Davis v. McClaran

Decision Date30 October 1995
Citation909 S.W.2d 412
PartiesPatricia DAVIS, Ella Larita Lillard, Patricia Northcutt, and Marietta Turner, on their own behalves and on behalf of all persons similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Joyce McCLARAN, Director, Child Support Services, Tennessee Department of Human Services, Defendant-Appellant, and Victor S. Johnson, III, District Attorney General for the 20th Judicial District, and the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Defendants.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

David A. Ettinger, Russell J. Overby, Legal Services of Middle Tennessee, Inc., Nashville, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Charles Burson, Attorney General and Reporter, Michelle L. Lehmann, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, for defendant.


DROWOTA, Justice.

This case presents the question of whether individual plaintiffs may bring an action against the Child Support Services Division of the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to enforce their rights to child support services allegedly conferred by Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 651 et seq. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's judgment denying the requested relief, holding instead that the plaintiffs were entitled to bring an action under § 1983 to force the State to "substantially comply" with the requirements of Title IV-D. Pursuant to the applicable regulations, a state Title IV-D agency is in "substantial compliance" if it follows specified procedures with regard to certain enumerated criteria in seventy-five (75%) of its child support cases. For the reasons that follow, we modify the Court of Appeals' holding and conclude that these and similarly situated individuals should be allowed to bring a claim under § 1983 for individual relief when the state violates its "direct obligations" under Title IV-D, even if the State is in "substantial compliance" with the requirements of the Act.


The plaintiffs in this action--Patricia Davis, Ella Larita Lillard, Patricia Northcutt and Marietta Turner--allege that the Tennessee DHS has failed to provide them with child support services as required by Title IV-D. 1 Specifically, Davis, Lillard, and Turner allege that DHS has failed to assist them in enforcing existing child support obligations owed by the fathers of their respective children. Although it is not entirely clear from the complaint, Northcutt apparently alleges that DHS has failed to assist her in establishing a support obligation for her child. Citing an evaluation of the Title IV-D program performed by a private consulting firm, the plaintiffs allege that these failures are principally due to the fact that the Davidson County Child Support Program is grossly understaffed, as compared to other counties in the state. The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief under § 1983 for the deprivation of their alleged federal statutory rights; they also seek declaratory relief and a writ of mandamus.

After the plaintiffs filed their action, the trial court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The trial court held that "the plaintiffs have no private right of action to enforce any rights allegedly arising under either Title IV-D and/or 42 U.S.C. § 1983." The trial court also concluded that "the plaintiffs have no clear, specific and undeniable rights which this court could enforce by a writ of mandamus or declaratory relief."

As noted above, the Court of Appeals reversed this judgment, holding that the plaintiffs could utilize § 1983 to force the state to "substantially comply" with the requirements of Title IV-D. The State then filed an application for permission to appeal pursuant to Rule 11, Tenn.R.App.P. We granted that application to consider this important issue, which has caused a split among the jurisdictions that have considered it. 2


Title IV of the Social Security Act is a federal-state cooperative venture that provides assistance to needy families who have been deprived of a parent through death, desertion or disability. 42 U.S.C. § 601-687. Although participation in the direct aid portion of Title IV--Title IV-A, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program--is not mandatory, states choosing to participate and receive federal funds must, among other things, "provide that the State has in effect a plan approved under part D of this subchapter and operates a child support program in substantial compliance with such plan." 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(27). Title IV-D provides a wide variety of child support services to needy families, as 42 U.S.C. § 651, its authorization of appropriations section, indicates:

For the purpose of enforcing the support obligations owed by absent parents to their children and the spouse (or former spouse) with whom such children are living, locating absent parents, establishing paternity, obtaining child and spousal support, and assuring that assistance in obtaining support will be available under this part to all children (whether or not eligible for aid under part A of this subchapter) for whom such assistance is requested, there is hereby authorized to be appropriated for each fiscal year a sum sufficient to carry out the purposes of this part.

As noted above, a participating state is required to submit a plan to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and have that plan approved by the Secretary. The broad requirements for the plan are outlined in 42 U.S.C. § 654, and are further defined in the supporting regulations, found at 45 C.F.R. Part 302. The plan must, at a minimum, provide that it will be in effect in all political subdivisions of the state and that it will be administered by a single state agency (the Title IV-D state agency). 42 U.S.C. § 654(1), (3). The plan must also provide that child support services will be made available to any child for whom an application for assistance is filed. 42 U.S.C. 654(6). The agency must be adequately staffed to ensure the availability of services. 42 U.S.C. § 652(a)(2).

It is not sufficient, however, for the state merely to have an approved plan; it must also operate the program in compliance with the requirements of Title IV-D. The Secretary is required to conduct audits of the state Title IV-D programs at least once every three years in order to ensure this compliance. 42 U.S.C. § 652(a)(4). If the state is found to be out of compliance, the Secretary is authorized to withhold a certain percentage of federal funds unless the state submits a corrective action plan, in which case the reduction of funding may be suspended. 42 U.S.C. § 603(h).

In order to avoid the reduction in funding, the state must be in "substantial compliance with the requirements of title IV-D." 42 U.S.C. § 603(h), 604(a)(2). This term is defined in 45 C.F.R. 305.20:

In order to have an effective program in substantial compliance with the requirements of title IV-D of the Act, a state must meet the IV-D State plan requirements contained in Part 302 of this chapter as measured as follows: ... For the fiscal year 1988 and future audit periods: (1) The criteria prescribed in paragraphs (a)(1), (b)(1), and (c)(1) must be met. (2) The procedures required by the criteria prescribed in paragraphs (a)(2), (b)(2), and (c)(2) of this section must be used in 75 percent of the cases reviewed for each criterion.

After defining "substantial compliance," Part 305 goes on to list certain general procedures that the state agency must follow for each criterion. The criteria at issue in this case, "[Establishment of] Support obligations" and "Enforcement of support obligation," are contained under paragraph (a)(2).

There is one final set of regulations applicable to state title IV-D programs. Part 303, which is entitled "Standards for Program Operations," prescribes "(a): [t]he minimum organizational and staffing requirements the state IV-D agency must meet in carrying out the IV-D program, and (b): [t]he standards for program operation which the IV-D agency must meet." Part 303 then sets forth detailed guidelines that the state IV-D agency "must" meet "for all cases" for several criteria, including: "establishment of cases and maintenance of case records," 45 C.F.R. § 303.2; "location of absent parents," 45 C.F.R. § 303.3; "establishment of support obligations," 45 C.F.R. § 303.4; "establishment of paternity," 45 C.F.R. § 303.5; and "enforcement of support obligations," 45 C.F.R. § 303.6. These guidelines, which are phrased in mandatory language and apply to all cases, are often much more specific and stringent than the general "procedures" applicable to the same criteria in Part 305.


It is now well-settled that § 1983 3 is available to redress violations of federal law by persons acting under color of state law. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555 (1980). This availability is, however, subject to two important exceptions: (1) where the federal statute in question does not create an enforceable right, Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 101 S.Ct. 1531, 67 L.Ed.2d 694 (1981), Wright v. Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, 479 U.S. 418, 107 S.Ct. 766, 93 L.Ed.2d 781 (1987); or (2) when Congress has foreclosed such enforcement of the statute in the statute itself. Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Ass'n, 453 U.S. 1, 101 S.Ct. 2615, 69 L.Ed.2d 435 (1981); Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 104 S.Ct. 3457, 82 L.Ed.2d 746 (1984).


In Wilder v. Virginia Hospital Ass'n, 496 U.S. 498, 110 S.Ct. 2510, 110 L.Ed.2d 455 (1990), the United States Supreme Court synthesized its prior cases and formulated a three-part test for determining when a federal statute creates a right enforceable by § 1983. 4 The Wilder court stated that

Such an inquiry turns on...

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3 cases
  • Davis v O'hara
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • May 31, 2000
    ...305.20 (1993). The Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed our reinstatement of the plaintiffs' 1983 action. See Davis v. McClaran, 909 S.W.2d 412, 420-21 (Tenn. 1995) ( Davis II).2 In doing so, the supreme court agreed with this court's holding that the plaintiffs had enforceable rights to rec......
  • White v. State
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • February 16, 2001
    ..."unjustly enriched" by the child support payments that he made between January 1995 and March 1999. Accordingly, citing Davis v. McClaran, 909 S.W.2d 412 (Tenn. 1995), he insists that the juvenile court's refusal to consider his claim for reimbursement deprived him of federally protected ri......
  • State ex rel. Nichols v. Songstad
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 2018
    ...to needy families who have been deprived of a parent through death, desertion or disability. 42 U.S.C. § 601 –687." Davis v. McClaran , 909 S.W.2d 412, 414 (Tenn. 1995). "Title IV–D provides a wide variety of child support services to needy families[.]" Id. at 415. Title IV–D's authorizatio......

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