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MacNeil v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 24, 2017

SHARON MACNEIL, on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children A.T.M. and C.E.M., Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: May 2, 2017

         Plaintiff-Appellant Sharon MacNeil ("MacNeil") brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging a decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration that her children-twins conceived via in vitro fertilization eleven years after her husband died-were ineligible for survivors' insurance benefits. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Sharpe, J.) affirmed the agency's decision, concluding that under the applicable provisions of New York's Estates, Powers and Trusts Law ("EPTL") the children were not entitled to inherit under New York state intestacy law, and so were not children of the deceased wage earner within the meaning of the relevant Social Security Act provisions. We agree and accordingly AFFIRM the district court's judgment.

          Fara Tabatabai (Hagit M. Elul, on the brief), New York, New York, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Sandra M. Grossfeld (Stephen P. Conte, on the brief), New York, New York, for Grant C. Jaquith, Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, Syracuse, New York, for Defendant-Appellee.

          Before: Walker, Livingston, and Lynch, Circuit Judges.

          Debra Ann Livingston, Circuit Judge,

         Plaintiff-Appellant Sharon MacNeil ("MacNeil") conceived twins via in vitro fertilization eleven years after her husband, the donor spouse, died. After the children-A.T.M. and C.E.M.-were born, MacNeil filed applications for child's survivors' benefits, based on her husband's earnings history, with the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). As relevant here, the SSA has interpreted the governing statute-in an interpretation upheld by the Supreme Court-to treat an individual as a child of the decedent-insured, and thus potentially eligible for survivors' benefits, if that individual would inherit from the decedent under the intestacy law of the state in which the insured was domiciled. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied the twins' applications for benefits, concluding that, under the version of the New York law in effect at the time of the decision, children conceived and born after a decedent's death were not entitled to inherit by intestacy.

         MacNeil then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York challenging this determination, and the district court affirmed the agency's view. We agree with the district court that, under the applicable provisions of New York's Estates, Powers and Trusts Law ("EPTL") in effect at and prior to the time of the agency's final decision, A.T.M. and C.E.M. were not entitled to inherit from the decedent in intestacy. In the absence of any showing of other grounds for eligibility for child's survivors' benefits under the Social Security Act, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Factual Background[1]

Sharon and Eric MacNeil were married on October 1, 1994, a year after they graduated from college. Several months into their marriage, Eric was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 23. The couple, knowing that the cancer might be terminal or that treatment might render Eric sterile, decided to bank Eric's sperm. Eric died intestate on May 24, 1996, at age 24. In June 2007, eleven years after Eric's death, Sharon underwent in vitro fertilization using the stored sperm. She gave birth to twins, A.T.M. and C.E.M., on February 14, 2008.

         II. Procedural History

         On October 8, 2009, MacNeil filed separate applications for child's survivors' benefits for her twins with the SSA, based upon the wage earnings of their deceased father. The SSA denied these applications, and MacNeil then sought a hearing before an ALJ. The only question presented before the ALJ was a legal one: whether A.T.M. and C.E.M. qualified as "child[ren]" under the Social Security Act. The ALJ concluded that, though it was uncontested that the twins were biologically Eric MacNeil's children, they were not entitled to inherit under the applicable provisions of New York intestacy law because they were conceived after Eric's death. As a result, on February 14, 2013, the ALJ issued two separate and identical decisions denying MacNeil's applications for each of her children. The SSA's Appeals Council denied MacNeil's paired petitions for review.

         On November 18, 2014, MacNeil filed suit against the Commissioner of the SSA in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, seeking review of the agency's final determination under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The magistrate judge (Hummel, M.J.) issued a Report & Recommendation ("R&R") proposing that the SSA's denial of benefits be affirmed. The district court (Sharpe, J.) adopted the R&R in full and dismissed MacNeil's complaint. On June 24, 2016, MacNeil timely appealed.

         DISCUSSION

         When reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner in a Social Security benefits case, this Court examines the administrative record de novo to determine, as relevant here, whether the SSA applied the correct legal standard. See Pollard v. ...


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