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Christensen v. Lightbourne

Supreme Court of California

July 8, 2019

ANGIE CHRISTENSEN, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
WILL LIGHTBOURNE, as Director, etc., et al., Defendants and Appellants.

         First Appellate District, Division Two A144254

          Superior Court San Francisco City and County Superior Court CFP-12-512070 Ernest H. Goldsmith Judge.

          Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Jonathan L. Wolff, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Janill L. Richards, Principal Deputy State Solicitor General, Julie Weng-Gutierrez, Assistant Attorney General, Geoffrey H. Wright, Associate Deputy State Solicitor General, Susan M. Carson, Jennifer A. Bunshoft and Michael J. Mongan, Deputy Attorneys General, for Defendants and Appellants.

          Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Hope G. Nakamura, Trinh Phan; Western Center on Law & Poverty, Richard A. Rothschild, Alexander Prieto, Rebecca C. Miller; Legal Aid of Marin and Stephanie E. Haffner for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          Betty Nordwind, Patrick Lynch, David Ettinger and Rebecca Fischer for Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

          Jennifer Braun, Angela Schwartz, Elise Weinberg, Nisha Kashyap, Rachel Stein; Remcho, Johansen & Purcell and Robin B. Johansen for Alliance for Children's Rights as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

          Justice Liu authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Chin, Corrigan, Cuéllar, Kruger, and Groban concurred.

          OPINION

          Liu, J.

         We granted review to decide whether a household member's income that is used to pay child support for a child living in another household counts as income “reasonably anticipated” to be “received” by the paying household within the meaning of Welfare and Institutions Code section 11265.2 for purposes of determining eligibility for state welfare benefits. The California Department of Social Services determined that it does, and we conclude that its determination was reasonable and therefore valid. We must also decide whether the policy of the California Department of Social Services treating court-ordered child support as “income” violates Welfare and Institutions Code section 11005.5 by counting the same funds as income twice: once to the paying household and once to the receiving household. We conclude that it does not. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

         I.

         We begin with an overview of the relevant federal and state statutes governing the provision of cash assistance to needy households and then describe the dispute in this case.

         A.

         For many years, the federal Assistance to Family with Dependent Children (AFDC) program provided cash aid to needy families. (42 U.S.C. § 601, as in effect before Aug. 22, 1996; Sneed v. Saenz (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 1220, 1229 (Sneed).) “The AFDC program [wa]s one of three major categorical public assistance programs established by the Social Security Act of 1935.” (King v. Smith (1968) 392 U.S. 309, 313.) AFDC provided states with federal funds “on a matching funds basis to aid the ‘needy child... who has been deprived of parental support or care by reason of the death, continued absence from the home, or physical or mental incapacity of a parent, and who is living with' any of the several listed relatives.” (Van Lare v. Hurley (1975) 421 U.S. 338, 340, quoting former 42 U.S.C. § 606(a).) To qualify for federal funding under the AFDC program, states were required to operate a program consistent with the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.). (Townsend v. Swank (1971) 404 U.S. 282, 285-286.) Doing so required state agencies to comply with federal requirements governing how to calculate an individual's income as well as what sources of income should be “disregard[ed]” in calculating income. (42 U.S.C. § 602(a) (1994).)

         In 1996, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which replaced the AFDC program with a program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). (Pub.L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105; Sneed, supra, 120 Cal.App.4th at p. 1231.) In place of AFDC's system of federal matching funds, TANF provides states with block funding to distribute to poor families while requiring state plans to “limit the receipt of aid to a specified number of months” and “include certain elements such as requiring aid recipients to engage in specified work activities.” (Sneed, at p. 1231, citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 607, 608.) Congress's purpose in enacting TANF was to “increase the flexibility of States” in operating programs designed to “provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives” and to “end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.” (42 U.S.C. § 601(a).)

         To implement TANF, our Legislature undertook a “comprehensive review and overhaul of [the state's] welfare system” and enacted the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program. (Sneed, supra, 120 Cal.App.4th at p. 1231.) The Legislature observed that “[e]ach family unit has the right and responsibility to provide for its own economic security by full participation in the work force to the extent possible. Each family has the right and responsibility to provide sufficient support and protection of its children, to raise them according to its values and to provide every opportunity for educational and social progress.” (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 11205; all undesignated statutory references are to this code.) CalWORKs implemented a new aid calculation methodology designed to increase the work effort of aid recipients and to encourage recipients to seek and obtain more employment income. (Sneed, at p. 1232.)

         To qualify for CalWORKs, a household's “reasonably anticipated income, less exempt income, ” must fall below the “maximum aid payment” for a household (sometimes called an “assistance unit”) of its size. (§ 11450.12, subd. (b); Cal. Dept. of Social Services, Manual of Policy and Procedures § 44-207 (MPP).) The CalWORKs statute specifies that income is “ ‘reasonably anticipated' if the county is reasonably certain of the amount of income and that the income will be received” during the prospective, semiannual reporting period. (§ 11265.2, subd. (b).) Eligible applicants receive a cash grant equal to the difference between the family's income and the maximum aid payment. (§ 11450.)

         The California Department of Social Services (Department) is vested with “full power to supervise every phase of the administration of public social services.” (§ 10600.) The Department promulgates rules and standards for the implementation of the statutes it enforces. These rules and standards are adopted in compliance with the procedures, including notice and comment requirements, set forth in the California Administrative Procedure Act (Gov. Code § 11340 et seq.), and they are published in the MPP. (§§ 10554, 11209; see Smith v. Los Angeles County Bd. of Supervisors (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1104, 1109.) The Legislature also authorized the Department to “implement, interpret, or make specific the amendments to this division... by means of all-county letters or similar instructions from the department until regulations are adopted.” (§ 10606.2, subd. (a).) The interpretations of the CalWORKs statute in the MPP and all-county letters “come[] from authoritative legal and policymaking levels of the agency.” (Sharon S. v. Superior Court (2003) 31 Cal.4th 417, 436 (Sharon S.).)

         Eligibility determinations for CalWORKs aid are made by county welfare departments in accordance with the Department's rules and regulations. (§§ 10800, 11209.) The Department's implementing regulations direct counties to consider only income that the county is “reasonably certain that the recipient will receive” during the six-month budgeting period. (MPP § 44-101(c); see also MPP § 44-102.) From this amount, counties subtract income deemed “exempt” by statute or regulation. (§§ 11450.12, subd. (b), 11451.5; see MPP § 44-111.) Under the AFDC program, a family could exempt from its gross monthly income the first $30 of income and one-third of each additional dollar of earned income. CalWORKs replaced the AFDC exemption with a new income disregard of the first $225 of earned income or disability-based unearned income, plus 50 percent of each additional dollar of gross earnings. (§ 11451.5.) The greater income disregard under CalWORKs permits individuals to earn more income than was possible under the former AFDC program without risking a reduction in aid or becoming ineligible for aid, thereby effectuating the Legislature's ...


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