Wyman v. James (1971)

The home visit required by a state in connection with the AFDC program is a reasonable administrative tool and does not violate any right guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Citation: 400 U.S. 309 (1971)
Date decided: Jan 12, 1971
Longer case name: Wyman, Commissioner of New York Department of Social Services, et al. v. James
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: New York
Topic(s):Fourteenth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Home visitation, and Public assistance
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:Jonathan Weiss (Mobilization for Youth Legal Services) argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was David Gilman.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Stephen F. Gordon and Ernest Fleischman for the Social Service Employees Union Local 371, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, and by Lois P. Sheinfeld for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
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Case Importance

Michele Estrin Gilman, “Privacy as a Luxury Not for the Poor: Wyman v. James”, in “The Poverty Law Canon: Exploring the Major Cases”, edited by Failinger & Rosser, University of Michigan Press, 2016: “In the spring of 1969, Barbara James walked into a neighborhood legal services office and spoke to attorney David Gilman. She told him that she received welfare to support herself and her son Maurice. Her caseworker had recently advised her that she had to submit to a home visit as part of the welfare recertification process…. [B]ut she did not want a caseworker coming to her door. She had attended meetings of a welfare rights organization, where she learned that she might be able to fight the home visit policy. James’concerns were widely shared among welfare mothers. At community meetings, welfare recipients regularly told Gilman that caseworkers were searching their homes and ‘counting toothbrushes to see if there was a man in the house.’ While some caseworkers were perfunctory in their searches of applicants’ homes, others were very aggressive. James asked Gilman to help her fight the city’s home visit policy. He took the case, which ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court. In Wyman v. James, the Court upheld New York’s home visit policy and cemented the differential treatment between the privacy rights of the poor and other Americans, a divide that continues today.” Robert D. Shearer Jr., “Constitutional Law – Wyman v. James: New Restrictions Placed upon the Individual’s Right to Privacy”, 21 DePaul L.Rev.1081 (1972) https://via.library.depaul.edu/law-review/vol21/iss4/9: “This decision is significant because it indicates that the Supreme Court considers the public welfare ‘home visit’ an exception to the general search warrant requirement, which necessitates the securing of a warrant for administrative searches and seizures….. Wyman obscures the development of a prior distinct trend away from a property-criminal law concept in favor of a right of privacy standard, as the primary basis in the adjudication of an individual’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as set forth in the fourth amendment….”

Case Details

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



New York’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, stressing “close contact” with beneficiaries, requires home visits by caseworkers as a condition for assistance “in order that any treatment or service tending to restore [beneficiaries] to a condition of self-support and to relieve their distress may be rendered and . . . that assistance or care may be given only in such amount and as long as necessary.” Visitation with a beneficiary, who is the primary source of information to welfare authorities as to eligibility for assistance, is not permitted outside working hours, and forcible entry and snooping are prohibited. Appellee, a beneficiary under the AFDC program, after receiving several days’ advance notice, refused to permit a caseworker to visit her home and, following a hearing and advice that assistance would consequently be terminated, brought this suit for injunctive and declaratory relief, contending that a home visitation is a search and, when not consented to or supported by a warrant based on probable cause, would violate her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The District Court upheld appellee’s constitutional claim.


The home visitation provided for by New York law in connection with the AFDC program is a reasonable administrative tool and does not violate any right guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 315-326.

(a) Home visitation, which is not forced or compelled, is not a search in the traditional criminal law context of the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 317-318.

(b) Even assuming that the home visit has some of the characteristics of a traditional search, New York’s program is reasonable, as it serves the paramount needs of the dependent child; enables the State to determine that the intended objects of its assistance benefit from its aid and that state funds are being properly used; helps attain parallel federal relief objectives; stresses privacy by not unnecessarily intruding on the beneficiary’s rights in her home; provides essential information not obtainable through secondary sources; is conducted, not by a law enforcement [400 U.S. 309, 310] officer, but by a caseworker; is not a criminal investigation; and (unlike the warrant procedure, which necessarily implies criminal conduct) comports with the objectives of welfare administration. Pp. 318-324.

(c) The consequence of refusal to permit home visitation, which does not involve a search for violations, is not a criminal prosecution but the termination of relief benefits. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 ; See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 , distinguished. Pp. 324-325.

303 F. Supp. 935, reversed and remanded.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 01:00
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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