The opinion of the court was delivered by: FEINBERG
These consolidated actions present another in the increasing number of attacks on prevailing state welfare practices.
Plaintiffs claim that the procedures in New York State for termination of welfare benefits deny due process and violate both the Social Security Act and regulations of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). The eight plaintiffs (six in one action, two in the other) are New York City welfare recipients; their complaints sought the convening of a three-judge court and declaratory and injunctive relief under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq. Defendants are the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services, the State Board of Social Welfare and the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services. In May 1968, over the objections of defendants, Judge Bryan convened a three-judge court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 284. 294 F. Supp. 887 (S.D.N.Y.1968). Thereafter, a briefing schedule was fixed and hearings were held in June and July on a number of motions. Because of the interest of the United States in the monies expended under New York State and City welfare programs and in the procedures set up to administer them, the court invited the United States to submit an amicus brief, which it did in early October 1968. For reasons hereafter indicated, we grant plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction in part and deny it in part, and deny defendants' motion for summary judgment; the disposition of other motions is set forth in detail below.
Welfare programs in the United States generally fall into two groups: general assistance and categorical assistance.
The former is financed only by state and local governments; the latter refers to programs supported by grants from the federal government under the Social Security Act to give aid to particular categories of individuals, e.g., aid to families with dependent children (AFDC). Four of the original plaintiffs in this action
were recipients of general assistance, home relief under the New York Social Welfare Law. The other four
were recipients of AFDC, which New York State administers in accordance with the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 601-609. Funds of the United States are involved only in the latter program.
It is instructive on the state of administration of public welfare to review how both federal and New York State and City regulations have changed just since the institution of this consolidated action. At the time the complaints were filed, state regulations dealing with both home relief and AFDC programs apparently required no prior notice at all of suspension of benefits and no hearing prior to that action. However, a state hearing procedure, which is designated as a "fair hearing," had been instituted to provide an administrative remedy after suspension or termination of benefits; in the case of home relief, the procedure went into effect barely two weeks before the first complaint was filed in this case. After the action began, the State Department of Social Services amended its regulations, effective March 1, 1968, to provide notice and an "administrative hearing" before termination of public assistance. Thereafter, apparently because the New York City Department of Social Services felt that it could not feasibly comply with that regulation, it was repealed, and a new regulation was adopted. Under it, welfare departments may choose one of two options described below, both of which continue to provide notice and a type of hearing before cessation of benefits. Subsequent to the State amendments, HEW adopted a new criterion for the administration of state plans, effective July 1, 1968, which requires that the agency:
Gives advance notice of questions it has about an individual's eligibility so that a recipient has an opportunity to discuss his situation before receiving formal written notice of reduction in payment or termination of assistance.
Handbook of Public Assistance Administration, Part IV, § 2300(d)(5) (1968) ("Handbook").
The remedies for a welfare recipient who has been wrongfully suspended or terminated have also been changed in another significant respect. At the time the suit was commenced, New York granted a reinstated recipient retroactive benefits for only two months and then only to the extent of debts for necessities which had been incurred.
Since the delay between wrongful termination of benefits and subsequent reinstatement often exceeded two months, the limit on retroactivity worked hardship. However, effective July 1, 1968, pursuant to a change in regulations issued by HEW, payments are now made fully retroactive and are not confined to reimbursement for debts incurred.
As a result of these changes, welfare recipients in New York State now have a two-step procedure to protect them against allegedly wrongful termination or suspension of benefits. The first, or pre-termination procedure, depends upon which of two options the local welfare agency has adopted. We are advised that in New York State, option (a) is in effect everywhere but in New York City, which has chosen to follow option (b). Both options are set forth in the margin.
Under option (a), the local agency must give seven days written notice, specifying the reasons for suspension, before aid is stopped. The recipient is entitled to appear before an official, who is superior to the one who approved the suspension, and can present oral and written evidence with the aid of an attorney or other representative. Option (b), adopted by New York City, offers less procedural protection; e.g., although the notice provision is the same, the welfare recipient is entitled to submit a statement in writing to demonstrate why aid should continue. Under either option, if the recipient is unsuccessful, benefits cease. Thereafter, the terminated recipient is entitled to the second step, the so-called state "fair hearing,"
which spells out significant procedural rights and is a trial-type proceeding. Thus, that hearing is before an independent state hearing officer; the complaining recipient has the right of confrontation and cross-examination of the witnesses against him; and a verbatim record is made of the hearing. The state regulations provide that the state fair hearing is to be held within ten working days of receipt of a request for the hearing, and a decision is to be rendered as soon as feasible, and, in any event, not later than twelve working days from the close of the hearing.
Plaintiffs allege that even with the improved procedures, they are threatened with termination of assistance in a manner that is both unconstitutional and improper under the governing statute and regulations. Their constitutional argument is that under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment they are entitled to a constitutionally adequate hearing before termination of benefits and that the procedures provided by the state and city do not meet this standard. Defendants do not deny plaintiffs' general propositions that the terminations here under attack amount to "state action" and that the protections of the due process clause apply. Nor do defendants attempt to argue that welfare benefits are a "privilege," rather than a right, and that therefore they may fix the procedures of termination as they see fit.
However, defendants do claim that the combined hearing procedures now provided to welfare recipients meet constitutional and statutory requirements.
We agree with defendants that the state fair hearing procedure after termination of benefits seems constitutionally sufficient.
Defendants argue that combining the post-termination procedure with an informal pre-termination "hearing" disposes of all due process claims, citing principally Wheeler v. Montgomery, 296 F. Supp. 138 (N.D.Cal.1968) (three-judge court), appeal docketed, 37 U.S.L.W. 3152 (U.S. Oct. 22, 1968) (No. 634). In that case, as in this, state hearing procedures for termination of welfare changed during the litigation. There, the state provided an "informal conference" before termination and a full hearing procedure within a few months thereafter. The court determined the constitutionality of the former "in light of" the latter and held that the combined procedure complied with due process.
While post-termination review is relevant, there is one overpowering fact which controls here. By hypothesis, a welfare recipient is destitute, without funds or assets. The case of Angela Velez, one of the proposed intervenors, makes the point starkly. She was terminated on March 11, 1968, because her husband allegedly visited her home every night. She requested the post-termination state fair hearing in mid-March. The hearing was held in June, and, pursuant to the request of this court for expedition, the decision issued on July 10. The State Commissioner found that the information that caused suspension of benefits came from Mrs. Velez's landlady, that the information was untrue, that the husband does not live with his wife, that she had obtained a court order in 1966 to prevent his night visits, that he is allowed to visit the four small children only on Wednesday, and that at that time he brings his support money of $30 a week, but no more, in accordance with an agreement worked out in Family Court. Accordingly, the State Commissioner directed the local agency to reinstate assistance. However, in the four months between termination of AFDC benefits and the decision reversing the local agency, Mrs. Velez and her four children, ages one to six, were evicted from her apartment for nonpayment of rent and went to live with her sister, who has nine children and is on relief. Mrs. Velez and three children have been sleeping in two single beds in a small room, and the youngest sleeps in a crib in the same room. Thirteen children and two adults have been living in one apartment, and Mrs. Velez states that she has been unable to feed her children adequately, so that they have lost weight and have been ill.
The case of Mrs. Esther Lett, one of the original plaintiffs, is also instructive. According to the affidavits of plaintiff Lett and her Legal Aid Society attorney: She and her four dependents, aged three months to fifteen years, were abruptly terminated from public assistance on February 1, 1968. The purported ground was that she had concealed her current employment by the Board of Education. In fact, she had worked for Operation Head Start in July and August 1967, but had not been employed by the Board of Education after August 20, 1967. Since that date and up to February 1968, she had worked at Day Care Centers on twenty-six different days, earning a total of $300, with the knowledge of the local welfare agency. As a result of termination of assistance, she and her dependents were forced to live on the handouts of neighbors. On February 18, she and her family had to go to the hospital for severe diarrhea, apparently brought on by the only meal they had had that day -- spoiled chicken and rice donated by a neighbor. She applied for emergency aid and a post-termination state "fair hearing" but the aid was refused and the fair hearing was not scheduled. Through the herculean efforts of The Legal Aid Society, including numerous telephone calls and three personal trips to local agencies, it was learned that the Board of Education had apparently made an error. However, the Board would not so inform the welfare agency until it requested a new verification. On Tuesday, February 27, Mrs. Lett went to a local center to seek emergency aid. Because she had not eaten all day, she fainted in the center, but when she awoke she was told that she could not get money for food immediately because it had not yet been authorized. Finally, after waiting eight hours, she was given $15 to feed herself and four dependents and told to return on Friday. After suit was brought, her assistance was apparently temporarily reinstated without prejudice.
We do not know what the truth is with regard to Mrs. Lett's alleged concealment of employment, although on the present record it appears that the termination of benefits was improper.
As for Mrs. Velez, it is clear that the decision to terminate her payments was wrong. But the issue is not whether a specific termination was proper, but whether the procedures used were justifiable. There is no need to elaborate with further case histories. Suffice it to say that to cut off a welfare recipient in the face of this kind of "brutal need"
without a prior hearing of some sort is unconscionable, unless overwhelming considerations justify it. Traditionally, such considerations have been urgent in nature and involve the health, safety, or well-being of many individuals. "Drastic administrative action is sometimes essential to take care of problems that cannot be allowed to wait ...