8th Cir.: Sides with Deference to SSA in Circuit Split

The Eighth Circuit jumped into the midst of a circuit split on an issue for which a petition for certiorari is pending.  The question is whether a child who is clearly the biological offspring of a deceased parent can obtain Social Security childrens benefits, when the child was conceived through artificial insemination after the death of the father.  The Social Security Administration (SSA) interprets the statute as not permitting the children to obtain benefits.  The Ninth and Third Circuits have held that the agency’s interpretation is not reasonable, but the Fourth Circuit disagreed.  The Eighth Circuit has now sided with the Fourth Circuit, deferring to the agency’s interpretation.  A petition for certiorari has been filed in the Third Circuit case.  The Eighth Circuit case is Beeler v. Astrue, No. 10–1092, 2011 WL 3795103, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 17983 (8th Cir., 2011).  The Eighth Circuit opinion was written by Judge Colloton (George W. Bush) and joined by Senior Judge Bright (Johnson) and Judge Wollman (Reagan).

Bruce Beeler was engaged to Patti Beeler in 2000. Just a few months later, doctors diagnosed Bruce with acute leukemia, and they recommended chemotherapy. He and Patti decided to preserve Bruce’s semen in case chemotherapy rendered Bruce sterile. Bruce banked semen in 2000 and began the chemotherapy treatments. He and Patti married in December of 2000 and began the chemotherapy, but the treatments were unsuccessful. Bruce’s doctors next attempted a bone marrow transplant, but this, too, failed. Aware that his chances for survival were diminishing, Bruce bequeathed the semen to Patti and signed an agreement of understanding that he desired Patti to use the semen to conceive a child and that he would acknowledge paternity of the child she conceived. Bruce passed away on May 4, 2001. In 2002, Patti conceived through artificial insemination using Bruce’s semen, and gave birth to a daughter in 2003, B.E.B.

Patti applied for Social Security benefits for her daughter, but the Social Security Administration denied her application. The SSA determined that B.E.B. was not a “child” of the deceased within the meaning of the relevant statues and regulations because she was conceived after the father’s death. Patti Beeler sued the Commissioner of Social Security to overturn the decision. The district court found for Patti Beeler and the Commissioner appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit, citing Chevron v. NRDC, 467 U.S. 837 (1984), explained that it would defer to an administrative agency’s regulations so long as they were enacted based on authority from Congress and are reasonable.

Beeler argued that the Commissioner’s position on the meaning of the regulations at issue was not entitled to deference because other agency regulations contradicted the Commissioner’s position, but the court rejected Beeler’s arguments. The court stated that even if there were some ambiguity in the regulations, the agency’s interpretations of its own regulations would govern unless plainly erroneous. The court was also unconvinced by Beeler’s claims that other agency regulations contradicted the Commissioner’s position. The court held that Chevron deference was appropriate to apply to the case.

Applying Chevron, the court examined whether the agency’s interpretation of the statues defining “child” were reasonable. The court noted that there is now a circuit split on the question, but it decided “the text of the statutes clearly favors the Commissioner’s position.” The court agreed with the Commissioner that the statute required the Commissioner to determine whether a person is the “child” of an insured by following 42 U.S.C. § 416(h) and looking to state inheritance law. The Commissioner was not required to consider 42 U.S.C. § 416(e), which allows for additional means for deeming a person to be a “child” for the purpose of providing benefits. The Commissioner’s interpretation of the statutes, the court held, were reasonable.

The court then turned to the question of whether B.E.B. qualified as the natural child of the decedent under § 416(h). Under one subsection of the statute, a person is a child of a decedent if he or she would have inheritance rights under the law of the state where the decedent was domiciled when he died. In this case, the law of Iowa applied. The court determined that Iowa intestacy law would not have allowed B.E.B. to inherit as Bruce’s child.

Beeler also claimed under another subsection of the statute that B.E.B. should be “deemed” to be Bruce’s natural child because Bruce signed a writing indicating intent to recognize his paternity of the child his wife would have. However, the court accepted the agency’s decision that the statute only applied to writings acknowledging paternity of specific children. Bruce’s writing only acknowledged paternity of any children his wife might have with his semen, and did not specifically acknowledge paternity of B.E.B.

With the propensity of even Democratic-appointed Justices such as Breyer to defer heavily to the federal government, it is not surprising that the agency is seeking Supreme Court review.  For a discussion of the Court’s deference to federal agencies, see Rochelle Bobroff, The Early Roberts Court Attacks Congress’s Power to Protect Civil Rights, 30 N.C. Cent. L.J. 231, 243 (2008).

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