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SNELL v. WYMAN

February 29, 1968

Geraldine SNELL, Miriam Ramos and Juan Malave, Individually and on Behalf of their minor children, and on Behalf of all other Parents of needy, dependent children, and Robert Whaley, Individually and on Behalf of all Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
George K. WYMAN, as Commissioner, New York State Department of Social Welfare, Mitchell Ginsberg, as Commissioner New York City Department of Welfare, Edna Lisle, as Director and Clara K. Linet as Supervisor, Fort Green Center, New York City Department of Welfare, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: FRANKEL

FRANKEL, District Judge.

The welfare laws and administrative regulations of New York State contain provisions, more particularly described below, which impose upon welfare recipients an obligation to repay the cost of assistance benefits out of specified kinds of assets. The plaintiffs, who have received and are receiving various forms of welfare payments, brought this suit for declaratory and injunctive relief, urging that such provisions are invalid and unenforceable on one or more of several federal constitutional grounds. Predicating federal jurisdiction upon 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331(a), 1343(3) and (4), 2201 and 2202, plaintiffs moved for the convening of a three-judge court under 28 U.S.C. § 2281. The motion was granted. Thereafter, plaintiffs took some depositions, and the parties entered into two stipulations. The result of these steps is a record which, in the view of the court as well as the litigants, adequately poses the constitutional issues upon undisputed facts. Both sides have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons hereafter stated, the court will grant defendants' motion and dismiss the complaint.

 I.

 The problems of the plaintiffs which brought them to the welfare authorities and then to this court - problems which cannot fail to evoke profound sympathy from fellow humans, whether or not they warrant revision of New York law by federal judges - may be summarized as follows:

 Plaintiff Geraldine Snell is thirty-three years old, divorced, mother of four children ranging from four to seventeen years of age. She owns an equitable interest, worth about $900 as of September 1, 1967, in a three-room cooperative apartment where she and her children reside. She has a regular, part-time clerical job at which she earns net wages of some $32 per week. Pursuant to court order, she receives $25 weekly from her first husband toward the support of the children. Her second husband, from whom she was divorced in 1966, contributes nothing for her support or the children's. Since September 1965 (financed by state and private scholarship funds), she has been enrolled in a course of full-time college study, scheduled for completion in June of 1969, after which she hopes to pursue a teaching career.

 In February of 1967, Mrs. Snell applied and was found eligible for benefits under the state program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). *fn1" She receives currently what is described in the papers as "a complete, regular budget allowance."

 Purporting to act under sections 104 *fn2" and 360 *fn3" of the New York Social Services Law and accompanying regulations, *fn4" New York welfare officials took from Mrs. Snell a "Pledge Agreement" and "Assignment of Proceeds of Sale" relating to her cooperative apartment. Under the terms of these instruments, Mrs. Snell has obligated herself to repay the cost of all public assistance and care currently being supplied to her and her children, the obligation being secured by her interest in the cooperative apartment and the Commissioner of Welfare being empowered (subject to authority from the State Welfare Department, Social Services Law § 360(2), supra note 3) to sell the apartment and apply the proceeds to his claim for assistance furnished. According to the terms of section 360(2), supra note 3, the mortgage may not be enforced or assigned without the written consent of the State Department of Social Services while the apartment is occupied by Mrs. Snell and her children, and, further, "such consent shall not be given unless it appears reasonably certain that the sale will not materially adversely affect the welfare" of the Snell children.

 Plaintiff Miriam Ramos is the nineteen-year-old mother of three children, all under the age of three, who are dependent upon her alone for support. Her husband is in jail. Since 1963 Mrs. Ramos has been a recipient of AFDC benefits. On February 26, 1967, Mrs. Ramos and her oldest child were injured in an automobile accident. Three months later she was requested, as a condition to her continued receipt of public assistance, to execute an "Assignment of Proceeds of Lawsuit," a document which assigns (to the extent of assistance received) to the Department of Social Services the proceeds of any personal injury claim arising out of the accident. The assignment was taken pursuant to the general obligation set out in N.Y. Social Services Law § 104, *fn5" and the more specific authority of § 104-a. *fn6"

 The third plaintiff, Juan Malave, is the father of eight minor children. He earns $86 weekly and is the sole support of his wife and family. Prior to 1967 Mr. Malave had received AFDC benefits for brief periods, in 1955 and 1965. However, in March, 1967, he suffered personal injuries on the premises of the public housing project where he lives, and was unable to continue working; for several months the family received emergency AFDC assistance and disability insurance checks. In March, 1967, plaintiff Malave received $400 from the New York City Housing Authority as compensation for his injuries. These funds have been exhausted in providing necessities for the family.

 The New York recovery provisions have been applied to Mr. Malave in the following ways: by requiring the endorsement over to the Department of Social Services of one of three disability insurance checks; and by asserting on June 13, 1967, a "Notice of Lien" in the amount of $420.29 for assistance furnished since the accident and after the receipt of the Notice. The same provisions invoked against plaintiff Ramos were the claimed authority in the case of Mr. Malave. *fn7"

 Plaintiff Helen Marley is a sixty-eight year old chambermaid who has worked for the YWCA since 1954. She currently earns $30 for a twenty-hour work week and supports herself solely on this salary and Social Security benefits totalling $86 a month. Her only asset is a $600 bank account.

 In 1943 Miss Marley became ill with cancer, and from 1945 to 1954 she was sustained on public assistance totalling $4,000. During this time of sickness and despondency, she assigned to the Department of Social Services an insurance policy on her life. With the help of a cousin Miss Marley finished paying the premiums on this policy in 1967. However, the insurance company will not release the proceeds of the policy to plaintiff Marley because of the prior assignment to the Department of Social Services. The statutory authority for the public welfare official's action is section 105 of the Social Services Law. *fn8"

 Robert Whaley is a twenty-six year old welfare recipient who lost his right leg in an accident on a New York City subway platform on July 31, 1966. Prior to this misfortune plaintiff Whaley earned his living as a free-lance photographer, a career which he hopes to resume. Eleven months after the accident, on June 30, 1967, Mr. Whaley applied for assistance in the form of Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled (APTD). *fn9" As a condition to granting this aid, the Department requested and received, pursuant to section 104-a, *fn10" an "Assignment of Proceeds of Lawsuit," which imposes the obligation to repay assistance out of the eventual personal injury recovery, if any, that plaintiff receives.

 In addition to the foregoing facts, which are not in dispute, plaintiffs have adduced some deposition testimony bearing mainly upon a species of "constitutional fact" - consisting, at least in large measure, of expert judgments designed to show that the New York repayment requirements are onerous, destructive of morale, and, generally, so negative in their impact on effective rehabilitation as to be arbitrary and irrational. Such testimony emanates mainly from Miss Barbara Lounds, a social work consultant, and Dr. Charles Grosser, assistant professor at the New York University School of Social Services, both extensively experienced in working with and for poor people. Among other things, these experts state that assignments of life insurance policies deprive welfare recipients of an effective symbol of independence and accomplishment; that there is similar symbolic import in the family home or apartment; that assignments of personal injury claims breed "tremendous resentment;" and that, in general, "any social work purpose in the recovery provisions is quite beyond * * * comprehension." Moreover, these witnesses testify, enforcement of the recovery requirements tends to cause return to the welfare rolls of people who might otherwise postpone or avoid such renewed dependence.

 Also in the record are depositions of the defendant Commissioners - both of whom, as the court may notice, have careers of recognized distinction for scholarship and active service in the field of social work. *fn11" Both Commissioners acknowledged that there are imperfections in existing welfare programs, and indicated their concern to seek improvements. Commissioner Ginsberg reaffirmed his published view that welfare assistance should be (though it may not be by either the state or federal legislature) viewed "as an entitlement and a right rather than as a handout." Neither found the recovery requirements significant deterrents to seeking welfare benefits though Commissioner Ginsberg listed a variety of reasons (pride, resentment of investigative procedures, etc.) why eligible people fail to apply. Commissioner Wyman expressed the view that the New York repayment requirements, as they are administered and limited, have no adverse effect upon the desire to become self-supporting. Asked if the provisions affirmatively promote this desire, Commissioner Ginsberg said:

 
"I don't know that they do basically. You have, of course, a dual responsibility.
 
"One is to the client and the other is to the accountability of the appropriate use of the public funds. * * * I think this provision goes to the second objective."

 II.

 Before stating and ruling upon plaintiffs' contentions, it will be useful to note the dimensions and the context of our problem. On the facts before us, recipients of assistance under the programs involved are subject to three forms of repayment obligation:

 
(1) A lien on interests they own in real property - specifically, Mrs. Snell's interest in ...

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