Friday, May 10, 2002
Court of Appeal Says Denial of Welfare Aid for Disabled Students May Violate Federal Civil Rights Law
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A state law cutting off welfare benefits supporting high school students who have turned 18 and do not appear likely to graduate by age 19 may violate the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices overturned a ruling by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly and sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration as to whether the cost of providing aid to students whose disabilities prevent them from completing school by age 19 is unreasonable.
At issue is part of the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, or CalWORKs law. The statute implements the 1996 federal welfare reform law by providing cash assistance and services to low-income families with children.
It generally cuts off all aid for a child who reaches the age of 18. The sole exception is under Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 11253, which provides that a child who is at least 18 but less than 19 is entitled to be aided if he or she is a full-time high school, vocational, or technical student and “can reasonably be expected to complete the educational or training program before his or he 19th birthday.”
The state’s implementation of this “completion rule” is being challenged by the Western Center on Law & Poverty, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, and Legal Services of Northern California on behalf of the parents of three disabled students whose benefits were cut off after they turned 18.
One student was reinstated after her principal said she would likely graduate by age 19, but the state stipulated that she could still be dropped if her disability required her to change to a slower track and she remained a plaintiff. The other students brought administrative appeals that were denied before they sued.
Connelly found that Sec. 11253 complies with the ADA by creating “an essential eligibility requirement” as defined by the federal act. But Justice Richard Sims III, writing for the Court of Appeal, disagreed.
“We agree with plaintiffs that application of the completion rule to their children unlawfully denies them the benefits of the CalWORKs program on account of their disabilities,” Sims wrote.
A discriminatory eligibility requirement is considered essential under the ADA only if the program cannot be operated without it, Sims explained. Cutting off benefits for disabled 18-year-olds is not essential to CalWORKs, the justice declared, and in fact undermines the legislative purpose behind the program.
CalWORKs, he noted, is supposed to provide a “secure structure” for family members, and “to achieve the greatest possible reduction of dependency,” in part by promoting work opportunity.
“[A] disabled 18-year-old with schooling or job training unfinished is ill-prepared to work, and having to care for the child without CalWORKs aid may impede the parents’ participation in the work force,” Sims wrote.
There was inadequate evidence, the justice went on to say, to support Connelly’s finding that the completion rule is enforceable, under federal regulations implementing the ADA, because doing away with the rule “would fundamentally alter the nature of the services, program, or activity.”
While a federal district judge in Washington upheld the state’s similar rule on that ground, Sims said, the opinion in that case was unpersuasive. On remand, the state can present evidence that exempting disabled students from the rule would “fundamentally alter” CalWORKs or would have an undue fiscal impact on the state, he said.
Justice Vance Raye joined in the opinion.
Justice Harry Hull concurred separately. Calling the law a “quagmire,” he expressed the fear that the number of students who would be affected by a grant of relief “is not only unknown but unknowable” but agreed with the majority that remand is appropriate.
The case is Fry v. Saenz, C038026.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company