Blessing v. Freestone

Citation520 U.S. 329,137 L.Ed.2d 569,117 S.Ct. 1353
Decision Date21 April 1997
Docket Number951441
PartiesLinda J. BLESSING, Director, Arizona Department of Economic Security, Petitioner v. Cathy FREESTONE, etc., et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus *

Respondents, five Arizona mothers whose children are eligible for state child support services under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, filed this 42 U.S.C. §1983 suit against petitioner, the director of the state child support agency, claiming, among other things, that they properly applied for child support services; that, despite their good faith efforts to cooperate, the agency never took adequate steps to obtain child support payments for them; that these omissions were largely attributable to staff shortages and other structural defects in the State's program; and that these systemic failures violated their individual rights under Title IV-D to have all mandated services delivered in substantial compliance with the title and its implementing regulations. They requested broad relief, including a declaratory judgment that the Arizona program's operation violates Title IV-D provisions creating rights in them that are enforceable through a §1983 action, and an injunction requiring the director to achieve substantial compliance with Title IV-D throughout all programmatic operations. The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioner, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. Without distinguishing among the numerous provisions of the complex Title IV-D program or the many rights those provisions might have created, the latter court held that respondents had an enforceable individual right to have the State achieve "substantial compliance'' with Title IV-D. It also disagreed with the District Court's conclusion that Congress had foreclosed private Title IV-D enforcement actions by authorizing the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) to audit and cut off funds to States whose programs do not substantially comply with Title IV-D's requirements.

Held: Title IV-D does not give individuals a federal right to force a state agency to substantially comply with Title IV-D. Pp. ____-____.

(a) A plaintiff seeking §1983 redress must assert the violation of a federal right, not merely of federal law. Golden State Transit Corp. v. Los Angeles, 493 U.S. 103, 106, 110 S.Ct. 444, 448-449, 107 L.Ed.2d 420. Three principal factors determine whether a statutory provision creates a privately enforceable right: (1) whether the plaintiff is an intended beneficiary of the statute; (2) whether the plaintiff's asserted interests are not so vague and amorphous as to be beyond the competence of the judiciary to enforce; and (3) whether the statute imposes a binding obligation on the State. See, e.g., Wilder v. Virginia Hospital Assn., 496 U.S. 498, 509, 110 S.Ct. 2510, 2517, 110 L.Ed.2d 455. Even if a plaintiff demonstrates such a right, however, there is only a rebuttable presumption that it is enforceable under §1983. Dismissal is proper if Congress specifically foreclosed a §1983 remedy, Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 1005, n. 9, 1003, 104 S.Ct. 3457, 3464, n. 9, 3463-3464, 82 L.Ed.2d 746, either expressly, by forbidding recourse to §1983 in the statute itself, or impliedly, by creating a comprehensive enforcement scheme that is incompatible with individual §1983 enforcement, Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 133, 114 S.Ct. 2068, 2082-2083, 129 L.Ed.2d 93. Pp. ____-____.

(b) Respondents have not established that Title IV-D gives them individually enforceable federal rights. In prior cases, the Court has been able to determine whether or not a statute created such rights because the plaintiffs articulated, and lower courts evaluated, well-defined claims. See, e.g., Wright v. Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, 479 U.S. 418, 430, 107 S.Ct. 766, 773-774, 93 L.Ed.2d 781. Here, respondents have not identified with particularity the rights they claim, and the Ninth Circuit has not engaged in the requisite methodical inquiry. That court erred in apparently holding that individuals have an enforceable right to "substantial compliance'' with Title IV-D in all respects. The statutory "substantial compliance'' requirement, see, e.g., 42 U.S.C.A. §609(a)(8) (Nov.1996 Supp.), does not give rise to individual rights; it was not intended to benefit individual children and custodial parents, but is simply a yardstick for the Secretary to measure the systemwide performance of a State's Title IV-D program, allowing her to increase the frequency of audits and reduce the State's federal grant upon a finding of substantial noncompliance. The Court of Appeals also erred in taking a blanket approach to determining whether Title IV-D creates rights: It is readily apparent that many of the provisions of that multifaceted statutory scheme, including its "substantial compliance'' standard and data processing, staffing, and organizational requirements, do not fit any of the traditional criteria for identifying statutory rights. Although this Court does not foreclose the possibility that some Title IV-D provisions give rise to individual rights, the Ninth Circuit did not separate out the particular rights it believed arise from the statutory scheme, the complaint is less than clear in this regard, and it is not certain whether respondents sought any relief more specific than a declaration that their "rights'' were being violated and an injunction forcing petitioner to "substantially comply'' with all of Title IV-D's provisions. This defect is best addressed by sending the case back for the District Court to construe the complaint in the first instance, in order to determine exactly what rights, considered in their most concrete, specific form, respondents are asserting. Only by manageably breaking down the complaint into specific allegations can the District Court proceed to determine whether any specific claim asserts an individual federal right. Pp. ____-____.

(c) Petitioner's argument that Title IV-D's remedial scheme is sufficiently comprehensive to demonstrate congressional intent to preclude §1983 suits is rejected. Petitioner does not claim that any Title IV-D provision expressly curtails §1983 actions, and she has failed to make the difficult showing that allowing such actions to go forward in these circumstances would be inconsistent with Congress' carefully tailored scheme. That scheme is far more limited than those at issue in Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Assn., 453 U.S. 1, 101 S.Ct. 2615, 69 L.Ed.2d 435, and Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 104 S.Ct. 3457, 82 L.Ed.2d 746, the only cases in which the Court has found preclusion; in particular, Title IV-D contains no private remedy-either judicial or administrative-through which aggrieved persons can seek redress. The only way that Title IV-D assures that States live up to their child support plans is through the Secretary's oversight, but the Secretary's limited powers to audit and cut federal funding are not comprehensive enough to foreclose §1983 liability. Pp. ____-____.

68 F.3d 1141, vacated and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KENNEDY, J., joined.

C. Tim Delaney, Phoenix, AZ, for Petitioner.

Marsha S. Berzon, Ithaca, NY, for Respondents.

Patricia A. Millett, Washington, DC, for U.S. as amicus curiae by special leave of the Court.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns a lawsuit brought by five mothers in Arizona whose children are eligible to receive child support services from the State pursuant to Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, as added, 88 Stat. 2351 and as amended, 42 U.S.C.A. §§651-669b (Nov.1996 Supp.). These custodial parents sued the director of Arizona's child support agency under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, claiming that they had an enforceable individual right to have the State's program achieve "substantial compliance'' with the requirements of Title IV-D. Without distinguishing among the numerous provisions of this complex program, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that respondents had such a right. We disagree that the statutory scheme can be analyzed so generally, and hold that Title IV-D does not give individuals a federal right to force a state agency to substantially comply with Title IV-D. Accordingly, we vacate and remand with instructions to remand to the District Court.


This controversy concerns an interlocking set of cooperative federal-state welfare programs. Arizona participates in the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which provides subsistence welfare benefits to needy families. Social Security Act, Title IV-A, 42 U.S.C. §§601-617. To qualify for federal AFDC funds, the State must certify that it will operate a child support enforcement program that conforms with the numerous requirements set forth in Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§651-669b (Nov.1996 Supp.), 1 and will do so pursuant to a detailed plan that has been approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary). §602(a)(2); see also §652(a)(3). The Federal Government underwrites roughly two-thirds of the cost of the State's child support efforts. §655(a). But the State must do more than simply collect overdue support payments; it must also establish a comprehensive system to establish paternity, locate absent parents, and help families obtain support orders. §§651, 654.

A State must provide these services free of charge to AFDC recipients and, when requested, for a nominal fee to children and custodial parents who are not receiving AFDC payments. §§651, 654(4). AFDC recipients must assign their child support rights to the State and fully cooperate with the State's efforts to establish paternity and obtain support payments. Although the State may keep most of the support...

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