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SLAVIN v. SECRETARY OF THE DEPT. OF HEALTH

March 17, 1980

ROBERT SLAVIN, a mentally disabled person, by his natural father, ARTHUR SLAVIN, Plaintiff, against SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and COMMISSIONER OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL

In this case, the plaintiff seeks review of the determination of the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare ("Secretary") regarding the plaintiff's eligibility for federal Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), his eligibility for optional state supplemental payments, and the level of those payments. The plaintiff and both of the defendants, the Secretary and the Commissioner of the State of New York Department of Social Services ("State Commissioner"), have moved for summary judgment.

The plaintiff, Robert Slavin, is a mentally handicapped adult who functions at a profoundly retarded level as a result of childhood schizophrenia with autism. His parents live in Westchester County, New York. Robert lived with his parents until at age eighteen or nineteen his parents took him to the American Institute for Mental Studies in Vineland, New Jersey ("Vineland"). Robert spends most of his time at Vineland, where he lives in a cottage with about twenty other handicapped individuals and receives supervision and some therapy. At least once every two months, Robert returns to his parents' home for visits of varying length; he has his own room in his parents' home, where he keeps a large part of his clothing and personal possessions. Although Robert now twenty-nine years old has lived at Vineland for more than ten years and receives care there with which his parents are satisfied, his parents assert that they never intended Vineland to be Robert's permanent home.

 To help cover the cost of Robert's attendance at Vineland, which is $ 8100 per year, Arthur Slavin applied for SSI benefits on behalf of his son. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") in the Social Security Administration decided on September 23, 1977: that Robert was entitled to SSI benefits; that the basic SSI benefit payment was to be reduced to take account of the payments Arthur Slavin made to Vineland for his son's care; and that Robert, as a resident of New Jersey, was entitled to optional supplemental payments from New Jersey but not from New York. *fn1" The decision of the ALJ was affirmed by the Appeals Council in the Social Security Administration on February 23, 1978, and thus became the final decision of the Secretary. In seeking review of that decision, the plaintiff contends that the federal portion of his payment should not be reduced on account of his father's payments to Vineland, that he is a resident of New York, and that he is entitled to New York optional supplemental payments at a level set for "congregate care." *fn2"

 The Federal Payment

 The federal SSI program was instituted to aid needy aged, blind, and disabled persons. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, 1381a (1976). For individuals who meet the eligibility requirements being aged, blind, or disabled, and having income and resources under statutorily defined amounts uniform federal payment levels are set. See id. § 1382(b). The federal payments are reduced by the amount of any income received by an eligible individual. Id. Income may be "earned" or "unearned"; unearned income includes payments for "support and maintenance furnished in cash or kind." Id. § 1382a(a)(2)(A). Support and maintenance received in kind, however, are presumed to have a value of one-third of the federal payment level. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1125(b) (1979). Payments by a third party for support and maintenance of an eligible individual in a nonmedical institution, either proprietary or private nonprofit, are treated as in-kind support and thus are also presumed to have a value of one-third of the standard payment level. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1125(h). Thus, in such situations, the federal payment is reduced by one-third of the standard payment rather than by the full value of the support received. Third-party payments for medical services furnished to a beneficiary are excluded from the definition of "income"; thus, no reduction in the federal standard payment is made for such sums. Id. § 416.1109(a). *fn3"

 The decision of the Secretary concluded that Arthur Slavin's payments to Vineland for his son's care did not fall within the medical exclusion of 20 C.F.R. § 416.1109(a), since the care Robert Slavin receives there is custodial, not medical. Thus, the one-third reduction in Robert's federal SSI payment was found to be proper. The plaintiff argues that those payments do fall within the exclusion and that, therefore, no reduction in the standard federal payment should be made.

 The Secretary's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). There is substantial evidence in the record that the care Robert receives at Vineland is custodial. The Vineland personnel who supervise and care for Robert are not medically trained. Only approximately $ 200 of the $ 8100 annual cost of his care at Vineland is for medicines mostly tranquilizers to sedate Robert when he is unmanageable. Under the present state of medical knowledge, there is apparently no hope that Robert can be cured of his disability. *fn4" The therapy he receives consists of simple activities designed merely to keep him from vegetating rather than to train him or diminish his disability.

 According to the regulations, the relevant consideration is whether the care received is medical, *fn5" not, as the plaintiff argues, whether the condition from which the recipient suffers is medical in origin. Thus, if the Secretary's characterization of the care received is accepted, the Secretary's conclusion that Arthur Slavin's payments to Vineland do not fall within the exclusion must also be accepted. The Secretary's interpretation of the exclusion is also supported by a federal district court decision construing that provision. See Lapin v. Mathews, 422 F. Supp. 1089 (D.D.C.1976). Furthermore, the Secretary's interpretation appears to be in accord with congressional intent. The SSI program was enacted as Title XVI of the Social Security Act, see 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq., to provide for the basic needs food, clothing, and shelter of those eligible. Medical care for those eligible is provided by the Medicaid program under Title XIX. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1396 et seq. The two programs have different purposes and criteria and are administered separately. The reduction in SSI payments by the amount of the beneficiary's other income, including support and maintenance furnished by others either in cash or in kind, is meant to avoid having the government pay for basic needs already being met. The regulations, in allowing payments from other sources for medical care to be disregarded for purposes of computing the need for SSI payments, accord with the statutory scheme of separate programs to meet the need for food, clothing, and shelter and to meet the need for medical care.

 The plaintiff argues that, even if the Secretary's decision is correct in its conclusion that Arthur Slavin's payments are not within the exclusion from unearned income, to distinguish between individuals receiving medical care and those receiving custodial care violates the guarantee of equal protection embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The test for invidious discrimination in violation of equal protection normally used for social welfare legislation is the "rational basis" test. Termini v. Califano, 611 F.2d 367, 369-70 (2d Cir. 1979) (citing, inter alia, Califano v. Aznavorian, 439 U.S. 170, 174-75, 99 S. Ct. 471, 473-474, 58 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1978); Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485, 90 S. Ct. 1153, 1161, 25 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1970)). The plaintiff does not suggest that a more rigorous standard of review should be applied in this case.

 As is suggested above, the regulation in question is not without a rational basis. Since the purpose of the SSI program is to provide for basic needs, it is rational to reduce the payments to the extent that those needs are being met through payments from other sources. Medical care is usually temporary care administered for the purpose of curing a specific illness or condition. Although it may incidentally provide for some basic needs as well, that is not its main purpose. Furthermore, a patient receiving medical care normally retains a residence to which to return after the conclusion of the medical treatment and therefore continues to need SSI payments. Thus, it is rational to exclude payments for medical care from the computation of unearned income, which operates to reduce SSI payments.

 The fact that a particular distinction may work a hardship on a particular individual does not mean that the distinction violates equal protection. The Supreme Court has observed: "Social welfare legislation, by its very nature, involves drawing lines among categories of people, lines that necessarily are sometimes arbitrary. This Court has consistently upheld the constitutionality of such classifications in federal welfare legislation where a rational basis existed for Congress' choice." Califano v. Aznavorian, 439 U.S. 170, 174, 99 S. Ct. 471, 474, 58 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1978). "If the classification has some "reasonable basis,' it does not offend the Constitution simply because the classification "is not made with mathematical nicety or because in practice it results in some inequality.' " Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485, 90 S. Ct. 1153, 1161, 25 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1970) (quoting Lindsley v. Natural Carbonic Gas Co., 220 U.S. 61, 78, 31 S. Ct. 337, 340, 55 L. Ed. 369 (1911)).

 The State Payment

 Federal SSI payments are uniform throughout the United States. Some states make additional payments to needy persons, however, and, under 42 U.S.C. § 1382e, may enter into agreements with the Secretary providing for federal administration of those payments. Both New York and New Jersey provide such optional supplemental payments and have entered into such agreements with the Secretary.

 The decision of the Secretary in this case held that Robert Slavin was entitled to receive optional state supplemental payments from New Jersey but not from New York, since he was a resident of New Jersey, not New York. *fn6" The plaintiff argues that he is a resident of New York and is entitled to receive New York payments, ...


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