United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
STACI D. HARDY, Guardian Ad Litem of J.M.H-B., a minor, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant
For Staci D Hardy, Guardian Ad Litem of J.M.H-B, a minor, Plaintiff: Irene Ruzin, Law Offices of Irene Ruzin, Encino, CA.
For Michael J Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Assistant U.S. Attorney LA-CV, AUSA - Office of U.S. Attorney, Civil Division, Los Angeles, CA; Assistant U.S. Attorney LA-SSA, Office of the General Counsel for Social Security Adm., San Francisco, CA; Geralyn A Gulseth, SAUSA - Office of U.S. Attorney, San Francisco, CA.
PAUL L. ABRAMS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Staci D. Hardy (" plaintiff" ), on behalf of her minor daughter J.M.H-B., filed this action on January 17, 2012, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of J.M.H-B.'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 January 19, 2012, and February 14, 2012. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on November 13, 2012, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.
On August 13, 2004, and September 28, 2004, plaintiff filed applications for J.M.H-B.  seeking Child's Insurance Benefits and a Lump-Sum Death Payment, alleging that J.M.H-B. qualifies as the child of Donnell Delon Brice (" Brice" ) under the Social Security Act. [Administrative Record (" AR" ) at 27-34.] After the applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ). [AR at 35-38, 41-48.] A hearing was held on March 2, 2006. [AR at 117-33.] J.M.H-B. appeared with counsel at the hearing. [AR at 119.] Plaintiff also appeared at the hearing and testified as a witness. [AR at 120-30.] On April 3, 2006, the ALJ found in a revised decision  that J.M.H-B. was " not eligible for Survivor benefits under the Social Security Act" (the " 2006 decision" ). [AR at 15-18.] 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 J.M.H-B.'s case.  [AR at 4-7.] On March 21, 2007, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court in Case No. CV 07-1764-PLA. On March 13, 2009, the Court issued an Order and Judgment affirming the decision of the Commissioner. [See AR at 147.] Plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On November 2, 2010, the Ninth Circuit vacated this Court's March 13, 2009, Order and remanded the matter to this Court with instructions to remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with its disposition. [AR at 149-53.] On February 8, 2011, the Court remanded the action to the Commissioner pursuant to the Ninth Circuit's decision. [AR at 147-48.] On November 10, 2011, the Appeals Council issued a decision again finding that J.M.H-B. " is not eligible for benefits as the wage earner's surviving child under the Social Security Act."  [AR at 137-43.] This action followed.
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.
In the instant case, plaintiff seeks to establish that J.M.H-B. is eligible for child's survivor benefits as the child of Brice. The Commissioner has found, and plaintiff does not dispute, that the only way J.M.H-B. can establish that she is Brice's child under the Social Security Act and associated regulations is by establishing, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(a)(1), that she could inherit Brice's personal property as his natural child under the intestacy laws of California -- where Brice had his permanent home at the time of his death [see AR at 112]. [See AR at 17, 141; Joint Stipulation (" JS" ) at 3-10.] Under California Probate Code § 6453(b), a parental relationship exists for the purpose of intestate succession in California where " [a] court order was entered during the father's lifetime declaring paternity" or where one of two other sets of requirements are met. On September 12, 2005, more than one year after Brice's death, the Los Angeles County Superior Court entered judgment finding that Brice was the father of J.M.H-B. [See AR at 110-12.]
Plaintiff's first contention of error is that language in 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(2) stating that the Commissioner " will not apply any State inheritance law requirement ... that an action to establish paternity must have been started or completed before the worker's death" abrogates the " during the father's lifetime" limitation found in California Probate Code § 6453(b). Plaintiff contends that the " court order ... declaring paternity" entered after Brice's death therefore suffices, by itself, to establish under section 6453(b) that J.M.H-B. is Brice's child for the purpose of obtaining child's survivor benefits. [JS at 5-9.] Defendant argues that the sentence from section 404.355(b)(2) quoted above " refers to time limits under state law" that time-bar a child from bringing an action to establish paternity. [JS at 13.] Defendant asserts that because California Probate Code § 6453(b) does not time-bar a child in California from bringing an action to establish paternity -- " the result that section 404.355(b)(2) is intended to prevent" -- section 404.355(b)(2) does not abrogate the " during the father's lifetime" requirement in section 6453(b). [JS at 18.]
Plaintiff's second contention of error asserts that the application of section 6453(b)'s " during the father's lifetime" requirement to J.M.H-B.'s ability to establish
that she is Brice's child under California's intestacy laws, and thus under the Social Security Act (see 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(a)(1)), " would clearly result in violation of [J.M.H-B.'s] right to equal protection of the law." [JS at 9-10.] In response, defendant contends, among other things, that plaintiff relies on cases that are distinguishable from the instant case. [JS at 20-22.]
For the reasons set forth below, the Court respectfully disagrees with plaintiff, and affirms the Commissioner's decision.
A. THE APPLICABLE STATUTE 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 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)-(3). A claimant is considered to be the child of a deceased insured individual if she is deemed to be the child of the decedent under the law of intestate succession of the state in which the decedent was domiciled at the time of his death. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A).
Federal regulations similarly instruct when a claimant is considered 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 the claimant could inherit the insured's personal property as his natural child under state inheritance laws. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(a)(1). Incorporated by reference into subsection (a) of section 404.355 is subsection (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), which was added to section 404.355 in a 1998 amendment, effective November 27, 1998. See Application of State Law in Determining Child Relationship, 63 Fed. Reg. 57,590 57,593 (Oct. 28, 1998); 20 C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(2). The first sentence of section 404.355(b)(2) provides:
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.
20 C.F.R. § 404.355(b)(2).
Under California law, a parental relationship exists for the purpose of determining intestate succession " between a person and the person's natural parents, regardless of the marital status of the natural parents." Cal. Prob. Code § 6450. California Probate Code § 6453(b) sets forth, in relevant part, the following ways to determine whether a person is a " natural parent" for the purpose of intestate succession in California:
(b) A natural parent and child relationship may be established pursuant to any other provisions of the Uniform Parentage Act, except that the relationship may not be established by an action under subdivision (c) of Section 7630 of ...