Astrue v. Capato
SOCIAL SERVICES — Social Security
Astrue v. Capato, No. 11-159; U.S. Supreme Court; opinion by Ginsburg, J.; decided May 21, 2012. On certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Eighteen months after her husband, Robert Capato, died of cancer, respondent Karen Capato gave birth to twins conceived through in vitro fertilization using her husband's frozen sperm. Karen applied for Social Security survivors benefits for the twins. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her application, and the district court affirmed. In accord with the SSA's construction of the Social Security Act, the court determined that the twins would qualify for benefits only if, as 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A) specifies, they could inherit from the deceased wage earner under state intestacy law. The court then found that Robert was domiciled in Florida at his death, and that under Florida law, posthumously conceived children do not qualify for inheritance through intestate succession.
The Third Circuit reversed. It concluded that, under § 416(e), which defines child to mean, inter alia, "the child or legally adopted child of an [insured] individual," the undisputed biological children of an insured and his widow qualify for survivors benefits without regard to state intestacy law.
Held: The SSA's reading is better attuned to the statute's text and its design to benefit primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner in his or her lifetime. Moreover, even if the SSA's longstanding interpretation is not the only reasonable one, it is at least a permissible construction entitled to deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., 467 U.S. 837. Pp. 4-16.
(a) Congress amended the act in 1939 to provide that, as relevant here, "[e]very child (as defined in section 416(e) of this title)" of a deceased insured individual "shall be entitled to a child's insurance benefit." See § 402(d). Section 416(e), in turn, defines "child" to mean: "(1) the child or legally adopted child of an individual, (2) a stepchild [under certain circumstances], and (3) ... the grandchild or stepgrandchild of an individual or his spouse [under certain conditions]." Unlike §§ 416(e)(2) and (3), § 416(e)(1) lacks any elaboration of the conditions under which a child qualifies for benefits. Section 416(h)(2)(A), however, further addresses the term "child," providing: "In determining whether an applicant is the child or parent of [an] insured individual for purposes of this subchapter, the Commissioner of Social Security shall apply [the intestacy law of the insured individual's domiciliary State]." An applicant who does not meet § 416(h)(2)(A)'s intestacy-law criterion may nonetheless qualify for benefits under other criteria set forth in §§ 416(h)(2)(B) and (h)(3), but respondent does not claim eligibility under those other criteria. Regulations promulgated by the SSA closely track §§ 416(h)(2) and (3) in defining "[w]ho is the insured's natural child," 20 CFR § 404.355. As the SSA reads the statute, 42 U.S.C. § 416(h) governs the meaning of "child" in § 416(e)(1) and serves as a gateway through which all applicants for insurance benefits as a "child" must pass. Pp. 4-7.
(b) Although the SSA regards § 416(h) as completing § 416(e)'s sparse definition of "child," the Third Circuit held, and respondent contends, that § 416(e) alone governs whenever the claimant is a married couple's biological child. There are conspicuous flaws in the Third Circuit's and respondent's reading; the SSA offers the more persuasive interpretation. Pp. 7-15.
(1) Nothing in § 416(e)'s tautological definition suggests that Congress understood the word "child" to refer only to the children of married parents. The dictionary definitions offered by respondent are not so confined. Moreover, elsewhere in the act, Congress expressly limited the category of children covered to offspring of a marital union, see § 402(d)(3)(A), and contemporaneous statutes similarly distinguish child of a marriage from the unmodified term "child." Nor does § 416(e) indicate that Congress intended "biological" parentage to be prerequisite to "child" status. A biological parent is not always a child's parent under law. Furthermore, marriage does not necessarily make a child's parentage certain, nor does the absence of marriage necessarily make a child's parentage uncertain. Finally, it is far from obvious that respondent's proposed definition would cover her posthumously conceived twins, for under Florida law a marriage ends on the death of a spouse. Pp. 8-10.
(2) The SSA finds a key textual cue in § 416(h)(2)(A)'s opening instruction: "In determining whether an applicant is the child ... of [an] insured individual for purposes of this subchapter," the commissioner shall apply state intestacy law. Respondent notes the absence of any cross-reference in § 416(e) to § 416(h), but she overlooks that § 416(h) provides the crucial link: It requires reference to state intestacy law to determine child status not just for § 416(h) purposes, but "for purposes of this subchapter," which includes both §§ 402(d) and 416(e). Having explicitly complemented § 416(e) by the definitional provisions contained in § 416(h), Congress had no need to place a redundant cross-reference in § 416(e).
The act commonly refers to state law on matters of family status, including an applicant's status as a wife, widow, husband or widower. See, e.g., §§ 416(b), (h)(1)(A). The act also sets duration-of-relationship limitations, see Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749, 777-82, and time limits qualify the statutes of several states that accord inheritance rights to posthumously conceived children. In contrast, no time constraint attends the Third Circuit's ruling in this case, under which the biological child of married parents is eligible for survivors benefits, no matter the length of time between the father's death and the child's conception and birth.
Because a child who may take from a father's estate is more likely to "be dependent during the parent's life and at his death," Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 514, reliance on state intestacy law to determine who is a "child" serves the act's driving objective, which is to "provide ... dependent members of [a wage earner's] family with protection against the hardship occasioned by [the] loss of [the insured's] earnings," Califano v. Jobst, 434 U.S. 47, 52. Although the act and regulations set different eligibility requirements for adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren and stepgrandchildren, it hardly follows, as respondent argues, that applicants in those categories are treated more advantageously than are children who must meet a § 416(h) criterion. Respondent charges that the SSA's construction of the act raises serious constitutional concerns under the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause. But under rational-basis review, the appropriate standard here, the regime passed by Congress easily passes inspection. Pp. 10-15.
(c) Because the SSA's interpretation of the relevant provisions is at least reasonable, the agency's reading is entitled to this court's deference under Chevron, 467 U.S. 837. Chevron deference is appropriate "when it appears that Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and that the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority." United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 226-27. Here, the SSA's longstanding interpretation, set forth in regulations published after notice-and-comment rulemaking, is neither "arbitrary or capricious in substance, [n]or manifestly contrary to the statute." Mayo Foundation for Medical Ed. and Research v. United States, 562 U.S. . It, therefore, warrants the court's approbation. Pp. 15-16.
631 F.3d 626, reversed and remanded.
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