Clark v. Milwaukee County, 93-1695

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
Writing for the CourtGESKE
Citation524 N.W.2d 382,188 Wis.2d 171
PartiesHerbert A. CLARK, individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. MILWAUKEE COUNTY and Milwaukee County Department of Social Services, Defendants-Respondents.
Docket NumberNo. 93-1695,93-1695
Decision Date07 December 1994

Page 382

524 N.W.2d 382
188 Wis.2d 171
Herbert A. CLARK, individually, and on behalf of all others
similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
MILWAUKEE COUNTY and Milwaukee County Department of Social
Services, Defendants-Respondents.
No. 93-1695.
Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
Dec. 7, 1994.

Page 383

[188 Wis.2d 174] For the plaintiffs-appellants there were briefs (in the court of appeals) by Patricia M. Cavey and Legal Aid Soc. of Milwaukee, Inc. and Jeffery R. Myer and Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc., Milwaukee and oral argument by Jeffery R. Myer.

For the defendants-respondents there was a brief (in the court of appeals) by John Jorgensen, Corp. Counsel, Milwaukee and oral argument by John Jorgensen.

GESKE, Justice.

This case is before the court on a petition to bypass the court of appeals, pursuant to § (Rule) 809.60, Stats. In February, 1990, Herbert A. Clark (Clark), a homeless resident of Milwaukee County (the County) and a recipient of general relief since January, 1990, filed a class action on behalf of himself and other County homeless residents who had applied for or received general relief. The suit alleged two statutory and two constitutional claims:

(1) Milwaukee County does not have a written standard of need for housing, as required by § 49.02(1m), Stats. 1

[188 Wis.2d 175] (2) Milwaukee County's shelter policy violates the duty to provide general relief for housing that is adequate for health and decency under § 49.01(5m), Stats. 2

Page 384

(3) Milwaukee County's shelter policy is a violation of equal protection because it denies general relief for housing to homeless persons too poor to incur prior expenses in order to obtain a rent receipt and, thus, is not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.

(4) Milwaukee County's shelter policy deprives those who receive general relief, as single individuals, of property without due process of law by failing to provide the minimum benefit level specified in § 49.032(1)(c), Stats. 3

[188 Wis.2d 176] Clark moved for partial summary judgment on these issues so as to enjoin the County from failing to meet its statutory and constitutional obligations. The circuit court denied Clark's motion and sua sponte granted summary judgment to the County, dismissing the action in March, 1991. The circuit court concluded that the County's policy directive regarding shelter allowances, No. I-0401-3, 4 minimally satisfied statutory[188 Wis.2d 177] requirements by providing guidelines for the administration of benefits. The court stated that though these guidelines were not based upon what is necessary to secure housing adequate for health and decency in the community, § 49.01(5m), Stats., granted the County the discretion to determine how much relief to dispense and in what form. Such discretionary language, according to the court, allowed the County to cap off the maximum to be paid, even if a recipient's actual needs appeared to be greater. In sum, the circuit court found that were it not for the policy directive and statutory discretion, the County would have been in violation of § 49.02(1m), since no written standards exist which describe what would be necessary to obtain adequate and decent housing in the community.

Clark appealed from the circuit court order and judgment to the court of appeals. The same issues were certified by the court of appeals to this court in 1992. In a per curiam opinion, this court reversed the order of the circuit court and remanded with instructions to hold an evidentiary hearing regarding the County's alleged practice of requiring a current rent receipt before remitting the shelter allowance to a general relief recipient. Specifically, the County's shelter policy directive No. I-0401-3 stated that a shelter allowance would be provided to recipients who produced a current receipt for rent paid. However, that provision was contrary

Page 385

to an unpromulgated exception, known to very [188 Wis.2d 178] few, if any, case workers or recipients, which allowed for the submission of a prospective rental statement 5 in order to secure the shelter allowance. The circuit court, therefore, was to assess whether the contrary policies violated equal protection.

A two-day hearing was held in the circuit court in February, 1993. Thereafter, the circuit court issued a supplemental decision and order which found that a decent single room is not available in Milwaukee County for the $98.00 shelter allotment given to general relief recipients, whether homeless or not. The court held that such a finding, however, is legally irrelevant because § 49.01(5m), Stats., provides the County with discretion to determine the needs of relief recipients. Therefore, the court said it was powerless to require an increase in the shelter allowance. Further, according to the circuit court, the statutory language stating that housing provided shall be "adequate for health and decency" refers to situations when the dispensing agency provides actual housing rather than cash to secure housing.

Regarding the constitutional claims, the circuit court's findings remained the same as in its original decision and order. First, Clark is entitled to that sum which the legislature has determined should be granted, plus additional sums established by the County in its discretion. However, requiring a rent receipt before a recipient is provided with a shelter allowance does not deprive the recipient of his or her constitutional rights. Second, providing a shelter allowance only to those who furnish a current rent [188 Wis.2d 179] receipt is a legitimate public interest classification, since protecting the public coffers is a legitimate act and goal of the Department of Social Services.

In a renewed appeal, Clark sought to bypass the court of appeals to raise again those issues which were accepted previously on certification to this court. We granted bypass and now hold:

(1) The statutory discretion conferred by § 49.01(5m), Stats., does not mean that the County may refuse to promulgate written standards of need for the general relief program, as required by § 49.02(1m), Stats.

(2) The County may, in its discretion, establish a cap for the shelter allowance provided to general relief recipients. However, the cap, reflecting the written standards, must be set at or above the assessed need for decent and adequate housing.

(3) Any policy directive for housing established by the County must clearly inform all general relief recipients that either a prospective rental statement or a current rent receipt is acceptable in order to secure the shelter allowance. 6


We are asked to determine whether the County's conduct in administering the general relief program violates §§ 49.01(5m) and 49.02(1m), Stats. Such an analysis requires the interpretation of statutes, which is a question of law. State ex rel. Hodge v. Turtle Lake, [188 Wis.2d 180] 180 Wis.2d 62, 70, 508 N.W.2d 603 (1993). Questions of law are decided ab initio by this court. Id. When interpreting statutes, we first look to the language. Village of Shorewood v. Steinberg, 174 Wis.2d 191, 201, 496 N.W.2d 57 (1993). "If that language is clear and unambiguous, our inquiry ends, and we must simply apply that language to the facts of the case." Id. It is only when the statutory language is ambiguous that we resort to judicial construction to ascertain and carry out the legislative intent. Id.

General relief is a state-mandated and county-administered benefit program which is...

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4 cases
  • Hartman v. Winnebago County, 96-0596
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • February 26, 1998
    ...22, 1993. Hartman appealed. ¶10 While Hartman's second appeal was pending, this court rendered its decision in Clark v. Milwaukee County, 188 Wis.2d 171, 524 N.W.2d 382 (1994), which set forth the appropriate method of establishing proper standards of need for benefits recipients. The Count......
  • Hartman v. Winnebago County, 96-0596
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • February 5, 1997
    ...No. 94-0022, unpublished slip op. (Wis.Ct.App. April 19, 1995) (Hartman II ), the supreme court decided Clark v. Milwaukee County, 188 Wis.2d 171, 524 N.W.2d 382 (1994). Thereafter, the County moved this court to reopen the record or remand to the circuit court for a determination as to whe......
  • Clauer v. Lafayette County, s. 95-3424
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • September 18, 1997 denied her assistance for medical treatment and medicine because she had HMO coverage. Clauer's brief cited Clark v. Milwaukee County, 188 Wis.2d 171, 524 N.W.2d 382 (1994), in support of her position that the County was putting her in an impermissible "Catch 22" situation. In that case,......
  • State v. O'DELL, 93-2294-CR.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • June 9, 1995
    ...terms of the written injunction. This issue presents a question of law which the court reviews de novo. See Clark v. Milwaukee County, 188 Wis. 2d 171, 179-80, 524 N.W.2d 382 "Injunction" has been defined as a prohibitive, equitable remedy issued or granted by a court at the suit of a party......

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