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Williams v. Wohlgemuth

argued: May 26, 1976.

VIOLA WILLIAMS, AND PHILADELPHIA WELFARE RIGHTS ORGANIZATION, BY LOUISE BROOKINS, ITS CHAIRWOMAN AND TRUSTEE AD LITEM, FOR THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED
v.
HELENE WOHLGEMUTH, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE; DON JOSE STOVALL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PHILADELPHIA COUNTY BOARD OF ASSISTANCE; AND GERALDINE MARREN, DISTRICT SUPERVISOR, PHILADELPHIA COUNTY BOARD OF ASSISTANCE, APPELLANTS



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA C.A. No. 74-3162.

Adams and Hunter, Circuit Judges, and Schwartz, District Judge.

Author: Adams

ADAMS, Circuit Judge.

We are asked in this appeal to determine the validity of certain regulations of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW). The regulations in question make emergency assistance payments available to persons whose special needs for such funding result from either of two enumerated causes -- civil disorder or natural disaster -- but not from any others.

A.

Congress amended the Social Security Act in 1968 by authorizing the states to provide emergency assistance payments to needy families with children.*fn1 The legislation permitted the states to deliver money, payments in kind, medical care, or services to needy families with children in order "to avoid destitution of such child or to provide living arrangements in a home for such child . . . ."*fn2 Adoption of an emergency assistance plan by a state is optional,*fn3 but fifty percent of the total amount expended by a state that chooses to utilize the program is reimbursed by the federal government.*fn4

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania elected to initiate an emergency assistance program in 1969. Its plan made the assistance available only to those needy families whose destitution was caused by civil disorder.*fn5 Three years later, the arrangement was amended to allow assistance for emergency needs caused by natural disaster as well.*fn6

On December 11, 1974 Viola Williams and the Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization filed a class action suit against the Secretary of DPW and officials of the Philadelphia County Board of Assistance, challenging the validity of Pennsylvania's emergency assistance plan. The gravamen of the complaint was that if a state chooses to provide any emergency assistance payments, it must make them available to all families with children facing destitution, regardless of the cause of the emergency. Specifically, it was alleged that Williams could not afford to pay her electric bill; that she and her child were in an emergency situation because the electrical service to her home had been terminated; and that DPW refused to provide emergency assistance payments to her, since her emergency was not caused by civil disorder or natural disaster. The complaint further alleged that the named plaintiffs represented a class composed of "all Pennsylvania recipients of public assistance who are denied a prompt emergency assistance grant." It was urged that the Pennsylvania plan violated the Social Security Act and the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution.

Six days after the complaint was filed, Williams received from DPW a lump sum payment sufficient to pay her past-due electric bill. It came after a check of her records by the Department and the resultant discovery that errors had been committed on payments previously made to her. The new payment solved her exigent needs. Presumably because Williams was therefore no longer able to represent the class, a motion to intervene as plaintiffs was filed two days later on behalf of four other individuals. Three of them -- Mary Witt, Beatrice Carmona, and Esther Saez -- averred that they had received notices of eviction from their landlords, and could not find other housing because they could not afford the security deposit. Carmona and Saez further stated in affidavits supporting the motion to intervene that their public assistance caseworkers had told them that DPW would not provide assistance to cover the deposit or any advance rental payments that might be required. The fourth individual, Geraldine Little, claimed that she had an outstanding water bill that she could not pay, and that she was faced with termination of her water service.

The district court held a hearing on December 20, the day after the motion to intervene had been filed. After the hearing, that court took under advisement the motion to intervene, the question of class action certification, and the merits of the case.*fn7 In a memorandum opinion and order dated August 22, 1975, the district court granted the motion to intervene, certified the proposed class, and held that the Pennsylvania emergency assistance plan conflicts with the applicable federal statute and the regulations promulgated under it. The defendants took an appeal.

We affirm.

B.

As a preliminary matter, we must address two contentions raised by the defendants which, if correct, would require reversal of the judgment of the district court without the necessity of reaching the merits.

First, the defendants urge that the district court did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter. This ...


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