Debra L. Sinclair,
Pro Se Star City, West Virginia
Attorney for the Petitioner
Charles A. Shaffer
Morgantown, West Virginia
Attorney for the Bureau of Child
JUSTICE ALBRIGHT delivered the Opinion of the Court.
JUSTICE DAVIS and JUSTICE MAYNARD dissent and reserve the right to file dissenting opinions.
1. The Department
of Human Services receives only those rights to recoupment of benefits paid
under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC) that an AFDC
recipient could assign: the recipient's right to support and maintenance.
That right to support and maintenance is dependent upon the ability of the
responsible relative to pay, and the determination of ability to pay must
be made through an administrative hearing or court proceeding. Syl.
Pt. 2, State ex rel. Dept. of Human Services by Adkins v. Huffman,
175 W.Va. 401, 332 S.E.2d 866 (1985).
2. The formal hearing
that this court has required in State ex rel. Department of Human Services
v. Huffman, 175 W. Va. 401, 332 S.E.2d 866 (1985), is placed by statute
in the West Virginia circuit courts and the family law masters, at such time
as a Child Advocate seeks a judgment for back support. Syl. Pt. 1, Fenton
v. Miller, 182 W. Va. 731, 391 S.E.2d 744 (1990).
3. Where a recipient of Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits has, in return for such benefits, assigned to the Department of Health and Human Resources support rights owed the recipient by a support obligor, and the Department of Health and Human Resources seeks reimbursement for such benefits from the support obligor, such obligor is entitled, upon request, to a hearing as envisioned by this Court in State ex rel. Dept. of Human Services by Adkins v. Huffman, 175 W.Va. 401, 332 S.E.2d 866 (1985), to determine the obligor's ability to pay reimbursement under federally mandated guidelines, unless the amount of such reimbursement was fixed by a prior court order or by agreement between the Department of Health and Human Resources and the obligor. A default judgment for the entire amount of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits, in which the ability of the obligor to pay the total amount of benefits was not determined, does not operate to fix the amount of reimbursement due to the Department of Health and Human Resources from such obligor.
This is an appeal by Frankie
L. Sinclair, Sr., (hereinafter Appellant or obligor)
from a July 21, 2000, order of the Circuit Court of Preston County granting
a judgment against the Appellant in the amount of $7,624.51 to reimburse the
State of West Virginia for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (hereinafter
(See footnote 1) benefits paid to the Appellant's wife,
Debra Sinclair, on behalf of the couple's children. The Appellant contends
that he was totally disabled and without income during the period in which
his wife, from whom he was separated, received AFDC benefits on behalf of
their children. The Appellant further contends that the lower court erred
in entering an order enforcing a judgment which was obtained in violation
of federal regulations and in the absence of a hearing, as contemplated by
State ex rel. Department of Human Services by Adkins v. Huffman, 175
W. Va. 401, 332 S.E.2d 866 (1985), and required by West Virginia law. Having
thoroughly evaluated this matter, we reverse the order of the Circuit Court
of Preston County and remand for further proceedings, including a Huffman
On March 26, 1992, a complaint
seeking to establish an amount of child support owed by the Appellant was
filed by Mrs. Sinclair, through the DHHR.
(See footnote 2) The complaint requested that
the Appellant be required to reimburse the DHHR, as Mrs. Sinclair's assignee,
for support paid on behalf of the children. The complaint was served on the
Appellant on April 8, 1992, and the Appellant failed to file an answer or
otherwise appear. Mrs. Sinclair thereafter filed a Motion for Default Judgment,
including a sworn statement by a representative of the DHHR indicating that
the DHHR had expended $9,346.00 in AFDC benefits on behalf of the children.
On January 22, 1993, a family
law master issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, finding that the
Appellant's employment status was unknown and that the State was entitled to reimbursement of $9,346.00 for benefits paid on
behalf of the children. The order did not contain discussion of the applicable
federal or state AFDC reimbursement directives. The family law master also
set child support at $249.00 per month. By order dated February 5, 1993, the
lower court adopted the recommended decision of the family law master, granting
the DHHR a judgment against the Appellant in the amount of $9,346.00 for reimbursement
of AFDC benefits.
On April 16, 1998, Mrs.
Sinclair filed a pro se complaint for divorce. The Appellant and Mrs. Sinclair
appeared at a family law master hearing on November 19, 1998, and presented
a Joint Parenting Plan. In December 9, 1998, findings of fact and conclusions
of law, the family law master recommended that no child support be ordered
in light of implementation of a Joint Parenting Plan. The family law master
noted the prior judgment for $9,346.00 reimbursement of AFDC benefits and
consolidated that 1993 civil action with the 1998 divorce case.
On January 24, 2000, the
DHHR filed a motion for decretal judgment requesting enforcement of the 1993
AFDC reimbursement order. The Appellant filed a written response, contending
that the 1993 order should not be enforced because a proceeding regarding
his ability, as required by Huffman, had not been conducted. Moreover,
the Appellant asserted that he was completely disabled and without income
during the period in which the AFDC benefits were paid. On May 25, 2000, the family
law master issued findings of fact and conclusions of law requiring the Appellant
to pay $7,624.51
(See footnote 3) in reimbursement for AFDC benefits, based
exclusively upon the 1993 judgment. The lower court adopted those findings
and conclusions by order dated July 21, 2000, from which the Appellant now
The actual amount of AFDC benefits paid to the assignor provides a ceiling
and not a floor on state recoupment.
Id. at 404, 332 S.E.2d at 870. In syllabus point two of Huffman, this Court explained:
The Department of Human Services receives only those rights to recoupment of benefits paid under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC) that an AFDC recipient could assign: the recipient's right to support and maintenance. That right to support and maintenance is dependent upon the ability of the responsible relative to pay, and the determination of ability to pay must be made through an administrative hearing or court proceeding.
Id. at 402, 332 S.E.2d at 868.
In Huffman, this
Court recognized that it was bound by federal regulations which establish
mandatory procedures for the determination of the amount of reimbursement
to which the DHHR would be entitled, and the Court explained that the regulations
provide an extensive list of factors to consider before collecting money
from the parent. 175 W. Va. at 405, 332 S.E.2d at 870-71. The applicable
federal regulation, 45 C.F.R. 302.50 (1984), provides that if there is no
preexisting court order regarding child support, the amount of reimbursement
to which the State would be entitled is to be determined through utilization
of a formula which meets the criteria set forth in the federal regulations.
At the time Huffman was decided, those determinative factors were set forth
in 45 C.F.R. 302.53. That section has been altered and is located at 45 C.F.R.
In Huffman, this
Court explained that West Virginia Code § 9-3-4 anticipates an
analogous situation in its provision that limits a parent's debt by the amount
established in any court order or final decree of divorce if the amount in
such order or decree is less than the amount of assistance paid. 175 W. Va. at 405, 332 S.E.2d at 871.
This Court noted that had Mr. and Mrs. Huffman been divorced, Mr. Huffman's
liability would have been determined by application of a statutory laundry
list of factors before fixing the amount of support and maintenance.
Id. at 406, 332 S.E.2d at 871. The Court explicitly stated that [a]n
individual should not be required to pay more than he is able. Id.
at 406, 332 S.E.2d 871. This Court concluded that prior to the DHHR collection
of reimbursement, Mr. Huffman was entitled to a hearing to determine
his ability to repay the AFDC benefits. Id. at 406, 332 S.E.2d
This Court reiterated the
essential nature of a Huffman hearing in Fenton v. Miller, 182
W. Va. 731, 391 S.E.2d 744 (1990), and addressed the issue of the appropriate
forum for conducting such a hearing. The Court explained as follows in Fenton:
[T]he opportunity for the Child Advocate to take the debtor's ability to pay into account occurs at the informal stage of the proceedings, when the defaulting debtor is invited into the Child Advocate office to explain his circumstances and work out an agreement. If the defaulting parent presents to the Child Advocate credible evidence of inability to pay any of the amount owed, that's where the matter should come to rest. However, if the Child Advocate finds the debtor uncooperative or has reason to believe that the information supplied by the debtor or the debtor's employer is not accurate, then the Child Advocate is entitled to file an action to collect the entire amount of the AFDC payments made. In this event, determination of whether the defaulting parent is able to pay is in the hands of the circuit court or the family law master, after notice and a full hearing.
182 W. Va. at 734, 391 S.E.2d at 747. The Fenton Court also cautioned
that [l]ike any other lawyer with settlement authority, the Child Advocate
need not go through the motions of attempting to squeeze blood from a stone
when the ultimate result is not in doubt. Id. at 735, 391 S.E.2d
at 748. The Court concluded as follows in syllabus point one of Fenton:
The formal hearing that this court has required in State ex rel. Department
of Human Services v. Huffman, 175 W. Va. 401, 332 S.E.2d 866 (1985), is
placed by statute in the West Virginia circuit courts and the family law masters,
at such time as a Child Advocate seeks a judgment for back support. 182
W. Va. at 732, 391 S.E.2d at 745.
In Jackson v. Rapps, 947 F.2d 332 (8th Cir. 1991), cert. denied 503 U.S. 960 (1992), several noncustodial parents brought a class action claiming that 45 C.F.R. § 302.53, now 45 C.F.R. § 302.56, required the State of Missouri, in seeking reimbursement of AFDC benefits, to consider the factors set forth in the federal regulation. 947 F.2d at 337. The parents also alleged that the State's failure to consider those factors constituted a violation of both the Supremacy Clause and the parents' due process rights. Id. at 335. The parents had been administratively ordered to pay the entire amount of AFDC support. The Eighth Circuit concluded that a noncustodial parent could not be administratively required to pay the entire amount due unless the calculations were properly founded upon factors set forth in the federal regulations, reasoning that the supremacy clause prevents the implementation of a reimbursement policy other than one in accordance with existing federal regulations. Our decision makes it unnecessary to reach the due process issue. 947 F.2d at 337.
This Court's conclusion is particularly
compelled where, as in the present case, there is an allegation that the DHHR
had knowledge of the parent's lack of income-earning potential during the time
in which the AFDC benefits were paid. Again, based upon the absence of a DHHR
brief, this Court cannot confirm that the DHHR presently concedes this point.
We remand this matter to
the lower court with directions to conduct a Huffman hearing for the
purpose of determining the Appellant's ability to pay. As the Huffman
Court explained, [b]efore the [DHHR] can collect any amount from [the
obligor] it must first determine the limits of [the obligor's] support obligation.
[The obligor] is entitled to a hearing to determine his ability to repay the
AFDC benefits. 175 W. Va. at 406, 332 S.E.2d at 871.
Effective October 13, 1989, as a condition of approval of its State plan,
the State shall establish one set of guidelines by law or by judicial or administrative
action for setting and modifying child support award amounts within the state.
(b) The State shall have procedures for making the guidelines available to all persons in the State whose duty it is to set child support award amounts.
(c) The guidelines established under paragraph (a) of this section must at a minimum
(1) Take into consideration all earnings and income of the absent parent:
(2) Be based on specific descriptive and numeric criteria and result in a computation of the support obligation; and
(3) Provide for the child(ren)'s health care needs, through health insurance coverage or other means.