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Brownley v. Doar

February 17, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Graffeo, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

In New York, eligible individuals with dependent children may receive public assistance for housing costs for up to 60 months under the Family Assistance program (FA), which is jointly funded by the state and federal governments. Social Services Law § 350 specifies that aid provided under the FA program must be "adequate" to provide the family with a home (see Jiggetts v Grinker, 75 NY2d 411, 421 [1990]). Upon the expiration of the 60-month benefit period, a family may enroll in the Safety Net Assistance program (SNA), which is funded solely by the State, has no restriction on the period of eligibility and does not limit benefits to persons with children. The issue in this case is whether the adequacy requirement of Social Services Law § 350 applies to the SNA program. We hold that it does not.


Before the 20th century, destitute individuals and families often sought housing in institutional "almshouses." Eventually, societal views changed, prompting New York to adopt the Child Welfare Act of 1915 (L 1915, ch 228). It authorized County Boards of Child Welfare to give monetary allowances to widowed mothers with children under the age of 16 "in order that such children may be suitably cared for in their homes" rather than in institutional settings (Jiggetts v Grinker, 75 NY2d at 420). In the midst of the Great Depression, this program was expanded to extend housing assistance to eligible indigent individuals and families with minor children (rather than only widows) and was referred to as the "Home Relief" program (L 1929, ch 565). As before, its purpose was to allow impoverished persons to remain in homes instead of institutional settings (see L 1929, ch 565, § 77; Bond, Social Welfare Legislation, 1946 Legis Ann at 284-287).

In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act and established the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as a joint federal-state system to provide support to needy families. Under the AFDC program, states determined the level of public assistance needed by parents and their children, and the federal government reimbursed 50% of those costs. New York enacted its companion Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program in compliance with AFDC, containing two main components (1) basic grants for food and other necessities, and (2) shelter grants.

In developing the ADC program in New York, the Legislature specified the dollar amounts of monthly assistance payable to recipients of basic grants, but directed that the amount for shelter allowances be set administratively to reflect local rent levels in the various regions of the State (Social Services Law § 131-a [1]; 18 NYCRR 352.3). The former Department of Social Services therefore promulgated regulations that set forth the maximum shelter allowances based on the district or region where recipients lived. Those assistance levels were subject to the requirement in former Public Welfare Law § 181 (4) that "[a]llowances shall be adequate to enable the mother or relative to bring up the child or children properly, having regard for the physical, mental and moral well-being of such child or children" (L 1937, ch 15, at 26). In addition to the creation of the ADC program, the Legislature continued Home Relief as a separate program, which was not supported with federal money.

In 1940, the Public Welfare Law was renamed as the Social Welfare Law (L 1940, ch 619, § 2). The language in former Public Welfare Law § 181 (4) requiring that ADC allowances be "adequate" was recodified in Social Welfare Law § 350 (1) (a) and it has remained substantively unchanged through today (see Social Services Law § 350 [1] [a]).

This Court considered claims asserting a right to "adequate" ADC shelter allowances under Social Services Law § 350 in Jiggetts v Grinker (75 NY2d 411 [1990]). The plaintiffs were ADC recipients residing in New York City whose actual shelter costs exceeded the maximum payable to them pursuant to 1988 schedules prepared by the New York Department of Social Services. Social Services Law § 350 (1) (a) provided that:

"Allowances shall be adequate to enable the father, mother or other relative to bring up the child properly, having regard for the physical, mental and moral well-being of such child, in accordance with the provisions of section one hundred thirty-one-a of this chapter and other applicable provisions of law. Allowances shall provide for the support, maintenance and needs of one or both parents if in need, and in the home."

Noting that New York "has a long history of protecting children in the home" (75 NY2d at 420), we concluded that the adequacy requirement of section 350 imposed a statutory duty on the Commissioner of the New York Department of Social Services to establish ADC shelter allowances that bore a reasonable relation to the cost of housing in New York City (see id. at 421). To achieve that objective, the case was remitted for a trial to determine whether the ADC shelter allowances established by the Department of Social Services were adequate to meet the housing needs of poor families residing in New York City.*fn1

During the course of the Jiggetts litigation, Congress substantially reformed the federal-state AFDC program, enacting the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (Pub L 104-193, 42 USC § 601 et seq., as added by 110 US Stat 2105 [1996]), which was intended to "promot[e] the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family" (Pub L 104-193, Statement by President William J. Clinton Upon Signing HR 3734, 32 Wkly Compilation Presidential Docs 1487 [Aug 26, 1996], reprinted in 1996 US Code Cong & Admin News, at 2891). This legislation replaced AFDC with a new program the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program (42 USC §§ 601 et seq.). TANF restricted the receipt of public assistance to a maximum of 60 months during a recipient's lifetime, regardless of subsequent need (see 42 USC § 608 [a] [7] [A]).

The following year, New York complied with this congressional mandate and substituted its ADC program with a Family Assistance (FA) program for families with dependent minor children (see L 1997, ch 436, pt B; Social Services Law §§ 343 et seq.). In furtherance of the State's policy aim of continuing support to families and individuals after expiration of the federal 60-month benefit period, the New York Legislature enacted a separate and distinct, state-funded Safety Net Assistance (SNA) program (see Social Services Law §§ 157 et seq.). SNA replaced the Home Relief component and was made available to all needy individuals, not just families with children (see generally Matter of Rodriguez v Wing, 94 NY2d 192, 195-196 [1999]). Under SNA, an individual or family may apply to a local public assistance agency to receive continued benefits after FA eligibility ends. Pursuant to Social Services Law § 159 (1), "[s]afety net assistance shall be provided in amounts determined in accordance with article five and, where applicable, section one hundred seventeen" of the Social Services Law. As currently set forth in regulations promulgated by defendant Commissioner of the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) (the successor agency to the Department of Social Service), the amount of the shelter allowance established under SNA is identical to the aid provided by the FA program (see 18 NYCRR 352.3)*fn2. Thus, when a person transitions from FA into SNA, the level of shelter assistance does not change.

In 2002, State Supreme Court entered a judgment in the Jiggetts litigation and the shelter allowance schedule for FA was adjusted upward by the State in accordance with the court's order. After entry of the judgment, families that received benefits under SNA moved to intervene in the Jiggetts action, alleging that Social Services Law ยง 350 (1) required that SNA shelter allowances be based on the same adequacy standard that applies to FA benefits. Supreme Court granted the motions to intervene and permitted plaintiffs' landlords to join the action as additional defendants. The court concluded that families with minor children were entitled to SNA shelter allowances at the same level that corresponded to FA benefits (see Jiggetts v Dowling, 196 Misc 2d 678 [Sup Ct, NY County, 2003]). The court ...

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