You asked us to review a judgment entered by the Ohio Court of Common Pleas, Hocking
County, Juvenile Division, in a case involving Drew P~, a recipient of child's SSI
benefits, and provide the field office with appropriate language with which to respond,
if necessary, to the Court. We have attached proposed language that can be used in
a letter to the court. Below we explain the basis for that proposed language.
Drew P~, who was born in 1992, was determined to be eligible for Supplemental Security
Income (SSI). Drew's father, Duane C~, was named as his representative payee. According
to the information we received, Drew lived with Mr. C~ until early 2008. In March
2008, the Agency informed Drew that his benefits were being suspended because he had
become a resident of the Hocking Valley (Ohio) Community Residential Center (Hocking
Valley Center). The Hocking Valley Center is a community correctional facility operated
by the Ohio Department of Youth Services, whose purpose is to rehabilitate juvenile
offenders. See http://www.dys.ohio.gov/dysweb/CommCorrectionalFacilities.aspx . It has a capacity of twenty-two beds. Id. According to information compiled by the Ohio University Department of Social Work
in 2009, the Hocking Valley Center was opened in 1993 as an alternative to incarceration.
http://www.socialwork.ohiou.edu/field/agencies/agency_detail.php?AID=24 . It accepts non-violent adolescent felony offenders between the ages of twelve and
On May 29, 2008, the Court of Common Please, Hocking County, Ohio, Juvenile Division
issued a judgment ordering SSA to reinstate Drew's benefits effective March 19, 2008.
The judgment stated that the benefits were to be paid "on behalf of Drew P~ to Patricia
C~" so that Patricia could maintain a home for Drew to return to when he is released
from the Center. According to the information we received, Patricia is Drew's grandmother.
She has never been his representative payee. We do not know how long Drew was ordered
to stay in the Hocking Valley Center, or whether he remains there.
I. Because Drew is a resident of a public institution, he is ineligible for SSI.
The Social Security Act (Act) prohibits residents of public institutions from receiving
SSI. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(e)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.211(a); POMS SI 00520.001. An "institution" is any establishment that provides food, shelter, and some additional
treatment or services to four or more persons whoa re not related to the proprietor.
20 C.F.R. § 416.201; POMS SI 00520.001(B)(2)-(3). "Public institutions" include institutions operated and controlled by
a state or a political subdivision of a state, such as a county. 20 C.F.R. § 416.201;
POMS SI 00520.001(B)(4). A "resident" of a public institution is a person who receives substantially
all of his food and shelter from the public institution, whether or not he is receiving
other services from the institution. 20 C.F.R. § 416.201; POMS SI 00520.001(B)(5). The person loses his eligibility for SSI effective the first full month that
he becomes a resident of a public institution, and continues to be ineligible for
any month throughout which he remains a resident of the public institution. 42 U.S.C.
§ 1382(e)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.211(a); POMS SI 00520.001(C)(1)(b), (C)(3).
Residents of some publicly operated community residences that serve no more than sixteen
people may remain eligible for SSI. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(e)(1)(c); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.201,
416.211(c)(1); POMS SI 00520.500. However, this exception applies only if the residence is not a "jail or other facility
where the personal freedom of anyone who lives there is restricted because that person
. . . is being held under court order." 20 C.F.R. § 416.211(c)(5).
Because the Hocking Valley Center is operated by the state of Ohio, and provides both
residential care and additional services to its residents, it is a public institution
within the meaning of the Act, and Drew is a resident of a public institution within
the meaning of the Act. Because the Hocking Valley Center is a correctional facility
for juvenile offenders, it does not qualify for the community residence exception.
POMS SI 00520.500(C)(2)(a); Washington Department of Health and Human Services v. Chater, 163 F.3d 1129, 1136 (9th Cir. 1998) (children in state-operated group homes for
juvenile offenders are ineligible for SSI pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.211(c)(5)).
Consequently, Drew lost his eligibility for SSI as of the first full month in which
he resided at the Hocking Valley Center, and remains ineligible until the month in
which he is released. 20 C.F.R. § 416.211(a).
Even if the Act did not bar Drew from receiving benefits while he is a resident of
the Hocking Valley Center, the Ohio Court of Common Pleas lacks jurisdiction to enforce
the order against SSA, under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution
and the doctrine of sovereign immunity. United States Const. Art. VI, clause 2; Hercules Inc. v. United States, 516 U.S. 417, 422-23 (1996); United States v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 252 F.3d 816, 825 (6th Cir. 2001); see also Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. United States, 490 F.3d 50, 61 (1st Cir. 2007). The limited waiver of sovereign immunity in the
Social Security Act is unambiguously limited to individuals who have exhausted their
administrative appeals remedies. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Such a waiver of
sovereign immunity is strictly construed in the Agency's favor. United States v. Mitchell, 445 U.S. 535, 538-39 (1980); Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273, 287 (1983). Consequently, the Agency has not relinquished its sovereignty
and has not submitted to the jurisdiction of the Ohio courts. The Ohio Court of Common
Please cannot override the Agency's regulations that establish eligibility for SSI.
II. The Commissioner determines who should manage a beneficiary's benefits and how
those benefits should be managed.
Even if the Ohio court had authority over SSA in general, it could not direct SSA
with respect to the payment of benefits to a particular representative payee. Congress
granted the power to determine who should manage a beneficiary's benefits and how
they should be managed to the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C.§ 405(j). That power includes
the right to appoint or remove a representative payee, and the right to direct the
representative payee. Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.625 (stating what information a representative payee must report
to the Agency); 416.635 (directing the use of benefits by a representative payee,
and specifying the reporting responsibilities of a representative payee); 416.640
(specifying how a representative payee should use the beneficiary's benefits); 416.645
(directing the investment of conserved funds by a representative payee); 416.650 (stating
circumstances under which the Agency will remove a representative payee and appoint
a successor payee); 416.665 (requiring a representative payee to account for the use
of benefits and provide information to the Agency regarding the beneficiary). As explained
above, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the Agency has not relinquished its
sovereignty or submitted to the jurisdiction of state courts. Consequently, state
courts lack the authority and the jurisdiction to designate a representative payee
for purposes of the Social Security Act, or to direct the disposition of benefits
certified to a representative payee. Only the Social Security Administration has the
discretion and authority to designate, change, and enforce the duties of a representative
payee. 42 U.S.C. § 1383(a)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 601-416.665; Kriegbaum v. Katz, 909 F.2d 70, 74 (2d Cir. 1990); McGrath v. Weinberger, 541 F.2d 249 (10th Cir. 1976).
In addition, the Act protects a beneficiary's right to receive SSI benefits by prohibiting
the assignment or attachment of benefits:
The right of any person to any future payment under this title shall not be transferable
or assignable, at law or in equity, and none of the moneys paid or payable or rights
existing under this title shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment,
or other legal process, or the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law 42 U.S.C.
§§ 407(a), 1383(d)(1). "Legal process" means any "judicial or quasi-judicial mechanism
. . . by which control over property passes from one person to another[.]" Washington Dep't of Social and Health Services v. Guardianship Estate of Danny Keffeler, 537 U.S. 371, 385 (2003). That includes court orders. POMS GN 02410.001. The anti-assignment provision thus constitutes a "broad bar against the use of any
legal process to reach all social security benefits," and is intended to protect the
rights and benefits from all attempts to use legal process to alienate them, unless
Congress has specifically indicated otherwise. Philpott v. Essex County Welfare Board, 409 U.S. 413, 417 (1973).
For these reasons, even if Drew were not ineligible for SSI as a resident of a public
institution, the Ohio Court of Common Please cannot override the Agency's regulations
regarding the appointment of Drew's representative payee, and how that representative
payee should manage his benefits. Because Patricia C~ is not Drew's representative
payee, the state court's judgment constitutes a legal process assigning control of
Drew's benefits to someone other than the representative payee, and would constitute
a taking by judicial order of identifiable Social Security benefits. By issuing the
judgment, the state court has assumed authority to decide who shall manage Drew's
benefits, and how they shall be managed, a power the Congress has granted exclusively
to the Commissioner. Thus, even if the court's direction of the benefits is intended
to benefit Drew, it is still invalid, because state courts do not have jurisdiction
and are prohibited under 42 U.S.C. § 407 from directing how and to whom benefits will
Drew became ineligible for SSI as of the first full month that he became a resident
of the Hocking Valley Center, and he remains ineligible until he is released. A sample
letter to Judge W~ is attached to this opinion.
Donna L. C~
Regional Chief Counsel, Region V
Julie L. B~
Assistant Regional Counsel