Davis v. Richardson

Decision Date08 May 1972
Docket NumberCiv. No. 13903.
Citation342 F. Supp. 588
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
PartiesNorma DAVIS, through her next friend, Denise Swilley, Plaintiff, v. Elliot L. RICHARDSON, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for the United States of America, Defendant.

Ronald Gold, Hartford, Conn. (James N. Cohen and George N. Gingold, Hartford, Conn., of counsel), for plaintiff.

B. Blair Crawford, Asst. U. S. Atty. (Stewart H. Jones, U. S. Atty., D. Conn., of counsel), for defendant.

Before SMITH, Circuit Judge, and BLUMENFELD and CLARIE, District Judges.


J. JOSEPH SMITH, Circuit Judge:

This case presents the court with a challenge to a provision of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., which discriminates against illegitimate children in the payment of benefits on the death of a wage-earning parent. Norma Davis, an eight-year-old child, has been denied payments based on her deceased father's earning record because, under 42 U.S.C. § 403(a), as an illegitimate child entitled to benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 416(h) (3), she loses her benefits if the family award is not sufficient to meet the maximum payments due the wife and legitimate children of her father. She requests declaratory and injunctive relief against the continued enforcement of this provision of the law, pursuant to which the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare denied her request for benefits. A three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S. C. §§ 2282, 2284 to hear a constitutional challenge to the continued enforcement of a federal statute.

Fred Davis, Jr., the wage-earner and father of Norma, died in Connecticut on January 22, 1968. Denise Swilley, Norma's mother, applied for benefits for the child. The Social Security Administration determined that for purposes of the Act, Norma was Davis' "child." 42 U. S.C. § 402(d); 42 U.S.C. § 416(h) (3). It was compelled, though, to apply 42 U. S.C. § 403(a) (3), which states that a child who attains the right to benefits through section 416(h) (3), as Norma does, may receive only the residual, if any, of the maximum family grant remaining when other individuals entitled to benefits have taken their maximum grants. In this case, Mrs. Davis and the four children of her marriage to Mr. Davis absorbed the maximum family grant. Norma therefore received nothing.

After the initial decision, reconsideration, a hearing and a review of the hearing examiner's decision were concluded adversely to the plaintiff, she had exhausted administrative remedies and brought this suit. The background is undisputed and relatively straightforward. Norma was born out of wedlock to Denise Swilley on February 25, 1963. Mr. Davis acknowledged Norma as his child in April of that year, and although he was not living with her when he died, he regularly contributed $7.00 a week to her support and bought clothes for her. When Mr. Davis died, his wife applied for and received benefits for herself and their four legitimate children. The maximum family amount payable on Fred Davis' earning record, calculated on the basis of his primary insurance amount, was $362.40. 42 U.S.C. §§ 403(a), 415(a). The maximum individual grants which Mrs. Davis and her children could have received exceeded this sum, leaving no residual for Norma.

The statutory provisions which form the basis for the discrimination are those which define a "child" under the Act.1 There are at present three tests for determining whether an individual is a "child" of a wage-earner. Under 42 U.S.C. § 416(h) (2) (A), the Secretary applies the state definition of child under its law on intestate succession of personal property to determine who is a child for Social Security purposes. Section 416(h) (2) (B) provides that the applicant is a "child" if the wage-earner and father or mother of the child went through a marriage ceremony resulting in a purported marriage which would be valid but for lack of dissolution of a previous marriage or a procedural defect in the purported marriage. The third method, included for the first time in 1965, provides in section 416(h) (3) that an applicant is deemed a child if the insured deceased individual had acknowledged in writing that the applicant was his son or daughter, had been decreed by a court to be the father of the applicant, or had been ordered by a court to contribute to the applicant's support; or if the insured is shown to the satisfaction of the Secretary to be the father of the applicant and was living with or contributing to the support of the applicant when he became entitled to benefits.

Norma Davis does not fall within the first group; in Connecticut a child born out of wedlock may not inherit intestate personal property from the father. Arcand v. Flemming, 185 F.Supp. 22 (D. Conn.1960). She does however fall under the last of the above definitions of "child"; she presented evidence of acknowledgement by Fred Davis that she was his daughter and she was being regularly supported by him at the time of his death.

Section 203(a) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 403(a) delineates the manner in which payments of monthly benefits are to be reduced when the total of benefits to which qualified individuals are entitled exceeds the family maximum amount, as is the case here.

* * * Whenever a reduction is made under this subsection in the total of monthly benefits to which individuals are entitled for any month on the basis of the wages and self-employment income of an insured individual, each such benefit other than the old-age or disability insurance benefit shall be proportionately decreased; except that if such total of benefits for such month includes any benefit or benefits under section 202(d) of this title which are payable solely by reason of section 216(h) (3) of this title, the reduction shall be first applied to reduce (proportionately where there is more than one benefit so payable) the benefits so payable (but not below zero). 42 U. S.C. § 403(a) (3)

Before 1968 this sentence read as follows:

Whenever a reduction is made under this subsection, each benefit, except the old-age or disability insurance benefit, shall be proportionately decreased.

In effect, the present provision subjects one sub-group of individuals who qualify as "children" under the Act to total deprivation unless all others who deserve payment receive their full statutory share. And among the class of children who qualify under section 416(h) (3), critical differences in the amount of money received occur based on the fortuitous factor of the number of legitimate children the wage-earner had.

The sole issue is whether the provision on reduction of individual benefits to fit the family maximum violates the due process clause because it discriminates against one group of children under the Act. That is, may Congress subordinate the rights of children such as Norma, clearly defined as a "child" under the Act, to those of children who could take their father's personal property by intestate succession? Or, put another way, can the government enforce a provision which distinguishes drastically some children under section 416(h) (3) from others solely on the basis of the number of legitimate children born to their father? In light of recent decisions by the Supreme Court we believe that the answer to both questions is no.

The due process clause of the fifth amendment prohibits, as to the federal government, statutes creating arbitrary discriminations which have no rational basis in legitimate governmental purposes. Although there is no specific equal protection guarantee applicable to the federal government, equal protection standards have been imported into the due process clause of the fifth amendment. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 74 S.Ct. 693, 98 L.Ed. 884 (1954); Richardson v. Belcher, 404 U.S. 78, 81, 92 S.Ct. 254, 30 L.Ed.2d 231 (1971); Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 611, 80 S.Ct. 1367, 4 L.Ed.2d 1435 (1960); Bolton v. Harris, 130 U.S.App.D.C. 1, 395 F.2d 642 (1968). Although Congress has great latitude to make classifications in the area of economic and welfare legislation, a provision must have some rational basis or be pertinent to some proper objective of the Congress in order to withstand challenge.

Before 1965, no illegitimate children, even if dependent on their wage-earner parent, were entitled to benefits under the Act. But in 1965, the provision under which Norma falls was added to the law. Congress made a decision to broaden the class of eligible children to include those illegitimate children who are acknowledged or supported by the wage-earner, to reflect the fact of actual dependency. This amendment did not alter, but rather further implemented, the fundamental purposes of the Act.2 State law was no longer the sole determinant of status as a child under the Social Security Act; Norma Davis is clearly a child of Fred Davis for purposes of federal law.

The inclusion of this provision on illegitimate children did not entail the problems often cited as justifications for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate children. No problems of proof of paternity after the father's death are raised by the provision. He must acknowledge the child or undertake an obligation to support before his death. Spurious and tardy claims are therefore precluded. In this case, Fred Davis had acknowledged Norma two months after her birth and was supporting her, as he was required by Connecticut law to do. Therefore, the Secretary's argument that Congress was justified in enacting section 203(a) because legitimate children are more likely to have been supported by their fathers or to have been more generously provided for is unfounded. The group is limited to children receiving support and legally entitled to it. See Franklin v. Congolesi, 6 Conn.Cir. 357, 273 A.2d 291 (1970).

Four Supreme Court decisions on the rationality of state laws discriminating against illegitimate children have been...

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