The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jones, 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.
The question before the Court is whether under the State and Federal Constitutions, plaintiffs are entitled to receive from the State the same level of benefits received by aged, blind or disabled United States citizens from the federal social security program. We hold that plaintiffs are not entitled to such benefits.
In New York State, eligible needy aged, blind or disabled individuals receive public assistance through Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) from the federal government, along with an additional state payment (ASP) provided by the State. The SSI program was established in 1972, effective in 1974, by the United States Congress to provide aid to individuals who because of their physical condition were unable to support themselves (42 USC § 1381 et seq.). The federal government manages SSI/ASP payments and makes all administrative and eligibility determinations (Social Services Law § 211).
Prior to 1974, New York State provided public assistance under its own program entitled "Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled" (AABD) pursuant to former Social Services Law, article 5, title 6. As a result of the federal takeover of this category of public assistance, the State discontinued the AABD program and repealed the old law. But in order to ensure that the benefits provided would not be less than whatever current benefits were being received after the transfer from state to federal funding, Congress required the states to provide a mandatory minimum supplement so that total aid was at least equal to the pre-SSI levels. New York therefore adopted a new Title 6 of Article 5 of the Social Services Law, entitled additional state payments (Social Services Law §§ 207-212), which provided additional state payments to the aged, blind and disabled who either received federal SSI payments (see 42 USC 1381 et seq.), or whose income or resources, though above the standard of need for the SSI program, was not sufficient under Social Services Law § 209 (2). At the time ASP was adopted, eligibility was limited to aged, blind or disabled persons who were residents of New York State and either United States citizens or aliens who had not been determined by an appropriate federal authority to be unlawfully residing in the United States.
In 1996, Congress enacted the PRWORA (title IV, codified at 8 USC § 1601 et seq.), otherwise known as the "Welfare Reform Act", which restricted alien eligibility for federally funded public assistance benefits and authorized the states to follow suit with their own programs. Under PRWORA, legal aliens who do not become United States citizens in seven years lose their SSI and ASP benefits. Thereafter, in 1998, New York's Social Services Law § 209(1)(a)(iv) was amended to limit eligibility for ASP to residents of the State who, if not citizens of the United States, are aliens eligible for federal benefits. The purpose of the amendment was to conform state law with federal law and to "make clear which aliens may be eligible for state supplementation of the federal supplemental security income program" (Senate Mem in Support of L 1998, ch 214, 1998 McKinney's Session Laws of NY, at 1667). Therefore, when Congress created a class of legal aliens who would become ineligible for SSI/ASP benefits, the State discontinued supplemental support for this class under Social Services Law § 209 and instead, provided public assistance pursuant to Social Services Law § 131-a (2), also known as the state-funded "safety net assistance" (SNA) provision. Under the "safety net" program, eligible individuals would receive approximately $352 in the form of a shelter allowance, a basic grant, a home energy allowance, a supplemental home energy allowance and a fuel allowance if heat is not included in rent (see Brownley v Doar, 12 NY3d 33, 39 at n 2 ).
Plaintiffs are aged, blind or disabled persons and legal resident aliens of New York State who became ineligible for Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) payments and Additional State Payments (ASP) because they did not become citizens in the time frame mandated by the United States Congress in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) or were never eligible for SSI/ASP by virtue of the Act. Plaintiffs commenced this action against defendant Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) in 2004 and moved for class certification and a preliminary injunction. In an amended complaint filed in March 2005, plaintiffs alleged that defendant failed to provide legal immigrants with assistance consistent with the standard of need in Social Services Law § 209 (2) for aged, blind or disabled persons based solely on their immigration status, without regard to their need, and in violation of Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, because SSI/ASP benefits totaled $761 per month whereas SNA provided $352 in monthly support. The amended complaint also alleged a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, § 11 of the New York State Constitution. Plaintiffs sought an order requiring OTDA to provide retroactive payments and ongoing assistance in an amount consistent with Social Services Law § 209 (2). Supreme Court granted plaintiffs' motions for certification, certifying a class defined as "All persons identified to, or identifiable by, defendant as elderly, blind and disabled persons lawfully residing in New York State who have received, are receiving, or will receive assistance at less than the standard of need set out in Social Services Law § 209(2), solely because of their immigration status", and summary judgment. The court held that OTDA's failure to provide assistance to plaintiffs and the class at the standard of need for the elderly, blind, and disabled, set out in Social Services Law § 209 (2) violates Article XVII, § 1 of the State Constitution and the right of plaintiffs and the class to the equal protection of the laws under the Federal and State Constitutions. The court therefore permanently enjoined OTDA from failing to provide assistance to plaintiffs and the class consistent with the standard of need set out in Social Services Law § 209.
The Appellate Division affirmed the order of Supreme Court holding that plaintiffs were entitled to receive public assistance under SNA at the level of citizens under SSI/ASP, as set forth in Social Services Law § 209 (2). Plaintiffs were thereby entitled to state safety net assistance pursuant to Social Services Law § 131-a (2) plus an additional payment by the State sufficient to bring their benefits up to the SSI/ASP level. The Appellate Division granted defendant leave to appeal and certified the following question to this Court: "Was the order of Supreme Court, as affirmed by this [c]court, properly made?" We answer this question in the negative.
OTDA argues that Article XVII of the New York State Constitution does not require the State to provide SNA public assistance at the Social Services Law § 209 (2) SSI/ASP standard of need. According to OTDA, the Constitution requires the state to provide for the needy in a "manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine" but does not mandate a particular level of aid to any individual or class; and that Social Services Law § 209 (2) sets a standard of need for recipients of SSI but is not a general standard of need or independent financial commitment by the Legislature to a class of all aged, blind or disabled individuals who are ineligible for federal social security benefits.
OTDA further argues that equal protection does not compel the State to create a public assistance program to provide benefits discontinued by operation of federal law. OTDA contends that plaintiffs are not being treated unequally by the State because they have failed to identify any New York resident who receives public assistance from the State at the Social Services Law § 209 standard of need.
Plaintiffs claim the State violates Article XVII of the Constitution because it does not provide for SNA at the standard of need set forth and defined in Social Services Law § 209 (2). Specifically, plaintiffs note that Article XVII of the State Constitution requires the State to provide for the aid, care and support of the needy, and argue that section 209 (2) establishes a standard of need for all needy elderly and disabled lawful residents of the state, whether or not they are citizens of the United States. As such, plaintiffs argue, the State by ...