Blessing v. Freestone


DOCKET NO.: 95-1441
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 329 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 06, 1997
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1997

C. Tim Delaney - Phoenix, Arizona, argued the cause for the petitioner
Marsha S. Berzon - Argued the cause for the respondent
Patricia A. Millett - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondents

Facts of the case

Cathy Freestone and four other Arizona mothers, whose children are eligible for state child support services under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, filed suit against Linda J. Blessing, the director of the state child support agency, claiming that they properly applied for child support services; that, despite their good faith efforts to cooperate, the agency never took adequate steps to obtain child support payments for them; that these omissions were largely attributable to staff shortages and other structural defects in the State's program; and that these systemic failures violated their individual rights under Title IV-D to have all mandated services delivered in substantial compliance with the title and its implementing regulations. Freestone sought relief including a declaratory judgment that the Arizona program's operation violates Title IV-D provisions creating rights in them that are enforceable and an injunction requiring the director to achieve substantial compliance with Title IV-D throughout all programmatic operations. The District Court granted summary judgment for Blessing. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that Freestone had an enforceable individual right to have the State achieve "substantial compliance" with Title IV-D. Additionally, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the District Court that that Congress had foreclosed private Title IV-D enforcement actions by authorizing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to audit and cut off funds to States whose programs do not substantially comply with Title IV-D's requirements.


Can parents sue states under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act to force overall compliance with federal efforts under Title IV-D to collect child-support payments from ex-spouses?

Media for Blessing v. Freestone

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 06, 1997 in Blessing v. Freestone

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 21, 1997 in Blessing v. Freestone

William H. Rehnquist:

...Freestone will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

This case comes here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Arizona has chosen to participate in a federally funded welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

As a condition of receiving that federal funding, a federal statute known as Title IV-D requires Arizona to help children and single parents obtain paternity determinations and child support orders and to collect support payments from absent parents.

This lawsuit was brought by five single mothers living in Arizona whose children were not receiving child support from their absent fathers.

The mothers sued the Director of Arizona’s Child Support Agency, claiming that the agency had not provided them with child support services, and that the State’s failure were largely attributable to structural defects in the state agency; staff shortages, high case loads, and poor record keeping.

They brought their lawsuit under 42 United States Code Section 1983 which imposes liability on anyone who under color of state law, deprives the person of any rights, privileges, or immunity secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

The mothers claimed that Title IV-D gave them rights and asked the court to order Arizona to achieve substantial compliance with federal law through all of its programmatic operations.

The District Court granted summary judgment for the Director but Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

It held that Title IV-D gave the mothers an individual right to have Arizona’s Child Support Agency substantially comply with federal guidelines, and that the Secretary’s authority to audit and cut funding of the agency did not foreclose an individual remedy for the plaintiffs under Section 1983.

We disagree with the first portion of the Court of Appeals’ analysis and therefore vacate the judgment.

We disagree with the lower court’s conclusion, the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion, that individuals have a right to have Arizona’s Child Support Agency substantially comply with Title IV-D.

For a statute to create an enforceable right for individual plaintiffs that must be intended to benefit the plaintiff and must create judicially manageable standards and impose a binding obligation on the state.

The requirement that a state be in substantial compliance, we think, is not intended to benefit particular individuals.

The substantial compliance standard requires that a state must provide certain services only in a specified percentage of cases.

For example, a state must collect over due support payments in 75% of state cases, and that numerical target is a system wide measure of performance triggering the Secretary’s auditing and penalty provisions.

It does not give particular individuals an enforceable right to receive child support services.

We also think the Court of Appeals painted with too broad a brush in holding that Title IV-D created unspecified rights.

Our cases have always analyzed the plaintiffs' asserted right in their most concrete specific form.

We send this case back to the District Court to construe the complaint in the first instance to determine exactly what right, considered in their most concrete specific form the mothers are asserting.

The opinion is unanimous.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion which is joined by Justice Kennedy.