United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
JOHN D. ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, in her capacity as Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.”
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
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.)
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
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.