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10/16/97 MICHELE RENEE v. DEPARTMENT PUBLIC WELFARE

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


October 16, 1997

MICHELE RENEE, PETITIONER
v.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE, RESPONDENT

Appealed From No. 390112569-004. State Agency Department of Public Welfare.

Before: Honorable Dan Pellegrini, Judge, Honorable James R. Kelley, Judge, Honorable Emil E. Narick, Senior Judge. Opinion BY Judge Kelley.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kelley

OPINION BY JUDGE KELLEY

FILED: October 16, 1997

Michele Renee appeals pro se from an order of the Department of Public Welfare, Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (DPW), which affirmed the decision of a hearing officer denying Renee's appeal from a decision of the Lehigh County Assistance Office (CAO). The CAO had denied Renee's application for cash assistance. We affirm.

The facts of this case may be summarized as follows. On March 31, 1996, Renee submitted an application to the CAO for cash assistance, food stamps and medical assistance for herself and her five-year old son. In her application, Renee named the father of her child who was born out of wedlock.

In response to Renee's application for assistance, an interview was held with the CAO on April 19, 1996. At the interview, Renee claimed that she had "good cause" for refusing to cooperate in obtaining child support from her son's father as required under the Public Welfare Code, *fn1 the Support Law, *fn2 and the Pennsylvania Code (Code). *fn3 At the interview, Renee signed a form explaining the requirement to cooperate in obtaining child support, and the right to claim good cause for refusing to cooperate in obtaining the support. The form also indicated that, pursuant to 55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3)(iii), Renee was required to provide the CAO with the corroborative evidence to support her claim of good cause within twenty days.

By letter dated April 30, 1996, Renee filed a "good cause" petition with the CAO explaining her reasons for refusing to cooperate in obtaining the support from her child's father. In the petition, Renee claimed that the pursuit of support would result in potential physical and emotional harm to herself and her son, and outlined a history of the abusive relationship she had with her son's father. The petition also listed a number of instances of harassment which Renee had endured that were perpetrated by other individuals, purportedly done at the bidding of her child's father.

The CAO requested that Renee submit additional documentation in support of her "good cause" petition, and extended the time for its submission to June 20, 1996. When the additional documentation was not received, the CAO sent Renee a notice on August 7, 1996 which indicated that "good cause" had not been established and found her to be ineligible for the cash assistance benefit. The other benefits requested for her and child's needs were continued.

On August 30, 1996, Renee sent the CAO a letter appealing this determination. In the letter, Renee claimed that the DPW has used, and continues to use, compulsion to obtain paternity disclosures which placed her at risk for violence, thereby violating her Fifth Amendment rights. In particular, Renee initially asserted that the disclosures required by DPW placed her at risk for physical and psychological harm. In support of this contention, Renee cited statistics relating to physical abuse occasioned by women in the United States at the hands of an abusive partner. Renee submitted that the provisions of DPW's "good cause" policy prevented an individual from terminating an abusive relationship before it escalated into the type of physical violence documented in those statistics.

In the letter, Renee also asserted that the methods used by DPW to discourage silence on paternity disclosures constitutes physical and psychological compulsion. Renee noted that as a result of her failure to cooperate, the cash benefits available to her family decreased by 33%. She also indicated that since filing for good cause, she had endured further instances of harassment. Renee stated that she and her son had suffered physical harm as a result of these economic sanctions and harassment.

In Conclusion, the letter stated:

In summary, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare has used, and continues to use, compulsion to obtain paternity disclosures which place Appellant at risk of violence, thereby violating her Fifth Amendment rights. The alarming statistics on domestic abuse in America suggest that in cases where an absent parent does not enjoy formal or informal visitation privileges, a custodial parent should not be coerced to make paternity disclosures against their better judgment. The Appellant seeks to establish a legal precedent for limiting the power of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare to compel paternity disclosures in such cases, and [the] restoration of her cash assistance benefits.

Exhibit 2, p. 4.

On November 5, 1996 a hearing of the appeal was conducted by telephone before a hearing examiner. At the hearing, a representative from the CAO outlined the procedure which occurred from Renee's filing for benefits to the determination that she was ineligible based on her failure to establish "good cause" for failing to cooperate in obtaining support from her child's father. At the hearing Renee again recounted the harassment she has experienced, and asserted that compelling her to seek support violated her Fifth Amendment rights.

On December 5, 1996, the hearing officer issued an order and adjudication denying Renee's appeal. In the Adjudication, the hearing officer noted:

The Appellant is appealing from a decision of the CAO to remove the Appellant from the cash assistance grant for failure to cooperate in seeking child support from the father of her child. The Appellant contends that it would be dangerous for her to seek such support. The Appellant presented information in her letter of April 30, 1996 which the Appellant felt justified her claim of good cause. However, according to 55 PA Code 187.23(a)(3) and 55 PA Code 187.23(a)(4)(iii), the Appellant has failed to establish good cause for not seeking support from the father of her child.

The Hearing Officer concludes that the decision of the CAO is correct. The appeal of the Appellant is, therefore, denied.

Exhibit 4, p. 4.

On December 10, 1996, the DPW issued an order affirming the hearing officer's decision. Renee then filed the instant appeal in this court.

On appeal, Renee claims: (1) the disclosures regarding paternity and support required by the DPW violate her Fifth Amendment rights; and (2) the DPW did not consider all available information in evaluating her "good cause" petition.

We initially note that, on appeal, this court's scope of review is limited to a determination of whether the adjudication by the DPW is in accordance with the law, whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, and whether constitutional rights have been violated. Section 704 of the Administrative Agency Law, 2 Pa.C.S. § 704; Harston Hall Nursing and Convalescent Home, Inc. v. Department of Public Welfare, 99 Pa. Commw. 475, 513 A.2d 1097 (Pa. Commw. 1986). In addition, as the fact finder, the hearing officer's role is to assess the credibility of each witness and to give whatever weight he determines appropriate to their testimony. Gomez v. Department of Public Welfare, 111 Pa. Commw. 234, 533 A.2d 826 (Pa. Commw. 1987). See also Geriatric & Medical Services, Inc. v. Department of Public Welfare, 151 Pa. Commw. 209, 616 A.2d 746 (Pa. Commw. 1992) (The hearing officer is the ultimate fact finder in these matters, and must resolve conflicts in testimony and may reject the testimony of any witness). Thus, the hearing officer is empowered to determine questions of evidentiary weight and matters of credibility and, absent a capricious disregard of evidence, the hearing officer's Conclusion will not be disturbed on appeal. Bootes v. Department of Public Welfare, 64 Pa. Commw. 173, 439 A.2d 883 (Pa. Commw. 1982).

In this appeal, Renee first claims that the disclosures regarding paternity and support required by the DPW violate her Fifth Amendment rights.

As the United States Supreme Court has noted:

The [Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program of the Social Security Act of 1935, 42 U.S.C. §§ 601 et seq. ] is designed to provide financial assistance to needy dependent children and the parents or relatives who live with and care for them. A principal purpose of the program, as indicated by 42 U.S.C. § 601, is to help such parents and relatives "to attain or retain capability for the maximum self-support and personal independence consistent with the maintenance of continuing parental care and protection ... ." The program is based on a scheme of cooperative federalism," King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 316, 88 S. Ct. 2128, 2133, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1118 (1968). It is financed in large measure by the Federal Government on a matching-fund basis, and participating States must submit AFDC plans in conformity with the [Social Security] Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder ... . The program is, however, administered by the States, which are given broad discretion in determining both the standard of need and the level of benefits.

Shea v. Vialpando, 416 U.S. 251, 253, 40 L. Ed. 2d 120, 94 S. Ct. 1746 (1974).

As noted by a Federal Court of Appeals, in dispensing assistance under this program:

the Social Security Act requires each state participant in the AFDC program to implement a plan designed to maximize the collection of child support payments from absent parents. See 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(27) (1988); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 651-669 (1988) (Child Support Enforcement Act). One purpose of this requirement is to reduce welfare costs by increasing child support collections. See S. Rep. No. 1356, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. 13-14, reprinted in 1974 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 8133, 8145-46 ("The problem of welfare in the United States is, to a considerable extent, a problem of the non-support of children by their absent parents.") To this end, each state AFDC plan must require AFDC recipients to assign to the state their rights to child support as a condition of eligibility for aid. See 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(26)(A) (1988). *fn4 Child support payments ordinarily are made directly to the state child support collection agency, which distributes them according to a formula set forth in the statute and regulations. See 42 U.S.C. § 657 (1988); 45 C.F.R. § 302.51(b) (1990).

Zeien v. Palmer, 955 F.2d 506, 509 (8th Cir. 1992).

Thus, Congress enacted section 602(a)(26) of the Social Security Act to reduce the costs of providing assistance to those in need. Id. Moreover, the provisions of the Public Welfare Code, the Support Law, and the Pennsylvania Code which require Renee, in order to be eligible for assistance, to assign all rights to child support and to cooperate in obtaining such support, are required by section 602(a)(26) and the relevant federal regulations *fn5 in order for Pennsylvania to participate in the program.

In our consideration of Renee's constitutional claim, the United States Supreme Court has stated that:

the precepts that govern our review of [such] challenges to this program are similar to those we have applied in reviewing challenges to other parts of the Social Security Act:

"Our review is deferential. 'Governmental decisions to spend money to improve the general public welfare in one way and not another are "not confided to the courts. The discretion belongs to Congress unless the choice is clearly wrong, a display of arbitrary power, not an exercise of judgment.'"

This standard of review is premised on Congress' "plenary power to define the scope and the duration of the entitlement to ... benefits, and to increase, to decrease, or to terminate those benefits based on its appraisal of the relative importance of the recipients' needs and the resources available to fund the program.

Bowen v. Gilliard, 483 U.S. 587, 598, 97 L. Ed. 2d 485, 107 S. Ct. 3008 (1987).

In conducting this limited review and rejecting claims such as Renee's raised under the Fifth Amendment, the Supreme Court noted that:

Under our structure of Government, however, it is the function of Congress -- not the courts -- to determine whether the savings realized [by a cost-saving amendment to the AFDC program], and presumably used for other critical governmental functions, are significant enough to justify the costs to the individuals affected by such reductions [in assistance]. The Fifth Amendment "gives the federal courts no power to impose upon [Congress] their views of what constitutes wise economic or social policy," by telling it how "to reconcile the demands of ... needy citizens with the finite resources available to meet those demands." ... Unless the Legislative Branch's decisions run afoul of some constitutional edict, any inequities created by such decisions must be remedied by the democratic processes.

Id., 483 U.S. at 596-97.

In light of the foregoing, it is clear that the Fifth Amendment provides Renee with no protection from the provisions of the Public Welfare Code, the Support Law, and the Pennsylvania Code requiring her assignment of, and cooperation in obtaining, support from her child's father. These Pennsylvania statutes and regulations were enacted in compliance with the relevant federal statutes and regulations, and are required in order for Pennsylvania to participate in the federal AFDC program.

Moreover, section 432.7(a)(4) of the Public Welfare Code and section 187.23(a)(3) of the Pennsylvania Code, 55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3), specifically allow Renee to avoid cooperating in obtaining such support based on a corroborated showing of "good cause", i.e., that seeking such support would not be in the best interests of her child. Having failed to adequately demonstrate the application of this exclusion, Renee cannot now find protection from the statutory requirements for receiving assistance under the Fifth Amendment.

Renee next claims that the DPW did not consider all available information in evaluating her "good cause" petition.

As we have previously noted:

The Pennsylvania Public Assistance Manual governing eligibility for AFDC applicants dictates that, "as a condition of continued eligibility for AFDC, each caretaker/relative ... with whom the child is living will be required to cooperate with the Department in identifying and locating the absent parent, establishing the identity of a child born out of wedlock, and obtaining support payments, unless a claim for 'good cause' is pending or determined to exist ...." [55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(2).]

The Manual sets forth guidelines for deciding the presence of good cause so as to excuse a caretaker/relative cooperating in the institution of a paternity or support action. It is stated therein that, "cooperation requirements will be waived if the caretaker/relative can establish that he has good cause for refusing to take support or paternity action or both against the absent parent or putative father, because to do so would not be in the 'best interest of the child.'" [55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3).] Specifically enumerated in the Manual are those circumstances under which cooperation in the situation of a support or paternity action may be against the best interest of the child. Amongst the situations listed is that in which serious physical or emotional harm would result to the mother with whom the child is living to the degree that it reduces her capacity to care for the child adequately. [55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3)(i)(A)(II).]

The burden of proving the existence of a good cause claim rests with the recipient caretaker/relative, and essential to that proof is corroborative evidence. [55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3).]

Bootes, 439 A.2d at 884-85.

In support of her claim, Renee submits that, although she did not present any corroborative evidence to support her good cause petition at the hearing, she made reference to corroborative evidence in her petition. In particular, Renee submits that at the time of her application for benefits, she was deemed to be temporarily disabled by the DPW based on a signed statement provided by her physician. In addition, she indicates that, at the time of her application, her son had been under the care of a pediatric rehabilitative team due to his disabilities, and the DPW was aware of these disabilities and had access to his medical records as his care was paid for by Medical Assistance.

However, neither Renee's application for assistance, her "good cause" petition, nor her appeal of the CAO's decision to the DPW indicate that the DPW had in its possession documents which could substantiate her claim. In addition, at the hearing before the hearing examiner, Renee did not present any evidence to corroborate her petition, and never indicated that corroborative evidence existed and was in the DPW's possession.

Clearly, the burden of proving the existence of a "good cause" claim rested with Renee, and she was required to present corroborative evidence of her claim. 55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3); Bootes. To satisfy this burden, Renee could have either obtained and presented the corroborative evidence herself, or, at a minimum, notified someone at some stage of these proceedings that this evidence existed and was in the possession of the DPW. However, by failing to either present any corroborative evidence to support her petition at the hearing, or mention the existence of such evidence in her application, petition, appeal or at the hearing, we cannot find that the DPW erred in affirming the hearing officer's decision.

Accordingly, the order of the DPW is affirmed.

JAMES R. KELLEY, Judge

ORDER

NOW, this 16th day of October, 1997, the order of the Department of Public Welfare, Bureau of Hearings and Appeals, dated December 10, 1996, at No. 390112569-004, is affirmed.

JAMES R. KELLEY, Judge


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