496 U.S. 478 (1990), 89-535, Sullivan v. Stroop

Docket Nº:No. 89-535
Citation:496 U.S. 478, 110 S.Ct. 2499, 110 L.Ed.2d 438, 58 U.S.L.W. 4790
Party Name:Sullivan v. Stroop
Case Date:June 14, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 478

496 U.S. 478 (1990)

110 S.Ct. 2499, 110 L.Ed.2d 438, 58 U.S.L.W. 4790

Sullivan

v.

Stroop

No. 89-535

United States Supreme Court

June 14, 1990

Argued March 26, 1990

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In determining whether a family's income disqualifies it from receiving benefits under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program of Part A of Title IV of the Social Security Act, the appropriate agency of a participating State is required to "disregard the first $50 of any child support payments" received by the family in any month for which benefits are sought. 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi). Under this provision, petitioner Secretary of Health and Human Services has declined to "disregard" the first $50 of "child's insurance benefits" received under Title II of the Act, reasoning that such benefits are not "child support" because that term, as used throughout Title IV, invariably refers to payments from absent parents. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, custodial parents [110 S.Ct. 2501] receiving AFDC benefits, in their suit challenging the Secretary's interpretation of § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi). The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that, since AFDC applicants receiving Title II benefits are burdened by the same eligibility constraints as those receiving payments directly from absent parents, no rational basis exists for according one class of families the mitigating benefit of the disregard while depriving the other of that benefit. The court added that to construe § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi) to exclude the Title II benefits from the disregard would raise constitutional equal protection concerns.

Held: Title II "child's insurance benefits" do not constitute "child support" within the meaning of § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi). The clear and unambiguous language of the statute demonstrates that Congress used "child support" throughout Title IV as a term of art referring exclusively to payments from absent parents. See, e.g., § 651, the first provision in Part D of Title IV, which is devoted exclusively to "Child Support and Enforcement of Paternity." Since the statute also makes plain that Congress meant for the Part D program to work in tandem with the Part A AFDC program to provide uniform levels of support for children of equal need, see §§ 602(a)(26), 602(a)(27), 654(5), the phrase "child support" as used in the two Parts must be given the same meaning. See, e.g., Sorenson v. Secretary of Treasury, 475 U.S. 851, 860. Thus, although governmentally funded Title II child's insurance benefits might be characterized as

Page 479

"support" in the generic sense, they are not the sort of child support payments from absent parents envisioned by Title IV. This is the sort of statutory distinction that does not violate the Equal Protection Clause "if any state of facts reasonably may be conceived to justify it," Bowen v. Gilliard, 483 U.S. 587, 601, and it is justified by Congress' intent to encourage the making of child support payments by absent parents. Pp. 481-485.

870 F.2d 969, (CA 4 1989) reversed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 485. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 496.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we review a determination by petitioner, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, that "child's insurance benefits" paid pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, see 49 Stat. 623, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 402(d) (1982 ed. and Supp. V), do not constitute "child support" as that term is used in a provision in Title IV of the Act governing eligibility for Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). See 42 U.S.C § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi) (1982 ed., Supp. V). We uphold the Secretary's determination and reverse

Page 480

the contrary holding of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Title IV requires the applicable agencies of States participating in the AFDC program to consider "other income and resources of any child or relative claiming" AFDC benefits "in determining need" for benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(7)(A) (1982 ed., Supp. V). The state agencies "shall determine ineligible for aid any family the combined value of whose resources . . . exceeds" the level specified in the Act. § 602(a)(7)(B). Central to this case is one of the amendments to Title IV in the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 (DEFRA), Pub.L. 98-369, § 2640, 98 Stat. 494, 1145-1146, affecting eligibility for AFDC benefits. This amendment provides:

. . . with respect to any month, in making the determination under [§ 602(a)(7)], the State agency --

* * * *

shall disregard the first $50 of any child support payments received in such month with respect to the dependent child or children in any family applying for or receiving aid to families with dependent children (including support payments collected and paid to the family under section 657(b) of this title); . . .

42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi) (1982 ed., Supp. V) (emphasis added). The Secretary has declined to "disregard" under this provision the first $50 of Title II Social Security child's insurance benefits paid on behalf of children who are members of families applying for AFDC benefits. In the Secretary's view, the Government funded child's insurance benefits are not "child support" for purposes of § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi) because that term, as used throughout Title IV, "invariably refers to payments from absent parents." Brief for Petitioner 13.

Respondents are custodial parents receiving AFDC benefits who are aggrieved by the implementation of the DEFRA amendments. They sued in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia challenging petitioner's interpretation of the disregard on statutory and constitutional

Page 481

grounds. See Complaint, App. 31-33. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents on the basis of their statutory challenge, and thereby avoided reaching the constitutional challenge. App. to Pet. for Cert. 22a.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court. Stroop v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 969, 975 (1989). According to the Court of Appeals, Congress nowhere explicated its use of the term "child support" in § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi), and the only known discussion of the purpose of the disregard provision is in our decision in Bowen v. Gilliard, 483 U.S. 587 (1987). As read by the Court of Appeals, Bowen noted that "the disregard of the first $50 paid by a father serves to mitigate the burden of the changes wrought by the DEFRA amendments." 870 F.2d at 974 (citing 483 U.S. at 594). The court reasoned that, although we had not considered the question of Title II child's insurance payments in Bowen, the disregarding of the first $50 of such payments, "received in lieu of payments made by a father," would serve the same purpose of mitigating the harshness of the DEFRA amendments. 870 F.2d at 974. Since AFDC applicants receiving Title II child's insurance benefits are burdened by the DEFRA amendments no less than applicants receiving payments directly from noncustodial parents, no rational basis exists for according one class of families the mitigating benefit of the disregard while depriving another indistinguishable class of families of the same benefit. The court thus rejected the Secretary's interpretation of the disregard and added that to construe § 602(a)(8)(A)(vi) to exclude the Title II benefits from the disregard would raise constitutional equal protection concerns. 870 F.2d at 975. We granted certiorari, 493 U.S. 1018 (1990), to resolve the conflict between the decision of the Fourth Circuit and the contrary holding of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Todd v. Norman, 840 F.2d 608 (1988).

We think the Secretary's construction is amply supported by the text of the statute, which shows that Congress used

Page 482

"child support" throughout Title IV of the Social Security Act and its amendments as a term. of art referring exclusively to payments from absent parents. This being the case, we need go no further:

If the statute is clear and unambiguous "that is the end of the matter, for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress." . . . In ascertaining the plain meaning of the statute, the court must look to the particular statutory language at issue, as well as the language and design of the statute as a whole.

K Mart Corp. v. Cartier Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291-292 (1988) [110 S.Ct. 2503] (internal citations omitted).

As an initial matter, the common usage of "child support" refers to legally compulsory payments made by parents. Black's Law Dictionary defines "child support" as

[t]he legal obligation of parents to contribute to the economic maintenance, including education, of their children; enforceable in both civil and criminal contexts. In a dissolution or custody action, money paid by one parent to another toward the expenses of children of the marriage.

Black's Law Dictionary 217 (5th ed.1979). Attorneys who have practiced in the area of domestic relations law will immediately recognize this definition. Respondents insist, however, that we have traditionally "turned to authorities of general reference, not to legal dictionaries, to [give] `ordinary meaning to ordinary words.'" Brief for Respondents 20 (citing Sullivan v. Everhart, 494 U.S. 83, 91-92 (1990)). But the general reference work upon which respondents principally rely defines "child support" as "money paid for the care...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP