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Roberts v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 23, 2018

JOHN D. ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, in her capacity as Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Unwilling to recognize the same-sex common law marriage of John Roberts and Bernard Wilkerson, the Social Security Administration (“SSA” or “Administration”) for months refused to grant Roberts' application for widower's insurance benefits following Wilkerson's death. To vindicate his rights, Roberts sued Nancy Berryhill in her capacity as then-Acting Commissioner of the SSA. As a result of this litigation, the SSA finally recognized Roberts' marriage and granted his application for benefits. Now before the Court is Roberts' application for attorney's fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants the application.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 4, 1990, John Roberts and Bernard Wilkerson expressed to one another their intent to establish a common law marriage. (Br. in Supp. of Pl.'s App. For Att'y's Fees and Costs [Pl.'s Fees Mem.] at 2.) Under the laws of Pennsylvania at the time, Roberts and Wilkerson, as a same-sex couple, could not legally marry. However, they lived together as a couple from that point until Wilkerson's death in 2015. (Id.) Shortly before Wilkerson's death-after a federal court struck down Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage in Whitewood v. Wolf, 992 F.Supp.2d 410 (M.D. Pa. 2014)-Roberts and Wilkerson became formally married under Pennsylvania law. (Pl.'s Fees Mem. at 2 n.1.)

         In February 2016, Roberts applied for Social Security benefits, including widower's insurance benefits based on his marriage to Wilkerson. (Id. at 2.) Roberts' application stated that he and Wilkerson had lived in common law marriage since 1990. (Id.) However, the SSA refused to recognize this marriage and therefore denied widower's insurance benefits to Roberts. (Id.) When Roberts sought clarification regarding the SSA's decision, the Administration informed him that it was sending his request to its Philadelphia office. (Compl. ¶ 20.) Roberts followed up with that office multiple times; the office repeatedly informed him that his application was still under consideration and could not be granted. (Id. ¶ 21.)

         In an attempt to convince the Administration to recognize his marriage, Roberts filed a Petition for Declaration of Common Law Marriage in the Philadelphia Orphans' Court. (Pl.'s Fees Mem. at 3.) He named the SSA as an interested party and served a citation on the Administration to respond to his Petition. (Compl. ¶ 23.) The SSA responded via letter to the court:

[C]ounsel for the Social Security Administration has informed counsel for the Estate of Bernard Wilkerson that it does not intend to file a response to the Petition. The Social Security Administration does not have any knowledge or information concerning the facts contained in the Petition and, therefore, is unable to show cause as to why the Petition should or should not be granted.

(Compl. Ex. B.)

         After an evidentiary hearing, the Orphans' Court granted Roberts' petition and declared that he and Wilkerson “entered into a valid and enforceable marriage under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on July 4, 1990 and remained married until the death of Bernard O. Wilkerson on December 22, 2015.” (Compl. Ex. A at 4.) The SSA did not appear at the hearing and did not appeal the ruling. (Pl.'s Fees Mem. at 3.) After the ruling, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a statement explaining that “[n]ow that [Roberts' petition] has been granted, any application by Mr. Roberts for Social Security death benefits will be processed and evaluated by the SSA in light of the court's order recognizing the validity of the common law marriage between Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wilkerson.” (Id.)

         The Administration did not keep this promise. Instead, despite the Orphans' Court's decision, the SSA continued to delay granting Roberts' application for benefits. (Id. at 4.) Nearly three years after same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania and nearly two years after the United States Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015), the Administration informed Roberts that it was not prepared to grant his application because “there has not been a policy interpretation ruling on [Pennsylvania] Common Law Same-sex marriages.” (Pl.'s Fees Mem. at 4.)

         In response to the SSA's continued efforts to deny him benefits to which he was entitled, Roberts sued the Administration, seeking a court order requiring it to recognize his marriage to Wilkerson and thus grant him benefits. (Id.) Two months after the lawsuit was filed, the SSA sent a letter to Roberts stating that he was not entitled to benefits. (Id.)

         The SSA then filed a motion to dismiss. On November 20, 2017, this Court held oral argument on the motion. Following the hearing, the Court issued an Order in which it warned the SSA that it found the Administration's arguments “unavailing” and ordered the SSA to “revise its decision” on Roberts' benefits claim or provide an explanation as to why he was not entitled to benefits. (ECF No. 17.) The Court required the SSA to respond within 30 days after it received additional documentation of Roberts' marriage that he agreed at the hearing to provide. (Id.)

         On December 22, 2017, the SSA informed Roberts' counsel that it was granting his claim for benefits based on his common law marriage. (Pl.'s Fees Mem. at 5.) The SSA officially notified Roberts of its revised decision on January 2, 2018. (Id.) Meanwhile, the SSA informed the Court that Roberts planned to file an application for attorney's fees and costs. (Id.) Roberts then moved the Court to enter judgment in his favor based on the revised decision; the Court deferred ruling on the motion and ordered Roberts to file a petition for fees and costs.

         II. ...

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