Wyman v. James

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation91 S.Ct. 381,400 U.S. 309,27 L.Ed.2d 408
Docket NumberNo. 69,69
PartiesGeorge K. WYMAN, Commissioner of New York Department of Social Services, et al. v. Barbara JAMES
Decision Date12 January 1971

New York's Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, stressing 'close contact' with beneficiaries, requires home visits by caseworkers as a condition for assistance 'in order that any treatment or service tending to restore (beneficiaries) to a condition of self-support and the relieve their distress may be rendered and * * * that assistance or care may be given only in such amount and as long as necessary.' Visitation with a beneficiary, who is the primary source of information to welfare authorities as to eligibility for assistance, is not permitted outside working hours, and forcible entry and snooping are prohibited. Appellee, a beneficiary under the AFDC program, after receiving several days' advance notice, refused to permit a caseworker to visit her home and, following a hearing and advice that assistance would consequently be terminated, brought this suit for injunctive and declaratory relief, contending that a home visitation is a search and, when not consented to or supported by a warrant based on probable cause, would violate her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The District Court upheld appellee's constitutional claim. Held: The home visitation provided for by New York law in connection with the AFDC program is a reasonable administrative tool and does not violate any right guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, Pp. 315—326.

(a) Home visitation, which is not forced or compelled, is not a search in the traditional criminal law context of the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 317—318.

(b) Even assuming that the home visit has some of the characteristics of a traditional search, New York's program is reasonable, as it serves the paramount needs of the dependent child; enables the State to determine that the intended objects of its assistance benefit from its aid and that state funds are being properly used; helps attain parallel federal relief objectives; stresses privacy by not unnecessarily intruding on the beneficiary's rights in her home; provides essential information not obtainable through secondary sources; is conducted, not by a law enforce- ment officer, but by a caseworker; is not a criminal investigation; and (unlike the warrant procedure, which necessarily implies criminal conduct) comports with the objectives of welfare administration. Pp. 318—324.

(c) The consequence of refusal to permit home visitation, which does not involve a search for violations, is not a criminal prosecution but the termination of relief benefits. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930. See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541, 87 S.Ct. 1737, 18 L.Ed.2d 943, distinguished. Pp. 324—325.

Jones v. Goldberg (S.D.N.Y.), 303 F.Supp. 935, reversed and remanded.

Brenda Soloff, New York City, for appellant.

Jonathan Weiss, New York City, for appellee.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal presents the issue whether a beneficiary of the program for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)1 may refuse a home visit by the caseworker without risking the termination of benefits.

The New York State and City social services commissioners appeal from a judgment and decree of a divided three-judge District Court holding invalid and unconstitutional in application § 134 of the New York Social Services Law, McKinney's Consol.Laws, c. 55,2 § 175 of the New York Policies Governing the Administration of Public Assistance,3 and §§ 351.10 and 351.21 of Title 18 of the New York Code of Rules and Regulations,4 and granting injunctive relief. James v. Goldberg, 303 F.Supp. 935 (S.D.N.Y.1969). This Court noted probable jurisdiction but, by a divided vote, denied a requested stay. 397 U.S. 904, 90 S.Ct. 921, 25 L.Ed.2d 85.

The District Court majority held that a mother receiving AFDC relief may refuse, without forfeiting her right to that relief, the periodic home visit which the cited New York statutes and regulations prescribe as a condition for the continuance of assistance under the program. The beneficiary's thesis, and that of the Dis- trict Court majority, is that home visitation is a search and, when not consented to or when not supported by a warrant based on probable cause, violates the beneficiary's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Judge MaLean, in dissent, thought it unrealistic to regard the home visit as a search; felt that the requirement of a search wearrant to issue only upon a showing of probable cause would make the AFDC program 'in effect another criminal statute' and would 'introduce a hostile arm's length element into the relationship' between worker and mother, 'a relationship which can be effective only when it is based upon mutual confidence and trust'; and concluded that the majority's holding struck 'a damaging below' to an important social welfare program. 303 F.Supp., at 946.


The case comes to us on the pleadings and supporting affidavits and without the benefit of testimony which an extended hearing would have provided. The pertinent facts, however, are not in dispute.

Plaintiff Barbara James is the mother of a son, Maurice, who was born in May 1967. They reside in New York City. Mrs. James first applied for AFDC assistance shortly before Maurice's birth. A caseworker made a visit to her apartment at that time without objection. The assistance was authorized.

Two years later, on May 8, 1969, a caseworker wrote Mrs. James that she would visit her home on May 14. Upon receipt of this advice, Mrs. James telephoned the worker that, although she was willing to supply information 'reasonable and relevant' to her need for public assistance, any discussion was not to take place at her home. The worker told Mrs. James that she was required by law to visit in her home and that refusal to permit the visit would result in the termination of assistance. Permission was still denied.

On May 13 the City Department of Social Services sent Mrs. James a notice of intent to discontinue assistance because of the visitation refusal. The notice advised the beneficiary of her right to a hearing before a review officer. The hearing was requested and was held on May 27. Mrs. James appeared with an attorney at that hearing.5 They continued to refuse permission for a worker to visit the James home, but again expressed willingness to cooperate and to permit visits elsewhere. The review officer ruled that the refusal was a proper ground for the termination of assistance. His written decision stated:

'The home visit which Mrs. James refuses to permit is for the purpose of determining if there are any changes in her situation that might affect her eligibility to continue to receive Public Assistance, or that might affect the amount of such assistance, and to see if there are any social services which the Department of Social Services can provide to the family.'

A notice of termination issued on June 2.

Thereupon, without seeking a hearing at the state level, Mrs. James, individually and on behalf of Maurice, and purporting to act on behalf of all other persons similarly situated, instituted the present civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She alleged the under the First, guaranteed to her under the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and under Subchapters IV and XVI of the Social Security Act and regulations issued thereunder. She further alleged that she and her son have no income, resources, or support other than the benefits received under the AFDC program. She asked for declaratory and injunctive relief. A temporary restraining order was issued on June 13, James v. Goldberg, 302 F.Supp. 478 (S.D.N.Y.1969), and the three-judge District Court was convened.


The federal aspects of the AFDC program deserve mention. They are provided for in Subchapter IV, Part A, of the Social Security Act of 1935, 49 Stat. 627, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 601—610 (1964 ed. and Supp. V). Section 401 of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 601 (1964 ed., Supp. V), specifies its purpose, namely, 'encouraging the care of dependent children in their own homes or in the homes of relatives by enabling each State to furnish financial assistance and rehabilitation and other services * * * to needy dependent children and the parents or relatives with whom they are living to help maintain and strengthen family life * * *.' The same section authorizes the federal appropriation for payments to States that qualify. Section 402, 42 U.S.C. § 602 (1964 ed., Supp. V), provides that a state plan, among other things, must 'provide for granting an opportunity for a fair hearing before the State agency to any individual whose claim for aid to families with dependent children is denied or is not acted upon with reasonable promptness'; must 'provide that the State agency will make such reports * * * as the Secretary (of Health, Education, and Welfare) may from time to time require': must 'provide that the State agency shall, in determining need, take into consideration any other income and resources of any child or relative claiming aid'; and must 'provide that where the State agency has reason to believe that the home in which a relative and child receiving aid reside is unsuitable for the child because of the neglect, abuse, or exploitation of such child it shall bring such condition to the attention of the appropriate court or law enforcement agencies in the State * * *.' Section 405, 42 U.S.C. § 605, provides that

'Whenever the State agency has reason to believe that any payments of aid * * * made with respect to a child are not being or may not be used in the best interests of the child, the State agency may provide for such counseling and guidance services with respect to the use of such payments and the management of other funds by...

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