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NOFZIGER v. BLUM

June 2, 1982

LORI NAFZIGER, Individually, on behalf of her dependent son, and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
BARBARA BLUM, Individually and in her capacity as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services; and S. JEAN WAGONER, Individually and in her capacity as Commissioner of the Jefferson County Department of Social Services, Defendants; ANGELA CURRY, on behalf of herself and her minor dependent child and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff, v. BARBARA BLUM, Individually and in her official capacity as Commissioner, New York State Department of Social Services; and MICHAEL NASSAR, Individually and in his capacity as Commissioner, Oneida County Department of Social Services, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCCURN

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

 NEAL P. McCURN, D.J.

 These consolidated cases present the second chapter in the saga of New York State's efforts to superimpose its family responsibility laws on the federal criteria governing eligibility for benefits under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program set forth in Title IV of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 601 et seq.1 At issue here is an informal, unwritten policy adopted by the New York State Department of Social Services which denies AFDC benefits to otherwise eligible minor mothers, and to other caretaker relatives under the age of 21 who refuse to accept what the Department considers to be suitable living arrangements with their parents. Plaintiffs, two teenage mothers who are eligible for AFDC benefits as caretaker relatives of their dependent children, brought these suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of a class which the Court certified to include: All AFDC caretaker relatives within New York State who are eligible to receive AFDC benefits but have been denied such assistance on the ground that they have a legally responsible relative with whom they choose not to reside. *fn2"

 Plaintiffs seek to have declared invalid and permanently enjoined the enforcement of the New York policy, which treats a legally responsible relative's offer of a home as an available resource to be considered in evaluating a minor caretaker relative's initial and continued eligibility for AFDC benefits. Plaintiffs contend that this policy is inconsistent with the Social Security Act, impermissibly burdens their constitutional right to privacy in family matters and denies equal protection of the laws because caretaker relatives over the age of 21 who refuse to accept living arrangements with legally responsible relatives are not denied AFDC benefits.

 The question for decision on plaintiffs' statutory claim is whether Congress, in establishing the eligibility criteria for AFDC benefits, left States free to exclude from AFDC coverage those minor caretaker relatives who insist on living apart from their legally responsible relatives. This Court holds that because Congress has not authorized such an exclusion, New York's policy of denying AFDC benefits to minor caretaker relatives who decide to live apart from their parents is inconsistent with the Social Security Act, and therefore invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.

 I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

 These matters are before the Court on cross-motions for partial summary judgment. For present purposes, the undisputed facts concerning one of the representative plaintiffs will suffice to illustrate the operation of New York's policy with respect to minor caretaker relatives who refuse to give up their separate residence and move in with their parents.

 A. The Nafziger Case

 In December 1979, the Jefferson County Department of Social Services accepted Lori Nafziger and her two year old dependent son for public assistance in the AFDC category. The Department authorized an AFDC grant totalling $ 250.00 per month for mother and child. At this time, plaintiff was nineteen years old, was living with her son in an apartment in Carthage, New York, and was not receiving any financial support from her parents.

 Section 101 of the New York Social Services Law provides that parents of a person who receives public assistance are responsible for her financial support until she is 21 years old. *fn3" Enforcement of the parental liability established by section 101 is provided for by section 101-a and 102, which permit either the recipient or the appropriate welfare official to bring support proceedings against the parents or other legally responsible relatives, "to compel any such person so responsible to provide for or contribute to such support." N.Y.Soc.Serv.L. § 101-a (McKinney Supp. 1981).

 In accordance with this statutory scheme, the County Social Services Attorney sent plaintiff a letter on December 21, 1979, stating that because she was under the age of 21 and receiving public assistance, the Department would have to determine whether her parents were able to contribute to her support. The letter further advised plaintiff that she should visit the Departmental office and complete a parental support petition. Transcript of Fair Hearing, February 29, 1980, at 18 (hereinafter cited as T. ). In response to this request, plaintiff provided the county officials with the information necessary to complete the support petition, and a petition was filed in state court. T. 34.

 Notwithstanding plaintiff's cooperation in commencing a support proceeding, the County chose not to pursue that route. Instead, in late December or early January, the Department Attorney contacted the parents' attorney and reportedly learned that they were willing to have Lori and her son live with them and, in that manner, to meet plaintiff's needs for shelter, food and other necessaries. Based solely on this parental offer of a home, and without speaking to plaintiff about her reasons for maintaining a separate residence, the Department Attorney, "instructed the agency to discontinue support inasmuch as an asset was available to her, if she chose; that it was not this agency's policy to give money to a young person, either male or female, just so they could live their lifestyle that (sic) they chose." T. 18.

 In accordance with those instructions, the County agency notified plaintiff that effective March 1, 1980, her family's two-person grant would be cut in half, reflecting the agency's decision to eliminate plaintiff's needs from the grant and to prorate her son's grant. *fn4" Plaintiff then requested a fair hearing to contest the proposed reduction of her grant. The only witnesses at the hearing were plaintiff, a County Welfare employee who apparently contacted plaintiff's parents and learned of their willingness to provide a home for plaintiff, and the Department Attorney, who related the gist of his conversation with the parents' attorney concerning the offer of a home.

 At the hearing, plaintiff gave the following, uncontroverted testimony concerning her decision to leave her parents' home and to establish a separate residence in December 1979. Plaintiff explained that while she had a fairly good relationship with her father, she and her mother did not get along at all during the two year period when she and her son lived in her parents' house. Basically, plaintiff pointed to daily disagreements with her mother concerning most aspects of childrearing, including the issues of bedtime, diet, feeding schedules and discipline. T. 22, 26. Plaintiff explained that her mother would end up telling the child what to do. These persistent arguments were upsetting to plaintiff and her son, who appeared confused as to which person was his mother. Id. While plaintiff believed that her mother was genuinely concerned about plaintiff and her son, this underlying friendship and concern would not alter her decision to live apart from her parents because: (1) based on past experience, her return would trigger a resumption of their arguments and (2) while living apart from her parents, plaintiff was able to get closer to her son. T. 33. Plaintiff also stated that her parents would permit her to go out but once a week and that if she ...


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