Califano v. Westcott (1979)

Held that the different treatment of men and women mandated by part of AFDC constituted invidious discrimination against female wage earners by affording them less protection for their surviving spouses than is provided to male employees, and therefore violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Citation: 433 U.S. 76 (1979)
Date decided: Jun 25, 1979
Longer case name: Califano, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare v. Westcott et al.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Massachusetts
Topic(s):Due process, Public assistance, and Sex discrimination
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Henry A. Freedman (Center for Social Welfare Policy and Law) argued the cause for appellees in both cases. With him on the brief for appellees Westcott et al were Kenneth P. Neiman (Western Mass Legal Services) and Michael B. Trister. Solicitor General McCree filed a brief for the federal appellee in No.78-689.
Others involved:Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diana A. Steele, Phyllis N. Segal, and Nancy Duff Campbell filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance in both cases. Stephan Landsman, Anthony Touschner, Charles E. Guerrier, and Barbara Kaye Besser filed a brief for Cathy Stevens et al as amici curiae urging affirmance in No. 78-437.
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Case Importance

From Wikipedia: This ruling required an amendment to the Social Security Act in order to eliminate the burden of proof for widowers. The new language provided equal protection for both genders.

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



Section 407 of the Social Security Act, which governs the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Unemployed Father (AFDC-UF) program, provides benefits to families whose dependent children have been deprived of parental support because of the unemployment of the father, but does not provide such benefits when the mother becomes unemployed. This class action was instituted in Federal District Court against the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (Secretary) and the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare (Commissioner) by appellees, two couples (each having an infant son) who satisfy all the requirements for AFDC-UF benefits except for the requirement that the parent who is “unemployed” within the meaning of the Act and applicable regulations be the father. Appellees alleged that § 407 and its implementing regulations discriminate on the basis of gender in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court declared § 407 unconstitutional insofar as it establishes a classification which discriminates solely on the basis of sex, and determined that extension of the AFDC-UF program to all families with needy children where either parent is unemployed, rather than nullification of the program, was the proper remedial course. Subsequently, the District Court declined to modify its order so as to permit the Commissioner to pay benefits only to those families where needy children have been deprived of parental support by the unemployment of the family’s “principal wage-earner.” The Secretary challenges only the holding on the constitutionality of § 407, whereas the Commissioner challenges only the relief.


1. The gender classification of § 407 is not substantially related to the attainment of any important and valid statutory goals; it is, rather, part of the “baggage of sexual stereotypes,” Orr v. Orr, 440 U. S. 268, 440 U. S. 283, that presumes the father has the “primary responsibility to provide a home and its essentials,” Stanton v. Stanton, 421 U. S. 7, 421 U. S. 10, while the mother is the “center of home and family life.” Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U. S. 522, 419 U. S. 534 n. 15. Legislation that rests on such presumptions, without more, cannot survive scrutiny under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 443 U. S. 83-89.

(a) The constitutionality of § 407 cannot be sustained on the theory that, although it incorporates a gender distinction, it does not discriminate against women as a class because it affects family units, rather than individuals. Pp. 443 U. S. 83-85.

(b) Nor can § 407’s gender distinction survive constitutional scrutiny as being substantially related to achievement of an important governmental objective. It does not serve the statutory goal of providing aid for needy children, nor is it substantially related to achieving the alleged objective of the AFDC-UF program of reducing the incentive for fathers to desert in order to make their families eligible for assistance. Pp. 443 U. S. 85-89.

2. The District Court’s remedial order was proper. Pp. 443 U. S. 89-93.

(a) Since no party has argued that nullification of the AFDC-UF program is the proper remedial course, this Court would be inclined to consider that issue only if the power to order extension of the program were clearly beyond the constitutional competence of a federal district court. However, this Court’s previous decisions, which routinely have affirmed district court judgments ordering extension of federal welfare programs, suggest strongly that no such remedial incapacity exists. Pp.89-91.

(b) The District Court, in ordering that benefits be paid to families in which either the mother or the father is unemployed within the meaning of the Act, rather than accepting the “principal wage-earner” model suggested by the Commissioner, adopted the simplest and most equitable extension possible. Pp. 443 U. S. 91-93.

460 F. Supp. 737, affirmed.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:45
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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