Traverse City Record-Eagle

Michigan

March 28, 2012

Court: Welfare recipients wrongly cut

LANSING — Michigan can't take away welfare benefits under a five-year federal limit if recipients still qualify for cash assistance under state law, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey Neithercut said in his ruling that state Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan "exceeded her authority" by ending benefits for more than 11,000 families last October because they had reached the federal limit even though they remained eligible under state limits.

Michigan lawmakers in 2007 adopted a four-year limit that had several exceptions, then approved stricter enforcement last year.

The four-year limit doesn't include months where someone with a disability can't work, or where family members are caring for a disabled spouse or child and can't hold a job outside the home, but those months count under the federal limit. Neithercut ruled that the state can't deny benefits to those who haven't reached the four-year state cap.

The law also exempts from the state limit recipients 65 or older who don't qualify for Social Security benefits or receive very low benefits, and temporarily exempts some recipients who are domestic violence victims.

Department spokesman Dave Akerly had no immediate comment, although the DHS has appealed some of Neithercut's earlier rulings in the case. The state had anticipated saving $60 million by changing its policies.

"We'll clearly have more to say later, but it would be unfair without a full review of everything the judge put out today in his opinion," Akerly said.

The ruling pleased the Saginaw-based Center for Civil Justice, which represented the families who brought the lawsuit.

"Legislators and (Gov. Rick Snyder) consistently have said they wanted to protect families that cannot support themselves through employment because of serious disabilities, but the 60-month time limit policy eliminated that protection," said Jackie Doig, the center's senior staff attorney.

"Under this ruling, the Legislature's intent will be carried out," she added in a statement.

The ruling would make many of those 11,000 families eligible again for assistance until they reach the state's four-year limit. They could be eligible for a much longer period if they continue to fall under the law's exemptions.

Many families with disabled children, parents or spouses had said they were worried their loved ones wouldn't get the care they needed if the caregiver in the family had to work outside the home.

Neithercut said state lawmakers clearly wanted to exempt the months those caregivers were needed at home or that recipients were disabled from counting toward the four-year limit, since "attempting to force ... (those families) into independence would undoubtedly fail and would only lead to hardship." "The Legislature of Michigan recognized the futility of any such limitation, but the director has decided to do a run-around of the Legislature," the judge wrote. When Corrigan decided those recipients should be limited to five years of benefits under the federal limit regardless of the exemptions in the state limit, "she interfered with the authority of the Michigan Legislature," he added.

Niethercut denied the department's request that sanctions be imposed on the plaintiffs.

Around 100 families lost cash assistance last fall because they had reached the four-year limit. The ruling doesn't affect them.

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