Gardebring v. Jenkins

485 U. S. 415

April 19, 1988

A new rule for welfare recipients said that welfare payments would be temporarily suspended if the recipients received a large lump sum of money from another source. The Jenkins family was unaware of this rule, and when it got a large Social Security payout, it spent the money all at once, not realize that they wouldn’t get regular welfare payments again for several months afterward. The Jenkins family claimed that a regulation required the government to give them much better notice of the new lump sum rule.

The Court ruled 5-3 that the regulation had not been violated (Kennedy did not participate). Looking closely at the regulation’s language and structure, Stevens said it only mandated that new applicants for welfare be apprised of the general terms and conditions of the program. It did not mandate that continuing recipients be informed of every significant rule change. Also compelling to Stevens was that the Secretary running the welfare program did not interpret the regulation to require the extra notice. While the result was harsh for the Jenkins family, there just wasn’t enough evidence to second guess the Secretary’s reading of the regulation.

O’Connor wrote a dissent joined by Brennan in full, and by Marshall in its conclusion. She felt that the Secretary had agreed to a broader reading of the regulation in an interrogatory, and was now changing his mind about interpretation. Because this broader reading required more notice, and because the regulation was ambiguous, O’Connor wanted to hold the Secretary to this earlier interpretation. Despite this conclusion, she disagreed with the lower court’s demand that the Secretary make truly herculean and exhaustive efforts to give notice to every recipient. She thought a more limited effort was sufficient (this is probably the part that Marshall disagreed with).

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