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RASMUSSEN v. TOIA

September 13, 1976

Jeanne RASMUSSEN et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Philip TOIA, Individually and as Executive Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HAIGHT

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

HAIGHT, District Judge.

Plaintiffs by this action seek to have this Court declare unconstitutional and permanently enjoin the operation of a recently enacted New York statute which substantially modifies the eligibility requirements for the receipt of benefits under that State's "Home Relief" program. Jurisdiction is predicated on 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3), (4) which confers original jurisdiction on this Court over all suits, such as the instant proceeding, authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Declaratory relief is prayed for pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, 2202.

 Plaintiffs, who also pray for class certification, contend that application of the statute at issue would violate rights guaranteed them under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

 After a hearing, the single District Judge to whom the case was initially assigned, accepted federal jurisdiction over the matter because plaintiffs' moving papers raised substantial constitutional issues within the meaning of Goosby v. Osser, 409 U.S. 512, 93 S. Ct. 854, 35 L. Ed. 2d 36 (1973) and Ex Parte Poresky, 290 U.S. 30, 54 S. Ct. 3, 78 L. Ed. 152 (1933), see also Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 94 S. Ct. 1372, 39 L. Ed. 2d 577 (1974), and issued a temporary restraining order. This three judge statutory court was subsequently convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2284, and the original temporary restraining order continued pending resolution of the case.

 We vacate the restraining order and dismiss the complaint.

 I.

 Factual Background

 "Home Relief" is a general assistance program, financed and administered solely by New York State and its local subdivisions, for the benefit of needy persons unable to support themselves or to secure support from other sources. New York Social Services Law §§ 157-166. This residual category of individuals qualified to receive Home Relief if defined by N.Y. Social Services Law § 158(a) to include:

 
"Any person unable to provide for himself, or who is unable to secure support from a legally responsible relative, who is not receiving needed assistance or care under other provisions of this chapter, or from other sources . . ." *fn1"

 Prior to March 30, 1976, Home Relief could be obtained by applying to the local social services center and making the requisite showing of eligibility. As to persons under 21, Departmental Regulation 370.4(g)(1), (2) and (3), (18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 370.4) required the Social Services Administration to determine the existence and whereabouts of legally responsible relatives, their ability to contribute to the applicant's upkeep, and to institute support proceedings in the applicant's name against such relatives where appropriate. Home Relief, however, was not denied an applicant during this inquiry or pending resolution of a support proceeding.

 On March 30, 1976 the New York State Legislature enacted Section 15 of Chapter 76 of the 1976 Laws of New York ("§ 15"), amending Section 158 of the New York Social Services Law to read as follows:

 
". . . [No] person under the age of twenty-one years except a married person living with their spouse, living apart from a legally responsible relative shall be eligible for home relief unless a proceeding has been brought by or on behalf of such person to compel such legally responsible relative to provide for or contribute to such person's support and until an order of disposition has been entered in such proceeding." (emphasis added).

 Section 18 of Chapter 76 of the 1976 Law of New York provided that Section 15 would take effect 45 days from its enactment, or on May 14.

 Implementation of the above legislation commenced on April 16 when defendant Toia, acting Commissioner of the State Department of Social Services, caused the issuance of an administrative letter (76 ADM-35) to social services personnel instructing them to (1) identify all affected recipients and/or applicants; (2) inform them by letter of the new requirement and (3) where necessary, to institute the support proceeding on behalf of the recipient. 76 ADM-35 further directed that a form letter entitled "Notice of Intent to Discontinue Public Assistance" warning recipients of their impending termination from the program be mailed on May 4, effective May 14 (see Statement of Agreed Facts, Exhibit A). The above Notice also informed recipients of their right to a state fair hearing.

 On April 30, defendant Smith, Social Services Commissioner of New York City, promulgated IM 17/76 (see Statement of Agreed Facts, Exhibit B), which outlined the implementation of the new law in greater detail.

 Finally, defendant Toia clarified his previous directive, when, on May 7, he informed the appropriate social services personnel that the new enactment did not require a Family Court disposition where evidence, preferably consisting of official documentation, indicated that the legally responsible (relatives) was deceased or receiving public assistance or Supplemental Income benefits (see 76 ADM-45, attached as Exhibit C to the Statement of Agreed Facts).

 In order to obtain an order of disposition from Family Court, an individual must first be interviewed by a probation officer, who may thereafter arrange a further conference with the (relatives) from whom support is sought. Between one to six weeks may elapse between the request for the initial interview and its occurrence; a further delay of one to three weeks is normally encountered between the interview and conference.

 In approximately 40% of the cases, the responsible relative appears and consents to maintain the minor at a stipulated rate. Where such an agreement is not reached, a petition is filed and an initial fact-finding hearing before a Family Court judge scheduled, usually between one and four weeks subsequent to the filing of the petition. Statistics of the Family Court demonstrate that on the average, 4 2/3 hearings are held on each petition before a final adjudication; moreover, additional delays may be encountered in entering an order, or where the respondent lives outside of jurisdiction of petitioner's residence, thereby necessitating a reciprocal support proceeding in the county of respondent's residence.

 It should be noted that in two counties (Sullivan and Rockland), arrangements were made by the Family Court to issue such orders prior to May 14 in all cases where the petitions are uncontested. It does not appear that the remaining Family Courts are similarly prepared, and thus, it appears that in the great majority of cases the Family Court disposition may entail a waiting period of between five to twelve months from initiation to issuance. (See Statement of Agreed Facts, Exhibit I).

 The named plaintiffs herein illustrate the variety of bureaucratic delays one may encounter in attempting to gain an order of disposition in a Family Court support proceeding. Plaintiff Jeanne Rasmussen, an Ulster County Home Relief recipient, filed her support petition on the same day she received instruction to do so, but nonetheless has been informed that no adjudication can be timely made in her case, since her responsible relative is a resident of a different county (Dutchess County) than plaintiff (Ulster County), thus requiring the time-consuming transmission of Family Court papers. Likewise, plaintiff Marybeth Haley, an Ulster County recipient, promptly commenced a Family Court proceeding but (had it not been for the temporary restraining order) would have been terminated from Home Relief because her initial hearing was set for June 10, and she was informed that respondent would contest liability. Plaintiff Gravett is a recent Home Relief applicant residing in Queens County who has been shuttled back and forth between the social services department and the Family Court, where she has been unable to prosecute a support petition due to the unknown whereabouts of her legally responsible relative. Plaintiff Hollowell, also a recent Home Relief applicant residing in Queens County, was informed that she would be unable to obtain an appointment to file her petition until some indeterminate time after August 1, 1976. It therefore appears that despite the 45 day grace period provided by Section 18, none of the named plaintiffs herein have been or are able to seasonably procure the necessary court action although they have been diligent in their attempts.

 On May 11, 1976, counsel for plaintiffs initiated the instant action by the filing of a complaint, and by procuring on that day an order to show cause on May 13 why a temporary restraining order should not issue against the operation of the amended statute. Subsequent to that hearing at which further evidence was adduced, the district judge found that federal jurisdiction existed because sufficient constitutional questions had been raised, and further, granted plaintiffs an order temporarily restraining operation of § 15 pending resolution of the issues by the appropriate three judge panel.

 An amended complaint was served and filed on June 11, adding Pamela Gravett and Nadine Hollowell as named plaintiffs, and further affidavits were submitted on behalf of the plaintiffs. The defendants answered on June 14, and simultaneously moved pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for "judgment on the pleadings." The following day a lengthy "Statement of Agreed Facts" was filed, which supplied this Court with a satisfactory factual basis for its decision. Oral argument was held before this three judge court on June 21, and additional memoranda were proffered. With the concurrence of all parties, the issues became fully submitted on July 16.

 II.

 Legislative Purpose

 Based upon the materials presented to the court, including the legislative preamble to the statute in question, the language of § 15 and the circumstances of its enactment, and the detailed analyses offered by both parties, it appears that the objectives of the amendment are twofold: first, it seeks to shift the burden of conducting the initial eligibility investigation from the Department of Social Services to the applicant and the Family Court. Second, the statute is aimed at protecting the integrity of the welfare rolls -- that is, to insure that no Home Relief applicant/recipient, under twenty-one years of age, living away from home, has a legally responsible relative able to provide support, thereby conserving the State's limited fiscal resources. Such actions are deemed necessary to the proper allocation of public funds during a time of fiscal crises. See Chapter 76 of the Laws of New York of 1976, § 1.

 III.

 The Plaintiffs' Contentions

 Although plaintiffs acknowledge that the legislative purposes stated above are permissible, they claim that the amended statute, as applied, contravenes their right to substantive and procedural Due Process and to the Equal Protection of the law as guaranteed them under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

 More specifically, plaintiffs contend that application of § 15 will deprive applicants/recipients of their benefits in derogation of substantive Due Process because the necessity of actually obtaining the final Family Court disposition, as opposed to a requirement of merely initiating a support petition, does not in any way further the valid objectives of the statute. Plaintiffs argue that the very filing of the petition places upon the applicant/recipient the responsibility for ferreting out solvent, responsible relatives. Also, the new condition of eligibility will not, in plaintiffs' submission, purge the unqualified from the Home Relief program, since the failure of its beneficiaries to have pursued their legally responsible relatives through the Family ...


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