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BURTON v. THORNBURGH

March 22, 1982

Robert BURTON, et al.
v.
Richard THORNBURGH, et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DITTER

This case challenges procedures employed in the state administration of federally funded energy assistance programs. Plaintiffs consist of four named low income individuals residing in Philadelphia who did not receive energy assistance funds and a tenants' association which is asserting the rights of its members. Defendants include various high level administrators of the Community Service Administration (CSA), *fn1" the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS; formerly Health, Education and Welfare, HEW), the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW), and the Philadelphia Allied Action Commission (PAAC). Seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, plaintiffs allege violations of federal statutes (P.L. 96-126, 93 Stat. 978; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 2809(a)(5), 2812(d) (1981)), federal regulations (45 C.F.R. § 1061.70 et seq.), state administrative agency law (Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 71, § 1710.1 et seq. (Purdon) (1962), repeal and recodified, 2 Pa.C.S.A. § 101 et seq. (1981)), and procedural due process and equal protection under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Specifically, plaintiffs claim defendants unlawfully stopped processing energy assistance claims after April 11, 1980, failed to provide adequate notice of denial and availability of appeal hearings to applicants, and severely limited access to assistance funds to tenants by not complying with state outreach programs. Plaintiffs seek certification as a class. All but the City defendants have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, plaintiffs' motions are denied and defendants' motions are granted.

STATEMENT OF FACTS:

 1. The Energy Assistance Programs

 In 1979, Congress enacted Public Law 96-126 allocating funds to states for distribution to low income households for heating assistance during the winter. These energy allowances were supplied under two federal programs: the Energy Assistance Program (EAP), administered by HEW, and the Energy Crisis Assistance Program (ECAP), administered by CSA. *fn2" Under federal regulations governing EAP, eligibility for assistance funds was based on income or participation in other assistance programs. Persons were eligible for EAP funds if their total household income did not exceed 125 percent of the CSA poverty level or the households received assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), food stamps, or statewide programs of regularly paid general assistance. 44 Fed.Reg. 69034 (1979). ECAP funds were limited to households with incomes not exceeding 125 percent of the CSA poverty level and households receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

 The administrative notice promulgated by HEW delineated four plans under which states could distribute EAP funds. 44 Fed.Reg. 69032-34 (1979). At its discretion, a state could have used a combination of plans. 44 Fed.Reg. 69034 (1979).

 The state of Pennsylvania, acting through its Department of Public Welfare, originally elected to distribute energy assistance funds according to Plan C, one of the options federal regulations afforded it. 44 Fed.Reg. 69035 (1979). Under Plan C, all state EAP funds were transferred to ECAP. The transfer enabled DPW to distribute all state energy assistance funds in accordance with ECAP regulations. See note 2 supra. As required by federal regulations, this election was approved by HEW and CSA.

 In April, 1980, DPW amended its state plan, electing to distribute any then remaining assistance funds (approximately $ 6.9 million) in accordance with Plan B. Under Plan B, the state could use AFDC, food stamps, or general assistance as a basis for categorical eligibility. 44 Fed.Reg. 69035 (1979). Additionally, states were authorized to make flat payments of EAP funds to participants in the other entitlement programs. 44 Fed.Reg. 69033 (1979). Pennsylvania's amended plan provided for a flat grant of $ 25. from EAP funds to each household receiving AFDC which had not received prior energy assistance. *fn3" To effectuate the $ 25. flat payment plan, DPW did not accept applications for EAP after April 11, 1980. Crisis assistance, however, was available until June 30, 1980. Public Law 96-126 required that any energy assistance funds (EAP or ECAP) remaining unobligated on July 1, 1980, revert to the federal government.

 2. Administration of the Programs in Pennsylvania

 In Pennsylvania, DPW had state-wide responsibility for administering the energy assistance programs. It contracted with county assistance offices and other community action agencies to administer the programs at the local level. These local agencies made eligibility determinations, *fn4" conducted outreach programs, *fn5" and provided short term crisis assistance such as blankets, warm clothing, and fuel. In accordance with its contract with local agencies, DPW was required to monitor local administration of the energy assistance program. Some monitoring problems were reported due to a lack of administrative funds. No monitoring, however, was undertaken regarding the availability of appeal hearings for denial of benefit determinations.

 There was a maximum payment to each household under the energy assistance programs of $ 400. Limitations on payment for regular energy assistance (EAP) were based on the type of fuel supplied. *fn6" Actual payment levels were based on the percentage price increase of the primary heating fuel over the previous year. Payment of crisis assistance funds (ECAP) was based on need so long as the $ 400. maximum set for all assistance was not exceeded. If a household needed fuel and was in arrears with its dealer, the funds could be used to pay fuel/utility bills or establish a line of credit with fuel/utility vendors. More typical examples of short term crisis assistance were furnace repairs, warm clothing, and blankets.

 Both programs also were designed to provide assistance to tenants who indirectly paid heating costs, i.e., where the cost of heat was included in their rent. Each renter was required to obtain a notarized statement from his landlord specifying the amount of rent allocated to heat expense and containing assurances that the rent would be reduced by the amount of assistance provided. This statement was necessary to prevent abuse of the assistance program. Because many landlords refused to supply the required statement, tenant participation in the programs was markedly lower than by those who directly paid heating costs.

 For those applicants denied energy assistance benefits due to an ineligibility determination, notice of denial and right to an appeal hearing was required. This notice was provided by that organization making the ineligibility determination, county board's of assistance and community action agencies, on form PWEA-3. In Philadelphia, DPW informed applicants of denials.

 3. Administration of the Programs in Philadelphia

 Local administration of the crisis assistance program in Philadelphia was performed by the Philadelphia Allied Action Commission (PAAC) with which DPW contracted to distribute $ 286,000. in emergency assistance funds. Contrary to procedures employed with all other community action agencies involved in distributing crisis assistance funds, PAAC did not make eligibility determinations. Rather, eligibility determinations for ECAP were made by the County Board of Assistance (CBA). *fn7" PAAC distributed funds, conducted outreach, and tried to solve energy crisis problems.

 So far as ECAP moneys were concerned, PAAC's clients filled out application forms stating their emergency and the type of assistance needed. To be approved, all applications had to be accompanied by a certification of eligibility from CBA. *fn8" Officials of PAAC then decided whether an emergency situation existed and the proper course of action to abate the crisis. As a matter of routine, all applicants with a CBA certification of eligibility were provided with some form of crisis assistance. In most instances, service was provided within 24 hours of the client's application to PAAC. Applicants who did not have a CBA certification were denied crisis payments.

 One problem with which PAAC had to deal was the amount that could be paid for crisis assistance. As previously noted, there was a maximum of $ 400. for all energy assistance. In all instances, applicants to PAAC for crisis funds had already received the regular energy assistance to which they were entitled. Thus, in most instances, only $ 50. or $ 100. could be paid for crisis assistance. Occasionally, however, exceptions were made when the service needed would require more than was available to the applicant. In these instances, PAAC turned to an "overage fund" supplied by CSA. *fn9"

 Another problem was those persons who failed to supply all information necessary to process their application. These individuals were informed verbally by PAAC regarding the required information and that their applications must be complete by June 30, 1980, the termination date of the program. While awaiting completion, these applications were placed in a "waiting" file. In many instances the applicant never returned. No notice of a denial of eligibility was sent to them by DPW because PAAC's failure to receive necessary information was not considered a denial.

 Despite the April 11, 1980, termination date for regular energy assistance, PAAC continued to process crisis assistance applications until June 30, 1980, in accordance with its contract. CBA, however, stopped making eligibility determinations on April 11, 1980. See note 7 supra. Therefore, in Philadelphia no new applicants were determined eligible for ECAP after April 11, 1980. *fn10" PAAC did service 619 people for crisis assistance between April 11 and June 30, 1980, but all had been certified eligible by CBA prior to April 12. In about 10 cases, however, PAAC provided crisis assistance to uncertified applicants after having been referred to the applicant by another agency. *fn11" Because these recipients had not been certified eligible by CBA, their assistance funds were drawn from the CSA overage account.

 Following institution of this suit, it was revealed that approximately $ 37,000. remained in PAAC's crisis assistance account. Pursuant to stipulation by the parties and court approval of August 7, 1980, all remaining funds were distributed to the ...


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