GUERRERA v. CARLESON

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Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 2, California.

Antonia GUERRERA et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. Robert CARLESON, as Director of the State Department of Social Welfare, et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Civ. 39549.

Decided: August 21, 1972

George M. Duff, Los Angeles, for plaintiffs and appellants. Evelle J. Younger, Atty. Gen., Jerold A. Prod, Deputy Atty. Gen., for State respondents. John Maharg, County Counsel, Louis B. Hays, Deputy County Counsel, for County respondents.

Plaintiffs appeal from the order of the superior court denying their petition for a preliminary injunction enjoining respondents Robert B. Carleson and Ellis P. Murphy in their respective capacities as Directors of the State Department of Social Welfare (SDSW) and the Department of Public Social Services, Los Angeles County (DPSS) from terminating or reducing welfare payments to recipients receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) whom DPSS knew, or had reason to know, did not read and understand English, but did read and understand Spanish, without giving them written notice of such proposed termination or reduction in Spanish.

Appellants are recipients of AFDC, a federal-state-county funded assistance program. (42 U.S.C. § 601 et seq.; Welf. & Inst. Code § 10950 et seq.) Under applicable rules and regulations, recipients of such assistance are entitled to receive ‘timely and adequate advance notice’ of any proposed action to terminate, suspend or reduce assistance. ‘Timely’ is defined to require that the notice be mailed at least 15 days before the action is to be taken. ‘Adequate advance notice’ is defined to require ‘a written notice that includes details of reasons for the proposed agency action, explanation of the individual's right to conference, his right to request a fair hearing and the circumstances under which assistance is continued if a fair hearing is requested.’ (HEW, Handbook of Public Assistance Administration, Part IV, § 6000; Fed.Reg. Vol. 36, No. 31, p. 3034.)

It was, and is, the essence of appellants' legal position that as to those recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children known to respondents to be literate in the Spanish language and not in the English language, notice of proposed reductions or terminations of grants-in-aid must be given in the Spanish language. Conversely, it is claimed that any notice given to such recipients in the English language is insufficient.

The sole issue presented by this appeal is whether or not the state and local agencies of government in the United States are constitutionally mandated by the requirements of due process of law or equal protection of the laws to give legally required notices in any language other than the official language of the jurisdiction.

We agree with the trial court that this question should be answered in the negative. The logical implications of an affirmative answer, even as limited by the factual context of the instant case, would be far reaching, fraught with impractical consequences, and pregnant with the seeds of unending trouble.

In Carmona v. Sheffield, 325 F.Supp. 1341 (D.C.1971), the court dismissed an action brought by a group of Spanish-speaking citizens who alleged that they were denied equal protection of the laws by virtue of the fact that the California Department of Human Resources Development conducted its affairs, including the printing of its forms, the interviewing of applicants and the hearing of appeals, in the English language. The following from the decision at page 1342 is apposite here:

‘In essence, plaintiffs' contention would require the State of California and, presumably, all other States and the Federal Government to provide forms and to conduct its affairs and proceedings in whatever language is spoken and understood by any person or group affected thereby. The breadth and scope of such a contention is so staggering as virtually to constitute its own refutation. If adopted in as cosmopolitan a society as ours, enriched as it has been by the immigration of persons from many lands with their distinctive linguistic and cultural heritages, it would virtually cause the processes of government to grind to a halt. The conduct of official business, including the proceedings and enactments of Congress, the Courts and administrative agencies, would become all but impossible. The application of Federal and State statutes, regulations and proceedings would be called into serious question.

‘For historical reasons too well-known to require review herein, the United States is an English-speaking country. Congress has seen fit to require at least an elementary understanding of the English language as a condition to naturalization, 8 U.S.C. § 1423(1).

‘The extent to which special consideration should be given to persons who have difficulty with the English language is a matter of public policy for consideration by the appropriate legislative bodies and not by the Courts.’

Appellants here seek to minimize the extent of the difficulties inherent in the promulgation of the rule of law they advocate by emphasizing the limited class of persons to which it would apply. The argument is unrealistic and fallacious. Every dictate of logic and equality of application would command that the same rule of law be applied to recipients of welfare under all others of the half dozen programs and to every recipient who is not literate in English, regardless of whether or not such illiteracy is known to the agency involved.

Indeed, the same logic would dictate the application of the same rule of law to all other forms of legal notice which must be given in order to satisfy the requirements of due process of law. And certainly it could not be limited in its application to only those persons who are illiterate in English but literate in Spanish.

Appellants have cited no authority tending to support the proposition that due process of law or equal protection of the laws requires agencies of government in the United States to use the language of the recipient in giving legal notices when the recipient is not literate in the official language of the jurisdiction. That appellants' reliance upon such decisions as Covey v. Somers, 351 U.S. 141, 76 S.Ct. 724, 100 L.Ed. 1021 is misplaced is sufficiently indicated by the following quotation from Nelson v. New York, 352 U.S. 103, 108, 77 S.Ct. 195, 198, 1 L.Ed.2d 171 an opinion authored by Chief Justice Warren:

‘Appellants make the further contention that the City officials should have known from the state of the records of the two parcels that mailed notice would probably be ineffective. That is, the fact that water charges were not paid while the much larger real estate taxes were paid should have indicated to the officials that something was amiss. They rely on Covey v. Town of Somers, supra. We cannot so hold. In the Covey Case, there were uncontroverted allegations that the taxpayer, who lived on the foreclosed property, was known by the officials of a small community to be an incompetent, unable to understand the meaning of any notice served upon her; no attempt was made to have a committee appointed for her person or property until after entry of judgment of foreclosure in an in rem proceeding. The affidavit of the assistant corporation counsel here states that there are more than 834,000 tax parcels in the City, and on the facts of this case the City cannot be held to a duty to determine why a taxpayer neglects some taxes while paying others.’

In Castro v. State of California, 2 Cal.3d 223, 85 Cal.Rptr. 20, 466 P.2d 244, the Supreme Court held that the provision of article II, section 1 of the California Constitution which conditions the right to vote upon the ability to read the English language as applied to persons otherwise qualified to vote who were literate in Spanish but not in English violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was, therefore, a constitutionally impermissible exercise of the state's power to regulate the franchise.

That decision does not support the contention of appellants in the case at bench. It is important to observe that in Castro the court found no duty on the part of the state to establish a bilingual electoral system. The court emphasized the large amount of information which was available in the Spanish language. The opinion contains no suggestion that there was any duty on the part of government to provide any information in Spanish.

As applied to the issues presented in the instant case, the following is the most significant language to be found in the Castro opinion (page 242, 85 Cal.Rptr. page 33, 466 P.2d page 257): ‘Whether such a radical reconstruction of our voting procedures is constitutionally compelled, however, is a separate question. It is clear that the goal of efficient and inexpensive administration, while praiseworthy, cannot justify depriving citizens of fundamental rights. But this does not imply that the state must not only provide all qualified citizens with an equivalent opportunity to exercise their right to vote, but must also provide perfect conditions under which such right is exercised. The equal protection clause does not require, for example, that California provide explanatory material (See Elec.Code § 3566) of varying degrees of complexity and sophistication even though the ability to comprehend an analysis of a technical ballot measure may vary widely among voters. Similarly, California is not required to adopt a bilingual electoral apparatus as a result of our decision today that it may no longer exclude Spanish literates from the polls. The state interest in maintaining a single language system is substantial and the provision of ballots, notices, ballot pamphlets, etc., in Spanish is not necessary either to the formation of intelligent opinions on election issues or to the implementation of those opinions through the mechanics of balloting. It reasonably may be assumed that newly enfranchised voters who are literate in Spanish can prepare themselves to vote through advance study of the sample ballots with the assistance of others capable of reading and translating them. In addition, such voters will have access to the translations of ballot provisions and electoral commentary afforded by the Spanish news media.’

We conclude that there is no requirement, constitutional or otherwise, that notice of a proposed termination or reduction in welfare benefits must be given in Spanish or in any other foreign language. We deem it not unreasonable to require that a person receiving welfare payments assume the burden of informing himself concerning the content and meaning of an official notice. To eliminate this minimal requirement of the recipients of welfare by imposing upon the agencies an intolerable and unreasonably expensive burden, especially in view of the doubtful benefit that would accrue, would be wholly unwarranted.

The order is affirmed.

HERNDON, Acting Presiding Justice.

FLEMING and COMPTON, JJ., concur.

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