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Soberal-Perez v. Heckler

August 30, 1983


Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Edward R. Neaher, Judge, granting defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. Affirmed.

Author: Pratt


LUMBARD, NEWMAN, and PRATT, Circuit Judges.

PRATT, Circuit Judge:

We are faced on this appeal with the question of whether the defendant Secretary's failure to provide written notices and oral instructions, information, and advice in the Spanish language violates the statutory protection against discrimination found in § 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, or plaintiffs' constitutional rights to due process and equal protection of the law., Plaintiffs and plaintiff-intervenors, (hereinafter "plaintiffs") are Hispanics with limited abilities in the English language. Their initial claims for social security and/or supplemental security income (hereinafter "social security") benefits were denied allegedly because of the Secretary's failure to provide notices and oral instructions in Spanish. The district court found that plaintiffs had failed to state either a statutory or constitutional claim and granted the Secretary's motion to dismiss the complaint. Soberal-Perez v. Schweiker, 549 F. Supp. 1164 (E.D.N.Y. 1982). We affirm.

Each plaintiff's dominant language is Spanish, and each has at most a limited ability to speak and understand English. Plaintiffs Soberal-Perez, Cortez, and Carballo each applied for disability benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-431 (1976 & Supp. V 1981), or supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c (1976 & Supp. V 1981), or both. All received notices of denial of their claims in English, and, allegedly because of their inability to understand these notices and the oral instructions given at the social security office, all waived a right to a hearing or failed to file timely appeals.

Plaintiff De La Cruz, a recipient of benefits under Title XVI, was advised by social security personnel to return to work for a sufficient number of quarters to qualify for retirement benefits, but after he had done so was informed that his earnings had not been properly included in the computation of his benefits and that the overpayment would be recovered from future checks. He requested a waiver on the ground that he did not understand the reporting requirements but, after a hearing at which plaintiff was represented by counsel and a translator was present, this request was denied.

After commencement of this lawsuit, all claims but that of De La Cruz were remanded to the Secretary for full evidentiary hearings. Plaintiffs Cortez and Carballo have been awarded benefits. Soberal-Perez lost on the merits and, when the district court affirmed in a separate decision, he did not appeal.

Plaintiffs allege that the Secretary's failure to print notices and forms in Spanish and to provide oral instructions in Spanish at the social security office violated their due process and equal protection rights as well as their rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. They seek a judgment declaring that the Secretary's actions violate their constitutional and statutory rights and an injunction requiring the Secretary to provide documents and oral services in the Spanish language to persons in plaintiffs' position. An examination of plaintiffs' claims convinces us that the district court was correct in dismissing the complaint.

Title XVI Claims.

Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides:

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

42 U.S.C. § 2000d (1976). Plaintiffs challenge the district court's conclusion that Title VI does not apply to direct benefit programs such as Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The district court read the language of Title VI, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1 (1976), which empowers federal agencies to cut off funds for noncompliance with the statute, as well as the legislative history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to support the view that title VI does not apply to the social security programs at issue here because they are directly administered by the federal government rather than through a state or local intermediary. Plaintiffs argue that the legislative history and the case law recognizing a private right of action under Title VI, see Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U.S. 677, 696, 60 L. Ed. 2d 560, 99 S. Ct. 1946 and n.21 (1980) (citing cases), mandate a contrary result.

As the district court noted, the language of § 601 does not definitively exclude programs receiving direct funding through federal legislation since, strictly speaking, they are "program[s] or activit[ies] receiving Federal financial assistance." However, § 602 of Title VI, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1, which was hotly debated prior to its passage, grants a rulemaking power to "[e]ach Federal department and agency which is empowered to extend Federal financial assistance to any program or activity, by way of grant, loan, or contract". 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1. Compliance with any requirement issued pursuant to this rulemaking authorization "may be effected (1) by the termination of or refusal to grant or to continue assistance under such program or activity to any recipient * * * or (2) by any other means authorized by law". Id. This compliance mechanism does not reach programs under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act because they do not receive financial assistance through "grant, loan, or contract". As viewed by the district court, if Congress had intended Title VI to apply to direct benefit programs, it would have developed a method to enforce compliance applicable to those programs. Soberal-Perez v. Schweiker, 549 F. Supp. at 1172.

While we agree with the district court that the language of § 602 gives some indication that Congress did not intend direct benefit programs to fall within the ambit of Title VI, we find further support for this conclusion in the regulations promulgated by the Secretary and the legislative history of the statute. In addition, although we have found only one case directly on point, Bob Jones University v. Johnson, 396 F. Supp. 597 (D.S.C. 1974) (cash payments made directly by federal government not covered by Title VI), aff'd mem., 529 F.2d 514 (4th Cir. 1975), the conclusion we draw from the case law interpreting Title VI is that the statute was meant to cover only those situations where federal funding is given to a non-federal entity which, in turn, provides financial assistance to the ultimate beneficiary.

Section 602 provides that any "recipient" found in noncompliance with Title VI may be subject to a termination of funds to the program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. The regulations promulgated ...

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