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MALONE v. BARNHART

August 4, 2004.

DANA L. MALONE on behalf of THEOPLUS RANDOLPH, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, Commissioner of Social Security, and SHERRY CHILLIS, on behalf of M.L.H. and M.D.H., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ARLANDER KEYS, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On June 6, 2000, Dana Malone filed an application for Child's Insurance Benefits on behalf of Theoplus D. Randolph, Jr. (Theoplus Jr.), her minor son. The application sought benefits on the account of Lamond Hudson, who died fully insured on January 28, 1999. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Ms. Malone's application on July 6, 2000, after determining that Ms. Malone failed to show that Theoplus Jr. was Mr. Hudson's son. Ms. Malone sought reconsideration, and the initial decision was affirmed on April 18, 2001. Record at 75-77. Ms. Malone then requested a hearing, and the case was assigned to Administrative Law Judge John P. Brundage, who heard the matter on June 11, 2002.*fn1

At the hearing before the ALJ, Ms. Malone appeared, as did her attorney and Mr. Hudson's mother. The parties submitted documents to the ALJ, including: (1) a copy of Theoplus Jr.'s birth certificate, showing that he was born in Chicago on June 12, 1995 and listing "Theoplus D. Randolph" as the father (Record at 80); (2) a copy of Lamond Hudson's death certificate, issued by the Indiana State Department of Health, showing that Mr. Hudson died on January 28, 1999 of hypotension, renal failure and glucocytosis (Record at 81); (3) a copy of DNA paternity testing results done by Dr. Charles Strom of Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago on May 26, 2000, indicating that Lamond Hudson "cannot be excluded from being the father of Theoplus Randolph"; in fact, the report shows a "combined paternity index" of 4461274, showing that the "probability of paternity" was 99.9999776% (Record at 82); (4) a statement by Theoplus Randolph, written on an SSA form, that he knows he is Theoplus Jr.'s biological father (Record at 83); and (5) an "Order Declaring Heirship," entered in the Cook County Probate Court on August 3, 2000, and declaring that "Theopolus Randolph" is one of three heirs of Lamond L. Hudson (Record at 85). The ALJ opened the hearing by questioning Mr. Hudson's mother about the DNA record she sought to submit:
ALJ: Then there's a paternity testing result dated April 17, 2000. That brings up the question of what did they test that's —
ATTY: They tested the son. The claimant here.
ALJ: And the deceased, how can you test the deceased? What did he submit?
ATTY: Ms. Hudson?
WTN: They had his remains because they were doing an autopsy so the person that did it had reserved it for a year after his death.
ALJ: The person that did what?
WTN: The autopsy on my son. She had his organs. The end organs.
ALJ: Do you know who that was?
WTN: Yes, I do.
ALJ: That should be explained, I would think.
WTN: Do I understand you want me to explain it or you want her to explain it or —
ALJ: I mean, you know, something was submitted — I don't know. You could submit anything and say it was the remains of your son. I don't know. It's just a question that should be answered.
WTN: Okay.
Record at 40-41.

  The ALJ then turned to other issues, first questioning Ms. Hudson about the probate proceedings in Cook County, and about the cause of her son's death, Record at 41-42, and then questioning Ms. Malone. Ms. Malone testified that neither Lamond Hudson (the alleged father), nor Theoplus Randolph (whose name appears on Theoplus Jr.'s birth certificate), provided any kind of support to Theoplus Jr.; indeed, she testified, Randolph disappeared from the picture when Theoplus Jr. was about eight or nine months old, and Hudson had never been in the picture at all. Record at 45-47. She testified that the issue of paternity had "always been a question mark" to her, and that she "never knew for sure until I seen Lamont and Theophilus together and of course, when Ms. Hudson, you know, asked." Record at 47. She testified that she and Hudson "dated off and on until the day he died"; that if they had time to see each other they did, but they both saw other people as well. Record at 50. Finally, she testified that, after Hudson died, Theoplus Jr. received part of the proceeds of his estate, which consisted largely, if not entirely, of life insurance proceeds. Record at 50.

  At the end of the hearing, the ALJ again raised some concerns about the DNA testing:
ALJ: . . . The only question remaining in my mind is the validity of the testing. The testing was done long after the father was deceased and I think there's — there would have to be some explanation of what they tested. I mean —
ATTY: Well, isn't that before the — doesn't — the issue is whether it satisfies the Illinois statute and it did.
ALJ: Well — ATTY: That was before the [INAUDIBLE] of Illinois.
ALJ: Well, that — it was uncontested. I'm not quite sure about the law involved but I don't think I'm bound by what some judge in Probate Court did based on a document created almost a year after the deceased's death. I don't think he or she went into that question. They accepted it at face value. If it's a legitimate DNA, well then the man is the father. There's just no question about it. But what was it based on?
* * *
ATTY: Well, if you'd like I can contact the attorney that's involved in that case and ask him to —
ALJ: Well, I think that should be done. . . . you have some time to get that. I would get it as soon as possible. Whether from the undertaker or the autopsy person or whoever saved this DNA should explain that. It's in the file unexplained.
Record at 54-55.

  Finally, on questioning from Ms. Malone's attorney, Ms. Hudson testified that she took the initiative in establishing paternity after she saw Theoplus Jr. at her son's funeral, saw that he looked like her son, and then questioned Ms. Malone on the subject. Id. at 55-56. She testified that she pursued the issue because she thought it was "the right thing to do." Id. at 56.

  Following the hearing, the ALJ immediately closed the record. It is unclear whether Ms. Hudson, or Ms. Malone or her attorney ever followed through on any attempt to assuage the ALJ's concerns and doubts about the DNA testing results. There is nothing further in the file from any "undertaker or autopsy person"; nor is there any other documentation independently establishing the legitimacy of the test results. The ALJ's decision says nothing about any such attempts and does not otherwise explain what, if anything, transpired on the issue after the hearing.

  The ALJ closed the record on June 11, 2002, and issued his decision three months later, on September 23, 2002. He found that Theoplus Jr. did not "meet the relationship requirements described in the Social Security Act," and was, therefore, not entitled to benefits. In particular, in response to an argument from Ms. Malone's counsel that the DNA test results, coupled with the Order of Heirship issued by the Probate Court of Cook County, give rise to a presumption of paternity, the ALJ found that:
[t]he report of the DNA testing was not an original document of the testing and did not contain written evidence that what was tested belonged to the deceased. As Lamond Hudson is unable to challenge the results of the paternity testing and the Order of Heirship . . . I am not persuaded that there is clear and convincing evidence to overcome the presumption of paternity.
Record at 13-14.

  The ALJ's decision became the final agency decision when the Appeals Council denied review on June 27, 2003. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Ms. Malone then filed this lawsuit, seeking review of the decision to deny Theoplus Jr. benefits. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge, and the case was reassigned to this Court on January 29, 2004. Thereafter, both parties moved for summary judgment.*fn2

  Discussion

  An ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002); that is, evidence that "a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). Where, however, "the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele, 290 F.3d at 940. In the Seventh Circuit, an ALJ must "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusions so that [the Court] may afford the claimant meaningful review of the SSA's ultimate findings." Blakes ex rel. Wolfe v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2003). It is not enough that the record contains evidence to support the ALJ's decision; if the ALJ does not rationally articulate the grounds for that decision, the Court must remand Steele, 290 F.3d at 941.

  Under this standard, Ms. Malone argues, the Commissioner's decision must be reversed because the ALJ's decision concerning Theoplus Jr.'s paternity was incorrect under the law and not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner disagrees and asks the Court to affirm the ALJ's decision.

  The Social Security Act provides for a "child's insurance benefit" to

 
[e]very child . . . of an individual who dies a fully or currently insured individual, if such child —
(A) has filed an application for child's insurance benefits,
(B) at the time such application was filed was unmarried and . . . had not attained the age of 18 . . . and
(C) was dependent upon such individual . . . at the time of [his] death. . . .
42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1). In determining whether an applicant is the child of a fully insured individual, "the Commissioner of Social Security shall apply such law as would be applied in determining the devolution of intestate personal property by the courts of the State in which [the deceased insured individual] was domiciled at the time of his death. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 416 (h) (2) (A). Moreover, "[a]pplicants who according to such law would have the same status relative to taking intestate personal property as a child . . . shall be deemed such. Id. And "[a]ny applicant who is able to show `child' status under ...

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