Court Rejects U.S. Rules Limiting Aid for Disabled

By William Snider — February 28, 1990 3 min read

Washington--The Supreme Court last week struck down federal regulations that prevented many disabled children from receiving Social Security benefits.

Several hundred thousand children, who were required to meet stricter standards than adults applying for the same benefits, could benefit from the ruling.

The Justices’ 7-to-2 ruling will require the Social Security Administration to conduct individual assessments to determine the eligibility of children who apply for benefits under the Supplemental Security Income Program.

In addition to the monthly cash stipends that the program provides, recipients are also eligible for insurance coverage under the federal Medicaid program, which could prove to be a more significant benefit for disabled children with high medical bills.

Under the regulations that were struck down, disabled children could qualify for benefits only if their disability fit the characteristics of a standard list developed by the Social Security Administration.

However, disabled adults--who automatically qualified for such benefits if their disabilities were on the approved list--could also qualify if they could prove that their disability rendered them unable to work.

Lawyers for the federal government had argued before the High Court that it would be “unfeasible” to conduct similar analyses of the functional ability of disabled children.

But a majority of the Justices rejected this argument, noting that the 1974 statute that established the program authorized benefits for children whose disabilities are of “comparable severity” to those of adult recipients.

The case, Sullivan v. Zebley (Case No. 88-1377), was filed in 1983 on behalf of Brian Zebley, a Pennsylvania youth who was denied participation in the program despite having congenital brain damage, development delays, eye problems, and musculoskeletal impairments.

The case was later certified as a class action on behalf of all children denied benefits because their disabilities did not match those on the government’s list.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Byron White dissented from the majority opinion, saying that the Congress’s intent in establishing the program was not clear enough to justify overriding the normal deference given to the Administration’s interpretation.

In other action, the Court declined to hear the South Carolina Education Association’s challenge to a state law that bars it from collecting teachers’ dues through payroll deductions.

Lawyers for the s.c.e.a., an affiliate of the National Education Association, had argued that the 1981 law amounted to an “open and flagrant” retaliation for the union’s controversial political activities, as well as those of the n.e.a., which receives a portion of the dues paid by members in the state.

The loss of the payroll-deduction option was cited as the cause of a 21 percent decline in union membership in the year following the measure’s passage, and had “a devastating effect on the s.c.e.a.'s ... financial standing and advocacy program.”

Because the state allows another state-employee organization to collect dues through payroll deductions, the law amounted to an unconstitutional infringement of the union’s free-speech activities, the scea’s lawyers argued.

But in ruling on the case, South Carolina Education Association v. Campbell (No. 89-1019), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said that payroll deductions were a privilege the state was free, but not required, to grant.

The High Court also refused to hear two separate appeals filed by school districts seeking to overturn adverse rulings in special-education cases.

In the first, Muscogee County School District v. Mitten (No. 89-905), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had ruled that parents of a disabled student were entitled to recover legal fees, even though they had not prevailed in their “primary” complaint, because they had won “significant” relief.

In the second case, Gaston County Board of Education v. Shook (No. 89-775), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a handicapped adult has standing to sue the school district to recover private-school tuition, because the tuition payments had reduced the value of an insurance policy of which she was the sole beneficiary.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Court Rejects U.S. Rules Limiting Aid for Disabled