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Procedural Due Process in Benefits Cases: Revisiting Goldberg v. Kelly

Adherence to proper procedure is essential for elder law practitioners who assist clients with Medicaid applications and benefit denials. In this article, we provide historical context to these procedures by revisiting the United States Supreme Court Case, Goldberg v. Kelly, 90 S. Ct. 1011 (1970), in which the Supreme Court was asked to answer the question: does the state’s termination of a recipient’s benefits without a hearing violate the 14th amendment due process clause?


The case was initiated by John Kelly, acting on behalf of New York City residents who received financial aid under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and/or New York State’s general Home Relief program. Kelly filed a complaint in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York alleging that city officials charged with administering these programs had terminated recipients’ benefits without notice or hearing. Though there was no notice or hearing requirement under New York law at the time the case was filed, both state and local government enacted procedures for notice and hearing after the suit was initiated. Unsatisfied with the protections these procedures offered, Kelly challenged the constitutionality of those provisions.


The state argued that a combination of post-termination evidentiary hearing and informal pre-termination procedures were sufficient notice and procedure to pass muster under due process analysis. The Southern District of New York disagreed, holding only a pre-termination evidentiary hearing would satisfy the constitutional requirements at issue. The Southern District Court stated:

While post-termination review is relevant, there is one overpowering fact which controls here. By hypothesis, a welfare recipient is destitute, without funds or assets. Suffice it to say that to cut off a welfare recipient in the face of ‘brutal need’ without a prior hearing of some sort is unconscionable, unless overwhelming considerations justify it.

This portion of the Southern District’s decision was cited by the Court in Goldberg, noting its rejection of the state’s argument.


The United States Supreme Court, with Justice Brennan issuing the majority opinion of the Court, affirmed the District Court’s decision. The Supreme Court noted the purpose of welfare, which is to provide “means to obtain essential food, clothing, housing and medical care,” and that the deprivation of such welfare “may deprive an eligible recipient of the very means by which to life” if aid were terminated pending resolution. The Court also noted the governmental interest in providing pre-termination evidentiary hearings, that being the United States’ commitment to “foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its border.”


In its ruling, the Supreme Court determined that a pre-termination “fair hearing” was required and would “provide the recipient with a full administrative review.” The hearing “has one function only,” Justice Brennan wrote, “to provide an initial determination of the validity of the welfare department’s grounds for discontinuance of payments in order to protect a recipient against an erroneous termination of rights.”


While the tenets of Goldberg have long been in place, issues continue to arise in fair hearing cases that implicate procedural considerations. Issues related to the adequacy of notice, the sufficiency of the state’s description of the reason for which benefits are being denied or terminated and timeliness considerations continue to work their way through the court system. It is up to the elder law attorney to be familiar with the process, requisite procedures, and the constitutional protections afforded their clients.