In The

Supreme Court of the United States

Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services



Decided April 19, 1988

Justice O’Connor, Concurring in part and dissenting in part

Topic: Civil Rights*Court vote: 5–3
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Joining O'Connor opinion: Justice BRENNAN Justice BRENNAN
Joining opinion in part: Justice MARSHALL Justice MARSHALL
Citation: 485 U.S. 415 Docket: 86–978Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN joins, and with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins as to the last paragraph, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

The Court's approach to this case is summarized in its statement that

when it is the Secretary's regulation that we are construing, and when there is no claim in this Court that the regulation violates any constitutional or statutory mandate, we are properly hesitant to substitute an alternative reading for the Secretary's unless that alternative reading is compelled by the regulation's plain language or by other indications of the Secretary's intent at the time of the regulation's promulgation.

Ante at 485 U. S. 430. I agree with this proposition, but I disagree with the Court's application of it here. In the course of this litigation, the Secretary took what I believe are two inconsistent positions. Because I regard the Secretary's later position as far less reasonable than his earlier position, I would hold him to his earlier and better interpretation.

In November, 1982, respondent Kathryn Jenkins applied for AFDC benefits. Mrs. Jenkins' husband is disabled, they have five minor children, and the family was found eligible for benefits. In October, 1983, Mr. Jenkins received a retroactive Social Security disability payment. The family immediately used the bulk of this lump-sum payment to pay their overdue bills. Under the provisions of a federal statute adopted in 1981, using the lump-sum payment in this way rendered the family ineligible for any AFDC benefits during the next several months. Mrs. Jenkins promptly reported receipt of the lump sum, and its expenditure, to her caseworker. The caseworker informed her of the ineligibility rule, and a written notice followed the next day. Mrs. Jenkins took an administrative appeal of the decision to suspend her benefits, and monthly payments continued while the appeal was pending. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (the Department) ultimately upheld the ineligibility determination and ordered recoupment of payments the Jenkins family had received during the appeal process.

The federal regulation at issue in this case provides that applicants for AFDC benefits "shall be informed about the eligibility requirements and their rights and obligations under the program." 45 CFR § 206.10(a)(2)(i) (1987). The regulation goes on to specify that applicants are to be given information, "in written form, and orally as appropriate," about certain aspects of the program, including "the rights and responsibilities of applicants for and recipients of assistance." Ibid. A natural reading of this language suggests that applicants should be provided with information sufficient to enable them to exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities under the program. Thus, at the very least, the regulation suggests that applicants should be given enough written information to warn them of the circumstances under which they should seek further oral explanations of the program's operation and requirements. A reasonable person would be unlikely to suspect that a lump-sum payment should not be used to pay off the family's outstanding debts. For that reason, the Department's failure to notify applicants for AFDC benefits of the new rule was sure to affect some persons in a manner that the Court of Appeals called "truly Kafkaesque." Slaughter v. Levine, 801 F.2d 288, 296 (CA8 1986) (opinion below).

The Secretary contends that the notice regulation at issue does not require any warning about the effects of the lump-sum rule until after an AFDC recipient reports receipt of a lump sum to the appropriate state agency. By that time, as the incident with the Jenkins family suggests, it may well be too late for warnings to be of any use. As the Court emphasizes, however, the language of the regulation is so general that one could hardly conclude that the Secretary's interpretation is strictly incompatible with that language. Thus, if all we had before us was the regulation itself and the Secretary's interpretation of it, I might have to agree that we should defer to the Secretary's construction of his own regulation. In answer to an interrogatory filed in this very case, however, the Secretary took a different position than the one he now maintains:

Federal regulations at 45 CFR § 206.10(a)(2)(i) and (ii) require a State agency to inform AFDC applicants and recipients about eligibility requirements and their rights and obligations under the AFDC Program. Under these requirements, States are fully expected to establish policies to ensure that individuals are provided information in written form, and orally as appropriate, about coverage, conditions of eligibility, scope of the program and related services available. This would include generally advising applicants and recipients of their obligation to report receipt of lump sum income, the operation of the lump sum rule, and the effect on eligibility for assistance.

App. 89 (emphasis added). *

Unlike the majority, see ante at 485 U. S. 429 -430, n. 16, I cannot reconcile the highlighted sentence with the Secretary's current position. I read that sentence to imply that individuals who may be affected by the lump-sum rule should be given enough information, in advance, to warn them against using lump-sum income in the normal way, viz., to pay one's outstanding debts. That is a far more reasonable position than the one the Secretary later adopted, and I would hold him to his earlier and better interpretation. Cf. Bowen v. American Hospital Assn., 476 U. S. 610, 476 U. S. 646, n. 34 (1986) (plurality opinion):

The fact that the agency's interpretation 'has been neither consistent nor longstanding... substantially diminishes the deference to be given to [the agency's] present interpretation of the statute.' Southeastern Community College v. Davis, 442 U. S. 397, 442 U. S. 412, n. 11 [1979] (citing General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U. S. 125, 429 U. S. 143 (1976)).

Accordingly, I would affirm the Court of Appeals to the extent that it found a violation of the federal notice regulation.

The relief granted in this case, however, was too broad. The District Court ordered the Department "to forthwith prepare a notice explaining the lump sum policy." Slaughter v. Levine, 598 F.Supp. 1035, 1055 (Minn.1984). Not only was this notice to be provided to all applicants, it was also to be mailed to all current AFDC recipients and provided again to all recipients each six months. Ibid. The District Court also specified that the notice "should provide a thorough explanation of the mechanics of the [lump-sum] rule." Ibid.

The Secretary has never suggested an interpretation of the notice regulation that would justify such elaborate procedures. First, although I believe that the Secretary did conclude that affected persons should be notified of the lump-sum rule, he never suggested that repeated notifications were called for. The Department in fact mailed a letter about the new rule to all then-current AFDC recipients shortly before the rule went into effect. That letter was sufficient notice to the individuals who received it. Furthermore, the Secretary answered an interrogatory in this case with the following statement:

A State has considerable latitude in the development of procedures it shall adopt to ensure effective administration of the AFDC program. Provisions at 45 CFR § 206.10(a)(2)(i) do not require a State to publicize the lump sum rule or any other eligibility requirements in specifically developed pamphlets or bulletins.

App. 90-91.

Reading this statement in light of the regulation and the other answer quoted above, I conclude that the Secretary interpreted his regulation to require, as to future applicants, only that the Department add a general statement about the new lump-sum rule to its informational materials as soon as reasonably practicable. Because the Department failed to advise applicants about the lump-sum rule for several years after it came into effect, the District Court could also have required the Department to cure that error by informing the affected recipients about the rule. To the extent that the District Court required the Department to go further, however, by giving repeated written notice and by distributing "specifically developed pamphlets or bulletins," that court unduly infringed the discretion that the regulation was intended to leave in the responsible state agencies.

The District Court was also mistaken in ordering the Department to provide, in writing, a "thorough explanation of the mechanics" of the lump-sum rule. The Secretary quite reasonably argues that such a requirement could easily prove counterproductive because of the complexity of the mechanics involved. Indeed, the detailed explanation given in the Department's letter of September 1981, quoted ante at 485 U. S. 424, n. 11, which might not be immediately intelligible even to a trained lawyer, suggests that oral explanations of the rule's operation would be the best way to provide effective notice. Had the Department taken reasonable steps to inform all AFDC applicants of the need to seek an oral explanation at the appropriate time, the purpose of the regulation would have been satisfied. In my view, a simple statement like the following would suffice:

Anytime you receive a lump-sum payment (such as an inheritance, a Social Security back payment, an insurance settlement, a gift, etc.), you should inform your caseworker before you spend the money or use it to pay off your debts.

The Court of Appeals also concluded that the Department could be enjoined from recouping the payments that were made to respondent Jenkins during the period that her family was ineligible under the provisions of the new lump-sum rule. The court reasoned that, "[b]y failing to comply with the notice regulation, [the Department] failed to institute a legal change in its eligibility rules." 801 F.2d at 301-302. This conclusion was clearly inconsistent with federal law. In adopting the new lump-sum rule, Congress provided that it "shall become effective on October 1, 1981," or that, if conforming changes in state law were necessary, then it "will become effective" as of the first month after the first state legislative session ending on or after October 1, 1981. Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, Pub.L. 97-35, § 2321, 95 Stat. 859-860. For Minnesota, the result was an effective date of February 1, 1982. See 801 F.2d at 303 (dissenting opinion below). Congress gave no indication whatsoever that the effective date for the new lump-sum rule could be delayed by the action or inaction of state agencies. Whether or not Jenkins received notice in accord with the Secretary's regulation, therefore, the lump-sum rule applied to her when her husband received the retroactive disability payment in 1983. The Department was accordingly required by federal law to recoup the overpayments that she received during her appeal of the Department's decision to apply the new lump-sum rule in her case. See 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(22) (1982 ed., Supp. III); 45 CFR § 233.20 (a)(13)(i) (1987).

In sum, my disagreement with the Court's decision is relatively narrow. I would hold that the federal notice regulation, as interpreted by the Secretary, requires the Department to give applicants for AFDC benefits written notice at least of the existence of the lump-sum rule and of the need for recipients to consult with a social worker before spending any lump sum they might receive. I therefore think that the District Court could properly have ordered the Department to take reasonable steps to include this information in its standard bulletins or pamphlets, and to take reasonable steps to provide the same information to AFDC recipients who were improperly deprived of this information when they applied for benefits. To the extent that the Court of Appeals approved additional relief in this case, I agree that its judgment must be reversed.

In the answer quoted in the text, the Secretary seems to have read the two provisions to require that applicants be informed about the lump-sum rule, and to require that recipients who were not informed about the rule when they were applicants also be informed. While this is not the only possible interpretation of the regulations, it is not unreasonable: if new applicants need to be informed about the new lump-sum rule, certainly current recipients would have an even greater need to be alerted to the fact that the old rule was being changed. In any event, just before the new lump-sum rule was to take effect, the Department did in fact notify all AFDC recipients about the new rule.


* The regulation at 45 CFR § 206.10(a)(2)(i) (1987) refers only to "applicants," not to "recipients." The regulation at 45 CFR § 206.10(a)(2)(ii) (1987) says:

Procedures shall be adopted which are designed to assure that recipients make timely and accurate reports of any change in circumstances which may affect their eligibility or the amount of assistance.

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