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Goldberg v. Kelly

What Happened

In New York City, a number of residents had been receiving financial aid from the federally-assisted Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADC) or from New York State's general Home Relief program. With no prior notice, these residents alleged, state and city welfare workers were about to terminate, or had terminated financial aid. Since there had been no prior notice or public hearing, these actions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The group of New York residents took their case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

When these cases began, no requirement of prior notice or pre-termination hearing existed. After Kelly, et al. began their court actions, the state and city welfare authorities decided to change their procedures. In essence, the authorities (caseworkers) now had to have an informal discussion with a recipient if there were doubts about the recipient's eligibility. Then the welfare recipient received a letter with the reasons for termination at least seven days before the effective date of termination.

Furthermore, the recipient now had the right to present a written statement to be reviewed by the superior of the administrator who originally approved the termination or suspension. If the superior agreed with the original decision, the benefits would stop immediately. Only then could recipients have the right to a public hearing where they could appear in person, offer oral evidence, confront and cross-examine witnesses, and have public records of the hearing.

Not good enough, said the appellants, who challenged whether these procedures met constitutional guidelines. The district court agreed, saying that a post-termination hearing was constitutionally insufficient. Only a pre-termination hearing would satisfy the Due Process Clause.

State and city officials argued that the informal pre-termination combined with the post-termination hearing dispensed with any due process issues. Of all the defendants, only the Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York appealed.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court's decision. Justice Brennan's opinion held that under the Fourteenth Amendment, procedural due process requirements could only be fulfilled by a pre-termination hearing. Also, the possibility that a truly needy recipient might lose benefits accidentally far outweighed the state's concern about its fiscal and administrative resources.

Finally, according to Brennan's opinion, while the pre-termination hearing did not have to resemble a trial, it needed to meet the minimum procedural requirements of allowing the recipient the opportunity to confront and cross-examine welfare department witnesses, to retain an attorney if so desired, and to be able to present oral evidence to someone impartial, who would make a decision based only on the legalities involved and the evidence produced at the hearing.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Goldberg v. Kelly - The Principles Involved, What Happened, Procedural Due Process