Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, November 14, 2013


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C.A. Rejects Suit Over Computer System for Welfare Payments

Panel Says State Is Taking Adequate Measures to Protect Recipients From Arbitrary Loss of Aid




The Third District Court of Appeal yesterday affirmed a ruling in favor of the state in a suit brought by welfare recipients who claim a new statewide computer system is causing arbitrary cancellations of their benefits.

The panel agreed with Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly that the question of how to adjust aid when a recipient hasn’t filed a required eligibility report on time is a matter within the discretion of the state Department of Social Services, so that a writ of mandate is not an available remedy. He added that because it is undisputed that the agency is addressing the plaintiffs’ concerns, it cannot be accused of arbitrary and capricious treatment.

The dispute resulted from the implementation of the CALWorks Information Network, or CALWin. CALWin permits 18 participating counties—Los Angeles not being one of them—to process information needed to establish when an applicant is eligible for CALWorks, CalFresh, or other benefits, and when such eligibility has ceased.

CALWorks is a cash assistance program for low-income households with minor children. CalFresh was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

The controversial feature of CALWin is that if eligibility information is not submitted within a specified timeframe, it will terminate or reduce benefits automatically, requiring that a case worker input information once it is submitted by the recipient.

Petitioners’ Claims

The petitioners—represented by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; the Western Center on Law and Poverty; Legal Services of Northern California and others—brought their petition in 2007 and amended it in 2009. They claimed that—although their benefits were restored through administrative appeals— they and thousands of similarly situated persons were left at risk of arbitrary terminations of benefits because of systematic flaws or widespread errors in the implementation.

Connelly, however, denied the writ on the grounds that DSS had discretion to delegate to the counties the authority to implement CALWin, that there was no showing that programming or input errors were so widespread as to constitute a violation of any law or regulation, and that it was up to the counties to allocate “[w]hat functions are to be performed by the computer and what functions are to be reserved for human action or input.”  

Justice George Nicholson, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge that there was no improper delegation and no abuse of discretion.  

DSS, he acknowledged, has a statutory mandate to supervise the implementation of CALWorks, CalFresh, and other programs by the counties.

“However, how the Department supervises the counties and brings them into full compliance is a matter left to the Department’s discretion,” he wrote. “The Department is authorized to exercise its discretion when fulfilling its supervisory duty, including when determining how to bring a noncompliant county into compliance.”

Corrected Action

The courts, he elaborated, cannot force DSS to take over or make changes to CALWin, as long as there are other methods that may be used to obtain correction of any errors by the counties.

“As plaintiffs admit, CalWIN’s allegedly erroneous automatic actions usually take place when a case worker fails to enter updated or correct data into the system,” Nicholson wrote. “As a result, compliance may be achieved by correcting and training against human error instead of, or as part of, correcting CalWIN’s operations.”

Because it is undisputed that the problems were human, not mechanical, and that DSS had “directed the counties to take corrective actions to ensure benefits are timely issued and not incorrectly terminated due to case worker error,” there is no judicial remedy available to the plaintiffs, Nicholson said.

The case is Pich v. Lighbourne, 13 S.O.S. 5841.


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