Writer’s Picks: Piracy, Internet Dating Fraud, SSA Benefits, and Same Sex Divorce

We had some cases with interesting facts come up this week.

The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling on providing survivor benefits to children conceived by in vitro fertilization, with frozen sperm, after the father died. In Astrue v. Capato, Respondent mother of the twins applied for Social Security survivors benefits for the twins, relying on 42 U.S.C. 416(e) of the Social Security Act, which defined child to mean, inter alia, “the child or legally adopted child of an [insured] individual.” The Social Security Administration denied the application, reading the act to entitle biological children to benefits only if they were qualified to inherit as a decedent under state intestacy law. The USSC upheld this interpretation, ruling that it was more in tune with the purpose of the statute, to provide for children who were supported by the deceased wage earner.

In United States v. Dire, the 4th Circuit ruled on criminal convictions for piracy under 18 U.S.C. 1651. Defendants, all Somalis, were convicted after they launched an attack on the USS Nicholas on the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles. On appeal, defendants challenged their convictions and sentences on several grounds, including that their attack on the USS Nicholas did not, as a matter of law, amount to a section 1651 piracy offense. Because the district court correctly applied the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), art. 101, definition of piracy as customary international law, the court rejected defendants’ challenge to their Count One piracy convictions, as well as their mandatory life sentences.

The Illinois Supreme Court issued an opinion involving fraud and impersonation online. In  Bonhomme v. St. James, the parties, both women, met in 2005 in a chatroom. Defendant created an alternate male persona and began a romantic relationship with Plaintiff, going as far as to disguise her female identity using a voice-altering device. The deception carried on for months and when the Plaintiff was confronted with the truth, Plaintiff sued for fraudulent misrepresentation and sought damages for the cost of a therapist, lost earnings, and emotional distress. The case was dismissed, and appealed. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the dismissal, finding that a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation does not apply to a personal relationship with no commercial component.

Finally, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled on granting a same sex divorce for a couple married in another state. In Port v. Cowan, a couple who were validly married in California sought a divorce in Maryland, which the circuit court denied. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling, noting that under the principles of comity applied in the State, Maryland courts will withhold recognition of a valid foreign marriage only if that marriage is “repugnant” to State public policy. The Court then reversed the circuit court, holding (1) no viable decision by the Court had deemed a valid foreign marriage to be “repugnant,” despite being void or punishable as a misdemeanor or more serious crime were it performed in Maryland; and (2) therefore, a valid out-of-state same-sex marriage should be treated by Maryland courts as worthy of divorce, according to the applicable statutes, reported cases, and court rules of the State. Remanded with direction to grant a final divorce to the parties.