Supreme Court Watch: Astrue v. Capato, My DNA, and Your DNA
In March, we previewed Astrue v. Capato, in which Karen Capato attempted to collect Social Security survivor’s benefits for twins conceived after the death of the father, based on the father’s income.
The court ruled unanimously that no good definition of a surviving child exists, given technological changes which came into effect since Congress passed the original Act. However, writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says the Social Security Administration’s interpretation of what is a “child”, while not perfect, makes more sense and is more consistent with the Act than Karen Capato’s.
Kristine Knaplund, over at SCOTUSblog, gives this plain English analysis of the Court’s decision:
The United States Supreme Court decided unanimously that a child conceived and born after a parent’s death cannot rely solely on a genetic connection to the deceased parent in order to qualify for Social Security survivors benefits. Siding with the Social Security Administration’s interpretation of the law, the Court held that all children, including those born via assisted reproduction technology, must either demonstrate that they would be eligible to inherit from their late parent under state law or satisfy one of the statutory alternatives to that requirement. The SSA’s interpretation was more consistent with the core purpose of the Act, which is to protect family members who depend on another family member’s income from hardship if that family member dies.
At the time, I gave this rundown of the case:
Robert and Karen Capato were married in New Jersey in 1999. Shortly after their marriage, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Knowing that chemotherapy might render him sterile, he banked his sperm before undergoing treatment. Meanwhile, the couple had a child by natural methods who was born in August 2001.
Sadly, Robert Capato died in March 2002 in Florida. His will made provisions for the infant son and two children from a previous marriage.
The Capatos always wanted their infant son to have a sibling, but Robert’s health had deteriorated before another son could be conceived naturally. Therefore, Karen used Robert’s banked sperm to conceive, giving birth to twins on September 23, 2003. She applied for Social Security survivor benefits for the twins.
Section 202(d) of the Social Security Act covers who is eligible to receive benefits:
(d)(1) Every child (as defined in section 216(e)) of an individual entitled to old-age or disability insurance benefits, or of an individual who dies a fully or currently insured individual, if such child—
(A) has filed application for child’s insurance benefits,
(B) at the time such application was filed was unmarried …
(C) was dependent upon such individual— …
(ii) if such individual has died, at the time of such death…
Section 216(e), then, defines “child”:
The term “child” means (1) the child or legally adopted child of an individual…
Also, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has routinely applied Section 216(h) to determine eligibility. This section relies on state law regarding those who are eligible to receive benefits if someone dies without a will (i.e. intestate) to determine who qualifies for benefits.
The lower courts decided that Robert Capato was a resident of Florida at the time of his death, so Florida intestancy law applies. Under Florida law, a child who is born to a deceased parent is only eligible to inherit the parent’s property if he is specifically provided for in the parent’s will. Therefore, the administrative law judge who first heard the case decided that 1) Capato was a Florida resident at the time of his death; and 2) that the twins did not qualify for Social Security benefits, since they were not provided for in Robert Capato’s will.
The Third Circuit overturned the administrative law judge’s decision, not on the basis of residency (they seemed to agree that Capato was a Florida resident at the time of his death) but rather on the Social Security Act’s definition of a “child”. The decision said that section 216(e) supersedes section 216(h). That is, the definition of a “child” is clear, according to the Act, and does not need clarification using the rather complicated guidelines set forth in 216(h).
(Michael Astrue, the claimant, is the current Commissioner of Social Security.)
The principle applied here is called Chevron deference: in the 1984 case Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., the Court held that the law as interpreted by administrative agencies (such as the SSA) would take precedence unless the agency had some sort of crazy reading of the statute. In this case, the SSA’s interpretation appeared saner to the court than Karen Capato’s.
While this resolves discrepancies between the lower courts in the interpretation of what constitutes a “child”, there is still a huge problem with the Social Security Administration’s procedures in deciding who can access survivor benefits. The SSA’s reliance on state law works for this case, which concerned a Florida resident, but there is a patchwork of state laws regarding eligibility for survivor’s benefits in intestacy, and some states have no laws referencing Social Security for the purpose of determining eligibility. Perhaps this case will aid state legislatures in righting this inconsistency.
Another technological achievement that has revolutionized crime detection and jurisprudence is the availability of DNA evidence. Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has refused to hear an appeal of lower court rulings that keeps Maryland police from obtaining DNA evidence from persons who have been arrested. The Commonwealth has indicated it will appeal to the Supreme Court. Because of discrepancies in lower court decisions, expect the Supreme Court to grant certiorari.
Did the Court get it horribly wrong? Is Robert Capato’s DNA eligible for survivor benefits?
Do you think being arrested automatically makes you eligible to give a DNA sample to police agencies?
It’s your DNA, you tell us what you want done with it.
- Supreme Court: In Vitro Twins Conceived After Dad’s Death Are Not Entitled to Survivor Benefit | ABA Journal | Debra Cassens Weiss | 5/21/12 (vinhsulaw.wordpress.com)
- Opinion analysis: Genetic link not enough for Social Security survivors benefits (scotusblog.com)
- Supreme Court Rules on Frozen Sperm Case — No Social Security for Twins Conceived After Husband’s Death (julieshapiro.wordpress.com)
- No aid for kids conceived after dad died (kshb.com)
- Supreme Court Rules on Social Security Survivors Benefits and Posthumous Children (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- Md. Appeals Court Declines To Review DNA Ruling (baltimore.cbslocal.com)
- Maryland Court Bans DNA Swabs of Charged Suspects, Prosecutors Seek Appeal (jdjournal.com)
- Police Outraged By Court Ruling That Bars Them From Collecting DNA Samples (baltimore.cbslocal.com)
- Md. AG Doug Gansler Files Court Motion To Halt DNA Collection Decision (washington.cbslocal.com)
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