Richardson v. Belcher 8212 53

Decision Date22 November 1971
Docket NumberNo. 70,70
Citation92 S.Ct. 254,30 L.Ed.2d 231,404 U.S. 78
PartiesElliott L. RICHARDSON, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Appellant, v. Raymond BELCHER. —53
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Section 224 of the Social Security Act, which requires a reduction in social security benefits to reflect workmen's compensation payments, has a rational basis and does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

317 F.Supp. 1294, reversed.

Richard B. Stone, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

John Charles Harris, Alexandria, for appellee.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The appellee was granted social security disability benefits effective in October 1968, in the amount of $329.70 per month for himself and his family. In January 1969, the federal payment was reduced to $225.30 monthly under the 'offset' provision of Section 224 of the Social Security Act, 79 Stat. 406, 42 U.S.C. § 424a, 1 upon a finding that the appellee was receiving workmen's compensation benefits from the State of West Virginia in the amount of.$203.60 per month. After exhausting his administrative remedies, the appellee brought this action challenging the reduction of payments required by § 224 on the ground that the statutory provision deprived him of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The District Judge, disagreeing with other courts that have considered the question, 2 held the statute unconstitutional. 317 F.Supp. 1294. The Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare appealed directly to this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1252. 3 We noted probable jurisdiction, 401 U.S. 935, 91 S.Ct. 937, 28 L.Ed.2d 214, and the case was briefed and argued on the merits. We now reverse the judgment of the District Court.

In our last consideration of a challenge to the constitutionality of a classification created under the Social Security Act, we held that 'a person covered by the Act has not such a right in benefit payments as would make every defeasance of 'accrued' interests violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.' Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 611, 80 S.Ct. 1367, 1373, 4 L.Ed.2d 1435. The fact that social security benefits are financed in part by taxes on an employee's wages does not in itself limit the power of Congress to fix the levels of benefits under the Act or the conditions upon which they may be paid. Nor does an expectation of public benefits confer a contractual right to receive the expected amounts. Our decision in Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 90 S.Ct. 1011, 25 L.Ed.2d 287, upon which the District Court relied, held that as a matter of procedural due process the interest of a welfare recipient in the continued payment of benefits is sufficiently fundamental to prohibit the termination of those benefits without a prior evidentiary hearing. But there is no controversy over procedure in the present case, and the analogy drawn in Goldberg between social welfare and 'property,' 397 U.S., at 262 n. 8, 90 S.Ct., at 1017, cannot be stretched to impose a constitutional limitation on the power of Congress to make substantive changes in the law of entitlement to public benefits.

To characterize an Act of Congress as conferring a 'public benefit' does not, of course, immunize it from scrutiny under the Fifth Amendment. We have held that '(t)he interest of a covered employee under the (Social Security) Act is of sufficient substance to fall within the protection from arbitrary governmental action afforded by the Due Process Clause.' Flemming v. Nestor, supra, 363 U.S., at 611, 80 S.Ct., at 1373. The appellee argues that the classification embodied in § 224 is arbitrary because it discriminates between those disabled employees who receive workmen's compensation and those who receive compensation from private insurance or from tort claim awards. We cannot say that this difference in treatment is constitutionally invalid.

A statutory classification in the area of social welfare is consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if it is 'rationally based and free from invidious discrimination.' Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 487, 90 S.Ct. 1153, 1162, 25 L.Ed.2d 491. While the present case, involving as it does a federal statute, does not directly implicate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, a classification that meets the test articulated in Dandridge is perforce consistent with the due process requirement of the Fifth Amendment. Cf. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499, 74 S.Ct. 693, 694, 98 L.Ed. 884.

To find a rational basis for the classification created by § 224, we need go no further than the reasoning of Congress as reflected in the legislative history. The predecessor of § 224, enacted in 1956 along with the amendments first establishing the federal disability insurance program, required a full offset of state or federal4 workmen's compensation payments against benefits payable under federal disability insurance. 70 Stat. 816. It is self-evident that the offset reflected a judgment by Congress that the workmen's compensation and disability insurance programs in certain instances served a common purpose, and that the workmen's compensation programs should take precedence in the area of overlap. The provision was repealed in 1958, 72 Stat. 1025, because Congress believed that 'the danger that duplication of disability benefits might produce undesirable results (was) not of sufficient importance to justify reduction of the social security disability benefits.' H.R.Rep. No. 2288, 85th Cong., 2d Sess., 13.

In response to renewed criticism of the overlap between the workmen's compensation and the social security disability insurance programs, Congress reexamined the problem in 1965. Data submitted to the legislative committees showed that in 35 of the 50 States, a typical worker injured in the course of his employment and eligible for both state and federal benefits received compensation for his disability in excess of his take-home pay prior to the disability. Hearings on H.R. 6675 before the Senate Committee on Finance, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 2, p. 904. It was strongly urged that this situation reduced the incentive of the worker to return to the job, and impeded the rehabilitative efforts of the state programs. Furthermore, it was anticipated that a perpetuation of the duplication in benefits might lead to the erosion of the workmen's compensation programs.5 The legislative response was § 224, which, by limiting total state and federal benefits to 80% of the employee's average earnings prior to the disability, reduced the duplication inherent in the programs and at the same time allowed a supplement to workmen's compensation where the state payments were inadequate.

The District Court apparently assumed that the only basis for the classification established by § 224 lay in the characterization of workmen's compensation as a 'public benefit.' Because the state program was financed by employer contributions rather than by taxes, the court held that the 'public' characterization afforded no rational basis to distinguish workmen's compensation from private insurance. We agree that a statutory discrimination between two like classes cannot be rationalized by assigning them different labels, but neither can two unlike classes be made indistinguishable, by attaching to them a common label. The original purpose of state workmen's compensation laws was to satisfy a need in- adequately met by private insurance or tort claim awards. Congress could rationally conclude that this need should continue to be met primarily by the States, and that a federal program that began to duplicate the efforts of the States might lead to the gradual weakening or atrophy of the state programs.

We have no occasion, within our limited function under the Constitution, to consider whether the legitimate purposes of Congress might have been better served by applying the same offset to recipients of private insurance, or to judge for ourselves whether the apprehensions of Congress were justified by the facts. If the goals sought are legitimate, and the classification adopted is rationally related to the achievement of those goals, then the action of Congress is not so arbitrary as to violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The judgment is reversed.

Reversed.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, dissenting.

I would affirm the judgment of the District Court. The statutory classification upheld today is not 'rationally based and free from invidious discrimination.' Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 487, 90 S.Ct. 1153, 1162, 25 L.Ed.2d 491. It is, in my view, violative of the Federal Government's obligation under the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause to guarantee to all citizens equal protection of the laws. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 74 S.Ct. 693, 98 L.Ed. 884.

Eligibility for social security disability benefits is premised upon a worker's having attained 'insured' status in the course of an employment 'covered' by the Act. It is undisputed that Raymond Belcher, and through him his wife and two minor children, had so qualified in 1968 when he broke his neck while employed by the Pocahontas Fuel Co. in Lynco, West Virginia. Indeed, his application for such benefits has been approved, and the benefits authorized and paid.

Section 224 of the Social Security Act, however, requires that these benefits be substantially reduced solely because Belcher also receives state workmen's compensation payments. It is said that the duplication of benefits impedes rehabilitation, and may lead to a cutting back of state workmen's compensation programs. Ante, at 83.

The rehabilitation goal does not explain the special treatment given to workmen's compensation beneficiaries. There are many other important programs, both public and private, which contain provisions for disability payments affecting a substantial portion...

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