decided: November 18, 1978.
LEON TUNNICLIFF AND ANNABELLE TUNNICLIFF, APPELLANTS,
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE, APPELLEE
No. 531 January Germ, 1977, Appeal from the Per Curiam Order of the equally divided Commonwealth Court (No. 1286 C.D. 1975 dated 15 September 1976) Affirming an order and adjudication of an administrative Welfare Fair Hearing (No. 15101-75).
Richard A. Brown, Legal Aid & Defender Assn., Towanda, for appellants.
Linda M. Gunn, Asst. Atty. Gen., Harrisburg, for appellee.
Eagen, C. J., and O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix, Manderino and Larsen, JJ. Roberts, Nix and Manderino, JJ., concur in the result.
[ 483 Pa. Page 277]
Appellants, Leon and Annabelle Tunnicliff, had been receiving federal assistance since April of 1973 under the now
[ 483 Pa. Page 278]
defunct Aid to Disabled assistance program. On January 1, 1974, they were transferred to the rolls of the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI), a program jointly administered by both federal and state governments. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(c) (1974). On or about January 25, 1974, appellants informed their caseworker at the Bradford County Board of Assistance that they had not yet received their SSI check, and sought temporary assistance from the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW).
Assistance was granted for one month and a "Loan Agreement" form*fn1 was signed by Mr. Tunnicliff which agreed to repay the loan. Similar one month loans were made in February and March and Loan Agreements were signed for those months. At that point, it became apparent that SSI benefits would be further delayed for quite some time and appellants applied for and received general assistance on a continuing basis until February 11, 1975.
In January of 1975, appellants informed their local board of DPW that they would soon receive a lump-sum check from the Social Security Administration paying them SSI benefits retroactively for the period beginning January, 1974. On January 15, 1975, appellants signed an "Agreement and Authorization to Pay Claim" form*fn2 obligating them to repay the amount of the interim assistance.
[ 483 Pa. Page 279]
On January 28, 1975, appellants reported to the local board that they had received their lump-sum check, asked that their DPW assistance be discontinued, and inquired as to the amount they owed DPW. They were informed that they owed $2,705.50 (the amount of public assistance received by appellants from January 1, 1974 until February 10, 1975). Appellants returned later that day with a certified check for that amount, and paid it to the Bradford County Board.
Subsequently, appellants were informed by legal counsel that, according to said counsel's interpretation of a United States Supreme Court case, Philpott v. Essex County Welfare Bd., 409 U.S. 413, 93 S.Ct. 590, 34 L.Ed.2d 608 (1973), DPW could not legally enforce their (appellants') agreements to repay their interim assistance loans. Appellants then filed a claim with DPW for the refund of the $2,705.50 and requested a "Fair Hearing." 62 P.S. § 423 (1968). Following the hearing, the hearing examiner for DPW denied the claim, which denial was upheld by per curiam order
[ 483 Pa. Page 280]
of an equally divided Commonwealth Court. This appeal is from that per curiam order.
Appellants base their claim for a refund on 42 U.S.C. § 407 (1974) which provides:
The right of any person to any future payment under [the Supplemental Security Income program]*fn3 shall not be transferable or assignable, at law or in equity, and none of the moneys paid or payable or rights existing under this subchapter shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law.
Philpott v. Essex County Welfare Bd., supra, interpreted section 407. In Philpott, the petitioner had received state public assistance in New Jersey, and had signed an agreement to reimburse the state if he subsequently acquired real or personal property. Petitioner was awarded retroactive federal disability insurance benefits and a lump-sum check for some $1,800.00 was deposited for him in a bank account. Respondent, the State of New Jersey, sued to reach the bank account under the agreement to reimburse. The Supreme Court of the United States, in reversing the New Jersey Supreme Court, held that section 407, and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution precluded the state from reaching the federal disability payments paid to petitioner. They stated:
The moneys paid as retroactive benefits were "moneys paid . . . under this subchapter"; and the suit brought was an attempt to subject the money to "levy, attachment . . . or other legal process."
Appellants argue they are entitled to a refund because the methods used by DPW in collecting were tantamount to use of legal process and therefore the debt was violative of
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section 407 and Philpott. Specifically, appellants maintain that the failure of anyone in the agency to advise them that, under Philpott, DPW could not reach their SSI benefits by legal enforcement machinery, rendered the collection of the debt equivalent to use of the legal process. Alternatively, appellants contend that the collection methods violated the so-called "fair means" test developed by our Commonwealth Court.*fn4 This test scrutinizes the means employed to collect the debt owed DPW and, if found unfair to the debtor, invalidates the payment of that debt. We disagree with both of these contentions.
Initially we note that Philpott does not require the result urged by appellants. Philpott merely holds that, since states are treated as any other creditor for purposes of section 407, legal process cannot be used by the states to reach protected funds. This decision does not, however, obviate the underlying obligation of the debtor who remains liable for the debt, nor does it prohibit the use of non-legal means to reach protected funds.
In the instant case the payment made to DPW by appellants was voluntary even though they may have been under the impression that they were legally obligated to pay the debt. The fact is they were so obligated! The instruments signed by appellants committed them to repay the interim assistance. They did not delineate the source of that repayment.*fn5 Had appellants received an inheritance or won the lottery, these sources could have been reached even by legal process to enforce the obligation imposed by the loan agreements, and Philpott does not suggest otherwise. The
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mere failure of DPW to inform appellants that they might assert their Philpott rights and resist the collection of the debt by use of the legal process from the one specific source -- the SSI benefits -- does not render the payment involuntary.*fn6 We cannot accept appellants' position that DPW has an affirmative duty to inform its debtors of methods of evading their legitimate debts. To hold otherwise would provide a windfall to those eligible for federal benefits but whose federal benefits are delayed, thus encouraging "double-dipping" at the expense of the taxpayers.
Indeed, the double-dipping problem has been recognized by Congress who has provided a method by which states can be directly reimbursed for providing interim assistance to an individual awaiting SSI benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1383 (g)(1), "Reimbursement to states for interim assistance payments," states "notwithstanding subsection (d)(1)*fn7 . . . the Secretary may, upon written authorization of an individual, withhold benefits due with respect to that individual and may pay to a State . . . from the benefits withheld an amount sufficient to reimburse the State . . . ."
The legislative history of this enactment clearly demonstrates an intention on the part of Congress to provide a convenient method for the states to obtain reimbursement for interim assistance payments. Wilbur Mills, (D.Ark.), a
[ 483 Pa. Page 283]
prime mover of the SSI program, illuminated the purpose of the reimbursement provision. He states:
The motion which I have offered includes a Senate amendment affecting the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. This provides authority for the Federal government to reimburse States for assistance provided to individuals who have applied for but have not yet received SSI benefits. Existing law provides that an eligible individual shall be paid from the month of his application. During the early months of the program some applications have been substantially delayed and the applicants have needed immediate help. If that help was provided by a State or local welfare agency, that agency has had to look to the individual for repayment from the retroactive check that he received when his benefits were approved. This method of collection has proved unsatisfactory and a more direct approach is generally thought desirable. The provision simply allows the retroactive payment to be made to the States or localities if the applicant has so chosen instead of to the applicant. I have no doubt that such an election would be a prerequisite to the receipt of emergency non-federal aid. (Emphasis added). 120 Cong.Rec. 26090 (1974).
Contrary to appellants' argument, neither the reimbursement provision itself nor its legislative history suggest that the method therein provided is the exclusive method of permissible reimbursement. In fact, the legislative history indicates precisely the opposite by pointing out that states have been using other less satisfactory means of reimbursement and by offering an alternative. It does not purport to eliminate the other means, so long as they do not run afoul of section 407 and Philpott by using legal process against protected funds. Further, the legislative history shows that Congress approved conditioning the granting of interim assistance with the requirement that applicants sign agreements to reimburse the state.*fn8
[ 483 Pa. Page 284]
In finding that the collection methods used by DPW in the instant case do not violate section 407 or the Philpott decision, we avoid a complicated problem. Regular social security benefits are in the nature of pension benefits and are based on payments made by the individual while employed. SSI benefits, on the other hand, are based on the need of the recipient. Individuals who are aged, blind or disabled are eligible for SSI only if they also fall below established income or resource ceiling levels.*fn9 Were we to require DPW to refund appellants' reimbursement payment, their income and/or resource levels would have exceeded the levels in effect during the period in question, resulting in an overpayment of SSI benefits. This would present the problem of whether or not the Social Security Administration could bring suit against appellants for refund of the overpayment.*fn10
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the signing of the "Loan Agreement" and "Agreement and Authorization to Pay Claim" forms and the non-disclosure of Philpott "rights" to appellants, without more, were methods that were neither "tantamount to legal process", nor did they render the reimbursement of the DPW interim assistance involuntary.*fn11 Therefore, both the spirit and the letter of 42 U.S.C. § 407 and Philpott have been fully complied with.
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Appellants finally contend that the Bradford County Board of Assistance subjected them to invidious and irrational classifications, thereby violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution of the United States by practicing a reimbursement scheme as to SSI benefits but not as to "regular" social security benefits. Applying the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the United States Supreme Court has consistently granted great leeway to the States in the formulation and operation of social and economic legislation. "If the classification [alleged to be in violation of Equal Protection] has some 'reasonable basis,' it does not offend the Constitution simply because the classification is not made with mathematical nicety or because in practice it results in some inequality." Idaho Dep't. of Employment v. Smith, 434 U.S. 100, 98 S.Ct. 327, 328, 54 L.Ed.2d 324 (1977), citing Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485, 90 S.Ct. 1153, 25 L.Ed.2d 491 (1970) quoting Lindsley v. Natural Carbonic Gas Co., 220 U.S. 61, 78, 31 S.Ct. 337, 55 L.Ed. 369 (1911). In this case, there are several rational bases for the classification. Regular social security benefits are of a pension-retirement nature and the source of these regular social security benefits are employee and employer contributions made while the recipient was employed. SSI benefits are of a welfare-subsistence nature and are financed by general federal and state revenues. Moreover, as previously noted, the SSI program specifically contemplated that states could seek reimbursement from recipients of interim assistance. Therefore, as the classification is proper, the collection policies of DPW do not violate the Equal Protection Clause.