Berrios v. Department of Public Welfare

Decision Date09 January 1992
Citation583 N.E.2d 856,411 Mass. 587
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Faye B. Rachlin, Springfield, for plaintiffs.

Mary C. Connaughton, Asst. Atty. Gen., for defendant.


GREANEY, Justice.

The plaintiffs, both homeless persons, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, brought an action in the Hampden County Division of the Housing Court Department, challenging the actions of the Department of Public Welfare (department) in adopting and implementing, pursuant to G.L. c. 30A, § 3, fifth par. (1990 ed.), 2 emergency regulations effective August 1, 1991, which eliminated certain emergency assistance (EA) benefits principally designed to address the needs of homeless families. The benefits eliminated included: security deposit guarantees; moving expenses; furniture storage; costs of transportation necessary to get to an emergency shelter, to search for permanent housing, and other purposes; child care allowances; nutrition allowances; payment of public or subsidized housing rent arrearages and damages claims; and disaster benefits. The statutory authorization for the general EA program is contained in G.L. c. 18, § 2(D) (1990 ed.), which directs the department to adopt regulations, among other things, to prevent loss of housing and utility shutoffs, to provide home heating assistance, and to prevent homelessness. 3 The benefits described above were provided for in 106 Code Mass.Regs. §§ 309.010 et seq.

The department's emergency regulations were adopted in response to the Commonwealth's fiscal year 1992 budget, St.1991, c. 138, § 2, line item 4403-2100 (line item), which appropriated $39,595,475 for the EA program (which had been funded in the amount of $62,734,225 in fiscal year 1991), and provided in connection with the reduced appropriation that "no advance payments shall be paid in fiscal year [1992 as part of EA benefits and] that no funds shall be expended for costs not directly attributable to rent or mortgage liability, utilities, and shelter...." 4

In their action, the plaintiffs alleged that the department had improperly adopted the regulations as emergency regulations pursuant to G.L. c. 30A, § 3, fifth par., see note 2, supra, without prior notice and an opportunity for interested persons to be heard, in the mistaken belief that it was required by the budget legislation to eliminate certain EA benefits. 5 The plaintiffs also alleged that, by adopting the emergency regulations, the department had violated the statutory mandate established by G.L. c. 18, § 2(D), to provide designated benefits as part of the EA program and had eliminated benefits which the Legislature had not intended to cut. The plaintiffs sought certification of a class action, a declaration under G.L. c. 231A (1990 ed.) that the department's emergency regulations were invalid, and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief requiring the department to reinstate the benefits that had been eliminated.

A judge of the Housing Court granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction and ordered the department not to implement or enforce the new regulations without first complying with the notice and hearing provisions of G.L. c. 30A, § 3. The judge ruled, among other things: (1) that the Housing Court had subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute; (2) that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the regulations were not properly adopted as emergency regulations; (3) that the plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed if denied EA benefits; and (4) that the balance of harms weighed in favor of the plaintiffs. 6

The department sought relief from the judge's orders from a single justice of the Appeals Court pursuant to G.L. c. 231, § 118, first par. (1990 ed.). The single justice treated the petition as an appeal under § 118, second par., and ordered the appeal heard by a panel of the Appeals Court on an expedited basis. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion. On December 10, 1991, we issued an order vacating the preliminary injunction entered in the Housing Court and indicated that an opinion or opinions would follow explaining that order. This is the opinion called for by the order.

1. Jurisdiction. We reject the department's argument that the Housing Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. General Laws c. 185C, § 3, as amended by St.1979, c. 72, § 3, grants the Housing Court jurisdiction to adjudicate "civil actions arising ... under the provisions of common law and of equity and any other general or special law, ordinance, by-law, rule or regulation as is concerned directly or indirectly with the health, safety, or welfare, of any occupant of any place used, or intended for use, as a place of human habitation...."

This dispute, concerning G.L. c. 18, § 2(D), and regulations implementing the EA program, clearly fall within the language of G.L. c. 185C, § 3. An emergency shelter is a place used for human habitation, 7 and the plaintiffs are occupants of a shelter. As the judge stated: "Regulations immediately influencing whether [shelter] occupants can obtain permanent housing, public and subsidized housing units, and household furnishings and equipment, and directly affecting their living conditions while in the emergency shelter, are regulations concerned directly rather than indirectly with the health, safety, or welfare of such persons, not in a generalized sense, but in a housing-specific sense." We think the judge was correct in this observation. Additionally, the statute before the court is concerned with such matters as "the prevention of homelessness," "temporary shelter," "advance rent payments," and "[tenant] security deposits." See notes 3 and 4, supra. See also Tedford v. Massachusetts Hous. Fin. Agency, 390 Mass. 688, 693 n. 7, 459 N.E.2d 780 (1984) (housing court has jurisdiction over statute providing public financing to relieve a shortage of housing). Likewise, the regulations in issue are largely framed in housing terms.

The judge properly determined that the nexus between housing and the issues in this case is far more immediate than that involved in cases in which the Housing Court has been found to lack jurisdiction, such as a products liability action, LeBlanc v. Sherwin Williams Co., 406 Mass. 888, 551 N.E.2d 30 (1990); the fraudulent conveyance of assets, Ryan v. Kehoe, 408 Mass. 636, 640, 562 N.E.2d 831 (1990); and the operation of a trash transfer station that affects tenants as well as others in the vicinity, Boston v. Kouns, 22 Mass.App.Ct. 506, 511, 495 N.E.2d 317 (1986). And as he also noted, the Housing Court is empowered, as to cases within its jurisdiction, to grant declaratory judgments and to adjudicate claims related to procedures required by G.L. c. 30A. See Tedford v. Massachusetts Hous. Fin. Agency, supra. 8

2. Merits. In dealing with the plaintiffs' application for a preliminary injunction, the judge recognized that both the department's finding of an emergency and the emergency regulations themselves were presumptively valid. See American Grain Prods. Processing Inst. v. Department of Pub. Health, 392 Mass. 309, 323, 467 N.E.2d 455 (1984). However, looking to Federal decisions cited by the plaintiffs, the judge considered it likely that the plaintiffs could overcome the presumption, considering the careful scrutiny applied in those decisions to a finding by an agency of an emergency sufficient to dispense with notice and comment prior to the promulgation of regulations. See, e.g., Buschmann v. Schweiker, 676 F.2d 352, 355-356 (9th Cir.1982). Consistent with this approach, the judge ruled that department funding problems caused by the line item by themselves were inadequate justification for the promulgation of emergency regulations pursuant to G.L. c. 30A, § 3, fifth par. The judge also reasoned that the emergency regulations did not sensibly address the funding problem because the cost of maintaining the plaintiffs in temporary shelter (as required by the new regulations) was higher than the cost of housing the plaintiffs in apartments. The judge concluded that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that implementation of the emergency regulations should be enjoined.

The case is more appropriately analyzed, in our view, by considering the Legislature's intent with regard to the line item and the department's role as the agency charged with carrying out the legislative program.

There can be no doubt that the line item significantly narrowed the focus of the EA program compared with benefits available in prior years. The line item expressly provides that "no advance payments shall be paid" in fiscal year 1992, and further provides that payments are to be made only for costs "directly attributable to rent or mortgage liability, utilities and shelter." Consistent with this narrowed focus, the Legislature drastically cut the budget of the EA program by over 35%. It was apparent, therefore, that the line item reflected the Legislature's intention to eliminate many benefits previously available under existing regulations.

Faced with the language of the line item, and the large cut in funding for the EA program, the department set about to deal with what we think it properly considered a legislative mandate to reduce substantially EA entitlements. The department reasoned that many existing entitlements under G.L. c. 18, § 2(D)(d ), and regulations previously in force, had been effectively superseded, and that its discretion to administer the program had been correspondingly narrowed. Thus, the department adopted emergency regulations in which it sought to adhere closely to the directives of the line item.

Given the circumstances, we conclude that the department was justified in adopting the emergency...

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