Khrapunskiy v. Doar

12 N.Y.3d 478 (2009)
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The Plaintiffs, aged, blind or disabled persons and legal resident aliens of New York State, brought these proceedings against the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) after they became ineligible for Supplementary Security Income (SSI) from the federal government and Additional State Payments (ASP) provided by the State. Under New York’s Social Services Law § 209(1), the Plaintiffs were ineligible because they did not become citizens in the time frame mandated by federal legislation. Some benefits, however, were still provided by the state to the ineligible class pursuant to § 131-a(2) under “safety-net assistance” (SNA).

Section § 209(1) limited eligibility for ASP to residents of the state who, if not citizens of the US, were aliens eligible for federal benefits. Federal legislation in the form of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) restricted alien eligibility for federally funded benefits to those aliens who became US citizens within seven years. PRWORA authorized states to follow similar eligibility criteria with their own programs.

Plaintiffs did not challenge the legality of § 209(1), but rather the difference in payments provided to individuals under § 209(2) and to those receiving SNA under § 131-a(2), $761 and $352 per month respectively. Section 209(2) set forth “the standard of monthly need for determining eligibility for and the amount of additional state payments.” It provided ASP to the aged, blind and disabled who either received federal SSI payments or whose income or resources, though above the standard of need for the SSI program, was insufficient under § 209(2). The Plaintiffs alleged the State “failed to provide legal immigrants with assistance consistent with the standard of need in [] § 209(2) for aged, blind or disabled persons based solely on their immigration status, without regard to their need.” They alleged violations of article XVII of the New York State Constitution, which required the State to provide for the aid, care and support of the needy, and the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution and the New York State Constitution.

The Supreme Court of New York (a lower court in the state) held that OTDA’s failure to provide assistance to the Plaintiffs and the class at the standard of need established through Social Services Law § 209(2) violated article XVII, § 1 of the State Constitution and the rights of Plaintiffs and the class to the equal protection of the laws under the federal and state Constitutions. The Appellate Division of the court affirmed the decision and this appeal followed.

The court held that the Plaintiffs were not entitled, under the standard set in Article XVII § 1 of the New York State Constitution, to receive from the State the same level of benefits received by aged, blind or disabled US citizens from the federal Social Security program. The court stated that article XVII, § 1 did “not compel the State to assume the federal government's obligation when an elderly or disabled person [became] ineligible for continued [federal] benefits.” The court explained that tying together state and federal benefits would bind the State legislature to payments it could not control. While article XVII, § 1 of the State Constitution required “the State to provide for the aid, care and support of the needy,” it did not mandate “that public assistance must be granted on an individual basis in every instance,” nor did it “command that ‘the State must always meet in full measure all the legitimate needs of each [public assistance] recipient.’” The court declared that it was “the prerogative of the Legislature to determine who was needy and to allocate public funds.”

The court also held that Plaintiffs were not entitled, under the Equal Protection Clause, to receive from the State the same level of benefits received by aged, blind or disabled US citizens from the federal Social Security program. While the lower court had applied strict scrutiny when examining “state laws that create[d] alienage classifications when distributing or regulating economic benefits,” the court held that this high level of scrutiny was inapplicable to this case. The new law might have excluded the Plaintiffs, but the alienage restriction was mandated by federal law. Thus the state did not create the suspect classification that excluded the Plaintiffs, so there was no basis for an equal protection challenge. Moreover, the court held that the Plaintiffs had not been treated unequally as there was “no state program of aid for [Plaintiff’s] class,” and there were no state residents receiving public assistance from New York at the level requested by Plaintiffs. It added that “equal protection [did] not require the State to create a new public assistance program in order to guarantee equal outcomes under wholly separate and distinct public benefit programs.” Rather, enactment of a new public assistance “require[d] legislative action.”

“Article XVII, § 1 requires the State to provide for the aid, care and support of the needy. This provision ‘was intended to serve two functions: First, it was felt to be necessary to sustain from constitutional attack the social welfare programs . . . created by the State . . . and, second, it was intended as an expression of the existence of a positive duty upon the State to aid the needy.’” 12 N.Y.3d, p. 486.

“However, article XVII, § 1 of the State Constitution, which requires the State to provide for the aid, care and support of the needy, does not ‘mandate that public assistance must be granted on an individual basis in every instance,’ nor does it command that ‘the State must always meet in full measure all the legitimate needs of each [public assistance] recipient . . .’” 12 N.Y.3d, p. 486.

“Simply put, the right to equal protection does not require the State to create a new public assistance program in order to guarantee equal outcomes under wholly separate and distinct public benefit programs. Nor does it require the State to remediate the effects of PRWORA.” 12 N.Y.3d, p. 488.

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