Loisel v. Rowe, 15029

Decision Date06 June 1995
Docket NumberNo. 15029,15029
Citation660 A.2d 323,233 Conn. 370
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesDonna LOISEL v. Audrey ROWE, Commissioner of Income Maintenance et al.

Jennifer C. Jaff, Asst. Atty. Gen., with whom were Hugh Barber, Asst. Atty. Gen., and, on the brief, Richard Blumenthal, Atty. Gen., Richard J. Lynch, Asst. Atty. Gen., and Donald Lamont, for appellants (defendants).

Garrett H. Tuller, with whom were Shirley Bergert and, on the brief, Thomas R. Kasper, law student intern, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Before PETERS, C.J., and CALLAHAN, BORDEN, BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

PETERS, Chief Justice.

This case raises significant questions concerning the relationship between federal welfare benefits, the composition of assistance units and the eligibility criteria for the state general assistance program. The plaintiff, Donna Loisel, appealed to the Superior Court pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 1993) §§ 17-2b(b) and 4-183 from the administrative denial of her applications for general assistance benefits. 1 The trial court reversed the administrative decisions, holding that social security benefits received by the plaintiff's children improperly had been included in calculating the plaintiff's income and that without the inclusion of those benefits the plaintiff was eligible for general assistance benefits under General Statutes (Rev. to 1993) § 17-273. 2 The commissioner of income maintenance (commissioner) appealed from that judgment to the Appellate Court, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to Practice Book § 4023 and General Statutes § 51-199(c). Since the rendering of the trial court's judgment, however, intervening events have rendered the case moot. We therefore dismiss this appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The facts are not in dispute. The plaintiff, a resident of the town of Mansfield, is the custodial parent of two minor children. The children receive federal social security survivors' benefits totaling $1116 per month because of the death of their father. 3 The plaintiff, who was not married to her children's father, receives no survivor's benefits of her own. She does, however, serve as the representative payee for her children's benefits.

On November 19, 1992, the plaintiff filed an application for general assistance medical assistance with the town of Mansfield. The plaintiff recited in her application that, except for her children's benefits, she had no income and that her assets were limited to a bank account containing $6. While acknowledging that her children live in her assistance unit and that they receive total monthly benefits of $1116, she repeatedly stated that she was applying for support only for herself. At the end of the application, she wrote that "My self, I'm not able to work due to panic disorders, I have no medical [coverage] and [I] need to see a doctor for my illness. I don't feel it's right to use my children's benefits for my personal or medical needs." Her application was denied the following day. In the explanation section of the denial form, the local welfare official wrote: "Your children receive Social Security in their own name but under General Assistance policy, since the three of you are a family, the income of all members is counted in determining family income. Thus the total income exceeds the medical assistance standards."

The plaintiff subsequently filed an application for general assistance financial assistance with the town on November 30, 1992, which was identical in all material respects to her previous application. On December 1, 1992, this application too was denied.

Thereafter, at the plaintiff's request, she was afforded a local level fair hearing pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 1993) § 17-292d (now § 17b-63), which resulted in an affirmance of the denials. The hearing officer rejected the plaintiff's argument that, because the survivors' benefits were for her children's support only, the town ought to have treated her as an assistance unit of one in determining her need. The officer declined to rule on the plaintiff's argument that state regulations, by requiring her to be grouped with her children for the eligibility determination, violated federal and state law. The plaintiff appealed from that decision to the commissioner pursuant to General Statutes (Rev. to 1993) § 17-292e (now § 17b-64). Following a state level hearing on January 28, 1993, the decisions denying the plaintiff's applications once again were affirmed. 4

The trial court reversed the denial of the plaintiff's general assistance applications after determining that federal law precludes the use of the children's benefits for the plaintiff's support. According to the court, because federal rules expressly permit survivors' benefits to be expended to support a beneficiary's entire Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) assistance unit, the rules necessarily imply that the benefits may not be used to support a family unit such as the plaintiff's that is not receiving AFDC benefits. Moreover, although federal rules allow social security benefits to be expended for the support of a beneficiary's legal dependents, the court determined that the benefits here could not be used for the plaintiff's support because under state law a child is not legally responsible for the support of his or her parents. The court then held that the state regulations violated the plaintiff's statutory right to support under § 17-273 because they rendered the plaintiff ineligible for general assistance benefits on the basis of income attributed to the plaintiff that was not legally available to her. As a result, the court concluded, the plaintiff was entitled to a redetermination of her eligibility for general assistance benefits. 5

The plaintiff has not claimed any constitutional right to receive general assistance benefits from the state. 6 The plaintiff also does not contend that, if the social security benefits properly may be treated as income available to her as a member of an assistance unit with her children, she otherwise has a statutory entitlement to receive general assistance benefits. 7 Finally, the plaintiff has not pressed her claim, argued in the trial court, that she should have been treated as an assistance unit of one for purposes of determining general assistance eligibility. See footnote 5. The plaintiff's claims on appeal essentially mirror, and are limited to, the arguments contained in the trial court's memorandum of decision.

The commissioner's response to the plaintiff's contentions is not rooted in federal social security law or in state law pertaining to a child's duty to support a parent. The commissioner's basic argument is that, because of the statute's explicit reference to the commissioner's rule-making authority under General Statutes (Rev. to 1993) § 17-3a, 8 § 17-273 creates only a qualified right to support, and thus permits the commissioner to determine who is in need of general assistance. According to the commissioner, the general assistance eligibility regulations rationally differentiate assistance units that contain individuals who receive social security benefits from assistance units that do not receive those benefits. The distinction is rational, the commissioner insists, because the former have less need of state aid than the latter, whether or not the federal benefits may be used for the support of non-beneficiary members of an assistance unit, even when the unit has no other income. The commissioner therefore maintains that the trial court's decision must be reversed.

We do not reach the merits of these arguments because we determine that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to entertain this appeal. The commissioner asserted in oral argument before this court, and the plaintiff does not deny, that the plaintiff now receives federal supplemental security income (SSI). See 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. The express terms of § 17-273(a) render a recipient of SSI benefits ineligible for general assistance. The statute provides that "[a] person who is a recipient of ... supplemental security income shall be considered to be provided for by the ... federal government. On and after September 4, 1991, no such person shall be eligible to receive general assistance financial or medical aid." The record also reflects that the plaintiff's SSI application was pending in November, 1992, when she filed her general assistance applications. Under the relevant federal laws, the plaintiff's SSI benefits would have been granted retroactive to the date her SSI application was filed, which predates her general assistance applications. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(6) (1992); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.335 and 416.501 (1994). 9 Thus, she also would not be entitled to any unpaid "back benefits" from the general assistance program.

"When, during the pendency of an appeal, events have occurred that preclude an appellate court from granting any practical relief through its disposition of the merits, a case has become moot." In re Romance M., 229 Conn. 345, 357, 641 A.2d 378 (1994). Both parties nonetheless urge us to reach the merits of this case, relying on the exception to the mootness doctrine for issues that are "capable of repetition, yet evading review." Having thoroughly reviewed this court's cases applying that exception, we are persuaded that the present question does not satisfy the requirements of the exception.

The "capable of repetition, yet evading review" exception to the mootness doctrine operates within the general jurisdictional framework of the court. "It is a well-settled general rule that the existence of an actual controversy is an essential requisite to appellate jurisdiction; it is not the province of appellate courts to decide moot questions, disconnected from the granting of actual relief or from the determination of which no practical relief can...

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