several of DSS's policies, as embodied in its amended regulations and administrative directives, violate federal law. In particular, plaintiffs challenge: (1) DSS's practice and policy of requesting and allowing lawsuits for contributions from the income of a community spouse towards the costs of caring for the institutionalized spouse, Pls.' Mem. Law, Doc. 53, at 9-17; and (2) the budgeting methodology employed by the state in attributing income among spouses, Id. at 23-37. Plaintiffs further seek a permanent injunction directing DSS to cure all the practices and policies declared unlawful and directing that DSS inform all class members of the decision of the court and of the class members' right to apply for corrective action consistent with any declaratory relief granted. Id. at 40.
The defendants oppose plaintiffs' motion, and move to vacate the consent decree pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). Defendants characterize plaintiffs' motion as one seeking "an advisory opinion concerning the State's interpretation of a statute that was not in existence when the consent decree was signed, and concerning issues that are only tangentially related to the issues resolved by the [consent] decree." Defs.' Mem. Law, Doc. 57, at 9. Further, the defendants argue that none of the parties contemplated the wholesale change in federal law accomplished by the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act. Id. at 10. Because its substantive provisions have been "entirely superceded" by the new law, the defendants assert that the consent decree should be vacated. Id. at 11. In the event that the court rules in favor of plaintiffs, the defendants seek to join as a party-defendant the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Id. at 25. The Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration concurs in the motion for joinder. Letter from David Drueding, Ass't Corp. Counsel, May 10, 1991, Doc. 66.
A. General Principles
The court commences analysis of these cross-motions with the observation that consent decrees have the attributes of both contracts and judicial orders. United States v. ITT Cont'l Baking Co., 420 U.S. 223, 236 n.10, 95 S. Ct. 926, 43 L. Ed. 2d 148 (1975); Securities & Exchange Comm'n v. Levine, 881 F.2d 1165, 1178 (2d Cir. 1989). Interpretations of consent decrees for the purposes of enforcement and for determining its scope generally are guided by traditional contract principles. ITT Cont'l Baking Co., 420 U.S. at 238; Schurr v. Austin Galleries, 719 F.2d 571, 574 (2d Cir. 1983). But cf. New York State Ass'n for Retarded Children v. Carey, 596 F.2d 27, 37 (2d Cir. 1979) ("The Consent Judgment is no mere contract, even though reference to contract principles may be useful."). Modification of decrees affording purely prospective relief, however, present different considerations. Such motions are governed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk Cty. Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 378, 116 L. Ed. 2d 867, 112 S. Ct. 748 (1992). When a district court is confronted with a motion to modify a consent decree, particularly one which resulted from institutional reform litigation, the Supreme Court has directed that the standard should be an equitable, flexible one. Id. at 380-83; see also New York State Ass'n for Retarded Children v. Carey, 706 F.2d 956, 969-70 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 915, 78 L. Ed. 2d 257, 104 S. Ct. 277 (1983).
The plaintiff class in this case seeks relief on two theories: contractual and equitable. Pursuant to the contractual prong of its motion, plaintiffs demand declaratory and injunctive relief under Paragraph 19 of the consent decree. Pls.' Notice Mot., Doc. 52. By its own terms, that provision is only applicable when DSS initiates changes in the "policies or procedures set forth under the terms of [the] decree." Consent Decree, Doc. 24. Hence, even before the merits of plaintiffs' contentions are reached, the court applies traditional contract principles to determine whether the issues raised are cognizable under paragraph 19. See ITT Cont'l Baking Co., 420 U.S. at 238; Shurr, 719 F.2d at 574.
However, in the event that paragraph 19 does not encompass the challenged actions of defendants, plaintiffs have alternatively asked for equitable relief, viz., modification of the consent decree to the effect that the defendants must seek approval from this court for the new policies. Pls.' Mem. Law, Doc. 53, at 8-9. The court will apply the equitable standards explained in Rufo in evaluating whether this form of relief is appropriate. See EEOC v. Local 580, Int'l Ass'n, 925 F.2d 588, 593 (2d Cir. 1991) (observing equitable power to modify supplements court's power pursuant to contractual continuing jurisdiction clause).
1. Contractual Standards
Addressing the first basis for reopening the consent decree, the applicable contract principles are relatively clear. The language of the consent decree defines the obligations of the parties. United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 681-82, 29 L. Ed. 2d 256, 91 S. Ct. 1752 (1971). When the decree is "plain and unambiguous on its face, its meaning must be determined from the four corners of the instrument without resort to extrinsic evidence of any nature." Goodheart Clothing v. Laura Goodman Enters., 962 F.2d 268, 272 (2d Cir. 1992) (internal quotations omitted). On the other hand, when the terms of the consent decree are ambiguous, extrinsic evidence may be considered. United States v. O'Rourke, 943 F.2d 180, 187 (2d Cir. 1991). Language is ambiguous if it is "reasonably susceptible of more than one interpretation." Burger King Corp. v. Horn & Hardart Co., 893 F.2d 525, 527 (2d Cir. 1990) (citing Curry Rd. Ltd. v. K Mart Corp., 893 F.2d 509, 511 (2d Cir. 1990)). Conversely, contractual language is unambiguous if it has a "definite and precise meaning." John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Amerford Int'l Corp., 22 F.3d 458, 461 (2d Cir. 1994). Whether language is ambiguous is a matter of law for the court to decide through reference to the contract alone. Mellon Bank v. United Bank Corp. of New York, 31 F.3d 113, 115 (2d Cir. 1994).
Even when language is ambiguous, there are limits on the court's use of extrinsic evidence. The aim of an interpreting court is to effectuate the intent of the parties as reflected in the consent decree itself. Levine, 881 F.2d at 1179; United States v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 829 F. Supp. 608, 615 (S.D.N.Y. 1993). While the court may, when faced with ambiguous language, consider "the circumstances surrounding the formation of the consent order," Wilder v. Bernstein, 153 F.R.D. 524, 528 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) (citing ITT Cont'l, 420 U.S. at 238), appeal dismissed, 49 F.3d 69 (2nd Cir. 1995), it may not "search for the 'purpose' of a consent decree and construe it on that basis." ITT Cont'l, 420 U.S. at 235. The reason for this rule was explained by the Supreme Court:
The decree itself cannot be said to have a purpose; rather the parties have purposes generally opposed to each other, and the resultant decree embodies as much of those opposing purposes as the respective parties have the bargaining power and skill to achieve. For these reasons, the scope of a consent decree must be discerned within its four corners, and not by reference to what might satisfy the purposes of one of the parties to it.
United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 681-82, 29 L. Ed. 2d 256, 91 S. Ct. 1752 (1971) (footnote omitted) (italics in original).
For these reasons, plaintiffs' referral to the original complaint in this action is unavailing to demonstrate jurisdiction pursuant to paragraph 19. See Pls.' Reply Mem. Law, Doc. 58, at 13-14. The court is not entitled to expand or contract the agreement of the parties as set forth in the consent decree. Berger v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 1556, 1568 (2d Cir. 1985). One last rule of thumb is particularly important in the case at bar: documents incorporated by reference in the decree -- such as the exhibits, the draft administrative directive, and the attachments -- are an intrinsic part of the decree and are to be given the same effect as the main document. Crumpton, 993 F.2d 1023, 1028; Levine, 881 F.2d at 1179.
2. Equitable Standards
The Rufo case is recent and authoritative on the issue of what discretion a district court has in modifying an institutional reform consent decree pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P 60(b). Justice White stated the rationale for the flexible standard that won the day in that case:
The upsurge in institutional reform litigation since Brown v. Board of Education. . . has made the ability of a district court to modify a decree in response to changed circumstances all the more important. Because such decrees often remain in place for extended periods of time, the likelihood of significant changes occurring during the life of the decree is increased . . . .