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03/29/85 Marjorie Vance and v. Margaret M. Heckler

March 29, 1985

MARJORIE VANCE AND REGINALD HAM, APPELLANTS

v.

MARGARET M. HECKLER, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES



Wright, Bork, and Scalia, Circuit Judges.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (D.C. Civil Action No. 83-00553). 1985.CDC.59

APPELLATE PANEL:

Opinion for the court filed by Circuit Judge Wright.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE WRIGHT I. THE STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

A "child" of a deceased wage earner who satisfies the age, filing, and non-marriage requirements of the Act, id. § 402(d)(1), and who has not been legally adopted by another, id. § 402(d)(3), is entitled to benefits if he or she was "dependent" on the wage earner at the time of the wage earner's death. Id. § 402(d)(1). A child who was not living with or supported by the insured wage earner at the time of the latter's death may, nonetheless, be "deemed dependent" if he or she is the "legitimate [or] adopted child" of the insured. Id. § 402(c)(3). An illegitimate child shall be "deemed to be the legitimate child" of the wage earner, id. § 402(d)(3), if any of the following conditions obtain: (1) the wage earner "had acknowledged in writing that the applicant is his son or daughter," id. § 416(h)(3)(i); (2) prior to the insured's death a court had decreed him or her to be the mother or father of the applicant or had ordered contribution for support of the child, id. § 416(h)(3)(i); (3) evidence "satisfactory to the Secretary" shows that the insured was the parent of the applicant and that the insured was "living with or contributing to the support of the applicant" at the time the insured died, id. § 416(h)(3)(ii); or (4) the child would be entitled to inherit property from the wage earner under the laws of intestate devolution of the state in which the latter died, id. § 416(h)(2).3

Thus Ham's eligibility for benefits turns entirely on whether he is deemed "a legitimate child" under the Act. Such a finding necessarily satisfies the requirement that the applicant have been "dependent" on the insured at the time of the latter's death.

Under established law, the applicant bears the burden of proving that he or she is dependent on the insured and is therefore eligible for benefits. See Wyatt v. Ribicoff, 211 F. Supp. 928, 929 (W.D. La. 1962); H. MCCORMICK, SOCIAL SECURITY CLAIMS AND PROCEDURE § 134 )3d ed. 1983). Under equally established law, the factual findings that underlie the Secretary's eligibility determinations are conclusive if supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 91 S. Ct. 1420 (1971). II. ARGUMENT

Although appellants challenge the Secretary's decision on several grounds, we focus our attention on a single dispositive issue: whether substantial evidence in the record supports the determination that a letter submitted by appellants was not a written acknowledgment of paternity within the meaning of Section 416(h)(3)(i).

The letter which opened with the salutation "Hi Doc," included the following passage:

Oh! Doc, I will be waiting for your and Queen and the rest of the family pictureOk, I was glad to know that Queen was gone back to school, then she can be a lot of help to you and family with money . . .. Your sister and law call me last week, and I took the call. But I didn't like that. I told her that I would take care of my son. I just want him to stay with me until school open and I will give him anything that he need for school. But your sister and law had a man with her making me a call to New York and really didn't like that at all.

Records Excerpts for Appellant (hereinafter RE) at 94-95 (emphasis added). The letter closed with the names "Uncle Bill Wilkins" and "C. Ruffus [ sic ] Wilkins Jr.," both clearly written in the same hand.

Self evidently, Ham's entitlement to benefits turns on three critical questions. The first is the identity of the letter's author. For only if Willie Wilkins wrote the letter could the phrase "my son" refer to Ham. The second is the identity of the person referred to as "your sister and law." Unless the reference is to Marjorie Vance, Ham's mother, it would be impossible to conclude that Reginald Ham was the "son" whose support was the subject of the phone call described in the letter. The third and, of course, ultimate question is whether "my son" is a reference to Reginald Ham.

In an earlier proceeding a claims representative resolved these questions in Ham's favor and found that the letter constituted a written acknowledgment of paternity. Special Determination of Claims Representative, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, October 6, 1980, RE 114. The Administrative Law Judge, whose findings ...


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