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Binion v. Chater

March 11, 1997






Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

No. 93-C-7636

Before MANION, KANNE, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

EVANS, Circuit Judge.

John A. Nordberg, Judge.



Is Clifton Binion the biological son of Johnny E. Binion? We can't be absolutely sure. But, we can say Clifton is the legal son of Johnny E. Binion for purposes of survivor's benefits, and because we can, the judgment of the district court affirming a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is reversed.

Sandra Binion and Johnny E. Binion were married in 1965 and had four children, all girls, between 1966 and 1971. Sandra also had an older son, Charley, from a previous relationship. Clifton Binion, the child for whom Sandra presently attempts to obtain child's insurance benefits, was born to Sandra on August 10, 1976. At the time of Clifton's birth, Sandra and Johnny were separated. On Clifton's birth certificate, Sandra left blank the spaces for the father's name and place of birth, but she indicated the father's age was 34. Johnny turned 34 a few months after Clifton's birth.

Sandra and Johnny divorced in January 1984. The divorce decree, entered by default because Johnny did not respond to Sandra's complaint, stated that Johnny deserted Sandra for a period of a year or more, beginning on February 10, 1976. The divorce decree listed the four daughters as children of the marriage, but did not list Clifton or Charley. All information on the decree came from Sandra.

Johnny Binion died in May 1991. In July of that year Sandra filed, on Clifton's behalf, a claim under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. secs. 402(d), seeking child's insurance benefits based on the earnings record of Johnny, a deceased wage earner. Because Johnny's name did not appear on the birth certificate, suspicions were raised at the Social Security Administration--the folks there thought Clifton might not be Johnny's legitimate child. After some investigation, Sandra's claim was denied, and Sandra requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. The hearing took place in August 1992. On September 8, 1992, the ALJ denied Sandra's claim, ruling that Clifton was not Johnny's child within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Sandra's request for review by the Administration's appeals council was denied in October 1993, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. *fn1

On December 21, 1993, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 405(g), Sandra filed a complaint in district court seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of Clifton's child's insurance benefits. In November 1995 the magistrate judge (now District Judge Joan Gottschall) assigned to the case recommended that the denial of benefits be reversed and that Sandra's motion for summary judgment be granted. The district court disagreed with the recommendation and, on March 20, 1996, granted the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, which affirmed the denial of benefits. From that decision, Sandra appeals.

The ALJ's findings of fact must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. sec. 405(g). "Substantial evidence" is evidence which a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Imani on behalf of Hayes v. Heckler, 797 F.2d 508, 510 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 988 (1986). A federal court may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Social Security Administration. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is entitled to benefits, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Commissioner. Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640, 643-44 (7th Cir. 1987). Conclusions of law are not entitled to deference, however, so if the Commissioner commits an error of law, reversal is required without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings. Imani, 797 F.2d at 510.

To obtain child's survivorship benefits for Clifton due to Johnny's death, Sandra must establish that Clifton was the "child" of Johnny as defined in the Social Security Act. Although the Act allows an individual to establish that he is the child in several ways, see 42 U.S.C. sec. 416(h), Sandra has pursued only one: that Clifton was Johnny's legitimate child and a product of their marriage. 42 U.S.C. secs. 402(d)(3)(A), 416(e), 416(h)(2)(A). The parties agree that to determine whether Clifton is a legitimate child for benefits eligibility, the Administration applies the substantive law regarding devolution of intestate personal property of the state in which Johnny was domiciled at the time of his death. 42 U.S.C. sec. 416(h)(2)(A).

Johnny died while living in Chicago so the law of the Illini state controls this case. Under the Illinois Parentage Act, which affects intestate succession, a man is presumed to be the natural father of a child if he and the child's natural mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born or conceived during the marriage. 750 ILCS 45/5(a)(1). This presumption of legitimacy may be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence. 750 ILCS 45/5(b). The parties agree that Sandra and Johnny were married when Clifton was conceived and born and that Clifton therefore is presumed to be ...

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