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Bishop v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

August 10, 2018

JOHNELYN WILSON BISHOP PLAINTIFF
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION DEFENDANT

          RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION INSTRUCTIONS

         This Recommended Disposition (“Recommendation”) has been sent to Judge J. Leon Holmes. Either party may file written objections to this Recommendation. Objections should be specific and should include the factual or legal basis for the objection.

         To be considered, all objections must be received in the office of the Court Clerk within 14 days of this Recommendation. If no objections are filed, Judge Holmes can adopt this Recommendation without independently reviewing the record. By not objecting, parties may also waive any right to appeal questions of fact.

         REASONING FOR RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         Joseph Michael Bishop was awarded social security disability benefits in a decision dated March 29, 2013. (R. at 23-28). Mr. Bishop had died, however, the week before the decision, on March 24, 2013. (R. at 37). Mr. Bishop had married Johnelyn Wilson on March 12, 2013, less than three weeks before the decision was issued. (R. at 35).

         On December 19, 2013, Johnelyn Wilson Bishop filed an application for a lump-sum death payment of the sums awarded to, but not received by, Mr. Bishop before his death. (R. at 31-34). Her claim was denied. (R. at 44-46). Ms. Bishop requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 56). The ALJ denied the application. (R. at 16). The Appeals Council denied review. (R. at 2). Ms. Bishop filed this appeal, requesting judicial review. As explained more fully below, the Commission's decision should be summarily affirmed because Ms. Bishop's claim finds no support in the governing statutes and regulations.

         I. The Commissioner's Decision

         The ALJ found that Ms. Bishop was not entitled to the underpayment under 20 C.F.R. § 404.503(b)(1) because she did not meet the statutory definition of “surviving spouse.” (R. at 13). The ALJ also found that she was not entitled to the underpayment under 20 C.F.R. § 404.503(b)(4) for the same reason. (R. at 14). Further, the ALJ found that Mr. Bishop's estate was not entitled to the underpayment because he had a surviving child who took priority over the estate. (R. at 14). The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Ms. Bishop was not entitled to Mr. Bishop's underpayment.

         II. Discussion

         The Court reviews the record to determine whether substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the Commissioner's findings. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence” in this context means, “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ's decision.” Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted).

         Ms. Bishop argues that her eligibility is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 404(d)(1)(i), and that the ALJ erroneously relied upon 42 U.S.C. § 416. She argues that § 416's definitions would govern if she were seeking benefits to which she was entitled under Mr. Bishop's earnings, but that § 404(d)(1)(i) should apply here because she is seeking benefits due to her deceased husband-benefits that she was not entitled to. Ms. Bishop's argument is fundamentally flawed.

         The definitions in 42 U.S.C. § 416 apply to the entire subchapter. Ms. Bishop argues that § 416 is categorized under “Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Benefits” and that she was not seeking benefits under old age, survivors, or disability insurance. This interpretation finds no support in the governing statute, regulations, or case law. Both § 404 and § 416 are found in the same subchapter. Therefore, any term used in § 404 that is defined in § 416 must be read with that definition in mind.

         The provision upon which Ms. Bishop relies reads as follows:

d) Payment to survivors or heirs when eligible person is deceased If an individual dies before any payment due him under this subchapter is completed, payment of the amount due (including the amount of any unnegotiated checks) shall be made-
(1) to the person, if any, who is determined by the Commissioner of Social Security to be the surviving spouse of the deceased individual and who either (i) was living in the same household with the deceased at the time of his death or (ii) was, for the month in which the deceased individual died, entitled to a monthly benefit on the basis ...

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