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Abstract

Solla is noteworthy not merely in light of the baleful effects of its ruling, but because of its reasoning: it is categorically wrong. The decision wholly elides a cornerstone and settled principle of New York welfare law, namely, that in the administration of public assistance, the municipalities act as the agents of the State, while blatantly violating the most fundamental of agency principles, namely, that a principal is vicariously liable for the actions of its agent acting within the scope of its authority. Indeed, this principal/agent relationship is established both by statute and by decades of uniform state and federal rulings, specifically with regard to public assistance and the EAJA statute. This includes, ironically, Court of Appeals decisions directly on point, as we shall see. In the realm of public welfare law, it is difficult to overstate the enormity, and the clarity, of the court’s error.

This article provides an overview of the relevant social services law. Section II.A. discusses the established principle that municipalities act as the agents of the State of New York in the administration of public assistance benefits. Section II.B. describes the fair hearing process in New York, while Section II.C. examines the chronic failure of State officials to enforce fair hearing decisions. Section III analyzes the decision of New York’s highest court in Solla v. Berlin, providing a brief summary of the case (Section III.A.), and highlighting the court’s errors with respect to both vicarious liability (Section III.B.) and the catalyst theory (Section III.C.). A short conclusion follows in Section IV.