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Watkins v. County of Alameda

September 3, 2009


(Alameda County Super. Ct. No. RG08319409). Trial Judge: Hon. David E. Hunter.

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


In the 1990's, the Legislature amended the statutory scheme governing general assistance (GA) in order to allow counties to adopt specified restrictions on benefits and thereby obtain relief from the fiscal burdens of the state-mandated program.*fn1 The allowable restrictions were enacted as exceptions to the broad statutory mandate requiring counties to provide aid to indigent residents. One such restriction is authorized by Welfare and Institutions Code*fn2 section 17001.5, subdivision (a)(4) (hereafter section 17001.5(a)(4)), which permits a county to place a time limit upon the receipt of GA benefits by an ―employable individual.‖

Relying upon the authorization contained in section 17001.5(a)(4), appellant County of Alameda implemented a time limitation on the receipt of GA benefits by ―employable‖ recipients, generally defined as persons under 64 years of age who have no physical, mental, or emotional incapacity that prevents them from working. At the urging of a number of GA recipients who challenged the county's GA time limitation, the trial court issued a writ of mandate directing the county to construe the term ―employable individual‖ with reference to ―practical employability factors,‖ such as an individual's education, skills, and experience in light of the relevant labor market.

Section 17001.5(a)(4) does not compel such a restrictive view of the class of persons who may be subject to time limits on receipt of GA benefits. Rather, a definition of ―employable individual‖ that turns upon one's physical and mental fitness for work is consistent with the plain meaning of the term, its common usage, and the intent of the Legislature in enacting section 17001.5.

By authorizing the limitations contained in section 17001.5, the Legislature intended to give counties meaningful options to reduce GA costs, fully aware that these cost savings would be achieved through reduced or periodically discontinued benefits for certain GA recipients who might suffer hardship as a result. Neither the state of the economy nor discomfort with the statute's consequences permits us to eviscerate section 17001.5(a)(4) by defining ―employable individual‖ so narrowly that few GA recipients would actually have their benefits discontinued as a result of the time limitation. If economic conditions or policy considerations justify reexamination of the limitation authorized by section 17001.5(a)(4), the issue is properly addressed to the Legislature or the counties that have adopted the limitation.

We conclude the county acted within its discretion in implementing time limitations on GA benefits for able-bodied and mentally competent recipients, without regard to whether they may face practical barriers to employment. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment.


The Alameda County General Ordinance Code (ACGO) provides for the establishment of a GA program to be administered by the Alameda County Social Services Agency (agency). (ACGO § 7.04.010.) The agency issued the ―Alameda County General Assistance Regulations‖ to implement the program.*fn3

The ACGO directs the agency to administer an ―employability program‖ under which the agency may place time limits on GA benefits received by an ―employable recipient,‖ defined as ―a recipient who does not have a statement of unemployability on file with the agency.‖ (ACGO § 7.08.060(A), (G).) Under the ―employability program,‖ ―[o]therwise eligible employable recipients become ineligible to receive general assistance after receiving three months of benefits within any twelve (12) month period.‖ (Id., subd. (F).)

To implement the employability program, the agency revised its GA regulations in November 2007 to provide that employable GA applicants and recipients would be limited to six months of benefits within any 12-month period.*fn4 (Regs., § 9-2-5.) The revised regulations provide that persons determined to be ―unemployable‖ are not subject to time limits on receipt of GA benefits. (Regs., § 9-2-5.212.) In general, individuals are considered ―unemployable‖ if they are 64 years of age or older, or if they have a physical, mental, or emotional incapacity, either permanent or temporary, that prevents them from working.*fn5 An employable recipient must have received or been offered job services before the agency may impose the six-month time limitation and discontinue benefits for the remainder of a 12-month period. (Regs., § 9-2-5.32.)

The employability program took effect on January 1, 2008, meaning that employable recipients who were receiving benefits as of that date would have their benefits discontinued beginning on July 1, 2008.*fn6 (Regs., § 9-2-5.) However, on June 6, 2008, Ronnie Watkins and five other individuals*fn7 (collectively referred to herein as Watkins) filed a verified petition for a writ of mandate challenging the County of Alameda's time limitation on GA benefits and naming as defendants the County of Alameda, the Board of Supervisors of Alameda County, the agency, and Yolanda Baldovinos, in her official capacity as Interim Director of the agency (collectively, the county). The writ petition contains three causes of action. The trial court ultimately denied the relief sought in the first and third causes of action.*fn8 Those rulings are not challenged on appeal.

Watkins alleges in the second cause of action that the county's definition of ―employable‖ is overbroad and contrary to several provisions of the Welfare and Institutions Code. According to Watkins, ―Section 11000 mandates that the provisions of law pertaining to the GA program, including section 17001.5(a)(4) authorizing time limits only for an ‗employable individual,' be ‗fairly and equitably' construed to effectuate the objectives and purposes of the GA program. A fair and equitable construction of ‗employable individual' is that the individual be actually, not theoretically, employable and that, in determining employability, such factors as the individual's education, skill level, work history, advanced age, and opportunity to obtain employment in the relevant labor market, be considered by the [a]gency.‖

Following a hearing on June 10, 2008, the trial court issued an alternative writ of mandate and a ―temporary restraining order‖ prohibiting the county from discontinuing assistance to any GA recipient based on a determination the individual is employable until ―such time as the Court hears and decides the issues presented.‖

After a further hearing on July 15, 2008, the trial court determined the county abused its discretion in defining ―employable‖ to mean ―able-bodied and mentally competent.‖ Although the court acknowledged that the ―various conditions, limitations and restrictions‖ authorized by section 17001.5 are ―exceptions to the broad mandate of Section 17000,‖ it nonetheless determined that a county's discretion in defining ―employability‖ under section 17001.5 ―does not exclude consideration of Sections 10000, 11000, and 17000.‖ Relying on case law interpreting and applying the broad mandate of section 17000, the court reasoned that the county could not ―substitute for ‗employability' a wholly different concept like ‗able-bodied and mentally competent,' because to do so excludes people who are not employable by virtue of their lack of skills, lack of experience, lack of language fluency, age or other factors.‖ The court issued a writ of mandate directing the county to ―comply with [its] duty to construe the term ‗employability' or ‗employable individual' in Welfare and Institutions Code Section 17001.5(a) fairly and equitably based upon practical employability factors, as required by the state's interest in providing [GA] benefits to indigents.‖

The county timely appealed from the judgment.*fn9


This appeal requires us to consider whether the county's regulations imposing a time limitation upon the receipt of GA benefits by recipients deemed ―employable‖ are consistent and not in conflict with section 17001.5(a)(4), which allows a county to limit GA relief to as few as three months in any 12-month period for an ―employable individual‖ who has been allowed to participate in job skills or training sessions. In order to understand how section 17001.5(a)(4) fits within the statutory scheme, we first provide some background on the relevant statutes, their interpretation by the courts, and legislative developments driven by fiscal realities.


The Statutory Framework and its Evolution ―Section 17000 imposes upon counties a mandatory duty to ‗relieve and support all incompetent, poor, indigent persons, and those incapacitated by age, disease, or accident,' when those persons are not relieved and supported by some other means.[*fn10 ] [Citation.]‖ (Hunt v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 984, 991.) Although the Legislature has enacted various specialized relief programs over the last several decades to aid indigent individuals, section 17000 provides the residual fund to sustain indigents who do not qualify for other specialized aid programs. (Ibid.) Commonly referred to as ―general assistance,‖ ―general relief,‖ or ―GA,‖ the program mandated by section 17000 is one of ― ‗last resort.' ‖ (County of San Diego v. State of California (1997) 15 Cal.4th 68, 92.) To be eligible for GA, one must typically have ―no income, no savings or resources, and no financial support from family or friends.‖ (Robbins v. Superior Court (1985) 38 Cal.3d 199, 207.)

Two distinct obligations arise out of section 17000-the obligation to financially support the indigent through GA and the obligation to provide health care to ―medically indigent persons.‖ (See Hunt v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at pp. 1002-1003.) Section 17000 establishes the ―overarching ‗macro' policy‖ of the state mandating that each county provide aid and relief to its indigent population. (Pettye v. City and County of San Francisco (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 233, 245.)

This state mandate is carried out by the counties through section 17001,*fn11 which ―requires each county to ‗adopt standards of aid and care for the indigent and dependent poor.' ‖ (Hunt v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 991, fn. omitted.) Through section 17001, the Legislature has ―conferred broad discretion upon local governments to promulgate local, ‗micro' policies in furtherance of this statewide mandate.‖ (Pettye v. City and County of San Francisco, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 245.) ―Within the overall state guidelines, counties retain extensive authority to set [GA] standards on matters ranging from eligibility to type and amount of relief and conditions attached thereto. [Citations.]‖ (Ibid.)

Although section 17001 ―confers upon a county broad discretion to determine eligibility for-and types of-indigent relief, this discretion must be exercised in a manner that is consistent with-and that furthers the objectives of-state statutes. [Citations.] These objectives are ‗to provide for protection, care, and assistance to the people of the state in need thereof, . . . to promote the welfare and happiness of all of the people of the state by providing appropriate aid and services to all of its need and distressed,' and to administer such aid and services ‗promptly and humanely.' (§ 10000.) Furthermore, ‗[t]he provisions of law relating to a public assistance program shall be fairly and equitably construed to effect the stated objects and purposes of the program.' (§ 11000.)‖ (Hunt v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 991.)

Historically, California courts had allowed counties substantial discretion in determining eligibility for indigent relief, the type and amount of relief, and the conditions attached to any such relief. (See Adkins v. Leach (1971) 17 Cal.App.3d 771, 778-779.) In Adkins v. Leach, for example, the Court of Appeal held that Monterey County acted within its discretion in requiring applicants for GA to give an address within the county at which they resided. (Id. at p. 779.)

The legal landscape changed with the Supreme Court's decision in Mooney v. Pickett (1971) 4 Cal.3d 669 (Mooney). In Mooney, the court held that San Mateo County could not deny GA benefits on the ground an applicant was ―employable,‖ which was defined to include persons lacking a medically verifiable physical or emotional incapacity. (Id. at pp. 671-672, 674.) At the time, San Mateo County, like at least 13 other counties, had a ―employable single man‖ rule denying GA relief to unmarried, able bodied, and mentally competent men. (Id. at p. 675, fn. 4.) While acknowledging the county's discretion to adopt standards of aid and care for the indigent, the court stated that this discretion ―can be exercised only within fixed boundaries.‖ (Id. at p. 679.) According to the court, GA was not statutorily limited to ―unemployable persons,‖ and a rule denying GA to ―all unmarried employable persons‖ would leave them ―without any source of relief whatsoever-a result inconsistent with the language and purpose of section 17000 and the other statutes establishing [GA] relief.‖ ( pp. 680-681.) Although the court noted the county's financial concerns associated with abolition of the employable single man rule, the court stated it was ―not fitted to write a new welfare law for the State of California, and while the Legislature addresses itself to that task it remains our task to enforce the existing law.‖ (Id. at p. 680.) Mooney and subsequent cases make clear that fiscal difficulties do not justify disregard of the statutory mandate to provide GA to indigent persons. (Ibid.; Robbins v. Superior Court, supra, 38 Cal.3d at p. 217.)

In the decades following the decision in Mooney, California courts rejected attempts by counties to restrict GA benefits, reasoning that the restrictions had not been authorized by the Legislature and were inconsistent with the broad mandate of section 17000. (See Robbins v. Superior Court, supra, 38 Cal.3d at p. 212 [―courts have consistently invalidated city and county welfare regulations that fail to meet statutory requirements‖]; see also Clay v. Tryk (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 119, 121, 126-127 [regulation denying GA for individuals in shared housing unless all group members are entitled to GA violated section 17000]; Bernhardt v. Board of Supervisors (1976) 58 Cal.App.3d 806, 812-813 [invalidating regulation excluding young adults from GA who in theory could obtain parental support].)

Emblematic of the change following Mooney is the decision in Nelson v. Board of Supervisors (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 25, 29, in which the Court of Appeal held that San Diego County's regulation denying GA to indigent persons without residential addresses was invalid. The court emphasized that nothing in section 17000 or other GA statutes excluded persons lacking a fixed residential address from the class of indigent persons the county had a duty to relieve and support. (Id. atpp. 30-31.) Distinguishing the decision in Adkins v. Leach, supra, 17 Cal.App.3d 771, which had reached the opposite result, the court noted that ―[t]he counties' latitude in administering [GA] approved in Adkins has been qualified by Mooney v. Pickett . . . .‖ (Nelson v. Board of Supervisors, supra, 190 Cal.App.3d at p. 34.)

Beginning with Boehm v. County of Merced (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 447 (Boehm), a line of Court of Appeal decisions limited the discretion of counties to set standards of aid under section 17000 by holding ―that each county must conduct a specific factual study of its residents' actual subsistence cost of living before setting the amount of [GA] grants. [Citations.]‖ (Hunt v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 992.) The Legislature reacted to Boehm and its progeny in 1991 by enacting section 17000.5, which specified a minimum GA grant that was deemed to be ― ‗a sufficient standard of aid,' ‖ regardless of its actual ability to alleviate poverty. (Hunt v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 992; Bell v. Board of Supervisors (1994) 23 Cal.App.4th 1695, 1704-1705 [section 17000.5 standard of aid may not meet actual basic needs of GA recipients].) ―By eliminating the requirement that counties undertake Boehm studies to determine the actual amount needed for minimum subsistence, [section 17000.5] provided a safe harbor for counties choosing to adopt this standard of aid. [Citations.]‖ (Hunt v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 992; see also Oberlander v. County of Contra Costa (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 535, 542 [enactment of section 17000.5 was legislative equivalent of a repeal of Boehm].) In 1992, the Legislature amended section 17000.5 to clarify that the GA standard of aid could be satisfied with in-kind aid as well as with cash grants. (Oberlander v. County of Contra Costa, supra, at p. 545 & fn. 8; Stats. 1992, ch. 719, § 13.)

Section 17000.5 was just one of a number of statutes the Legislature enacted in the early 1990's to permit counties to reduce their GA costs. In the 1992 bill that amended section 17000.5 to specify that in-kind aid may satisfy a county's GA obligation, the Legislature also enacted section 17001.5, which authorized counties to adopt restrictions on eligibility for GA. (Stats. 1992, ch. 719, § 14.)*fn12 Section 17001.5 as originally enacted in 1992 authorized counties to do the following: (1) adopt residency requirements for GA eligibility not exceeding 15 days, (2) limit GA benefits for applicants and recipients who shared housing with unrelated persons, (3) discontinue GA benefits for up to 180 days for any ―able bodied and mentally competent‖ person who had received benefits for three months and who had failed to participate in job training or who had failed or refused without good cause to accept an offer of appropriate offer of employment, and/or (4) discontinue aid to, or sanction, GA recipients who failed or refused without good cause to follow program requirements. (§ 17001.5, subd. (a), as added by Stats. 1992, ch. 719, § 14.) The enrolled bill report prepared by the Health and Welfare Agency for the legislation stated that it could achieve ―significant budget year and ongoing savings to county welfare programs (estimated to be tens of millions of dollars),‖ although it was acknowledged that the legislation ―[c]ould present hardship for some GA recipients.‖ (Cal. Health & Welf. Agency, Enrolled Bill Rep. on Assem. Bill No. 1012 (1991-1992 Reg. Sess.) Aug. 27, 1992, p. 2.)

As a further effort to relieve counties from fiscal burdens associated with GA obligations, the Legislature in 1993 enacted section 17000.6, which permits a county to adopt a GA standard of aid below the safe harbor amount specified in section 17000.5 if it can establish that meeting the standard described in section 17000.5 would result in ―significant financial distress.‖ (Stats. 1993, ch. 72, § 1.)

Section 17001.5 was originally scheduled to sunset on January 1, 1995. (§ 17001.5, subd. (b), as added by Stats. 1992, ch. 719, § 14.) In 1994, the Legislature extended the provisions of section 17001.5 until January 1, 1997. (Stats. 1994, ch. 952, § 1.) The 1994 legislation eliminated the authority to reduce GA benefits for those recipients who share housing but otherwise retained the other options for counties to limit GA benefits contained in the original version of section 17001.5. (Legis. Counsel's Dig., Assem. Bill No. 1965 (1993-1994 Reg. Sess.).)

An analysis prepared for the 1994 legislation confirms that section 17001.5 was intended to limit GA expenditures. (Sen. Health & Human Services Com., Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1965 (1993-1994 Reg. Sess.), as amended June 13, 1994, pp. 2-3.) The analysis pointed out that counties had ―succeeded in obtaining ‗mandate relief' that reduced county fiscal liability for [GA]‖ by (1) enacting a cap on GA grants and allowing in-kind aid to be counted toward the standard of aid (§ 17000.5), (2) allowing counties to limit or reduce GA grants in certain circumstances (§ 17001.5), and (3) allowing counties to reduce GA grants below the level established in section 17000.5 upon a showing that compliance with the mandated levels would cause ― ‗significant financial distress' ‖ (§ 17000.6). (Sen. Health & Human Services Com., Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1965 (1993-1994 Reg. Sess.), as amended June 13, 1994, p. 2.) Although advocates of the 1994 legislation argued the bill would give counties ―important tools with which to control [GA] costs,‖ opponents of the legislation argued that extending the limits in section 17001.5 would ―cause homelessness and hardships‖ for those unable to find jobs. (Sen. Health & Human Services Com., Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1965 (1993-1994 Reg. Sess.), as amended June 13, 1994, p. 3.) Opponents also pointed out that counties had a fiscal incentive to classify GA recipients as ― ‗able-bodied,' even if they [had] significant health problems.‖ (Ibid.) Apparently in reaction to concerns raised by those opposed to extending section 17001.5, the 1994 legislation added a provision to section 17001.5 requiring the Legislative Analyst to conduct an evaluation of the impact of the section on GA recipients and applicants, including an assessment of whether the limitations authorized by section 17001.5 had an impact on homelessness among GA applicants and recipients. (§ 17001.5, subd. (b), as amended by Stats. 1994, ch. 952, § 1.)

Because the provisions of section 17001.5 were scheduled to sunset on January 1, 1997, the Legislature acted again in 1996 to extend the provisions of section 17001.5. (Stats. 1996, ch. 206, § 34.) The 1996 legislation not only eliminated the sunset provision but also changed the statute in certain respects. The amended statute again allowed for counties to reduce GA grants to persons in shared housing. (§ 17001.5, subd. (a)(2).) The revised statute also retained the provision permitting counties to deny GA benefits for up to 180 days to certain individuals who had failed without good cause to accept employment or participate in job training, although the authorization was amended to apply to a recipient who is ―employable‖ instead of ―able bodied and mentally competent.‖ (§ 17001.5, subd. (a)(3).)

As relevant here, the 1996 legislation also added current subdivision (a)(4) of section 17001.5, which provides that a county may ―[p]rohibit an employable individual from receiving aid under this part for more than three months in any 12-month period, whether or not the months are consecutive.‖ Unlike subdivision (a)(3), which allows employable individuals to continue their GA eligibility beyond three months if they participate in job training and do not without good cause decline appropriate job offers, subdivision (a)(4) permits counties to impose a strict time limit on GA eligibility for employable persons, without regard to whether they participate in job training. However, as a condition of imposing the time limitation in subdivision (a)(4), the county must have made job training or skills training available to the GA recipient. (§ 17001.5(a)(4).) In an analysis of the 1996 statute, the limitation authorized in subdivision (a)(3) is described as a ―work requirement,‖ whereas the limitation authorized in subdivision (a)(4) is described as ―time-limited aid.‖ (Cal. Dept. of Finance, Enrolled Bill Rep. on Sen. Bill No. 681 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.) Jan. 31, 1996, p. 4.)

Like earlier versions of section 17001.5, the statute as revised in 1996 gave ―counties options to control [GA] program costs.‖ (Cal. Dept. of Finance, Enrolled Bill Rep. on Sen. Bill No. 681 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.) Jan. 31, 1996, p. 4.) Indeed, the cost savings associated with the shared housing provision alone was potentially $17 million per year. (Id. at p. 5.) It was estimated that counties could ―realize significant savings beyond this, depending upon which combination of the remaining options [in section 17001.5] they [chose] to implement.‖ (Ibid.)

To summarize, section 17001.5 arose out of legislative efforts in the early to mid-1990's to give counties tools to limit escalating GA costs. Following the Mooney decision, courts increasingly restricted the ability of counties to control GA costs through eligibility standards and other limitations not expressly authorized by section 17000 and related statutes. (See Washington v. Board of Supervisors (1993) 18 Cal.App.4th 981, 992 (conc. opn. of Froehlich, J.) [―Since 1971 the judiciary has sharply delineated counties' discretion‖].) Section 17001.5, along with sections 17000.5 and 17000.6, constituted the express authorization that had previously been lacking allowing counties to adopt GA standards that reduced costs of administering the state-mandated program.

II. Standard of Review

The standard of review governing a challenge to the validity of administrative regulations is found in Government Code section 11342.2, which states: ―Whenever by the express or implied terms of any statute a state agency has authority to adopt regulations to implement, interpret, make specific or otherwise carry out the provisions of the statute, no regulation adopted is valid or effective unless [1] consistent and not in conflict with the statute and [2] reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose ...

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