In Catlin v. Sobol 77 N.Y.2d 552, 569 N.Y.S.2d 353, 571 N.E.2d 661 (1991), the New York Court of Appeals, inter alia, granted the District's cross-motion for summary judgment, declared Dell a non-resident of the District, and remitted the case to Supreme Court, Albany County, for determination of the tuition owed.Summary of this case from Catlin v. Sobol
Argued February 13, 1991
Decided April 4, 1991
Appeal from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial Department, Paul E. Cheeseman, J.
Robert Abrams, Attorney-General (Nancy A. Spiegel, O. Peter Sherwood and Peter H. Schiff of counsel), for Thomas Sobol, appellant.
Edward J. Sarzynski for John Holdorf and another, appellants.
Lawrence W. Thomas and James P. Drohan for respondents.
Jay Worona and Cynthia Plumb Fletcher for the New York State School Boards Association, Inc., amicus curiae.
The general rule is that a school district must provide free education to children whose parents or legal guardians reside within the district (see, Education Law § 3202; People ex rel. Brooklyn Children's Aid Socy. v Hendrickson, 54 Misc. 337, affd 125 App. Div. 256, affd 196 N.Y. 551). Education Law § 3202 (4) (b) provides that "[c]hildren cared for in free family homes and children cared for in family homes at board, when such family homes shall be the actual and only residence of such children and when such children are not supported and maintained at the expense of a social services district or of a state department or agency, shall be deemed residents of the school district in which such family home is located" (emphasis added). This appeal concerns the obligation of a school district to furnish tuition-free education to a mentally handicapped child whose parents reside outside of the district and who is cared for at their expense in a family home at board located within the district.
In an administrative appeal from the district's refusal to provide free education in this case, defendant Commissioner of Education upheld the district. In rejecting the argument that the child was entitled to free education under Education Law § 3202 (4) (b) the Commissioner: (1) interpreted the phrase "actual and only residence of such children" as embodying substantially the same concepts as the general residency requirement in Education Law § 3202 (1) including the established common-law rule that a child's residence is presumed to be that of the parents, and (2) found that under this interpretation of section 3202 (4) (b), in the circumstances of this case, the presumption had not been rebutted.
In the instant declaratory judgment action, the Appellate Division agreed unanimously with the Commissioner's legal interpretation of section 3202 (4) (b). The three-Justice majority, however, determined that on this record the presumption that the child's residence was that of his parents had been rebutted and that the district was obligated to furnish tuition-free education. On defendants' appeal pursuant to CPLR 5601 (a), we now reverse. We agree with the Appellate Division's interpretation of the statute. For reasons which follow, however, we disagree with that court's holding that the presumption was overcome and its rejection of the Commissioner's conclusion that the child's residence was with the parents.
Plaintiff, Dunbar E. Catlin (Dell), was born on April 22, 1973. He is afflicted with Down's Syndrome, a congenital abnormality causing varying degrees of mental retardation. His parents, plaintiffs Daniel and Dundeen Catlin, who were then residents of the Town of Bedford, Westchester County, decided that Dell's needs could best be met if he were given special care outside of their home. Accordingly, on May 7, 1973 they placed Dell with a "family home at board" operated by Samuel and Elizabeth Conde in Edmeston, New York. The Condes are licensed by the Social Services Department to care for handicapped children such as Dell until they reach the age of 18. Since his placement in 1973, Dell has lived continuously with the Condes and presumably will continue to do so until his 18th birthday.
The Catlins bear the entire cost of Dell's support and maintenance. They pay a monthly fee ($900 a month in 1986) for Dell's room and board, and also for his clothing, medical expenses and incidental needs. They have surrendered none of their legal parental authority over Dell and could remove him from the Condes' home at any time. The Catlins visit Dell in Edmeston three or four times a year.
When Dell became five years old in 1978, he entered the educational program for handicapped children in the Edmeston school district under a tuition-reimbursement arrangement with the district where Dell's parents resided, Bedford Central School District. The Bedford district determined that "since legally [Dell was] a resident of this district" it was obligated to pay the Edmeston district for the expenses of Dell's education. On May 6, 1980, the Catlins requested a meeting with the Bedford Committee on the Handicapped to discuss Dell's education. At the meeting which ensued, plaintiff Daniel Catlin informed the committee that he had visited the Edmeston district and found Dell's educational program to be satisfactory.
The Bedford district paid for Dell's tuition until 1985 but declined further reimbursement to Edmeston when the Catlins moved from Bedford to the State of Massachusetts. The Catlins then requested that Edmeston admit Dell on a tuition-free basis and upon Edmeston's refusal, appealed to the Commissioner. The Commissioner sustained Edmeston's position.
Upon receipt of the Commissioner's decision, the Catlins commenced an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Federal District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging that the New York residency statute, as applied, is constitutionally infirm. After a hearing, the District Court determined that the residency statute, as applied by the Commissioner, violates the Equal Protection Clause and granted summary judgment to the Catlins (Catlin v Ambach, 644 F. Supp. 161 [ND N Y 1986]). On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded with instructions to retain jurisdiction "pending a resolution on the state law issue by the New York state courts." (Catlin v Ambach, 820 F.2d 588, 591 [2d Cir 1987].) The Second Circuit determined that because there was a potentially controlling question of State law — i.e., the meaning of "actual and only residence" in Education Law § 3202 (4) (b) — the Federal courts should abstain.
The Catlins, individually and on behalf of Dell, then commenced this action for a declaratory judgment in Albany County. A separate action brought against them by the Edmeston district in Otsego County to recover Dell's unpaid tuition was moved to Albany County and consolidated with the declaratory judgment action. Supreme Court granted summary judgment to the Catlins. It rejected the Commissioner's interpretation of Education Law § 3202 (4) (b) as incorporating the presumption of residency and held that section 3202 (4) (b) creates a class of children who are not presumed to reside with their parents ( 141 Misc.2d 169, 172). The Appellate Division, as noted, in affirming with a divided court, disagreed unanimously with Supreme Court's interpretation of the statute. Although all members of the court accepted the Commissioner's view that the presumption of residence was embodied in the statute, a majority disagreed with his application of the statute in the circumstances of this case (Catlin v Sobol, 155 A.D.2d 24).
In deciding on the proper interpretation of the phrase "actual and only residence" in Education Law § 3202 (4) (b) we first look to the particular words for their meaning, both as they are used in the section and in their context as part of the entire statute (see, Matter of Ellington Constr. Corp. v Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 77 N.Y.2d 114; Price v Price, 69 N.Y.2d 8, 13). But we may also consider the legislative history of the enactment and how it has been interpreted, bearing in mind "that in `the interpretation of statutes, the spirit and purpose of the act and the objects to be accomplished must be considered. The legislative intent is the great and controlling principle' (People v Ryan, 274 N.Y. 149, 152)" (Ferres v City of New Rochelle, 68 N.Y.2d 446, 451). Here, we have little difficulty in concluding, as did the Appellate Division, that the Commissioner's interpretation is correct.
The question of how the Education Law is intended to operate in a case under section 3202 (4) (b) turns on the meaning of the word "residence" in the phrase "actual and only residence". The Commissioner's contention is that the word should be given its generally accepted common-law meaning — the same sense in which the term has been traditionally understood by the courts (see, e.g., Matter of Board of Educ. v Allen, 29 A.D.2d 24; Matter of Horowitz v Board of Educ., 217 App. Div. 233, 238-239) and by the State Education Department in applying various sections of Education Law § 3202. If given this interpretation, the term carries with it the established "`presumption that the residence of the child is the residence of the parents. This presumption may be overcome by proof showing that the parties have surrendered parental control and that such control is being exercised by some other person with whom the child [lives].'" (Matter of Board of Educ. v Allen, supra, at 28, quoting Matter of Kuppler, 33 N.Y. St Dept Rep [Educ] 407, 409; see, Matter of Horowitz v Board of Educ., supra, at 238-239.)
The Education Department has historically embraced the presumption that the residence of a child is with his or her parents (see, Matter of Delgado, 24 Ed Dept Rep 279; Matter of Bunk, 22 Ed Dept Rep 38; Matter of Shelmidine, 22 Ed Dept Rep 206; Matter of Fichtner, 22 Ed Dept Rep 119; Matter of Van Curran, 18 Ed Dept Rep 523; Matter of Buglione, 14 Ed Dept Rep 220; Matter of Duffy, 75 St N Y Dept Rep [Educ] 25; see also, Matter of Staulcup, 20 Ed Dept Rep 11; Matter of Tiger, 16 Ed Dept Rep 178; Matter of Kirby, 10 Ed Dept Rep 139; Matter of Morello, 9 Ed Dept Rep 130 [cases finding presumption rebutted where parents relinquished care and control of child]).
Plaintiff contends, however, that "actual and only residence" as used in section 3202 (4) (b) is virtually synonymous with "physical presence". This is the interpretation adopted by Supreme Court in its holding that relinquishment of parental authority is not a relevant consideration and that "a clear reading of section 3202 (4) (b) created a class of children who are not presumed to reside with their parents." ( 141 Misc.2d 169, 172, supra [emphasis added].) Plaintiff points to no language in the statute supporting the argument that "residence" in section 3202 (4) (b) should be given this special meaning, one that is different from the usual construction which has been given the term in various Education Law provisions (see, n 1, supra). Adopting plaintiff's interpretation would offend the accepted rules of construction that statutory words are generally construed according to their natural and obvious sense (McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 94) and that where the same word or phrase is used in different parts of a statute it will be presumed to be used in the same sense throughout (McKinney's Statutes § 236).
The meaning of the term "residence" in section 3202 (4) (b) adopted by the Commissioner is consistent with the general scheme of Education Law § 3202 — the statute which sets out the framework for determining when and under what circumstances a school district is obligated to provide free education. The general rules under section 3202 are that a school district is bound to furnish tuition-free education only for children whose parents or legal guardians reside within the district (see, Matter of Buglione, 14 Ed Dept Rep 220, 221 ); that where the parents or guardians reside outside of the district the child presumably resides outside the district also and is not entitled to free education; and that this presumption may be overcome by showing that the parents or guardians have given up parental control and that the child's permanent domicile — i.e., the child's "actual and only residence" — is within the district (see, Matter of Horowitz v Board of Educ., 217 App. Div. 233, supra; Matter of Buglione, supra, at 222-223; Matter of Van Curran, 18 Ed Dept Rep 523, 524).
Under the Commissioner's interpretation of the statute, these general rules as to residency apply no differently in the particular circumstances covered by section 3202 (4) (b) — i.e., where the child is living in a free family home or a family home at board and the parents reside outside the district. This construction is consistent with the general scheme of the free education statute and furthers its purpose: mandating the provision of free education by a school district for its resident children but assuring that nonresident parents who have children within the district must pay tuition for them unless the presumption is overcome and it is established that their children's "actual and only residence" is within the district.
There is no reason why a different rule should apply merely because a child of nonresident parents is being cared for within the district in a free family home or a family home at board and, thus, comes within section 3202 (4) (b). Indeed, the legislative history of the section demonstrates that the language "actual and only residence" was intended to assure that no different rule should be applied in circumstances covered by the section and that a district's responsibility to provide free education would be limited to cases where the presumption is overcome and the child has established a permanent domicile in the home of the family providing the care (see, Bill Jacket, L 1973, ch 867, Mem in support of State Dept of Educ ["This bill * * * enacts a new subdivision (of Education Law § 3202) which provides * * * (that n)on resident children cared for in family homes and not supported by a social services district may be required to pay tuition. * * * The principal purpose of the bill is to relieve school districts of the obligation * * * to bear the financial burden of educating nonresident children."]).
In sum, we agree with the Commissioner's reading of section 3202 (4) (b), which is reasonable and entirely consistent with the legislative purpose of obligating school districts to provide free education only for children who reside within the district. The interpretation urged by plaintiff — that a child's "physical presence" in the district, standing alone and without regard to the retention of parental control and supervision, obligates a school district to provide free education — imposes a far heavier financial responsibility on districts in cases where the child is staying in a family home and comes under section 3202 (4) (b) than in other circumstances involving children of nonresident parents. There appears to be no plausible reason for imposing these additional and unnecessary burdens on school districts in situations coming under section 3202 (4) (b).
There is no dispute that Edmeston school district will continue to provide educational services to Dell. We stress that what is at issue here is only whether Edmeston school district must bear the costs of Dell's education (cf., Rabinowitz v New Jersey State Bd. of Educ., 550 F. Supp. 481, 483 [D NJ 1982]).
We turn to the propriety of the Commissioner's decision that the presumption that Dell resides with his parents was not overcome. We note that the question of residency involves a determination of a mixed question of law and fact (see, Matter of Board of Educ. v Allen, supra, at 27-29; Matter of Van Curran, supra, at 524) and that where, as here, plaintiff has chosen to appeal the district's decision to the Commissioner, the sole question on judicial review of his determination is whether it is arbitrary and capricious and without rational basis (see, Education Law § 310; Matter of Gundrum v Ambach, 55 N.Y.2d 872, 873; Matter of Strongin v Nyquist, 44 N.Y.2d 943, 945, appeal dismissed and cert denied 440 U.S. 901).
 We agree with the Appellate Division that the fact that plaintiffs initially challenged the Commissioner's ruling in Federal court and are now proceeding by declaratory judgment action to resolve an issue of State law does "not result in a different standard of review than that which would have been applied had plaintiffs sought direct State court review of the determination." ( 155 A.D.2d 24, 27.)
From the record, it appears that the Catlins have continuously assumed full financial responsibility for Dell. Indeed, Edmeston Central School District never considered Dell a resident and, thus, never assumed the costs of Dell's education. From the time Dell began school, the parents' school district — then Bedford Central School District — had assumed the costs. Although the parents have delegated Dell's day-to-day care to the Condes, they retain complete legal authority over him and could revoke or modify the terms of the Condes' custody arrangement at any time. Moreover, the Condes' authority to care for Dell will terminate when he becomes 18 years old on April 22, 1991. Thus, it cannot be said as a matter of law that Dell has established a permanent residence with the Condes (see, Matter of Horowitz v Board of Educ., supra, at 238-239; Matter of Duffy, supra, at 26). Finally, as noted by the Commissioner in his decision, the Catlins "have taken an active role in meeting with the committee of the handicapped of the Bedford school district to plan their son's educational program". On these facts, we cannot conclude that the Commissioner's determination that the Condes' family home was not Dell's "actual and only residence" was without a rational basis.
We are not deciding the issue of residency as a factual matter, as the dissent suggests. Rather we are reviewing the Commissioner's determination under a rationality test. On this record, the determination is rational. The authority cited by the dissent (dissenting opn, at 565) to support its conclusion that the presumption was overcome here is inapposite. In Matter of Deborah V. (29 Ed Dept Rep 176), the Commissioner found that the 16-year-old child's parents had relinquished custody and control and, thus, that the presumption that the child resided with his parents was overcome. There, the findings were that the father allegedly had abused the child before he left the family home, the father had removed the child as a dependent for purposes of public assistance and, for over a year, had had no contact with the child; the mother had moved to Florida and had not seen the child for over one year.
It is contended, nevertheless, that the Commissioner's decision lacks a rational basis because Dell has resided continuously with the Condes in the Edmeston district since shortly after his birth, does not have a room in the Catlins' home, and, indeed, has never visited them. Accepting this argument, we believe, would be tantamount to adopting plaintiffs' contention that the phrase "actual and only residence" in section 3202 (4) (b) does not embody the presumption that the child's residence is that of his parents and that "physical presence", without more, satisfies the statute. For the reasons already noted (see, part II, supra), we believe such a rule should not be adopted.
Accordingly, the order should be reversed, with costs, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment denied, defendants' cross motion for summary judgment granted, Dunbar Elliot Catlin declared not to be a resident of the Edmeston Central School District, and the case remitted to Supreme Court, Albany County, for a determination of the tuition owed.
Chief Judge WACHTLER and Judges SIMONS, KAYE and ALEXANDER concur with Judge HANCOCK, JR.; Judge BELLACOSA dissents and votes to affirm in a separate opinion in which Judge TITONE concurs.
Order reversed, with costs, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment denied, defendants' cross motion for summary judgment granted, Dunbar Elliot Catlin declared not to be a resident of the Edmeston Central School District, and case remitted to Supreme Court, Albany County, for further proceedings in accordance with the opinion herein.
Dell Catlin was born with Down's Syndrome in New York City 17 years ago. Three weeks after his birth, his parents placed him in Samuel and Elizabeth Conde's "family home at board". He has lived with them in the same home in Edmeston, New York, and has always referred to the Condes as his "Mama" and "Dad". The record recites his total and personal integration and involvement in Edmeston, the only home he has ever known or considered to be his residence. He has never resided with or even visited his natural parents in their home in Bedford, New York, or now in Massachusetts, though they have visited him at the Condes' a few times a year. Since he was five years of age, Dell Catlin has been educated through a program for the handicapped in the Edmeston School District.
Despite these overwhelming uncontroverted facts, the Court rules by legal axiom that Edmeston is not Dell Catlin's "actual and only residence," as that term is used in Education Law § 3202 (4) (b). The residence of his natural parents is simply imposed upon him. We respectfully dissent and vote to affirm.
Persons over the age of 5 and under age 21 are entitled to a free public education in New York "in the district in which [they] reside" (Education Law § 3202; see, N Y Const, art XI, § 1). Residence is not defined in that subdivision of the Education Law and, in general, is determined by applying common-law principles on a case-by-case basis. The hoary presumption that children's residences are with their parents is part of that common-law heritage. However, the residence of children placed in family homes at board, like Dell Catlin, is specifically and separately defined in Education Law § 3202 (4) (b). That section states that children who are not supported and maintained at the expense of a social service district or State department or agency, and who are cared for in free family homes and family homes at board that are their "actual and only residence", "shall be deemed residents of the school district in which such family home is located" (emphasis added).
Thus, the residence definition pertinent to this case could not be clearer. Nevertheless, the majority, agreeing with the former Commissioner of Education, ignores the plain statute and the rule of construction which dictates that a general provision must yield to an applicable specific provision (McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 238). Instead, the Court reverts to a rebuttable legal fiction, a rule of thumb, to countermand diametrically opposite facts and the distinct statutory classification protecting this youngster. This approach contradicts and displaces the plain meaning of the modifiers "actual and only," as well as the defining clause deeming the residence to be the place where the family home at board is located (Education Law § 3202 [b]).
If the words "`actual and only residence'" in their "natural and obvious sense" (majority opn, at 559, 560) do not determine Dell Catlin's residence, then we are unable to conceive of a situation in which the specially designed statutory phrase will be given efficacy. The record evidence defies the legal fiction declared applicable by the majority.
Indeed, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in another stage of this very litigation — albeit while abstaining from deciding the merits and constitutional issues — noted that "[a] literal reading of [section] 3202(4)(b) would seem to require that Dell be considered a resident of Edmeston" (Catlin v Ambach, 820 F.2d 588, 590). We see no basis, after abstention by a Federal court, to disagree with that simple articulation.
As we understand their analysis, the majority refuses to apply section 3202 (4) (b) for the same reasons relied on by the former Commissioner — because the Catlins have not severed their formal legal ties to their son and have not withdrawn all financial support from him. Of course, no such draconian conditions have been imposed by the Legislature in order to qualify for the protection of section 3202 (4) (b). Indeed, it is inconceivable that the Legislature would have wanted to induce parents to cease all financial support in contravention of existing statutory support obligations and to renounce their developmentally disabled children in order to qualify for a free education in instances where parents seek stable placements — sometimes permanent, as here — and education for those children away from the natural parents' home. In any event, implied incorporation of these two conditions clashes with the explicit language of section 3202 (4) (b) purporting to govern placements in homes at board. The Legislature, when it used this term, had to believe and no doubt intended that certain parental financial support as well as the natural parental legal tie would be continued.
Concededly, fiscal implications flow from imposing the financial responsibility to educate children who "actually and only" reside in a family home at board on the school district where that home is located. However, the Legislature, we respectfully submit, has made that policy choice in section 3202 (4) (b) and it is the Legislature's to make in these circumstances. This Court has said that "arguments * * * addressed to the economic and political wisdom of the cost allocation scheme set out in [section 3202] [are] outside the scope of judicial review" (Matter of Jeter v Ellenville Cent. School Dist., 41 N.Y.2d 283, 287). "[I]f relief be needed or desired, address must be to the Legislature" (id., at 288).
Moreover, local educational fiscal concerns with respect to this kind of issue are counterbalanced, if not entirely overcome, by transcendent State-wide policy considerations. The undeviating focus of the pertinent provisions in the Education Law is the right of New York children to a free public education (see, NY Const, art XI, § 1). Few things in our society are more fundamental. Inasmuch as the child is the one guaranteed an education by the State, the child's circumstance and actual residence ought to dictate the resolution of this issue within the commands, of course, of the statute. The State's parens patriae interest is surely implicated here, where a developmentally disabled New York child's natural parents are no longer State residents and the youngster has continuously lived and received a special education in Edmeston and wishes to continue doing so. Dell Catlin's constitutional and statutory entitlement to a free public education is not fulfilled or answered by the legal ultimatum directed at his out-of-State natural parents: either pay tuition to the school district where he actually and only resides or withdraw him from the only home and school he has ever known.
Even assuming that the common-law presumption can be "deemed" applicable to this case for residency determination under Education Law § 3202 (4) (b), then the majority at the Appellate Division is convincingly correct that the rebuttable axiom was overcome by the overwhelming facts of this case, just as the presumption was overcome in an appeal recently decided by the present Commissioner (Matter of Deborah V., 29 Ed Dept Rep 176). The majority unsuccessfully attempts to distinguish this case by pointing to different facts which do not effect a legal distinction from the applicable analytical principles of law. It also suggests that the Appellate Division and we would apply the wrong standard of review. This is primarily a statutory construction case and, self-evidently, we are suggesting that this Court perform its traditional and nondelegable function to construe the statute — in this instance, for the very first time. Besides, the former Commissioner's application of the statute in this case, apart from construing it contrary to its facial wording, is irrational in law even under the majority's proposed review test. Again, we are unable to conceive of more compelling circumstances in which the presumption would be overcome if not here, where the developmentally disabled youngster has been physically, i.e., "actually", and continuously, i.e., "only", residing in the same home at board since the age of three weeks and has never even visited his natural parents' residence.
The majority places some reliance on the assumption by the Bedford Central School District (the former residence of the natural parents) of the financial responsibility for Dell Catlin's tuition in past years. The argument is that this is some evidence that Bedford, not Edmeston, was at one time the youngster's legal residence. However, the reimbursement arrangement between Bedford and Edmeston is irrelevant to the resolution of the statutory issue framed by this case in the present circumstances. As the majority at the Appellate Division recognized, "[b]ecause there has never been a determination by the Commissioner or the courts that the Bedford Central School District was legally responsible for Dell's tuition, its assumption of that responsibility was purely voluntary and has no bearing on the legal issue presented in this case." (Catlin v Sobol, 155 A.D.2d 24, 31.) This is especially so since the natural parents are no longer even residents of the State of New York.
Determining whether a family home at board is a child's "actual and only" residence is fact-laden and necessarily requires case-by-case scrutiny. Facile application of the cold formalism that children are deemed to reside with their natural parents in genuine circumstances such as presented here is plainly wrong, because presumptions and legal fictions, while they may simplify cases, are not proper substitutes for individualized analysis and determination. "[W]hatever may be the practical problems of administration engendered by the present statutory formulation * * * there is no warrant in this statute nor in its legislative history" for interposition of a common-law presumption in the modern, more enlightened circumstances reflected by the problem at issue (Matter of Jeter v Ellenville Cent. School Dist., 41 N.Y.2d, supra, at 287-288).
Therefore, we vote to affirm the grant of the petition, as directed by both lower courts.