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Melanie M. v. Winterer

Supreme Court of Nebraska

April 23, 2015

MELANIE M., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NEXT FRIEND GAIGE M. ET AL., HER MINOR CHILDREN, APPELLANT,
v.
KERRY T. WINTERER AND RYAN C. GILBRIDE, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES AS EMPLOYEES AND AGENTS OF THE STATE NEBRASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, AND THE STATE OF NEBRASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, APPELLEES

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Appeal from the District Court for Lincoln County: RICHARD A. BIRCH, Judge.

William J. Erickson and Blaine T. Gillett for appellant.

Jon Bruning, Attorney General, and Blake E. Johnson for appellees.

HEAVICAN, C.J., WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, STEPHAN, McCORMACK, MILLER-LERMAN, and CASSEL, JJ.

OPINION

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[290 Neb. 766] Connolly, J.

SUMMARY

Melanie M. requested an administrative hearing after the Department of Health and Human Services (Department) informed her that it was going to change her benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Department informed Melanie--a resident of North Platte, Nebraska--that it would hold the hearing in Lincoln, Nebraska. Melanie could participate telephonically at the Department's North Platte office or travel to Lincoln and participate in person.

Melanie filed a complaint in district court, asserting that the Department's regulations and the Due Process Clause required a " face-to-face" hearing in North Platte. The court entered a temporary restraining order, but overruled Melanie's motion for a temporary injunction and sustained the defendants' motion for summary judgment. After applying the three-factor test under Mathews v. Eldridge,[1] we affirm the summary judgment as to Melanie's due process claim. But we reverse, and remand for further proceedings on her prayer for relief under the Department's regulations.

BACKGROUND

Melanie is the mother of four minor children who reside with her in North

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Platte. She works 15 to 20 hours per week in a retail position. Her husband is estranged, but sometimes helps care for the children.

According to Melanie, caring for one of her children, Ethan M., presents " logistical problems" that are " more than simply extraordinary." Ethan was born without kidneys and suffered [290 Neb. 767] a brain embolism. He cannot care for himself. Ethan's former attending physician opined that Melanie's absence from Ethan " is far more than a mere inconvenience" because Melanie is Ethan's " primary caregiver." Melanie said that it is very difficult to find someone else to care for Ethan.

Melanie receives benefits under " SNAP," formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. In Nebraska, the Department administers SNAP and issues electronic benefits transfer cards to eligible households, which they can use to purchase food.[2]

In early 2014, the Department notified Melanie that her SNAP benefits were going to change because her net adjusted income had changed. The Department also informed Melanie that it planned to recover overpayments. Melanie requested an administrative hearing regarding the proposed changes. Her attorney sent a letter to the Department demanding an " in-person, face-to-face hearing in the local office in North Platte."

The Department sent Melanie notices informing her that it would hold a hearing in Lincoln and that Melanie could participate " in person" or telephonically. The notices informed Melanie that she had certain rights, including the right to testify, present testimony from other witnesses, submit documentary evidence, and confront adverse witnesses. Ryan C. Gilbride signed the notices as the hearing officer.

Before any administrative hearing occurred, Melanie filed a complaint in district court individually and as next friend of her four minor children. The complaint named as defendants Kerry T. Winterer and Gilbride (identified as " Employees and Agents of State of Nebraska-Department of Health and Human Services" ) in their individual and official capacities. Melanie also sued " The State of Nebraska-Department of Health and Human Services."

Citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012), Melanie alleged that the defendants' refusal to grant her a face-to-face hearing at the Department's North Platte office deprived her of procedural due process. She stated that her " ability to confront and [290 Neb. 768] cross-examine witnesses is certainly crippled by the Hobson's choice of either travelling approximately 450 miles round-trip, or participating by telephone without the ability to even see the fact-finder or the adverse witnesses." Melanie also alleged that regulations required the Department to offer her a face-to-face hearing in North Platte and, pending the administrative hearing, to maintain her SNAP benefits at their original level.

Melanie requested injunctive relief requiring the defendants to hold a face-to-face hearing in North Platte, the restoration of SNAP benefits pending an administrative hearing, damages, ...


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