Court of Appeal:
By Sandra Hong, Staff Writer
A public assistance program, providing benefits primarily to Hispanics and African Americans, which requires unannounced home visits by investigators looking for signs of fraud, does not, on those facts alone, establish a policy having a disparate impact on protected classes, Div. One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal has held.
The opinion by Justice Richard D. Huffman, filed Wednesday, affirms a judgment of dismissal which was entered after San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn sustained a demurrer, without leave to amend, to a complaint challenging San Diego County’s home visit policy in connection with the state-funded CalWORKs program, saying it disproportionately burdens persons of color and women by subjecting them to the stigma and stress of unscheduled visits by law enforcement.
Presiding Justice Judith McConnell and Justice Joan Irion joined in Huffman’s opinion.
In affirming Styn’s judgment, Huffman said that “the mere fact that each person affected by a practice or policy is also a member of a protected group does not establish a disparate impact.”
The American Civil Liberties Union brought the suit on behalf of plaintiffs Luz Villafana and Uhmbaya Laury. It alleges that the home visits, which are conducted by public assistance fraud division officers of the county’s Department of Child Support Services, subjects applicants to a form of house arrest for up to weeks at a time while waiting for an unscheduled visit that could determine their eligibility to receive assistance through CalWORKs.
The ACLU has said the home visit requirement for all San Diego CalWORKs applicants, called “Project 100%” by the county, is likely the only one of its kind in the nation.
The complaint alleges Project 100% forces applicants to miss medical appointments, delay job interviews, and treats applicants like criminal suspects. It charges that the policy is discriminatory against protected classes in violation of Government Code §11135.
Wording of Statute
That section provides, in part:
“No person in the State of California shall, on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, ethnic group identification, age, mental disability, physical disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation, be unlawfully denied full and equal access to the benefits of, or be unlawfully subjected to discrimination under, any program or activity that is conducted, operated, or administered by the state or by any state agency, is funded directly by the state, or receives any financial assistance from the state.”
The operative pleading points out that 50.33 percent of San Diego County’s CalWORKs recipients are Hispanic, though comprising 33.5 percent of the population, and 14.11 percent of the recipients are African American, who make up 5.5 percent of the population.
It adds that woman are 39 percent of the population, but 72.73 percent of the recipients of the benefits are females.
But Huffman said the complaint failed to establish that the Project 100% requirement disproportionately impacted protected classes compared to other CalWORKs applicants.
“The appropriate statistical comparison asks whether the home visits disproportionately harm women, Hispanic, and African American applicants when compared to the entire population of applicants,” Huffman wrote, adding:
“However, plaintiffs fail to allege that Hispanic, Latino, or female applicants suffer harsher impacts than other groups to whom the practice is applied. Because all applicants are subject to the home visits, and plaintiffs allege these visits cause a dignitary harm, there is no viable disparate impact claim, and the court’s grant of the demurrer without leave to amend did not abuse its discretion.”
The ACLU argued that disparate impact should be examined against the general population, as courts have done in housing discrimination cases under the federal Fair Housing Act.
Huffman said the goals of that act and those of a public assistance program differ.
“In addition to prohibiting discrimination, the Fair Housing Act aims to promote integrated housing patterns and prevent the increase of segregation in the general population,” he wrote, adding:
“In other words, the law was intended to impact those who fall within protected classes, and it was also intended to impact the broader population.”
A public assistance program, while providing support to families in a way that has broader societal benefits, does not carry the same “direct benefit” intended by the Fair Housing Act’s desegregation goals, Huffman said, observing:
“Welfare benefits are not distributed with the express aim of affecting those who do not qualify for them in the same way that the Fair Housing Act does.”
Huffman said employment discrimination cases are more closely analogous to the present case.
“Just as the entire county population may not be eligible for a particular job, neither is the entire county population eligible for CalWORKs benefits. Thus, comparing CalWORKs applicants and the general population of the county ignores the basic principle that comparators be similarly situated,” he wrote.
The case is Villafana v. County of San Diego, D076120.
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