COUNTY OF SAN MATEO v. JENSEN

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Court of Appeal, First District, Division 1, California.

COUNTY OF SAN MATEO, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Dell Ward JENSEN et al., Defendants and Appellants.

A032125.

Decided: July 23, 1987

John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., Steve White, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., Gloria DeHart, Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen., Mary A. Roth, Deputy Atty. Gen., San Francisco, for plaintiff/respondent. John J. Hartford, Redwood City for defendants/appellants.

The County of San Mateo (hereafter respondent or the County) filed an action against appellants, parents of a minor declared a ward of the juvenile court (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 602) and committed to a group home, seeking child support and reimbursement of Aid to Families of Dependent Children (hereafter AFDC) funds used to support the minor child.  (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 11350.) 1

On August 20, 1984, the superior court was requested to take judicial notice of the pleadings in both the juvenile court case which had resulted in the commitment of the minor to the Stockton Children's Home and the present action for reimbursement.   On September 23, 1984, appellants moved for judgment (Code Civ.Proc., § 631.8), and asked that certain matters be deemed admitted due to the County's alleged failure to adequately respond to requests for admission.   The court refused to deem the matters admitted, but granted appellants' motion to have the requests for admissions, the County's responses thereto, and subsequently filed notices of default made part of the record.

The court declined to render judgment until all evidence had been presented.   At the close of the County's case in chief, the court ordered submission of further written points and authorities, and took appellants' motion for judgment under submission.

On November 19, 1984, the superior court rendered its decision denying appellants' motion and awarding judgment to respondent for $2,511 in arrearages and $93 per month current support as long as the child continues in his current placement.   The County's request for a wage assignment was denied without prejudice.   Commencing November 1, 1985, appellants were ordered to pay the sum of $125 per month ($93 current support plus $32 arrearages.)

Appellants' minor child was declared a ward of the juvenile court on August 11, 1982, pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 602.   Custody of the minor child was removed from appellants and he was placed with a juvenile probation officer.   The child was not confined to a juvenile detention facility, however;  instead, he was placed in the Children's Home of Stockton, and then the EE Residential Group Home, both nonsecure facilities.   State AFDC funds were used to support the child.

The trial court awarded respondent reimbursement for the costs of care of the child pursuant to section 11350,2 which mandates compulsory reimbursement from “the family” of AFDC funds paid to a foster care facility.   (County of Ventura v. Stark (1984) 158 Cal.App.3d 1112, 1117, 205 Cal.Rptr. 139;  County of San Mateo v. Booth (1982) 135 Cal.App.3d 388, 397, 185 Cal.Rptr. 349.)   The central issue presented in this appeal is whether collection from appellants of the AFDC funds used to support their minor child would constitute a violation of the equal protection clause under the principles announced by our state high court in In re Jerald C. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 1, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917 (hereafter Jerald C.).

In Jerald C., supra, the minor child was declared a ward of the juvenile court pursuant to section 602, placed in custody at juvenile hall, and subsequently committed to the California Youth Authority.  (36 Cal.3d at p. 4, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917.)   The County of Santa Clara sought reimbursement pursuant to section 903 (prior to its amendment).   While acknowledging that “[s]tatutes requiring responsible relatives to reimburse governmental agencies for support have been sustained against claims of denial of equal protection” (id. at p. 5, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917;  citing Swoap v. Superior Court (1973) 10 Cal.3d 490, 111 Cal.Rptr. 136, 516 P.2d 840, and In re Ricky H. (1970) 2 Cal.3d 513, 86 Cal.Rptr. 76, 468 P.2d 204), the court observed:  “However, relative responsibility statutes have been invalidated when the government charges were not for support which the relative refused or failed to provide but for the cost of maintaining public institutions for public benefit [¶] The cases have reasoned that when incarceration or commitment is for the protection of society, it is arbitrary to assess the relatives for the expense.”  (Jerald C., supra, 36 Cal.3d at p. 6, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917.)

Relying on its earlier decision in Dept. of Mental Hygiene v. Kirchner (1964) 60 Cal.2d 716, 720, 36 Cal.Rptr. 488, 388 P.2d 720, the court concluded that the purposes of confinement and treatment or care in commitments pursuant to section 602 encompass “ ‘the protection of society from the confined person․  Hence the cost of maintaining the state institution, including provision of adequate care for its inmates, cannot be arbitrarily charged to one class of society;  such assessment violates the equal protection clause.’ ”  (In re Jerald C., supra, 36 Cal.3d at p. 8, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917;  see also Pennell v. City of San Jose (1986) 42 Cal.3d 365, 372, 228 Cal.Rptr. 726, 721 P.2d 1111.)   Additionally, the court recognized that “the common law duty to support minor children does not authorize the state to recover the costs of confinement imposed for the protection of society and the minor and his rehabilitation.”  (In re Jerald C., supra, 36 Cal.3d at p. 10, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917;  see also County of Ventura v. Stark (1984) 158 Cal.App.3d 1112, 1118, 205 Cal.Rptr. 139.)

Respondent seeks to distinguish Jerald C. from the case at bench on two grounds:  first, the statutory basis for reimbursement—in Jerald C., section 903 was declared unconstitutional, while here the County seeks to recover AFDC benefits under authority of section 11350—and second, the fact that appellants' child was placed in a nonsecure, private group home rather than confined in juvenile hall, a secure facility like Jerald C.   Respondent stresses that under the current statutory scheme AFDC funds cannot be used to support juveniles confined in secure institutions, and thus the placement of appellants' minor in group homes was not for the benefit of society as in Jerald C.

 The focus of our inquiry must be upon whether the purposes of the minor's confinement include the protection of society.  (Jerald C., supra, 36 Cal.3d 1, 7, 201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917.)  “As we noted in Terminal Plaza Corp. v. City and County of San Francisco (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 892, 910, 223 Cal.Rptr. 379:  ‘The basis for the equal protection violation is that society as a whole benefits from the incarceration;  ․’  ‘It is a denial of equal protection when the government seeks to charge the cost of operation of a state function, conducted for the benefit of the public, to a particular class of persons.  (Norwood v. Baker (1898) 172 U.S. 269, 279 et seq. [19 S.Ct. 187, 190 et seq., 43 L.Ed. 443, 447 et seq.,];  In re Jerald C. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 1, 6;  [201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917];  Dept. of Mental Hygiene v. Kirchner (1964) 60 Cal.2d 716, 723 [36 Cal.Rptr. 488, 388 P.2d 720, 20 A.L.R.3d 353] (remanded 380 U.S. 194 [85 S.Ct. 871, 13 L.Ed.2d 753] );  sub. opn. 62 [Cal.2d] 586 [43 Cal.Rptr. 329, 400 P.2d 321, 20 A.L.R.3d 361].)  “To charge the cost of operation of state functions conducted for public benefit to one class of society is arbitrary and violates the basic constitutional guarantee of equal protection of law.  [Citation.]”  In re Jerald C., supra, 36 Cal.3d at p. 6 [201 Cal.Rptr. 342, 678 P.2d 917].)’  (Cunningham v. Superior Court (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 336, 348 [222 Cal.Rptr. 854].)”  (County of Marin v. Pezok (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 1441, 1445, 236 Cal.Rptr. 56.)

Although the reasons underlying placement of appellants' minor child were the subject of some controversy at trial, the legal basis for the commitment is undisputed.   The minor was initially referred to the juvenile court because of emotional disturbance and his sexual molestation of a sibling.   He subsequently committed a violation of Vehicle Code section 10852 (unlawful taking of a vehicle without consent of the owner), which “led to his becoming a ward of the Court․”  The commitment was pursuant to section 602 and, according to the probation officer in charge of placement, was for three reasons:  protection of the public;  rehabilitation of the minor, and protection of the family.

Thus, among the obvious objectives served by the placement was the protection of society from possible future criminal acts by the minor.   His rehabilitation also benefits society, even as it indirectly promotes the protection of his family.   A second critical factor is the involuntary nature of the placement, which resulted directly from juvenile proceedings rather than voluntary or consensual actions on the part of the parents.   Nor was it due, as far as we can tell from the record, to any failure or refusal by appellants to provide support for their child.

The fact that respondent seeks reimbursement of AFDC funds pursuant to section 11350 is no basis for distinguishing Jerald C. from the present case.   As we recently observed in County of Marin v. Pezok, supra, 190 Cal.App.3d 1441, 1445–1446, 236 Cal.Rptr. 56, “it is the purpose and derivation of the commitment rather than the source of the funds used to pay for it which is dispositive in an equal protection analysis.”   Here, as in Pezok, the commitment resulted from commission of criminal acts and was imposed under section 602 for the benefit of the public.  (Ibid; see also County of Merced v. Dominguez (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1513, 1517, 231 Cal.Rptr. 455.)   And the fact that Children's Home of Stockton and EE Residential Group Home are not secure facilities does not alter the essential purpose of the detention to protect the public.  (Id. at pp. 1517–1518, 231 Cal.Rptr. 455.)   Accordingly, under the compulsion of Jerald C., we conclude that the County is precluded from obtaining reimbursement from appellants for the AFDC funds used to care for their minor child.  (Ibid.) 3

 Appellants also request an award of attorney's fees and costs pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5.   Without supporting argument, they merely offer the summary argument that their action has conferred a “significant benefit, both pecuniary and nonpecuniary,” on the general public.

We disagree.   All benefits conferred by this litigation were private rather than public.   Appellants have merely furthered their own pecuniary interests by successfully challenging the County's right to reimbursement.   Lack of a significant public benefit thus defeats appellants' claim to attorney's fees under Terminal Plaza Corp. v. City and County of San Francisco, (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 892, 914, 223 Cal.Rptr. 379;  Jutkowitz v. Bourns, Inc., (1981) 118 Cal.App.3d 102, 113, 173 Cal.Rptr. 248.

The judgment is reversed.   Appellants' request for attorney's fees is denied.   Costs on appeal are awarded to appellants.

FOOTNOTES

1.   All further statutory references are to the Welfare and Institutions Code unless otherwise indicated.

2.   In pertinent part, section 11350 states:  “In any case of separation ․ of a parent or parents from a child ․ which results in aid under this chapter [Chapter 2] being granted to such family, the noncustodial parent or parents shall be obligated to the county for an amount equal to:  ․ (b) The amount of aid paid to the family during such period of separation ․ limited by such parent's reasonable ability to pay during that period in which aid was granted;  ․ The district attorney shall take appropriate action pursuant to this section in the superior court of the county which provided aid under this chapter.”

3.   In light of this conclusion, we need not address appellants' contention that the trial court erred by denying their request to have certain matters deemed admitted.

NEWSOM, Associate Justice.

RACANELLI, P.J., and HOLMDAHL, J., concur.