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Elena Class v. Norton

decided: December 20, 1974.

ELENA CLASS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
NICHOLAS NORTON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF WELFARE, STATE OF CONNECTICUT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal by Nicholas Norton, Connecticut Welfare Commissioner, from the ruling of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, M. Joseph Blumenfeld, Judge, 376 F. Supp. 503 (1974), denying the Commissioner's motion for relief from judgment, Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b), as regards a two-part order entered in 1972. Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Smith, Hays and Mansfield, Circuit Judges.

Author: Smith

SMITH, Circuit Judge:

The Commissioner of Welfare for Connecticut, Nicholas Norton, challenges on appeal the denial of his motion for relief from judgment, Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) (5),*fn1 by Judge Blumenfeld of the District of Connecticut. 376 F. Supp. 503 (1974). The order from which relief is sought enjoined the Commissioner to process applications for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) within 30 days of an individual's filing such application and to pay benefits retroactive to the date of application to applicants determined eligible for AFDC assistance. Subsequent to the court's entry of the above order on June 16, 1972, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), the federal agency charged with establishing criteria for state plans to qualify for federal financial assistance, amended its regulations as to the time allowed to process applications and the date from which an eligible applicant becomes entitled to benefits. 45 C.F.R. §§ 206.10(a) (3), (6). The Commissioner contended in his 60(b) motion that these amendments require revision of the court's two-part order -- specifically, extension of the processing ceiling (from 30 to 45 days) and deferral of the date on which an eligible applicant becomes entitled to benefits (from date of application to the earlier of the date of authorization or 30 days after filing the application). The court declined to modify either portion of its prior order. We affirm the district court's denial of relief as to the retroactive benefits portion of its 1972 order, but reverse its refusal to grant relief from the processing deadline established in its prior order.

This appeal marks this court's second encounter in recent months with Connecticut's administration of its state plan under the federal government's AFDC program, 42 U.S.C. § 601 et seq. In our earlier decision, Class v. Norton, 505 F.2d 123, (2d Cir. 1974) (Class I), we upheld with minor exception*fn2 the ruling on a motion for contempt by Judge Blumenfeld. That motion focused on the extent of Commissioner Norton's compliance with orders entered in June, 1972 by Judge Blumenfeld with regard to processing applications for AFDC assistance. The court denied the motion in form but, finding substantial non-compliance with its 1972 orders, reiterated those orders and required the Commissioner to take certain measures designed to enhance the likelihood of compliance in the future. Class v. Norton, 376 F. Supp. 496 (D. Conn. 1974).

In the present appeal, the Commissioner asks this court to modify two aspects of these prior orders in light of HEW amendments to regulations allegedly underpinning these portions of the orders. At the outset, then, we note that our decision in Class I does not preclude granting the relief for which the appellant now moves. One is bound to obey an order issued by a court with jurisdiction over the person and subject matter unless and until that order is reversed by appropriate judicial proceedings. Walker v. City of Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1210, 87 S. Ct. 1824 (1967); United States v. United Mine Workers of America, 330 U.S. 258, 293-94, 91 L. Ed. 884, 67 S. Ct. 677 (1947); Howat v. Kansas, 258 U.S. 181, 189-90, 66 L. Ed. 550, 42 S. Ct. 277 (1922); In re Sawyer, 124 U.S. 200, 220-21, 31 L. Ed. 402, 8 S. Ct. 482 (1888). Accordingly, a court may consistently hold a defendant in contempt for disobeying its order (or, as in Class I, grant the movants other proper relief) and decide in view of subsequent events substantially altering the situation to modify that order. The Commissioner's claim for 60(b) relief, therefore, is a matter which we approach unconstrained by our holding in Class I.

I. PROCESSING APPLICATIONS WITHIN 30 DAYS

In ordering the Commissioner to process AFDC applications within 30 days of filing, the district court drew for its authority on 45 C.F.R. § 206.10(a) (3). As the regulation then read, 30 days was the maximum time allowed participating states to make eligibility determinations:

A decision will be made promptly on applications, pursuant to reasonable State-established time standards not in excess of 30 days for . . . AFDC. . . . Under this requirement, the applicant is informed of the agency's time standard in acting on applications, which covers the time from date of application to the date that the assistance check, or notification of denial of assistance or change of award, or the eligibility decision with respect to medical assistance, is mailed to the applicant or recipient. . . .

HEW has since amended 45 C.F.R. § 206.10(a) (3) to extend the 30-day ceiling to 45 days:

A decision shall be made promptly on applications, pursuant to reasonable State-established time standards not in excess of:

(i) 45 days for . . . AFDC. . . .

In moving for relief under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) (5), the appellant contended that this change in the law rendered continued enforcement of the injunctive order inequitable. Pointing to "inexcusable and unjustified," 376 F. Supp. at 505, non-compliance with its 1972 orders, however -- non-compliance with which the district court dealt at length in Class I -- the court held that the equitable doctrine of clean hands, see generally, 2 J. Pomeroy, Equity Jurisprudence § 400 (5th ed. 1941), counseled denial of the requested relief. The court then reinforced its decision against the appellant by intimating, 376 F. Supp. at 506, that relaxation of a frequently exceeded 30-day ceiling might well mean not improvement in the welfare department's compliance record but only further postponement by the department of the date after filing on which it begins to review an application.

Judge Blumenfeld's ruling is surely understandable in view of the welfare department's "substantial and widespread" non-compliance, Class v. Norton, supra, 376 F. Supp. 496 at 498, with the order from which relief is now sought. Nevertheless, the ruling cannot be allowed to stand, for it conflicts with a doctrine long recognized by the Supreme Court. In Pennsylvania v. The Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co., 59 U.S. (18 How.) 421, 15 L. Ed. 435 (1855), the Court was asked to enforce its injunction ordered in Pennsylvania v. The Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co., 54 U.S. (13 How.) 518, 14 L. Ed. 249 (1852), directing elimination of the navigational obstruction created by a bridge across the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia. The 1852 order assumed that elevation of the bridge to a designated height would suffice to clear the route for navigation but indicated that removal of the bridge altogether would be ordered if the former measure provided inadequate relief. The Court's determination in 1852 that the bridge constituted an obstruction of navigation rested upon its construction of various acts of Congress. Within four months after the decision in Wheeling and ...


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