Philpott v. Essex County Welfare Board (1973)

Under the Supremacy Clause, a State may not recover benefits retroactively paid to a beneficiary.

Citation: 409 U.S. 413 (1973)
Date decided: Jan 10, 1973
Longer case name: Philpott et al. v. Essex County Welfare Board
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: New Jersey
Topic(s):Disability: Benefits and Supremacy clause
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:George Charles Bruno argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioners. (Newark Legal Services Project,)
Others involved:Solicitor General Griswold, Deputy Solicitor General Friedman, Keith A. Jones, Wilmot R. Hastings, Edwin Yourman, and Arthur Abraham filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal.
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Case Importance

Landmark unanimous decision by Justice William 0. Douglas overturned previous unanimous NJ Supreme Court ruling.

Case Details

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


A Social Security Act provision, 42 U.S.C. 407, which prohibits subjecting federal disability insurance benefits and other benefits to any legal process, bars a State from recovering such benefits retroactively paid to a beneficiary, and in this case no exception can be implied on the ground that if the federal payments had been made monthly there would have been a corresponding reduction in the state payments. Pp. 415-417.

59 N. J. 75, 279 A. 2d 806, reversed.

From the opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Wilkes, 1 one of the petitioners, applied to respondent, one of New Jersey’s welfare agencies, for financial assistance [409 U.S. 413, 414] based upon need by reason of permanent and total disability. As a condition of receiving assistance, a recipient is required by New Jersey law to execute an agreement to reimburse the county welfare board for all payments received thereunder. 2 The purpose apparently is to enable the board to obtain reimbursement out of subsequently discovered or acquired real and personal property of the recipient.

Wilkes applied to respondent for such assistance in 1966 and he executed the required agreement. Respondent determined Wilkes’ monthly maintenance needs to be $108; and, finding that he had no other income, respondent fixed the monthly benefits at that amount and began making assistance payments, no later than January 1, 1967. The payments would have been less if Wilkes had been receiving federal disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, and respondent advised him to apply for those federal benefits.

In 1968 Wilkes was awarded retroactive disability insurance benefits under 223 of the Social Security Act, 70 Stat. 815, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 423, covering the period from May 1966 into the summer of 1968. Those benefits, calculated on the basis of $69.60 per month for 20 months and $78.20 per month for six months, [409 U.S. 413, 415] amounted to $1,864.20. A check in that amount was deposited in the account which Philpott holds as trustee for Wilkes. Under New Jersey law, we are told, the filing of a notice of such a reimbursement agreement has the same force and effect as a judgment. 59 N. J. 75, 80, 279 A. 2d 806, 809.

Respondent sued to reach the bank account under the agreement to reimburse. The trial court held that respondent was barred by the Social Security Act, 49 Stat. 624, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 407, from recovering any amount from the account. 3 104 N. J. Super. 280, 249 A. 2d 639. The Appellate Division affirmed. 109 N. J. Super. 48, 262 A. 2d 227. The Supreme Court reversed. 4 59 N. J. 75, 279 A. 2d 806. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted. 406 U.S. 917 .

On its face, the Social Security Act in 407 bars the State of New Jersey from reaching the federal disability payments paid to Wilkes. The language is all-inclusive: 5 “[N]one of the moneys paid or payable . . . under this subchapter shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process . . . .” The [409 U.S. 413, 416] moneys paid as retroactive benefits were “moneys paid . . . under this subchapter”; and the suit brought was an attempt to subject the money to “levy, attachment . . . or other legal process.”

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:56
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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