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Hardy v. Astrue

March 13, 2009

STACI D. HARDY, GUARDIAN AD LITEM OF JORDAN M. HARDY-BRICE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Abrams United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Staci D. Hardy ("plaintiff"), on behalf of her minor daughter Jordan M. Hardy-Brice ("Jordan"),*fn1 filed this action on March 21, 2007, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of Jordan's applications for Child's Insurance Benefits and a Lump-Sum Death Payment. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on April 4, 2007. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on November 20, 2007, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issue in the case. On April 22, 2008, the parties presented their arguments to the Court regarding the disputed issue. The parties filed supplemental briefing on May 9, 2008, and the matter was taken under submission.

II. BACKGROUND

On August 13, 2004, and September 28, 2004, plaintiff filed applications for Jordan*fn2 seeking Child's Insurance Benefits and a Lump-Sum Death Payment, alleging that Jordan qualifies as the child of Donnell Delon Brice ("Donnell") under the Social Security Act. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 27-32, 33-34.] After the applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 35-38, 41-49.] A hearing was held on March 2, 2006. [AR at 117-33.] Jordan appeared with counsel at the hearing. [AR at 119.] Plaintiff also appeared at the hearing and testified as a witness. [AR at 120-30.]

In the revised decision dated April 3, 2006,*fn3 the ALJ found that Jordan was "not eligible for Survivor benefits under the Social Security Act." [AR at 18.] Plaintiff filed a request for review of the hearing decision. [AR at 9-10, 14.] On January 26, 2007, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review and advised plaintiff that the ALJ's decision would stand as the final decision of the Commissioner in Jordan's case.*fn4 [AR at 4-7.]

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

IV. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff contends that "the ALJ's denial of plaintiff's Child's Social Security Survivor Benefits claim was based upon incorrect application of statutory and case law." Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") at 3. For the reasons set forth below, the Court respectfully disagrees with plaintiff, and affirms the ALJ's decision.

A. THE APPLICABLE STATUTES AND REGULATIONS

The Social Security Act requires the Commissioner to determine whether a child is entitled to receive child's survivor benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(d). Under 42 U.S.C. § 402(d), in order to qualify for child's insurance benefits, the claimant, as relevant here, must show that she was a child of, and dependent on, the wage earner at the time of the wage earner's death. 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)(C). The Social Security Act outlines the requirements for establishing a parental relationship. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A)-(3)(C). Under section 416(h)(2)(A), a claimant who is deemed to be the child of the deceased insured individual under the law of intestate succession of the state in which the decedent was domiciled at the time of his death is considered to be the child of the decedent for purposes of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A). If the claimant is unable to meet the requirements of the state's intestacy laws in order to qualify as a "child" under section 416(h)(2)(A), the claimant may still establish that she is the child of the deceased insured individual by satisfying the requirements of sections 416(h)(2)(B) or 416(h)(3)(C) of the Social Security Act. Section 416(h)(2)(B) provides that a claimant may establish that she is the child of the deceased by showing that the insured individual and the claimant's other parent went through a marriage ceremony, which but for a legal impediment would have created a valid marriage. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(B). Alternatively, a claimant may be deemed the "child" of a deceased insured individual if the insured individual had acknowledged in writing that the claimant is his child, had been decreed by a court to be the father of the child, or had been ordered by a court to contribute to the claimant's support, and such acknowledgment, court decree or court order was made before the death of the insured individual. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(3)(C)(i)(I)-(III). Paternity may also be established if there is satisfactory evidence that the insured individual was the claimant's parent and the insured individual was living with or contributing to the support of the claimant at the time of death. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(3)(C)(ii).

Federal regulations also instruct when a claimant is the "child" of a deceased insured individual. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.355, a child is eligible for benefits as the insured's natural child if: (1) the claimant could inherit the insured's personal property as his natural child under state inheritance laws; (2) the claimant is the insured's natural child and the insured and the claimant's mother went through a ceremony which would have resulted in a valid marriage between them except for a legal impediment; (3) the claimant is the insured's natural child and the claimant's mother never married the insured, but before the insured's death, the insured had either acknowledged in writing that the claimant is his child, been decreed by a court to be the claimant's father, or been ordered by a court to contribute to the claimant's support because the claimant is his child; or (4) the claimant's mother never married the insured but the claimant has other evidence to show that the insured is her natural father, as well as evidence to show that the insured was either living with the claimant or contributing to the claimant's support at the time of the insured's death. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(a)(1)-(4). Incorporated by reference into paragraph (a) of section 404.355 is paragraph (b) of that same section, which states that the intestacy laws of the state where the insured had his permanent home when he died are used to determine whether a claimant has inheritance rights as the natural child of the insured. 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(1). The application of state law regarding intestate succession is modified by 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(2).*fn5 That section provides in relevant part that:

(2) Standards. We will not apply any State inheritance law requirement that an action to establish paternity must be taken within a specified period of time measured from the worker's death or the child's birth, or that an action to establish paternity must have been started or completed before the worker's death. If applicable State inheritance law requires a court determination of paternity, we will not require that you obtain such a determination but will decide ...


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