Goldberg v. Kelly,
397 U.S. 254 (1970)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970)

Goldberg v. Kelly

No. 62

Argued October 13, 1969

Decided March 23, 1970

397 U.S. 254


Appellees are New York City residents receiving financial aid under the federally assisted Aid to Families with Dependent Children program or under New York State's general Home Relief program who allege that officials administering these programs terminated, or were about to terminate, such aid without prior notice and hearing, thereby denying them due process of law. The District Court held that only a pre-termination evidentiary hearing would satisfy the constitutional command, and rejected the argument of the welfare officials that the combination of the existing post-termination "fair hearing" and informal pre-termination review was sufficient.


1. Welfare benefits are a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them, and procedural due process is applicable to their termination. Pp. 397 U. S. 261-263.

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. Pp. 397 U. S. 264-266.

3. A pre-termination evidentiary hearing is necessary to provide the welfare recipient with procedural due process. Pp. 397 U. S. 264, 397 U. S. 266-271.

(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 decisionmaker. Pp. 397 U. S. 266-270.

Page 397 U. S. 255

(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. P. 397 U. S. 270.

(c) The decisionmaker need not file a full opinion or make formal findings of fact or conclusions of law, but should state the reason for his determination and indicate the evidence he relied on. P. 397 U. S. 271.

(d) The decisionmaker must be impartial, and, although prior involvement in some aspects of a case will not necessarily bar a welfare official from acting as decisionmaker, he should not have participated in making the determination under review. P. 397 U. S. 271.

294 F.Supp. 893, affirmed.

Primary Holding

The Due Process Clause provides the right to a full hearing before welfare benefits are terminated.


Twenty residents of New York City, including John Kelly, appealed the termination of their benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Their assistance had been terminated or was about to be terminated without a pre-termination hearing. The procedures provided by the State Department of Social Services' Official Regulations did include a pre-termination review and a post-termination hearing.

Under these procedures, the agency was required to inform the recipient of the anticipated termination and the explanation for it seven days before termination. Recipients in this situation had the right to request a review by a local welfare official in a superior position to the person who approved the termination, and they were allowed to submit a written statement in support of their position that the benefits should not be terminated. However, there was no opportunity for a personal appearance by the recipient, for the presentation of evidence, or for the examination and cross-examination of witnesses. After an efficient review by the higher-ranking official, any termination decision would be sent to the recipient, and benefits would be terminated on that date. However, a post-termination hearing was available at which recipients could appear, submit evidence, and examine and cross-examine witnesses. If the agency determined at that hearing that the benefits had been wrongfully terminated, the recipient would be entitled to the missed amounts as well as reinstatement. If the agency affirmed its termination decision, the recipient could take an appeal to court.

Arguing that the combination of a pre-termination review and a post-termination hearing violated their due process rights, the New York City recipients succeeded in the federal district court, which required that the agency hold pre-termination hearings.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

Expanding the definition of property and the rights associated with it, Brennan found that welfare benefits were a form of property. He departed from the Court's previous distinction between rights and privileges in finding that government entitlements, also including pension plans and professional licenses, were not a gratuity and were subject to procedural due process. This meant that pre-termination procedures were required at which the recipient could produce evidence to challenge the termination.

Brennan wrote that the interest of a recipient in obtaining funds essential to procuring the necessities of life outweighed the state interest in administrative efficiency. He also pointed out that the state has an interest in ensuring that eligible recipients receive public benefits, which makes the interest of the individual recipients even stronger. On the other hand, Brennan did not wish to burden the state excessively by requiring the equivalent of a full trial for each termination of benefits. He did not require that the government provide an attorney for the recipient, although the recipient should be allowed to use an independently retained attorney. The adjudicating authority needed to explain the reasoning for the decision and identify the evidence giving rise to it, but it did not need to go through the process of writing opinions and making formal findings of fact and conclusions of law. Brennan felt that impartiality required the decision-maker to be someone who had not been involved in the decision to terminate benefits, but it could be someone who had been previously aware of the case more generally. Most importantly, the recipient needed to have an opportunity to be heard and confront adverse witnesses, and the decision-maker needed to reach its conclusions based solely on the evidence provided at the hearing.


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)


  • Potter Stewart (Author)


  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Case Commentary

In determining the level of significance that should be accorded to receiving welfare benefits, the Court sought to liken it to other rights that it had found to be valid. These included the rights to unemployment insurance and tax exemptions. However, despite this attempt to analogize to precedent, many observers viewed the decision as an unusually bold step by an institution known for its caution.

As some of the dissents pointed out, this decision actually could hinder the pursuit of financial assistance by indigent recipients. The extensive process envisioned by Brennan would take more time to unfold than the more informal evaluation that the agency had used, so benefits might not be reinstated for longer. It was also more likely that benefits would be erroneously paid, since the agency would have less motivation to go through pre-termination procedures unless it was confident that a recipient had become ineligible. This would deplete the pool of money available to deserving recipients. However, the majority's ruling has not been disturbed or significantly challenged, and welfare benefits are firmly established as a form of property requiring the application of due process before deprivation.

Brennan later wrote that Goldberg was the most important opinion that he authored as a Justice of the Supreme Court, and it remains the foundation of procedural due process.

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