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ANNA M. PELTON v. COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA (03/30/87)

decided: March 30, 1987.

ANNA M. PELTON, ET AL., PETITIONERS/APPELLEES,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE, RESPONDENT/APPELLANT



On appeal from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania entered December 13, 1985, at No. 857 1981. Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Larsen, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Author: Flaherty

[ 514 Pa. Page 325]

Opinion OF THE COURT

The issue in this case is whether welfare recipients who are gainfully employed or engaged in training programs are eligible to receive a one-time grant to repair and/or purchase an automobile as authorized by a regulation promulgated by the Department of Public Welfare (hereinafter DPW) at 55 Pa.Code § 175.23(c)(2)(iv). The regulation provides:

(2) Nonrecurring one-time grant. A Nonrecurring one-time grant may be authorized for an allowance to meet

[ 514 Pa. Page 326]

    the actual minimum cost, subject to the specified maximum allowances, for any of the following items provided an individual shows that these items are needed in order to apply for or to accept employment or training which will result in decreasing or preventing his need for assistance. The individual must provide proof that he has an offer of a job, referral to a job or training program, or that he has been scheduled for admission to an examination, such as a Civil Service test or high school equivalency test. The eligible items are as follows:

(iv) only the actual cost of repairs on the automobile of the client, not applying to WIN, the actual cost of an automobile, a down payment on an automobile, subject to a maximum of $200 plus the cost of state inspection fee, automobile license plates, and driver's license if there is no other means of transportation to a job or training or the job requires the use of an automobile.

55 Pa.Code § 175.23(c)(2)(iv) (Emphasis added). A plain reading of this regulation is that eligibility is limited to persons who are in the process of applying for or accepting employment or training. The question raised in this appeal is whether the exclusion from eligibility of those persons who are already employed or in training is legally permissible.

This case arose when Anna M. Pelton and Nancy Boudman, both of whom received partial benefits from the DPW through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC), 42 U.S.C. § 601, applied for the one-time grant. Both were employed at the time of their application and both applied for the grant to fix cars which had broken down. The Clinton County Board of Assistance determined that Pelton and Boudman were ineligible for the one-time grant because they were already employed at the time of the application. After fair hearings were conducted, DPW affirmed the Board's decision in these cases.

Pelton and Boudman then took an appeal to Commonwealth Court seeking both declaratory judgment and injunctive

[ 514 Pa. Page 327]

    relief. DPW petitioned for removal of the case to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania for consideration of the federal aspects of the case, and the petition was granted. By stipulation of the parties, the federal court then granted Pelton and Boudman's motion for class certification. On November 1, 1983 the District Court entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order in which it ruled that DPW's regulation and its interpretation of the regulation does not violate federal law.

On November 15, 1984, the District Court entered an order in which it purported to remand*fn1 issues concerning state law to Commonwealth Court, and almost a year later, on November 13, 1985 the District Court entered judgment in favor of DPW on remaining federal issues. Commonwealth Court treated the individual complaints as addressed to its appellate jurisdiction and the class action as addressed to its original jurisdiction, and on October 8, 1985 that court entered an order granting Pelton and Boudman's motion for summary judgment and denying DPW's cross-motion for summary judgment.

On April 14, 1986 this Court granted allocatur as to the individual petitions and consolidated that appeal with the class action aspects of the case. We also deferred action on a motion filed by Pelton et al. to quash the appeal of the class action.

Pelton and Boudman appealed the federal case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Oral argument before the Third Circuit was conducted on June 18, 1986, and the Circuit Court subsequently indicated that the case would be held under advisement until this Court renders its decision on the state issues.

[ 514 Pa. Page 328]

    language and that Commonwealth Court acted beyond its authority in utilizing Section 401 of the Public Welfare Code, Act of June 13, 1967, P.L. 31, No. 21, art. 4, § 401, to conclude that DPW's regulation violates the legislative intent of the Code. Next, DPW asserts that it was error for Commonwealth Court to grant summary judgment when there were disputed material facts in the case. Finally, at issue is whether the Commonwealth may take a direct appeal of the class action aspects of their case or whether that direct appeal should be quashed on the grounds that it should have been an appeal by allowance. If the class action case is regarded as having been filed in Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction, there is a direct appeal to this court as of right; however, if the class action case was addressed to Commonwealth Court's appellate jurisdiction, there is appeal to this Court only by allowance.

First, we address the direct appeal issue. Since the substantive issues raised in the class action appeal are identical to those raised in the individual appeals, the same issues will be adjudicated in both cases. Furthermore, in a declaratory judgment action, the same remedies would be provided in both cases. The class action appeal is, therefore, superfluous, and we grant the motion to quash on the grounds that the appealability of the class action is moot.

As to the substantive issues in the case, we are governed by the standard of review to be applied by courts reviewing the validity of an agency's interpretation of its own regulations in Commonwealth v. Forbes Health System, 492 Pa. 77, 422 A.2d 480 (1980):

In reviewing an administrative agency's interpretation of its own regulations, courts are governed by a two step analysis. First, "[i]n construing administrative regulations, 'the ultimate criterion is the administrative interpretation, which becomes of controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.'" United States v. Larionoff, 431 U.S. 864, 872, 97 S.Ct. 2150, ...


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