Weinberger v. Salfi
422 U.S. 749 (1975)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749 (1975)

Weinberger v. Salfi

No. 74-214

Argued March 19, 1975

Decided June 26, 1975

422 U.S. 749

Syllabus

After her husband of less than six months died, appellee widow filed applications for mother's Social Security insurance benefits for herself and child's insurance benefits for her daughter by a previous marriage, but the Social Security Administration (SSA), both initially and on reconsideration at the regional level, denied the applications on the basis of the duration of relationship requirements of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(c)(5) and (e)(2) (1970 ed. and Supp. III), which define "widow" and "child" so as to exclude surviving wives and stepchildren who had their respective relationships to a deceased wage earner for less than nine months prior to his death. Appellees widow and child, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, then brought a class action in Federal District Court on behalf of all widows and step-children denied benefits because of the nine-month requirements. A three-judge court, after concluding that it had federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, held that the nine-month requirements constituted constitutionally invalid "irrebuttable presumptions," and accordingly enjoined appellants Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), its Secretary, and the SSA and various of its officials from denying benefits on the basis of those requirements.

Held:

1. The District Court did not have federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, because such jurisdiction is barred by the third sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(h), which provides that no action against the United States, the HEW Secretary, or any officer or employee thereof shall be brought under, inter alia, 28 U.S.C. § 1331 to recover on any claim arising under Title II of the Act, which covers old-age, survivors', and disability insurance benefits. Pp. 422 U. S. 756-762.

(a) That § 405(h)'s third sentence, contrary to the District Court's view, does not merely codify the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies, is plain from its sweeping language; and, moreover, to construe it so narrowly would render it superfluous in view of

Page 422 U. S. 750

§ 405(h)'s first two sentences, which provide that the Secretary's findings and decision after a hearing shall be binding upon all parties to the hearing, and shall not be reviewed except as provided in § 405(g), which, inter alia, requires administrative exhaustion. Pp. 422 U. S. 756-759.

(b) There is no merit to appellees' argument that, because their action arises under the Constitution and not under the Act, it is not barred by § 405(h), since, although their claim does arise under the Constitution, it also arises under the Act, which furnishes both the standing and substantive basis for the constitutional claim. Pp. 422 U. S. 760-761.

(c) Section 405(h)'s third sentence extends to any "action" seeking "to recover on any [Social Security] claim" -- irrespective of whether resort to judicial processes is necessitated by discretionary decisions of the Secretary or by his nondiscretionary application of allegedly unconstitutional statutory restrictions -- and, although not precluding constitutional challenges, simply requires that they be brought under jurisdictional grants contained in the Act, and thus in conformity with the same standards that apply to nonconstitutional claims arising under the Act. Johnson v. Robison,415 U. S. 361, distinguished. Pp. 422 U. S. 761-762.

2. The District Court had no jurisdiction over the unnamed members of the class under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that

"[a]ny individual, after any final decision of the Secretary made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action,"

since the complaint as to such class members is deficient in that it contains no allegations that they have even filed an application for benefits with the Secretary, much less that he has rendered any decision, final or otherwise, review of which is sought. Pp. 422 U. S. 763-764.

3. The District Court had jurisdiction over the named appellees under § 405(g). While the allegations of the complaint with regard to exhaustion of remedies fall short of meeting § 405(g)'s literal requirement that there shall have been a "final decision of the Secretary made after a hearing" and of satisfying the Secretary's regulations specifying that the finality required for judicial review be achieved only after the further steps of a hearing before an administrative judge and possibly consideration by the Appeals Council, nevertheless the Secretary, by not challenging the sufficiency of such allegations, has apparently determined that, for purposes of this action. the reconsideration determination is "final."

Page 422 U. S. 751

Under the Act's administrative scheme, the Secretary may make such a determination, because the term "final decision" is left undefined by the Act, and its meaning is to be fleshed out by the Secretary's regulations, 42 U.S.C. § 405(a), and because no judicial or administrative interest would be served by further administrative proceedings once the Secretary concluded that a matter is beyond his jurisdiction to determine, and that the claim is neither otherwise invalid nor cognizable under a different section of the Act. Similar considerations control with regard to the requirement that the Secretary's decision be made "after a hearing," since, under such circumstances, a hearing would be futile and wasteful, and since, moreover, the Secretary may award benefits without requiring a hearing. Pp. 422 U. S. 764-767.

4. The nine-month duration of relationship requirements of §§ 416(c)(5) and (e)(2) are not unconstitutional. Pp. 422 U. S. 767-785.

(a) A statutory classification in the area of social welfare such as the Social Security program is constitutional if it is rationally based and free from invidious discrimination. Pp. 422 U. S. 768-770.

(b) A noncontractual claim to receive funds from the public treasury enjoys no constitutionally protected status, although, of course, there may not be invidious discrimination among such claimants. Stanley v. Illinois,405 U. S. 645; Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur,414 U. S. 632, distinguished. The benefits here are available upon compliance with an objective criterion, one that the Legislature considered to bear a sufficiently close nexus with underlying policy objectives as to be used as the test for eligibility. Appellees are free to present evidence that they meet the specified requirements, failing which, their only constitutional claim is that the test they cannot meet is not so rationally related to a legitimate legislative objective that it can be used to deprive them of benefits available to those who do satisfy that test, Vlandis v. Kline,412 U. S. 441, distinguished. Pp. 422 U. S. 770-773.

(c) The duration of relationship test meets the constitutional standard that Congress, its concern having been reasonably aroused by the possibility of an abuse -- the use of sham marriages to secure Social Security benefits -- which it legitimately desired to avoid, could rationally have concluded that a particular limitation or qualification would protect against its occurrence, and that the expense and other difficulties of individual determinations justified the inherent imprecision of an objective, easily administered prophylactic rule. Pp. 422 U. S. 773-780.

Page 422 U. S. 752

(d) Neither the fact that § 416(c)(5) excludes some wives who married with no anticipation of shortly becoming widows nor the fact that the requirement does not filter out every such claimant, if a wage earner lives longer than anticipated or has an illness that can be recognized as terminal more than nine months prior to death, necessarily renders the statutory scheme unconstitutional. While it is possible to debate the wisdom of excluding legitimate claimants in order to discourage sham relationships, and of relying on a rule that may not exclude some obviously sham arrangements, Congress could rationally choose to adopt such a course. Pp. 422 U. S. 781-783.

373 F.Supp. 961, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 422 U. S. 785. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 422 U. S. 786.

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