962, made a total monthly benefit of $95.70. These sums were subsequently adjusted, effective 1965, to $39.10 and $63.40, respectively, for a total monthly benefit of $102.50.

 In Cupler v. Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare, supra, the court, in a detailed and carefully reasoned opinion, examined the evidence before the examiner and the presumptions applicable where the validity of a marriage is in issue, and reversed the examiner's decision. It was observed "that when all the evidence is examined there is absolutely no proof that the man involved in the two marriages is one and the same person." Id., p. 183. Citing the decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in In Re Watt's Estate, 409 Pa. 44, 185 A.2d 781 (1962), for the principle that one claiming the invalidity of a second marriage must overcome the presumption of its validity by proof of some nature, the court concluded that the Secretary had "presented no proof on the record made before the Examiner which overcomes the presumption of the validity of * * * [Alice H. Cupler's] marriage. Thus, the presumption in favor of the second marriage prevails * * *."

 In the action sub judice, the Secretary has found the Coupler decision conclusive that the plaintiff, Catherine M. Woods, is not the legal widow of Ralph Scurfield, even though she was not a party in that case.

 Following this decision, in April, 1966, the widow's benefits paid to plaintiff were suspended, but payments of old-age insurance benefits of $63.40 monthly on her own earnings were continued. Plaintiff was thereafter advised by letter on March 8, 1967, that an overpayment of $1,632.70 would be recovered by withholding $46 per month from her monthly old-age insurance benefits due from February, 1967 through December, 1969. Plaintiff commenced the present action to obtain review of that decision. The initial issue presented is ...


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