Goldberg v. Kelly

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Goldberg v. Kelly
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 13, 1969
Decided March 23, 1970
Full case name Goldberg, Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York v. Kelly, et al.
Citations 397 U.S. 254 (more)
90 S. Ct. 1011; 25 L. Ed. 2d 287; 1970 U.S. LEXIS 80
Prior history Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires a full evidentiary hearing before a recipient of certain government benefits is deprived of such benefits.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brennan, joined by Douglas, Harlan, White, Marshall
Dissent Burger
Dissent Stewart
Dissent Black
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), is a case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires an evidentiary hearing before a recipient of certain government benefits (welfare) can be deprived of such benefits. The individual losing benefits is not entitled to a trial, but is entitled to an oral hearing before an impartial decision-maker, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and the right to a written opinion setting out the evidence relied upon and the legal basis for the decision.[1] The case was decided 5-3. (There was a vacancy on the Court, owing to the resignation of Abe Fortas.)


Federal welfare was administered through the newly created Department of Health Education and Welfare.
  1. Does the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution demand a hearing before the termination of statutorily defined welfare benefits?
  2. Does a pre-termination “informal hearing” in a welfare case satisfy the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment?
  3. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a full “evidentiary hearing” prior to termination of welfare benefits?
  4. Does the welfare recipient have the right to counsel or an attorney at an evidentiary hearing?
  5. To what extent does the welfare administrative decision maker need to be impartial?


1. Welfare benefits are a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them and procedural due process is applicable to their termination.[2]

2. The interest of the eligible recipient in the uninterrupted receipt of public assistance, which provides him with essential food, clothing, housing, and medical care, coupled with the State's interest that his payments not be erroneously terminated, clearly outweighs the State's competing concern to prevent any increase in its fiscal and administrative burdens.[3]

3. A pre-termination evidentiary hearing is necessary to provide the welfare recipient with procedural due process.[4]

(a) Such hearing need not take the form of a judicial or quasi-judicial trial, but the recipient must be provided with timely and adequate notice detailing the reasons for termination, and an effective opportunity to defend by confronting adverse witnesses and by presenting his own arguments and evidence orally before the decision maker.[5]

(b) Counsel need not be furnished at the pre-termination hearing, but the recipient must be allowed to retain an attorney if he so desires.[6]

(c) A decision must rest “solely on the legal rules and evidence adduced at the hearing".[7]

(d) The decision maker need not file a full opinion or make formal findings of fact or conclusions of law but should state the reasons for his determination and indicate the evidence he relied on.[8]

(e) The decision maker must be impartial, and although prior involvement in some aspects of a case will not necessarily bar a welfare official from acting as decision maker, he should not have participated in making the determination under review.[8][9]


Federal involvement in welfare was designed to end the poverty of big city tenements, among other places.

The Goldberg decision set the parameters for procedural due process when dealing with the deprivation of a government benefit or entitlement. The Court held that a person has a property interest in certain government entitlements, which require notice and a hearing before a governmental entity (either state or federal) takes them away. Government-provided entitlements from the modern welfare state increased substantially in the United States during the 20th century. The Goldberg court decided that such entitlements (e.g., welfare payments, government pensions, professional licenses), are a form of "new property" that require pre-deprivation procedural protection, doing away with the traditional distinction between rights and privileges.

Growth of federal involvement in funding and administrating welfare began under President John F. Kennedy.

In Goldberg v. Kelly the court majority stated that welfare benefits are property[10] and articulated the general proposition that welfare enjoys the same legal protection as other property.[11] Justice William Brennan noted that welfare benefits are ‘‘a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them,’’ adding that ‘‘it may be realistic today to regard welfare entitlements as more like ‘property’ than a ‘gratuity’’’[12] Here Brennan cited Charles A. Reich’s book ‘‘The New Property’’.[11] The prohibition against deprivation of property without due process of law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution therefore applies to benefits termination.[11]

This specific case dealt with 20 individuals who had been suspected of welfare fraud by New York City officials and were then denied municipal benefits.[1] The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice William Brennan, while dissenting opinions were filed by Justices Hugo Black and Potter Stewart and Chief Justice Warren Burger. Brennan said at his retirement that he considered it the most important case he'd ever decided; conservative columnist David Frum once opined that the case was a major factor in New York City's 1975 budget meltdown.[1][1]

John Kelly, acting on behalf of New York residents receiving financial assistance either under the federally-assisted program for Families with Dependent Children or under New York State's home relief program, challenged the constitutionality of procedures for notice and termination of such aid. Although originally offering no official notice or opportunity for hearings to those whose aid was scheduled for termination, the State of New York implemented a hearing procedure after commencement of Kelly's litigation.

Welfare expanded under the Great Society programs of Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.

The decision in Goldberg v. Kelly answered questions which had been unresolved in the previous Supreme Court cases of Rudder v. United States [13] and Thorpe v. Housing Authority of Durham.[14][15] Those cases involved questions of denial of tenancy or eviction in governmental housing projects. Goldberg established that state action terminating public assistance payments to a particular recipient prior to an evidentiary hearing violates due process.[16] Goldberg was contrasted to the First Circuit decision in Hahn v. Gottlieb [17] where it was determined that tenants were not entitled to a hearing in front of the Federal Housing Authority under the due process clause, even though there was significant government involvement. The Supreme Court distinguished Goldberg v. Kelly on two grounds. The first was that the governmental interest involved was different because the government functions primarily as “an insurer for private investors.” [18][19] The significance of this distinction is that the government’s “freedom to pursue social goals is limited by the need to avoid excessive losses.” [19][20] The second basis of distinction was based on the interest of the tenants: the tenants were not “entitled” to low rents in the same sense that recipients of welfare in Goldberg and that a rental increase is not as serious an injury.[21]

It has been noted that the precarious financial status of those in poverty may preclude an extensive litigation process, despite the decision in Goldberg. The abstention doctrine presupposes the adequacy of state process to protect constitutional rights. Poor people may lack the funds to pursue a court hearing process.[22][23][24] One solution has been through the use of a preliminary injunction which preserves the status quo while the litigation proceeds.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. pp. 228–229. ISBN 0-465-04195-7. 
  2. ^ Pp. 261-263
  3. ^ Pp. 264-266
  4. ^ Pp. 264, 266-271
  5. ^ Pp. 266-270. [397 U.S. 254, 255]
  6. ^ P. 270
  7. ^ Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), opinion of the court, footnote 4. Text of footnote: In Goldberg the Court held that the pretermination hearing must include the following elements: (1) "timely and adequate notice detailing the reasons for a proposed termination"; (2) "an effective opportunity [for the recipient] to defend by confronting any adverse witnesses and by presenting his own arguments and evidence orally"; (3) retained counsel, if desired; (4) an "impartial" decisionmaker; (5) a decision resting "solely on the legal rules and evidence adduced at the hearing"; (6) a statement of reasons for the decision and the evidence relied on. 397 U.S., at 266 -271. In this opinion the term "evidentiary hearing" refers to a hearing generally of the type required in Goldberg.
  8. ^ a b P. 271
  9. ^ 294 F. Supp. 893, affirmed
  10. ^ Compare Justice Hugo Blacks dissenting opinion writing: "The Court, however, relies upon the Fourteenth Amendment and in effect says that failure of the government to pay a promised charitable installment to an individual deprives that individual of his own property, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It somewhat strains credulity to say that the government's promise of charity to an individual is property belonging to that individual when the government denies that the individual is honestly entitled to receive such a payment."
  11. ^ a b c Amy Shapiro (28 June 2012). "Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970)". American Civil Liberties. American Civil Liberties. Retrieved 19 January 2014. 
  12. ^ Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970, majority opinion.
  13. ^ 96 U.S. App. D. C. 329, 226 F.2d 51 (1955)
  14. ^ 386 U. S. 670, 87 S. Ct. 1244 (1966)
  15. ^ 393 U. S. 268, 89 S. Ct. 518 (1969)
  16. ^ LaFrance, A. B.; Schroeder, M. R.; Bennett, R. W.; Boyd, W. E., “Law of the Poor,” West Publishing Co. St. Paul, Minnesota, 1973; pp. 212 et seq.
  17. ^ 430 F. 2d 1243 (1st Circ. 1970)
  18. ^ see government function under 221 (d) (3)
  19. ^ a b 430 F. 2d at 1247
  20. ^ LaFrance ibid p. 226
  21. ^ Id. 430 F.2d at 1247
  22. ^ LaFrance, ibid., pp. 514 et seq
  23. ^ Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 85, S. Ct. 1116 (1965)
  24. ^ Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U. S. 157 63 S. Ct. 877 (1943), reh denied 319 U. S. 472, 63 S. Ct. 1170
  25. ^ LaFrance, ibid. p. 511


External links[edit]

  • Text of Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia