464 F.3d 916 (9th Cir. 2006), 04-55122, Sanchez v. County of San Diego

Docket Nº:04-55122.
Citation:464 F.3d 916
Party Name:Rocio SANCHEZ; Olga Castro; Myrna Martinez; Karen Bjorland; Cheryl Maclyman; Rhonda Kern, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO; San Diego County Board of Supervisors; San Diego County Department of Health and Human Services; Steven Escoboza, Director of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, in his official capacity; San Di
Case Date:September 19, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
 
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464 F.3d 916 (9th Cir. 2006)

Rocio SANCHEZ; Olga Castro; Myrna Martinez; Karen Bjorland; Cheryl Maclyman; Rhonda Kern, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO; San Diego County Board of Supervisors; San Diego County Department of Health and Human Services; Steven Escoboza, Director of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, in his official capacity; San Diego Office of District Attorney; Paul Pfingst, District Attorney of the County of San Diego, in his official capacity, Defendants-Appellees,

and

Aurora, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Defendant.

No. 04-55122.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

September 19, 2006

Argued and Submitted October 18, 2005

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Eric Alan Isaacson, Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, San Diego, California, for the plaintiffs-appellants.

Thomas D. Bunton, Senior Deputy County Counsel, San Diego, California, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, D.C. No. CV 00-01467 JTM, Jeffrey T. Miller, District Judge, Presiding

Before: Andrew J. Kleinfeld, A. Wallace Tashima, and Raymond C. Fisher, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

TASHIMA, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs-Appellants in this class action ("Appellants"), San Diego County welfare recipients, appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, County of San Diego and various county officials (collectively, "San Diego County" or the "County"). Appellants contend that the district court erred in concluding that the County's welfare eligibility program ("Project 100%"), which requires all welfare applicants to consent to a warrantless home visit as a condition of eligibility, does not violate their rights under the United States Constitution, the California Constitution, or California welfare regulations prohibiting mass and indiscriminate home visits. Our jurisdiction is pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We hold that San Diego County's Project 100% does not violate the United States Constitution, the California Constitution, or California welfare regulations. We therefore affirm the district court.

BACKGROUND

In 1997, the San Diego County District Attorney ("D.A.") initiated a program whereby all San Diego County residents who submit welfare applications under California's welfare program ("CalWORKS"), and are not suspected of fraud or ineligibility, are automatically enrolled in Project 100%. The parties are essentially in agreement as to the structure and operation of Project 100%. Under Project 100%, all applicants receive a home visit from an investigator employed by the D.A.'s office. The visit includes a "walk through" to gather eligibility information that is then turned over to eligibility technicians who compare that information with information supplied by the applicant.

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Specifically, the investigator views items confirming that: (1) the applicant has the amount of assets claimed; (2) the applicant has an eligible dependent child; (3) the applicant lives in California; and (4) an "absent" parent does not live in the residence.

When applicants submit an application for welfare benefits, they are informed that they will be subject to a mandatory home visit in order to verify their eligibility. Applicants are also informed that the home visit must be completed prior to aid being granted, but are not given notice of the exact date and time the visit will occur. The visits are generally made within 10 days of receipt of the application and during regular business hours, unless a different time is required to accommodate an applicant's schedule. The home visits are conducted by investigators from the Public Assistance Fraud Division of the D.A.'s office, who are sworn peace officers with badges and photo identification. The investigators wear plain clothes and do not carry weapons.

The actual home visit consists of two parts: an interview with the applicant regarding information submitted during the intake process, and a "walk through" of the home. The visit takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, with five to 10 minutes generally allocated to the "walk through." If the applicant refuses to allow a home visit, the investigator immediately terminates the visit and reports that the applicant failed to cooperate. This generally results in the denial of benefits.1 The denial of welfare aid is the only consequence of refusing to allow the home visit; no criminal or other sanctions are imposed for refusing consent.

The "walk through" portion of the home visit is also conducted with the applicant's consent. The applicant is asked to lead the "walk through" and the investigator is trained to look for items in plain view. The investigator will also ask the applicant to view the interior of closets and cabinets, but will only do so with the applicant's express permission.2 while the investigators are required to report evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing for further investigation and prosecution, there is no evidence that any criminal prosecutions for welfare fraud have stemmed from inconsistencies uncovered during a Project 100% home visit.3

Appellants challenge the lawfulness of

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Project 100%.4 the parties file cross-motions for summary judgment on all claims. The district court first granted summary judgment to the County on most theories and claims for relief. It later granted summary judgment to Appellants on certain California state-law claims, enjoining the County from committing further violations of those provisions. The remaining claims, concerning violations of food-stamp regulations, were resolved by a stipulated settlement which was approved by the district court. After final judgment was entered, Appellants timely appealed the district court's decision on their claims arising under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the California Constitution, and California welfare regulations prohibiting mass and indiscriminate home visits.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Whether summary judgment was properly granted presents a question of law, to be reviewed de novo. Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1131 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). In conducting such review, "[w]e must . . . determine, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court correctly applied the relevant substantive law." Suzuki Motor Corp. v. Consumers Union of U.S., Inc., 330 F.3d 1110, 1131-32 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1074 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc)).

DISCUSSION

I

Fourth Amendment Claim

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Appellants argue that the warrantless home visits conducted under Project 100% violate the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches as it applies to the State of California via the Fourteenth Amendment.

A. The Home Visits are Not Searches under the Fourth Amendment

We must first decide the threshold question of whether the home visits qualify as searches within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Appellants contend that the home visits are searches because they are highly intrusive and their purpose is to discover evidence of welfare fraud. The Supreme Court, however, has held that home visits for welfare verification purposes are not searches under the Fourth Amendment. See Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309, 317-18, 91 S.Ct. 381, 27 L.Ed.2d 408 (1971).

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In Wyman, the Court held that home visits by a social worker, made pursuant to the administration of New York's welfare program, were not searches because they were made for the purpose of verifying eligibility for benefits, and not as part of a criminal investigation. Id. while the Court's reasoning was brief, the opinion noted that the visits were "not forced or compelled, and that the beneficiary's denial of permission [was] not a criminal act." Id. the Court also reasoned that the visits were not searches because the beneficiary could choose to withhold consent and there would be "no entry of the home and . . . no search." Id. while the Court acknowledged that the nature of the visit was "both rehabilitative and investigative," importantly, the visits were not conducted as part of a criminal investigation. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the visits did not rise to the level of a "search in the traditional criminal law context." Id.5

Wyman directly controls the instant case.6 here, as in Wyman, all prospective welfare beneficiaries are subject to mandatory home visits for the purpose of verifying eligibility, and not as part of a criminal investigation. The investigators conduct an in-home interview and "walk through," looking for inconsistencies between the prospective beneficiary's application and her actual living conditions. As in Wyman, the home visits are conducted with the applicant's consent, and if consent is denied, the visit will not occur. Also as in Wyman, there is no penalty for refusing to consent to the home visit, other than denial of benefits.7 Id. at 325. The fact that the D.A. investigators

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who make the Project 100% home visits are sworn peace officers does not cause the home visits to rise to the level of a "search in the traditional criminal law context" because the visits' underlying purpose remains the determination of welfare eligibility. See id. at 317; see also New...

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