Wheeler v. Montgomery

RESPONDENT: John Montgomery
LOCATION: San Francisco Department of Social Services

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)

CITATION: 397 US 280 (1970)
ARGUED: Oct 13, 1969
DECIDED: Mar 23, 1970

Elizabeth Palmer - for the appellees
Peter E. Sitkin - for the appellants

Facts of the case

Mae Wheeler was a 75-year-old widow who lived solely on her welfare check and monthly Social Security payment. On August 30, 1967, the San Francisco Department of Social Services learned that Wheeler had received the proceeds from her late son's veteran insurance policy. After a county welfare supervisor called Wheeler, the Welfare Department began withholding Wheeler's welfare check pending an investigation. Wheeler requested a hearing and for the restoration of her payments until her cause could be heard. Wheeler did not get the restoration of her payments, but she ultimately prevailed in her claim and had benefits restored several months later.

Wheeler along with other similarly-situated people were granted class action status, and the class claimed that California welfare termination provisions deprived the class members of their constitutional due process rights by terminating welfare benefits before having a full and adequate hearing. A three-judge District Court for the Northern District of California held that the California procedure for pre-termination review satisfied the requirements of the Due Process Clause. The Supreme Court reviewed the California court's opinion


Does due process permit the termination of regularly recurring welfare payments without adequate notice and without a prior hearing on the factual questions underlying the decision to cut off assistance?

Media for Wheeler v. Montgomery

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 13, 1969 in Wheeler v. Montgomery

Warren E. Burger:

Number 14, Wheeler and others against Montgomery and others.

Peter E. Sitkin:

May it please the Court.

My name is Peter E. Sitkin.

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Sitkin, you may proceed.

Peter E. Sitkin:

This case involves the question of what procedural rights are to be afforded to the most dependent members of our society: the aged, the disabled, the blind, and the children of the poor.

The basic issue presented by this case is whether welfare recipients, after being found eligible, after full and vigorous investigation, are to have their benefits terminated without an opportunity for a full and fair adjudicative hearing.

In California, at the present time, there is a hearing which comports with the requirements of due process after the termination of welfare benefits.

Under the regulations adopted by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, this hearing takes place-- should take place within 60 days from the date of termination of benefits.

In point of fact, the hearing takes place long after that 60-day period, as has been conceded by appellees of this case.

Potter Stewart:

Is this a federally part-- federally funded program?

Peter E. Sitkin:

Yes, it is.

The appellants who I’m representing specifically are old age security recipients who are recipients under the Categorical Aid Program funded by the Social Security Act.

The regulation at issue in this case concerns all of the categorical aid programs, that is, the Aid to Families with Independent Children, Aid to the Blind, Aid to the Disabled, as well as Old Age Security.

Prior to termination of benefits, a welfare recipient is not afforded an adjudicative hearing to contest the reasons upon which the department has based its decision to terminate.

A welfare recipient is only provided with an opportunity to confer informally, usually with the very individual who has made the initial decision to terminate at a conference which can take place at a minimum of three days before a check will be terminated or a check will be withheld.

There is no opportunity within this short period of time to adequately prepare for this conference, nor is there an opportunity at the conference to have an opportunity to fairly and fully adjudicate the questions which might involve continuing eligibility.

Questions, for example, such as whether an individual has intended to transfer property to remain on public assistance, questions which are traditionally been decided in adjudicative hearings with the procedural protections usually connected with such hearings.

Potter Stewart:

Mr. Sitkin, you said that a person becomes eligible after a full investigation.

What is the procedure?

That’s not a trial type hearing, is it?

A person applies for old age assistance.

There’s no trial type hearing before he’s found to be eligible, is there?

Peter E. Sitkin:

No, there is no trial type hearing prior to eligibility.

Potter Stewart:

What is the procedure?

Peter E. Sitkin:

An individual applies to the Welfare Department and information is provided by that individual.

The regulations of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare indicate that the recipient himself is to be the primary source of the information regarding his eligibility.

The department obtains consents from the individual and, if necessary, investigates the individual’s eligibility by contacting collateral sources with respect to the income that the individual might have or with respect to other particulars that concern his eligibility.

Potter Stewart:

But there’s not an open hearing with confrontation and cross-examination and--

Peter E. Sitkin:

Not for an individual who’s applying for assistance.

Potter Stewart: