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Wong v. Minnesota Department of Human Services

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 26, 2016

Eric Wong, Plaintiff,
v.
Minnesota Department of Human Services; Emily Johnson Piper, in her capacity as Commissioner of Minnesota Department of Human Services; Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department; and Rex A. Holzemer, in his capacity as Director of Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, Respondent.

          Eric Wong, pro se, for Plaintiff

         Patricia A. Sonnenberg, Assistant Attorney General, Minnesota Attorney General's Office, counsel for Defendants Minnesota Department of Human Services and Emily Johnson Piper, Commissioner of Minnesota Department of Human Services.

          Toni A. Beitz, Senior Assistant County Attorney, and Daniel D. Kaczor, Assistant County Attorney, Hennepin County Attorney's Office, counsel for Defendants Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department and Rex A. Holzemer, Director of Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DONOVAN W. FRANK United States District Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter initially came before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss brought by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (“DHS”) and Lucinda Jesson, Commissioner of Minnesota Department of Human Services (“the Commissioner”) (together, “State Defendants”) (Doc. No. 16); and a Motion to Dismiss brought by Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department (“HCHS”) and Rex A. Holzemer, Director of HCHS (“Holzemer”) (together, “County Defendants”) (Doc. No. 22). The Court granted the State Defendants' and the County Defendants' Motions. (Doc. No. 33.) The Order and Judgment was subsequently appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed in part and vacated in part and remanded the case back to this Court for further proceedings consistent with the Eighth Circuit's opinion. (Doc. Nos. 38, 39.)

         The Court requested that the parties submit letters detailing what issues remained to be considered following the Eighth Circuit's opinion. The parties agreed with the outline of the issues submitted by the State Defendants. (Doc. No. 44.) This opinion will address those issues.

         BACKGROUND

         DHS is a state agency that provides services for people with disabilities, including a financial support program called Minnesota Supplemental Aid (“MSA”).[1] (Doc. No. 1 (“Compl.”) ¶ 9.) HCHS is a county agency that administers MSA. (Id. ¶ 11.) Johnson Piper is the Commissioner of DHS. (Id. ¶ 10.) Holzemer is the Director of HCHS. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         Mr. Wong alleges that he is currently, and has been for two years prior to filing his Complaint, receiving SSI benefits from the federal government on the basis of his disability-Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by a “defect in the synthesis of collagen” that results in elasticity of joints, blood vessels, and organs. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 8 & Ex. A (“Decision of State Agency on Appeal”) at 2.)

         Mr. Wong began receiving general assistance benefits (“GA”) from the State in late 2005 and soon thereafter began the process of seeking SSI. (Compl. ¶ 32.) Upon being found eligible for SSI in March 2011, Mr. Wong became ineligible to receive GA payments. (Id. ¶ 34.) Mr. Wong alleges that he sought MSA benefits for medically necessary diets and housing assistance and that, in March 2011, HCHS initially denied MSA assistance based on a verbal screening process. (Id.) Mr. Wong further alleges that, in August 2011, he was again verbally denied MSA benefits after submitting a written application. (Id. ¶ 35.) Mr. Wong asserts that he sent “multiple written appeals” to HCHS supervisors and that, on August 31, 2012, HCHS reconsidered its position and approved Mr. Wong for the special diets benefit, but did not approve the shelter needy benefits. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36.)

         Mr. Wong alleges that he continued to appeal “the action and inactions of HCHS” and the denial of benefits. (Id. ¶¶ 37-43.) In April 2013, Mr. Wong alleges that the Defendants notified him of a reduction in benefits because of a reported increase in his federal benefits; this included completely closing his MSA account. (Id. ¶ 41.)

         Mr. Wong asserts that he appealed this decision in writing. (Id. ¶¶ 41, 43.) Mr. Wong alleges that HCHS was unresponsive. (Id.)

         On July 15, 2013, Mr. Wong filed an administrative appeal with DHS because of the alleged unresponsiveness of HCHS and lack of action on his appeal to reinstate MSA benefits. (Id. ¶ 44.) Mr. Wong also requested back payments of his special diets benefits under MSA and that reasonable accommodations be made in his application for shelter needy benefits so that a required Personal Case Assistance (“PCA”) assessment[2] could be waived. (Id.)[3] Two of these issues-the MSA back payments of special diet benefits and the reinstatement of his MSA case-were resolved before the administrative hearing took place. (Id. ¶ 45.)

         In his appeal, Mr. Wong alleged that the required PCA assessment would pose a danger to his physical health if given by someone who was not familiar with his rare genetic disorder. (Id. ¶ 44.) Mr. Wong instead requested that, as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), other “documentation of his limitations in major life activities” be accepted in lieu of a PCA assessment for proof of eligibility for shelter needy benefits. (Decision of State Agency on Appeal at 3.)

         On August 22, 2013, Human Services Judge Marion F. Rucker (the “HSJ”) held an evidentiary hearing pursuant to Minnesota Statute section 256.045, subdivision 3, [4]addressing the following issue on appeal: “Whether the County agency correctly denied [Mr. Wong's] request for the [MSA] housing allowance on the grounds, he does not meet the eligibility criteria.” (Id. at 2.) At the hearing, Mr. Wong entered several exhibits. (Doc. No. 19 (“Aba-Onu Aff.”) ¶ 3, Ex. B.)

         In a Decision of State Agency on Appeal (“HSJ Decision”), the HSJ found that a PCA assessment was required and that Mr. Wong was not eligible for shelter needy benefits without one, despite being otherwise qualified. (Decision of State Agency on Appeal at 2-5.) Specifically, the HSJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

5. It is the agency's position the appellant does not meet the eligibility criteria for a MSA shelter needy allowance because he did not relocate to the community from an institution or treatment center; is not eligible for Personal Care Assistant (PCA) services (he has not had a PCA assessment) and does not receive waiver services. However, he meets all other requirements. He is on a waiting list for subsidized housing, he is under age 65 and his shelter needy expenses exceed 40 percent of his income.
. . .
10. The appellant's eligibility for MSA is not at dispute. What is at dispute is whether he meets the eligibility criteria for a MSA shelter needy allowance. It is the representative's position an exception should be made for the requirement of having a PCA assessment because the appellant's diagnoses of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome proves his eligibility for PCA services. He further argued the appellant should be allowed reasonable accommodations under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge concludes reasonable accommodations can be made, if needed, when conducting a PCA assessment. However, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act does not negate the requirements set forth in law for a MSA shelter needy allowance or PCA assessments.
11. The judge concludes the appellant does not meet the eligibility criteria for a shelter needy allowance based on the law set forth under conclusions of law three. To qualify for the MSA needy shelter allowance, the appellant must receive PCA services. Pursuant to the law, an assessment for PCA services must be completed and the appellant must be determined eligible for services. There is no exception to this requirement. Therefore, the judge concludes the appellant does not qualify for the MSA shelter needy allowance. Accordingly, it is recommended the agency's decision not to approve the appellant for a MSA shelter needy allowance be upheld.

(Id. at 2, 4-5.) On October 30, 2013, the Commissioner adopted the HSJ's recommended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order (the “HSJ ...


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