TN 2 (12-14)

PR 04910.036 North Carolina

A. PR 15-014 Entitlement to Widow’s Insurance Benefits and Lump Sum Death Payment Where Claimant Pled Guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter in Number Holder’s Death – North Carolina

 

DATE: October 23, 2014

1. SYLLABUS

Generally, the widow of an individual who died a fully insured wage earner is entitled to WIB if she is not married, has attained age sixty, and files an application. A claimant also may be eligible for the LSDP if the claimant is the widow of an individual who died a fully or currently insured individual and she was living in the same household as the deceased at the time of his death or would be eligible for WIB. However, Social Security Administration regulations provide that a claimant may not become entitled to any survivor’s benefits on the earnings record of a person if the claimant was convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person’s death.

In this case, the NH died while domiciled in North Carolina, therefore we look to the North Carolina State Laws. Claimant entered a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in NH’s death. The United States Supreme Court has held that a plea of guilty is, in and of itself, a conviction, and like a jury verdict, is conclusive. Similarly, North Carolina law states, for the purpose of imposing sentence, a person has been convicted when he has been adjudged guilty or has entered a plea of guilty or no contest. Moreover, the North Carolina Supreme Court has stated, it is settled law in this State that a plea of guilty, freely, understandingly, and voluntarily entered, is equivalent to a conviction of the offense charged. The North Carolina law defines voluntary manslaughter as a felony and indicates that it may be punishable by imprisonment in the State’s prison.

The judgment issued in Claimant’s case specified she was convicted of and sentenced for a Class D felony. The court also sentenced Claimant to a term of imprisonment. Accordingly, Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter is a conviction of a felony for purposes of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b). The North Carolina law indicates Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she intentionally caused NH’s death. Claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in NH’s death was a conviction for an intentional homicide, therefore her conviction precludes her entitlement to WIB or the LSDP on NH’s earnings record.

2. OPINION

Question

You have asked whether the claimant is precluded from entitlement to widow’s insurance benefits (WIB) and the lump sum death payment (LSDP) on the number holder’s earnings record where the claimant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the number holder’s death but there were two conflicting reports as to whether the claimant’s assault on the number holder caused his death.

OPINION

The claimant’s voluntary manslaughter conviction in the number holder’s death precludes her entitlement to WIB and the LSDP on the number holder’s earnings record.

Background

According to the information provided, on May 9, 2013, Sharad , the number holder (NH), died while domiciled in North Carolina. NH’s death certificate listed the cause of death as complications of assault, with coronary artery thrombosis due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease being another significant contributing condition, and characterized his manner of death as homicide. NH’s death certificate lists D~ (Claimant) as his wife.

According to an investigative report, NH and Claimant were having a verbal argument around the time of his death. Claimant reportedly was strangling NH when he became unresponsive. Dr. L~ performed an autopsy that was overseen by Dr. C~, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner. Dr. S~ observed some hemorrhaging on the right side of NH’s neck internally and some petechiae 1 in his eyes. Shortly after the autopsy, Dr. N~ informed detectives investigating the case that NH died from a blood clot in his coronary artery and not from Claimant’s assault. However, the report of the autopsy examination listed complications of assault as the cause of death with acute coronary artery thrombosis as a contributory cause. The report explained that Claimant’s attempted strangulation placed additional stress on NH’s heart, which likely contributed to development of increased myocardial ischemia and a myocardial infarction. Therefore, it was the medical examiners’ opinion based on the autopsy and investigative findings that the cause of death was complications from assault. Both Drs. S~ and N~ electronically signed this report. Another medical examiner’s report identified myocardial infarction and coronary artery thrombosis as the probable cause of death and characterized the death as natural, but this part was crossed out after further review. This report indicates the reviewer determined complications from assault was the cause of NH’s death with coronary artery thrombosis as a contributing condition and NH’s death was a homicide.

On May 16, 2014, the Superior Court for Wake County, North Carolina, accepted Claimant’s plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). 2 The court identified extraordinary mitigating factors in determining Claimant’s sentence including the support of NH’s daughters and a conflict in the medical examiner’s two reports. The court issued a suspended sentence of thirty-eight to fifty-eight months imprisonment, although it ordered Claimant to serve six months in prison and a term of probation as part of an intermediate punishment. Claimant filed for WIB and the LSDP on NH’s earnings record on August 4, 2014.

DISCUSSION

Generally, the widow of an individual who died a fully insured wage earner is entitled to WIB if she is not married, has attained age sixty, and files an application. See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(e)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335 (2014); 3 Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00207.001A.1; see also Act § 216(c) (defining the term “widow”). A claimant also may be eligible for the LSDP if the claimant is the widow of an individual who died a fully or currently insured individual and she was living in the same household as the deceased at the time of his death or would be eligible for WIB. See Act § 202(i); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.390, 404.391; POMS RS 00210.001. However, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations provide that a claimant may not become entitled to any survivor’s benefits (e.g., WIB and LSDP) on the earnings record of a person if the claimant was “convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person’s death.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b); see POMS GN 00304.060A.1 (referenced in POMS RS 00207.001A.1.b and POMS RS 00210.020C).

Claimant entered a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in NH’s death. 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) does not define the term “convicted.” The United States Supreme Court has held that a plea of guilty is, in and of itself, a conviction, and like a jury verdict, is conclusive. See Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969); Kercheval v. United States, 274 U.S. 220, 223 (1927). Similarly, North Carolina law states, “For the purpose of imposing sentence, a person has been convicted when he has been adjudged guilty or has entered a plea of guilty or no contest.” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-1331(b) (West 2014). Moreover, the North Carolina Supreme Court has stated, “It is settled law in this State that a plea of guilty, freely, understandingly, and voluntarily entered, is equivalent to a conviction of the offense charged.” State v. Watkins, 194 S.E.2d 800, 808 (N.C. 1973), quoted in State v. Hasty, 516 S.E.2d 428, 433 (N.C. Ct. App. 1999) (concluding plain language of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1331(b) and North Carolina Supreme Court holdings establish a plea of guilty is a conviction for purposes of sentencing); see also State v. Jarvis, 715 S.E.2d 252, 257-58 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011) (noting that when defendant entered an A~ plea to charges, he was newly convicted of the charged offenses).

North Carolina law also establishes that voluntary manslaughter is a felony. A felony is a crime that was a felony at common law, is or may be punishable by death or imprisonment in the State’s prison, or is denominated as a felony by statute. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-1 (West 2014). North Carolina law defines voluntary manslaughter as a felony and indicates that it may be punishable by imprisonment in the State’s prison. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-18 (West 2014) (defining voluntary manslaughter as a Class D felony); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-1340.17(c) (West 2014) (specifying a range of 38 to 160 months imprisonment for a Class D felony). Moreover, the judgment issued in Claimant’s case specified she was convicted of and sentenced for a Class D felony. The court also sentenced Claimant to a term of imprisonment. Accordingly, Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter is a conviction of a felony for purposes of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).

Finally, North Carolina law indicates Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she intentionally caused NH’s death. SSA defines “intent” as:

A wish or expectancy that an act will have a certain result (regardless of the actual likelihood of such a result).

The presence of will in the commission of a criminal act where the individual is fully aware of the nature and probable consequences of the act that he or she plans to commit. This applies whether the individual desires that such consequences occur or is indifferent as to their occurrence.

POMS GN 00304.060B.1. Under SSA policy, no presumption exists regarding intent when a claimant is convicted of voluntary manslaughter. See POMS GN 00304.065B.1. To determine intent, SSA looks to the laws of the State where the crime occurred. See id.; see also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 89-6c (adopting as policy the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Davis v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs. , 867 F.2d 336 (6th Cir. 1989), where the court held a conviction for second-degree manslaughter was an intentional killing under SSA policy given Kentucky’s definition of second-degree manslaughter); SSR 87-23 (explaining SSA bases its decision regarding intent on whether State law treats voluntary manslaughter as an intentional homicide and examines the facts of the case if State law is inconclusive).

North Carolina statutes do not appear to define voluntary manslaughter. The North Carolina Supreme Court, however, has stated:

Voluntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice, express or implied, and without premeditation and deliberation. Generally, voluntary manslaughter occurs when one kills intentionally but does so in the heat of passion suddenly aroused by adequate provocation or in the exercise of self-defense where excessive force is utilized or the defendant is the aggressor.

State v. McNeil, 518 S.E.2d 486, 506 (N.C. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also State v. Herndon, 629 S.E.2d 170, 176 (N.C. Ct. App. 2006) (defining voluntary manslaughter). In contrast, involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of a human being by an act not naturally dangerous to human life or by an act constituting negligence. See State v. Debiase, 711 S.E.2d 436, 441-42 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011). In distinguishing murder and manslaughter, the North Carolina courts have explained that manslaughter does not require a specific intent to kill, but only that the individual intentionally committed an act that resulted in death and the act itself is an assault which itself amounts to a felony 4 or is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. See State v. Coble, 527 S.E.2d 45, 47 (N.C. 2000); State v. Ray, 261 S.E.2d 789, 794 (N.C. 1980); State v. Jackson, 550 S.E.2d 225, 229 (N.C. Ct. App. 2001). Proximate cause is also an element of voluntary manslaughter. See State v. Gilreatho, 454 S.E.2d 871, 874 (N.C. Ct. App. 1995). The defendant’s act must have “caused or directly contributed to the victim’s death.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The defendant’s action need not be the sole cause but can join with other causes in producing the result. See id.

Based on the definition of voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina case law, we conclude an individual convicted of voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina has committed an intentional homicide as defined by SSA policy. Although there appears to be conflicting reports from the medical examiners regarding whether Claimant’s assault on NH was the cause of NH’s death, Claimant pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. SSA regulations preclude entitlement to survivor’s benefits if the claimant was “convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person’s death.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) (emphasis added). The regulation does not require SSA to determine whether the evidence supports the underlying conviction or resolve conflicts in the evidence. Additionally, although the medical examiners may have initially questioned whether Claimant’s assault was the cause of NH’s death, after further review, they determined complications from the assault was the cause of NH’s death with acute coronary artery thrombosis as a contributory cause and identified the manner of NH’s death as a homicide. Therefore, Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she was convicted of a felony of intentionally causing NH’s death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).

CONCLUSION

Claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in NH’s death was a conviction for an intentional homicide. Thus, her conviction precludes her entitlement to WIB or the LSDP on NH’s earnings record.

Sincerely,

Mary Ann Sloan

Regional Chief Counsel,

By ___________

Laura Verduci

Assistant Regional Counsel

B. PR 12-107 Entitlement to Widow’s Insurance Benefits Where Claimant Pled Guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter in the Death of the Number Holder – North Carolina Deceased Number Holder: R~ Claimant: Pamela

 

DATE: May 29, 2012

1. SYLLABUS

Based on the definition of voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina case law, we conclude an individual convicted of voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina has committed an intentional homicide as defined by SSA policy. In this case, Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she was convicted of a felony of intentionally causing NH’s death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b). Claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in the death of NH was a conviction for an intentional homicide, and the plea itself establishes that Claimant did not act in self defense.

2. OPINION

Question

You have asked whether the claimant is precluded from entitlement to widow’s insurance benefits on the number holder’s earnings record where she pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of the number holder, but now alleges she acted in self defense.

OPINION

We conclude the claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in the number holder’s death constitutes a conviction for an intentional homicide under North Carolina law and establishes she did not act in self defense.  Therefore, the claimant is cannot be entitled to widow’s insurance benefits on the number holder’s earnings record.

Background

Based on the information provided, we understand the facts to be as follows. P~ (Claimant) married Ricky , the number holder (NH), in Alabama in 1973. On July 21, 1996, NH died while domiciled in North Carolina. NH’s death certificate listed the cause of death as exsanguination and a stab wound to the chest and characterized the manner of death as homicide. NH’s death certificate also lists Claimant as his wife.

Prosecutors initially charged Claimant with first-degree murder in connection with NH’s death. On February 13, 1997, however, the North Carolina Superior Court accepted Claimant’s plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter.  The court issued a suspended sentence of thirty months, although it ordered Claimant to serve four months in prison as a condition of the suspended sentence. A printout from the North Carolina Department of Corrections shows Claimant incarcerated from February 17, 1997, through June 4, 1997. 

Claimant protectively filed for widow’s insurance benefits on NH’s earnings record on October 27, 2011. Claimant alleged in conversations with Social Security Administration (SSA) personnel that she stabbed NH in self defense. A January 1997 report apparently related to Claimant’s criminal case includes her allegations of an abusive relationship and her claim that she stabbed NH during a domestic dispute. 

DISCUSSION

Generally, the widow of an individual who died a fully insured wage earner is entitled to widow’s insurance benefits if she is not married, has attained age sixty, and files an application. See Social Security Act (Act) § 202(e)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335 (2011); All subsequent references to the Code of Federal Regulations are for the 2011 edition unless otherwise noted. Program Operations Manual System (POMS) RS 00207.001(A)(1); see also Act § 216(c) (defining the term “widow”). The information provided indicates Claimant is NH’s widow and satisfies the other requirements for entitlement to widow’s insurance benefits on NH’s earnings record. However, SSA regulations provide that a claimant may not become entitled to any survivor’s benefits (e.g., widow’s insurance benefits) on the earnings record of a person if the claimant was “convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing that person’s death.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b); see POMS GN 00304.060(A) (referenced in POMS RS 00207.001(A)(1)(b)). 

Claimant pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in NH’s death.  The regulation, at 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b), does not define the term “convicted.” The United States Supreme Court has held that a plea of guilty is, in and of itself, a conviction and like a jury verdict is conclusive. See Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969); Kercheval v. United States, 274 U.S. 220, 223 (1927).  Similarly, North Carolina law states, “For the purpose of imposing sentence, a person has been convicted when he has been adjudged guilty or has entered a plea of guilty or no contest.” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-1331(b) (West 2011).  Moreover, the North Carolina Supreme Court has stated, “It is settled law in this State that a plea of guilty, freely, understandingly, and voluntarily entered, is equivalent to a conviction of the offense charged.” State v. Watkins, 194 S.E.2d 800, 808 (N.C. 1973), quoted in State v. Hasty, S.E.2d 428, 433 (N.C. Ct. App. 1999) (concluding plain language of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1331(b) and North Carolina Supreme court holdings establish a plea of guilty is a conviction for purposes of sentencing). Accordingly, Claimant’s guilty plea constitutes a conviction for purposes of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).

North Carolina law also establishes that voluntary manslaughter is a felony. A felony is a crime that was a felony at common law, is or may be punishable by death or imprisonment in the State’s prison, or is denominated as a felony by statute. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-1.  North Carolina law defines voluntary manslaughter as a felony and indicates that it may be punishable by imprisonment in the State’s prison. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-18 (West 2011) (defining voluntary manslaughter as a Class D felony); 1997-443 N.C. Sess. Laws § 19.25(q) (changing voluntary manslaughter from a Class E felony to a Class D felony effective December 1997); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 15A-1340.17(c) (West 2011) (specifying a range of 15 to 74 months imprisonment for a Class E felony committed prior to December 2009). Moreover, the judgment issued in Claimant’s case specified that in February 1997 she was convicted of and sentenced for a Class E felony and indicated the judge sentenced Claimant to a term of 25 to 39 months in the State’s prison.  Therefore, even though Claimant only served four months in prison as part of her suspended sentence, the crime was a felony because applicable State law categorized the crime as a felony and prescribed punishment by imprisonment in the State’s prison. Accordingly, Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter is a conviction of a felony for purposes of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).   

Finally, North Carolina law indicates Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she intentionally caused NH’s death. SSA defines “intent” as:

A wish or expectancy that an act will have a certain result (regardless of the actual likelihood of such a result). 

The presence of will in the commission of a criminal act where the individual is fully aware of the nature and probable consequences of the act that he or she plans to commit. This applies whether the individual desires that such consequences occur or is indifferent as to their occurrence.

POMS GN 00304.060(B)(1). Under SSA policy, no presumption exists regarding intent when a claimant is convicted of voluntary manslaughter. See POMS GN 00304.065(B)(1). To determine intent, SSA looks to the laws of the State where the crime occurred. See id.; see also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 89-6c (adopting as policy the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Davis v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 867 F.2d 336 (6th Cir. 1989), where the court held a conviction for second-degree manslaughter was an intentional killing under SSA policy given Kentucky’s definition of second-degree manslaughter); SSR 87-23 (explaining SSA bases its decision regarding intent on whether State law treats voluntary manslaughter as an intentional homicide and examines the facts of the case if State law is inconclusive). 

North Carolina statutes do not appear to define voluntary manslaughter.  The North Carolina Supreme Court, however, has stated:

Voluntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice, express or implied, and without premeditation and deliberation. Generally, voluntary manslaughter occurs when one kills intentionally but does so in the heat of passion suddenly aroused by adequate provocation or in the exercise of self-defense where excessive force is utilized or defendant is the aggressor. 

State v. McNeil, 518 S.E.2d 486, 506 (N.C. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). In contrast, involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of a human being by an act not naturally dangerous to human life or by an act constituting negligence. State v. Debiase, 711 S.E.2d 436, 441-42 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011). In distinguishing murder and manslaughter, the North Carolina courts have explained that manslaughter does not require a specific intent to kill, but only that the individual intentionally committed an act that resulted in death and the act itself is a felony or is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. State v. Coble, 527 S.E.2d 45, 47 (N.C. 2000); State v. Ray, 261 S.E.2d 789, 794 (N.C. 1980); State v. Jackson, 550 S.E.2d 225, 229 (N.C. Ct. App. 2001). Based on the definition of voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina case law, we conclude an individual convicted of voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina has committed an intentional homicide as defined by SSA policy. Therefore, Claimant’s conviction of voluntary manslaughter establishes she was convicted of a felony of intentionally causing NH’s death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).

As part of her application, Claimant asserts NH’s killing was the result of self defense. SSA policy excludes from the definition of intentional homicides cases where the killing is the result of self defense. POMS GN 00304.065(A).  North Carolina law excuses a killing if, at the time of the killing: (1) the defendant subjectively believed it necessary to kill the deceased to preserve his own life or to avoid substantial bodily injury; (2) the defendant’s belief was objectively reasonable; (3) the defendant was not the initial aggressor; and (4) the amount of force employed by the defendant was reasonably necessary under the circumstances to protect himself. J~, 550 S.E.2d at 230.  However, if the defendant satisfies the first two prongs of the definition of self defense but was either the initial aggressor or used unreasonable force, the killing is not justified and the defendant is guilty of at least voluntary manslaughter. Id.

In this case, the information provided does not indicate Claimant asserted self defense or, more importantly, that she was excused of the killing altogether based on self defense. Instead, as discussed above, Claimant pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter—an intentional homicide.  Furthermore, her guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter suggests that, even if Claimant subjectively and reasonably believed it was necessary to kill NH to preserve her own life, her actions did not satisfy the legal definition of self defense under North Carolina law. Therefore, an SSA adjudicator could not conclude Claimant’s killing of NH was excusable as self defense or exclude Claimant’s conviction from the definition of intentional homicide. 

CONCLUSION

Claimant’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter in the death of NH was a conviction for an intentional homicide, and the plea itself establishes that Claimant did not act in self defense.  Thus, her conviction would preclude her entitlement to widow’s insurance benefits on NH’s earnings record. 

Sincerely,

Mary Ann Sloan

Regional Chief Counsel,

By ___________

Rebecca Ringham

Assistant Regional Counsel


Footnotes:

[1]

Petechia is defined as “a minute red spot due to escape of a small amount of blood.” Dorland’s Pocket Medical Dictionary, 625 (25th ed. 1995).

[2]

Pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in A~, 400 U.S. at 37, an individual may enter a guilty plea while continuing to maintain his or her innocence. Nonetheless, an A~ plea is legally equivalent to a guilty plea. See State v. Alston, 534 S.E.2d 666, 669 (N.C. Ct. App. 2000) (holding an A~ plea constitutes a guilty plea).

[3]

All references to the Code of Federal Regulations are to the 2014 edition.

[4]

In North Carolina, unless the conduct is covered by another provision of law providing greater punishment, any person who assaults another person and inflicts serious bodily injury is guilty of a Class F felony, and any person who assaults another person and inflicts physical injury by strangulation is guilty of a Class H felony. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-32.4.


To Link to this section - Use this URL:
http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/1504910036
PR 04910.036 - North Carolina - 12/22/2014
Batch run: 12/22/2014
Rev:12/22/2014