May 21, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Astrue v. Capato

On May 21, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Astrue v. Capato, (No. 11-159), holding, pursuant to § 416(h) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), that a biological child is entitled to Social Security survivors benefits only if the child qualifies for inheritance from the decedent under state intestacy law or satisfies one of the statutory alternatives to that requirement. 

Karen and Robert Capato married in May 1999. Shortly thereafter, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and informed that he would be treated with chemotherapy. Before treatment, Robert deposited his semen in a sperm bank, and he passed away in Florida in March 2002. After Robert's death, Karen began in vitro fertilization using Robert's sperm, and she gave birth to twins in September 2003. Karen claimed Social Security survivors benefits for the twins, but the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her application. The District Court affirmed on the ground that the twins would qualify for benefits only if, pursuant to § 416(h)(2)(A) of the Act, they could inherit from Robert under state intestacy law. Under Florida law, a posthumous child may only inherit through intestate succession if the child was conceived during the decedent's lifetime. The Third Circuit reversed, concluding that, under § 416(e) of the Act, "the undisputed biological children of a deceased wage earner and his widow" qualify for benefits without regard to the state intestacy law.

Granting certiorari to resolve a circuit split, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit. Considering multiple sections of the Act and SSA regulations adopted through notice-and-comment rulemaking, the Supreme Court refused to interpret § 416(e) of the Act to mean that biological children or children born of a marriage automatically met the "tautological definition" in § 416(e) ("‘child' means ... the child ... of an individual") when the language gave no such indication. The Court instead found that the language in § 416(h)(2)(A), "‘[i]n determining whether an applicant is the child ... of [an] insured individual for purposes of this subchapter,'" created a "gateway through which all applicants for in­surance benefits as a ‘child' must pass." And pursuant to that section, the "Commissioner shall apply state intestacy law" to determine who is a qualifying child. The Court also noted that the SSA's construction better suited the Act's purpose and was entitled to deference under Chev­ron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837 (1984). Finally, the Court concluded that the SSA's construction of the Act with regard to posthumous children satisfied rational basis review.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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