Lawrence v. Chater
Annotate this Case
516 U.S. 163 (1996)
OCTOBER TERM, 1995
LAWRENCE, GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND ON BEHALF OF LAWRENCE, A MINOR V.
CHATER, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
No. 94-9323. Decided January 8, 1996
Petitioner Lawrence asserts an entitlement to Social Security benefits as the dependent unmarried minor child of a deceased insured individual. The Social Security Act (Act) requires that paternity be decided by state law. Lawrence acknowledges that the relevant North Carolina law appears to defeat her claim, but argues that its proof of paternity requirements are unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit upheld the denial of her benefits, accepting the Government's argument that a state paternity law's constitutionality need not be considered before applying it to determine entitlement to Social Security benefits. Since Lawrence filed this certiorari petition, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has reexamined its position and concluded that the Act does require a determination whether a state intestacy statute is constitutional. Thus, the Solicitor General has invited the Court to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment below, and remand the case (GVR) for the Fourth Circuit to decide the case, or remand it to the Commissioner for reconsideration, in light of the new interpretation.
1. Insofar as Congress, through 28 U. S. C. § 2106, appears to have conferred upon this Court a broad power to GVR, the Court has the power to remand to a lower federal court any case raising a federal issue which is properly before it in its appellate capacity. Over the past 50 years the GVR has become an integral part of this Court's practice. It has the virtues of conserving the Court's scarce resources, assisting the court below by flagging a particular issue that it does not appear to have fully considered, procuring the benefit of the lower court's insight before this Court rules on the merits, and alleviating the potential for unequal treatment inherent in this Court's inability to grant plenary review of all pending cases raising similar issues. Where intervening developments, or recent developments that the court below is unlikely to have considered, reveal a reasonable probability that the decision below rests upon a premise that the lower court would reject if given
the opportunity, and where it appears that a redetermination may determine the litigation's ultimate outcome, a GVR is potentially appropriate. Whether it is ultimately appropriate depends on a case's equities. All Members of the Court agree that a wide range of intervening developments may justify a GVR order but that the GVR power should be used sparingly. Thus, this Court has the power to issue a GVR order, and such an order is an appropriate exercise of the Court's discretionary certiorari jurisdiction.
2. Subject to the equities, the SSA's new interpretation of the Act makes a GVR order appropriate here. There is a reasonable probability that the Fourth Circuit would conclude that the timing of the agency's interpretation does not preclude the deference that it would otherwise receive, and that it may be outcome determinative in this case. The equities also favor a GVR. That disposition has the Government's express support. Since the Government has indicated its intention to apply the new interpretation to future cases nationwide, giving Lawrence a chance to benefit from it furthers fairness by treating her like other future benefits applicants. The general concern that a postlitigation interpretation may be the product of unfair or manipulative Government litigation strategies does not deprive Lawrence of the benefit of a favorable reinterpretation in these particular circumstances.
Certiorari granted; vacated and remanded.
Under the Social Security Act, the unmarried minor "child" of a deceased individual who was insured under the Act may receive survivors' benefits if she was "dependent upon such individual" prior to his death. 49 Stat. 623, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 402(d)(1)(C) (1988 ed.). In order to determine whether a claimant is, for these purposes, the "child" of the deceased, and, as such, eligible to receive benefits, 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] insured individual ... was domiciled at the time of his death." 42 U. S. C. § 416(h)(2)(A) (1988 ed.).
The petitioner in this case, Lawrence, asserts an entitlement to benefits under these provisions. In so doing, she acknowledges that the relevant state law, that of North Car-