Dubuque v. Yeutter, Civ. No. 88-143.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
Citation728 F. Supp. 303
Docket NumberCiv. No. 88-143.
PartiesMarie DUBUQUE, Lisa LePage, and Beverly Johnson v. Clayton YEUTTER, Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture; and Veronica Celani, Commissioner of the Department of Social Welfare, Vermont.
Decision Date04 December 1989

Sheila E. Reed, John J. McCullough III, Thomas F. Garrett, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., St. Johnsbury, Vt., for plaintiffs.

Donelle Staley, Asst. Atty. Gen., Waterbury, Vt., Helen Toor, Asst. U.S. Atty., Rutland/Burlington, Vt., for defendants.


HOLDEN, Senior District Judge.

The plaintiffs have joined in the complaint that a regulation promulgated by the Secretary of Agriculture and applied by the Commissioner of Social Welfare misconstrued the Food Stamp Act. They allege the administration of the program has deprived them of food stamps to which the Act entitled them.

Congress amended the Food Stamp Act to disqualify a household from receiving food stamps for ninety days if the head of the household voluntarily quit a job without good cause. 7 U.S.C. § 2015(d)(1)(B)(ii) (1988). The Secretary of Agriculture has defined "head of the household" to be the "principal wage earner" of the household. 7 C.F.R. §§ 273.1(d)(2), 273.7(n) (1988). The defendant Commissioner of Social Welfare, who administers the food stamp program in Vermont in accordance with federal standards, has adopted and applied the Secretary's definition to all households in Vermont. Vermont Welfare Assistance Manual §§ 273.1(d)(2), 273.7(n); see also 7 C.F.R. § 272.1(g)(82) (1988). The plaintiffs contend that "head of the household" does not mean "principal wage earner," and that their households were entitled to the food stamps withheld from them when the primary wage earner, other than the head of the household, voluntarily quit his employment.

The parties have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment.1 The plaintiffs seek class certification, restoration of the benefits that were withheld, declaratory and injunctive relief against application of the regulation, and an award of reasonable attorney's fees.2 Oral argument was heard on July 14, 1989. The facts are stipulated.3 The court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1337. Memorandum and Interlocutory Order at 3-4 (filed Feb. 21, 1989).

Marie Dubuque

The claim of the first named complainant, Marie Dubuque, was dismissed from the action on motion of counsel after she was granted relief through an administrative hearing.4

Lisa LePage

The plaintiff Lisa LePage, 26 years old, is the head of a household comprising her three minor children, herself and from December 1986 through March 1988, a boy-friend. Her friend was not the father of her children, nor did he have any legal obligation to support the plaintiff or her children. While he was a member of the household, he began working, but quit after three weeks. The Department of Social Welfare determined that he had been the primary wage earner for the preceding three weeks, that he had voluntarily quit without good cause, and that food stamps which the household had been receiving would be withheld from the entire household for ninety days. The suspension commenced September 1, 1987.

Beverly Johnson

The plaintiff Beverly Johnson, 40 years old, is the head of a household that comprised her son, 19 years old, and her three minor children. In early 1986, she and her son were both employed, but his monthly income was greater than hers. The household was not receiving food stamps because the collective income exceeded the requirements of the program; however, the plaintiff was receiving Aid to Needy Families with Children. The plaintiff applied for food stamps after her son quit his job. The Department of Social Welfare concluded that her son was the primary wage earner of the household, that he had voluntarily quit his job without good cause within sixty days prior to the application, and that the household therefore would not be entitled to food stamps for ninety days. The sanction commenced June 9, 1986.


Before reaching the questions of law which the parties seek to resolve by way of summary adjudication, the court is confronted with the standing of the complainants to obtain the compensatory and injunctive relief requested for the class they purport to represent.

The plaintiffs seek compensatory, declaratory and injunctive relief. A fundamental prerequisite for such remedies is standing. E.g., O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 493-95, 94 S.Ct. 669, 674-76, 38 L.Ed.2d 674 (1974); see U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. "A plaintiff must allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant's allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief." Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 751, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 3324, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984). If the injurious conduct no longer persists when the complaint is filed, a plaintiff might have residual standing to seek damages. E.g., City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 105 & n. 6, 106 n. 7, 103 S.Ct. 1660, 1667 & n. 6, 1668 n. 7, 75 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983). Standing to obtain injunctive relief requires the real and immediate threat of further injury to the complainant. Id. at 101-10, 103 S.Ct. at 1664-70. The Supreme Court noted that "`past exposure to illegal conduct does not in itself show a present case or controversy regarding injunctive relief ... if unaccompanied by any continuing, present adverse effects.'" Id. at 102, 103 S.Ct. at 1665 (quoting O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. at 495-96, 94 S.Ct. at 675-76).

According to the stipulated facts, the plaintiff LePage's benefits were withheld for ninety days commencing September 1, 1987, by application of the challenged regulation. Under the same regulation, the defendant Celani denied the plaintiff Johnson's application for food stamps for ninety days commencing June 9, 1986. These plaintiffs have standing to seek compensatory relief. See O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. at 493-95, 94 S.Ct. at 674-76. Any other harm, of which the plaintiffs complain, ended well before they filed their complaint on June 22, 1988. They have not alleged in any of their submissions that they expect the return of a like injury in the future. Standing to seek injunctive relief would require a real and immediate threat that the principal wage earner of the household, rather than any other member, will quit employment; that the quit will be voluntary; that it will be without good cause, rather than reasonable; and that the principal wage earner will not be the same person as the head of the household. The court cannot anticipate that such an uncertain variety of circumstances will visit either plaintiff in the immediate future. The plaintiffs make no allegation to this effect. Therefore, they lack standing to seek injunctive relief. See, e.g., City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. at 101-10, 103 S.Ct. at 1664-70.

The petition for declaratory relief stands differently and on firmer footing. See Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 466, 94 S.Ct. 1209, 1219, 39 L.Ed.2d 505 (1974).

Class Certification

Related to standing is the question of whether the suit is maintainable as a class action under Rule 23(b)(2), Fed.R.Civ.P. The motion asserted in the complaint for class certification was denied by memorandum opinion and order earlier in these proceedings for lack of the essential prerequisite imposed by Rule 23. Duquette v. Lyng, Sec., 88-142 D.Vt. (Feb. 21, 1989). The plaintiffs have again pressed for the same result by a supplemental motion to certify a class of plaintiffs defined as follows:

All food stamp applicants and recipients residing in Vermont, who belong to households in which the household's primary wage earner is not the head of the household and has quit or will quit his or her job, and who are subject to sanctions under Vermont Welfare Assistance Manual (WAM) § 273.1. Supplemental Motion for Class Certification (filed June 22, 1988).

During the pendency of the supplemental request the court received, and included in the record, a communication from counsel for the plaintiffs informing that the plaintiff Johnson is no longer a member of the class for whom prospective relief is available and hence can no longer serve as a representative plaintiff.5

The subsequent submissions furnished by the plaintiffs have failed to cure the shortages in the requirements for class certification under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2). The plaintiffs' second request for class certification is denied.

Sovereign Immunity

The Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution bars extension of the federal judicial power "to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State". U.S. Const. amend. XI. It also provides the defense of sovereign immunity in suits in federal court against a state by a citizen of the same state. E.g., Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98-100, 104 S.Ct. 900, 906-908, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984); Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10, 10 S.Ct. 504, 505, 33 L.Ed. 842 (1890). This defense extends to an action to enjoin a state official to pay retroactive benefits wrongfully withheld by the state in a federal-state program funded by the state and federal governments and administered by the state. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663-72, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 1355-60, 39 L.Ed.2d 662 (1974). If not waived, the immunity also applies to a claim against the Commissioner of Social Welfare for retroactive benefits under the Food Stamp Act. Although the federal government pays 100 percent of the benefits, the state pays 50 percent of the administrative expenses, and state provision of retroactive benefits entails administrative expenses to be paid from the state treasury. Colbeth v. Wilson, 554 F.Supp. 539 (D.Vt.1982), aff'd sub nom. Colbeth v. O'Rourke, 707 F.2d 57 (2d Cir.1983); a...

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