Author: Catherine M. Callery (Kate)| Louise M. Tarantino| Barbara Weiner

On May 12, 2009, the New York State Court of Appeals issued a decision in Khrapunskiy v. Doar, 12 N.Y.3d 478 (2009), a class action case addressing the level of assistance the State is obligated to provide to elderly, blind and disabled legal immigrants who have been rendered ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of their immigration status. The Court held, in a five to two decision, that the State is not constitutionally required to provide income assistance to non-citizens at the same level that U.S. citizens are entitled to receive through the federal SSI program, supplemented by the State’s Additional State Payment program [Title 6 of the Social Services Law (SSL)].  The Court reached this conclusion in spite of the fact that the State sets the standard of need for elderly, blind and disabled through the state’s SSI supplement program. See SSL §209.2.

Plaintiffs argued that New York had a long history of recognizing the special needs of elderly, blind and disabled people and that their immigration status was irrelevant in determining their need.  Prior to 1974, New York State provided public assistance to aged, blind and disabled persons through the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled (AABD) program. In 1972, Congress established the SSI program, which provided federal benefits to the same class of people. Thereupon, New York discontinued AABD in 1974 and moved its elderly, blind and disabled residents into the federal SSI program. With respect to immigration status, only elderly, blind and disabled people who were not lawfully residing in the country were excluded.  Because federal SSI payments were lower than the State’s established standard of need in its AABD program and less than the State determined necessary for the support of this particularly vulnerable group of people, the Legislature created the Additional State Payments (ASP) program. This program, which is administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) but funded by the State, provided recipients of SSI or persons whose income was too high for SSI but below the state set standard of need with an extra grant each month.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which made most categories of aliens ineligible for federal benefit programs, including SSI. Refugees and other humanitarian based immigrants remained eligible for SSI, but only during the first seven years from their date of entry.  (See related article on page 4 of this newsletter regarding the extensions of time limit to nine years.)  In order to receive benefits beyond that date, the recipient had to become a U.S. citizen prior to the seven year deadline. Following the enactment of PRWORA, the New York State Legislature made immigrants who were rendered ineligible for the federal SSI program also ineligible for the State’s supplemental assistance for aged, blind and disabled persons. This meant that the only assistance left available to elderly, blind and disabled immigrants was public assistance under the Safety Net Assistance (SNA) program at a much lower monthly benefit level.

Plaintiffs commenced this action in 2004 against defendant Doar, then Commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), alleging that the failure of the State to apply the standard of need to them at the same level as applied to U.S. citizens within the context of the SSI and ASP programs was due solely to their status as legal aliens and thus constituted a violation of Articles I and XVII of the New York State Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The plaintiffs sought preliminary and permanent injunctions ordering the defendant to provide assistance consistent with the standard of need provided in SSL §209, including retroactive assistance; and enjoining the defendant from implementing the relevant sections of the SSL in a manner that denied members of the class the appropriate level of assistance based solely on their alien status.

In August 2005, the State Supreme Court (New York County) granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The Court also granted their request for class certification, defining a class as “[a]ll persons identified to, or identifiable by, defendant as elderly, blind and disabled persons lawfully residing in New York State who have received, or are receiving, or will receive assistance at less than the standard of need set out in SSL 209 (2), solely because of their immigration status . . .” (Solomon, J., Decision and Order, p.14). 806 N.Y.S.2d 445 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2005).

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision, holding that the plaintiffs were entitled to receive state-based assistance, under the SNA program, at the level provided to U.S. citizens through the SSI and ASP programs.  (Andrias, J.). 49 A.D.3d 201 (1st Dept 2008).  Defendants then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which held in its May 2009 decision that – in contrast to the opinions of both the Supreme Court and Appellate Division – the plaintiffs were not entitled to the requested level of public assistance.

Regarding the Article XVII violation claim, the Court of Appeals stated that the decisions issued by the lower courts would require the creation of a new state program to administer the funds (the difference between SSI/ASP – $761 – and SNA benefits – $352). (Jones, J., majority opinion, p. 10).  The Court maintained that the creation of programs was a legislative function – not a judicial one – and that Article XVII of the State Constitution did not “compel the State to assume the federal government’s obligation when an elderly or disabled person becomes ineligible for continued SSI/ASP benefits.” (Jones, J., majority opinion, 12 N.Y. 3d at 479.).

In response to the equal protection claim, the Court held that the statute did not create a suspect classification as it was drafted to mirror the federal law. (Jones, J., majority opinion, p. 11).  To support its position, the Court distinguished the present case from Matter of Aliessa v. Novello, 96 N.Y. 2d 418 (2001) and Matter of Lee v. Smith, 42 N.Y. 2d 453 (1977), which dealt with a Medicaid and home relief program, respectively.  The Court noted that these cases involved already existing state-funded programs. (Jones, J., majority opinion, p. 12).  Here, the Court said that, as AABD had been dissolved in 1974, there were no state programs providing aid to this specific class and, consequently, there were no state residents receiving public assistance from New York at the level requested by the plaintiff class. (Jones, J., majority opinion, p.13).  The Court summarized by stating that, “equal protection does not require the State to create a new public assistance program, in order to guarantee equal outcomes under wholly separate and distinct public benefit programs.  Nor does it require the State to remediate the effects of PRWORA.” (Jones, J., majority opinion, 12 N.Y. 3d at 489.)

The Court ultimately held that legal aliens were not entitled to state benefits at the same level as benefits provided to U.S. citizens through the federal SSI program supplemented by the State through the ASP program. In her dissent, Judge Ciparick looked to the legislative intent behind SSL §209, and concluded that the Legislature intended the standard of need in SSL §209.2 to apply to all elderly, blind and disabled residents, not just those receiving SSI. (Ciparick, J., dissenting opinion, 12 N.Y. 3d at 491-92.)  Specifically, Judge Ciparick pointed to the reliance on a “standard of need” throughout the Social Services Law, rather than one’s immigration classification, as a basis for eligibility. (Ciparick, J., dissenting opinion, Id at 491).  The dissent also pointed out that the holding in Lee supported the plaintiffs’ position as the Court stated in that case that the State could not abandon its duty to provide for the aged, blind and disabled by assigning such care to the federal SSI program if the result was that aged, blind and disabled SSI recipients were being forced to survive on amounts less than what was granted to other needy residents of New York State who were eligible for the home relief program. (Ciparick, J., dissenting opinion, Id. at 493.)

Additionally, the dissent stated that, regarding the equal protection claim, the defendant failed to provide a compelling government interest, as required to withstand strict scrutiny analysis. (Ciparick, J., dissenting opinion, Id. at 494.)  Rather, the defendant argued that there was no equal protection claim because no state program providing assistance existed. (Ciparick, J., dissenting opinion, Id. at 495.)

The Khrapunkskiy decisions, briefs and pleadings can be found in Benefits Law Database by logging onto the Online Resource Center at http://onlineresources.wnylc.net/welcome.asp?

Thanks to Albany Law School intern Samantha Howell for this concise and informative summary of the history of the Khrapunskiy case and the Courts’ rulings.