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Patti Beeler, As Parent and Natural Guardian of Her Minor Child v. Michael J. Astrue

August 29, 2011

PATTI BEELER, AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF HER MINOR CHILD, APPELLEE,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, SOCIAL SECURITY COMMISSIONER, APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colloton, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: December 17, 2010

Before WOLLMAN, BRIGHT, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

The Social Security Act authorizes the payment of benefits to the dependent children of deceased workers. This case requires us to determine whether a child conceived through artificial insemination more than a year after her father's death qualifies for benefits under the Act. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") interprets the Act to provide that a natural child of the decedent is not entitled to benefits unless she has inheritance rights under state law or can satisfy certain additional statutory requirements. We conclude that the Commissioner's interpretation is, at a minimum, reasonable and entitled to deference, and that the relevant state law does not entitle the applicant in this case to benefits. We therefore reverse the district court's contrary judgment.

I.

A.

Bruce and Patti Beeler met in February 2000, became engaged five months later, and planned to marry in May 2001. Before the wedding date, however, Bruce was diagnosed with acute leukemia and admitted to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics ("UIHC") in Iowa City, Iowa. Doctors advised Bruce to undergo chemotherapy.

Before the treatments commenced, Patti read a brochure about chemotherapy and learned that it could cause sterility. Because Bruce and Patti wanted to have children, they arranged for Bruce to bank semen at the UIHC Fertility Clinic on November 6, 2000. Bruce began chemotherapy shortly thereafter and was hospitalized. His doctor advised him that chemotherapy would not succeed, and that a bone marrow transplant would be his only chance for survival. While Bruce was in the hospital, Bruce and Patti decided to reschedule their wedding to December 2000.

In December, Bruce was released from the hospital and returned to work. Bruce and Patti were married at home later that month. In January 2001, Bruce developed an infection and returned to the hospital. Bruce's doctor informed him that his life expectancy without a bone marrow transplant was approximately six months, and that even with a transplant, his chances of long-term survival were only about 50 percent. Bruce began making plans for his death, including funeral arrangements.

In February 2001, the Beelers turned their attention to the disposition of Bruce's banked semen. On February 12,*fn1 Bruce signed the hospital's Form 61, in which he bequeathed the semen to Patti and provided that the semen could be used only by Patti in the event of his death. On the same day, the Beelers also signed the hospital's Form 151. Entitled "Agreement of Understanding," Form 151 provides that the signatories "desire[] the female partner to be artificially inseminated or oocytes inseminated in vitro for the purpose of conceiving a child." The form also states that the "[m]ale partner hereby agrees to accept and acknowledge paternity and child support responsibility of any resulting child or children."

Two days after the Beelers signed the forms, Bruce underwent a bone marrow transplant. The transplant was unsuccessful, and by late April, it became clear that Bruce would not survive. Patti later stated that Bruce was comforted during this time by his belief that Patti would have his children after he died. Bruce's mother averred that Bruce hoped that Patti would bear his children after his death. Bruce died on May 4, 2001, at the age of 37. At the time of his death, he was domiciled in the State of Iowa.

After Patti lost her employment in August 2001, she decided to wait until she secured a new full-time job with benefits before she attempted to conceive a child using Bruce's frozen semen. On July 25, 2002, Patti conceived a child after undergoing intra-uterine insemination. Her daughter, B.E.B., was born on April 28, 2003. Bruce is listed as B.E.B.'s father on her birth certificate, and it is undisputed that B.E.B. is Bruce's biological daughter.

On June 2, 2003, Patti Beeler filed an application for child's insurance benefits on behalf of B.E.B. The SSA denied the application and a request for reconsideration, and Beeler requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Following a hearing in March 2008, the ALJ sent the case to the agency's Appeals Council with a recommended decision concluding that B.E.B. was not entitled to benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.953(c). On December 22, 2008, the Appeals Council, based on its review and application of the Act, regulations, rulings, and acquiescence rulings, issued an opinion determining that B.E.B. "is not the child of the wage earner within the meaning of the Social Security Act (Act) and is not entitled to benefits." This opinion is the agency's final decision on the matter.

On February 13, 2009, Beeler sued the Commissioner of Social Security, seeking review of the SSA's denial of benefits. The district court reversed the SSA's decision and remanded the matter to the agency with instructions to calculate and award benefits for B.E.B. The district court denied the Commissioner's motion to alter or amend the judgment, and the Commissioner filed a timely notice of appeal.

B.

In 1935, Congress enacted the Social Security Act, ch. 531, 49 Stat. 620 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.), which provides for monthly benefit payments to workers who reach a certain age and who meet other established criteria. Four years later, Congress amended the Act to provide for benefit payments to the family members of deceased wage earners. The Social Security Act Amendments of 1939, ch. 666, 53 Stat. 1360, included a provision, currently codified at 42 U.S.C. § 402(d), that authorizes the payment of "child's insurance benefits" to the ...


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