Act 12 of 2019; Single-subject Rule; Original-purpose Rule

Weeks v. DHS, 255 A.3d 660 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2021), direct appeal, appeal docket 22 EAP 2021

This is a direct appeal from the Commonwealth Court’s dismissal on preliminary objections of a class-action petition for review that challenged the constitutionality of  Act 12 of 2019 on grounds that it violated the single-subject and original-purpose rules.  Act 12 eliminated cash benefits under the state’s General Assistance program. Commonwealth Court summarized the relevant facts and background as follows:

On June 28, 2019, House Bill 33, Printer’s Number 2182, was signed into law as Act 12. Petition for Review (Petition) ¶62. Promptly thereafter, the Department notified all persons enrolled in General Assistance that their last monthly cash benefit would be disbursed on July 31, 2019. Petition ¶70. The affected persons had received between $174 and $215 per month, depending on their county of residence. Petition ¶35.

On July 22, 2019, Petitioners filed a petition for review in this Court’s original jurisdiction on behalf of themselves and the 11,844 Pennsylvanians receiving General Assistance cash benefits as of July 31, 2019. Petition ¶9. The petition for review sought (1) a declaratory judgment that Act 12 violated Article III, Sections 1 and 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and (2) a permanent injunction against the enforcement of those provisions of Act 12 that eliminated the General Assistance cash benefit program. Simultaneously, Petitioners filed an application for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the Department’s enforcement of Sections 1, 2, and 3 of Act 12, pending disposition of the merits of the petition for review.

Slip op. at 2. Commonwealth Court denied petitioners’ application for a preliminary injunction in Weeks v. Department of Human Services (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 409 M.D. 2019, filed August 1, 2019) (Weeks I), which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Weeks v. Department of Human Services, 222 A.3d 722 (Pa. 2019) (Weeks II). Addressing the single-subject requirement in context of the injunction request, the Supreme Court explained that:

[Act 12] as a whole relates to the provision of benefits pertaining to the basic necessities of life to certain low-income individuals…. [S]uch a topic is, in our view, both unifying and sufficiently narrow to fit within the single-subject rubric as that concept has been spelled out in the reported decisions of Pennsylvania appellate courts.

Weeks II, at 730 (emphasis added). With regard to the original purpose requirement, the Supreme Court noted that:

[House Bill] 33 originally had only three provisions, all relating in some way to Cash Assistance. The additional sections which were included in the final version of the bill all fit within the unifying topic mentioned in the above discussion pertaining to the single-subject rule.

Weeks II, at 731.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Petitioners filed an amended petition for review asserting the same constitutional issues before the court in Weeks II, but updating and expanding the factual allegations, which Commonwealth Court summarized as follows: 

The amended petition avers that House Bill 33 was introduced on January 4, 2019, under the title that follows:

Amending the act of June 13, 1967 (P.L. 31, No. 21), entitled “An act to consolidate, editorially revise, and codify the public welfare laws of the Commonwealth,” in public assistance, further providing for definitions, for general assistance-related categorically needy and medically needy only medical assistance programs and for the medically needy and determination of eligibility.

Amended Petition for Review (Amended Petition), Exhibit I at 1. House Bill 33 revised the definition of “General Assistance” in the Human Services Code, which referred to the cash benefit and the medical assistance programs. Amended Petition ¶42. House Bill 33 specified that the eligibility criteria for General Assistance would apply only to the General Assistance-related medical assistance program. It removed the receipt of General Assistance cash benefits from the list of ways a person can be determined to be “medically needy.” Id.

Following House consideration of House Bill 33, the legislation was amended. The amendments expanded the Medicaid nursing facility incentive payments for fiscal year 2019-2020; revised definitions for the Statewide Quality Care Assessment to effect a statewide tax on hospitals; and reauthorized the municipal hospital assessment for cities of the first class. Amended Petition ¶¶46-48. Additionally, the Bill’s title was changed to state as follows:

An Act amending the Act of June 13, 1967 (P.L. 31, No. 21), entitled “An Act to Consolidate, Editorially Revise, and Codify the Public Welfare Laws of the Commonwealth,” in public assistance, further providing for definitions, for general assistance–related categorically needy and medically needed only medical assistance programs, for the medically needy and determination of eligibility and for medical assistance payments for institutional care; in hospital assessments, further providing for definitions, for authorization, for administration, for no hold harmless, for tax exemption and for time period; and, in statewide quality care assessment, further providing for definitions.

Amended Petition, Exhibit F at 2.

Slip op. at 4-5. The Department filed preliminary objections in the form of demurrer to the amended complaint. As to the single-subject rule violation claim, the Department argued that, as the Supreme Court recognized, Act 12 “as a whole relates to the provision of benefits pertaining to the basic necessities of life to certain low-income individuals” to support its argument that Act 12 satisfies the single-subject rule. Slip op. at 8, quoting Weeks II, 222 A.3d at 730 (emphasis added by Commonwealth Court). Petitioners responded that Act 12 made multiple and disparate changes to the Human Services Code and that the revenue-raising amendment to Act 12 cannot possibly be germane to the other provisions in Act 12 that ended the General Assistance cash benefit program. As to the original purpose claim, the Department contended that the original purpose of House Bill 33 was broad enough to encompass the bill’s amendments, which all related to the original purpose of providing health care services to certain low-income persons. Petitioners countered that:

…by final passage, Act 12 had acquired a purpose different from the original bill, which made the final title deceptive. The original purpose of House Bill 33 was the elimination of the General Assistance cash benefit program. By final passage, the bill had been amended to address revenue. The final bill reauthorized the Philadelphia hospital assessment; revised the definition of taxable net revenue; changed the permissible use of remitted federal funds; reauthorized and increased the funding for nursing facility day-one incentives; and revised the definition of taxable net revenue for the statewide quality care hospital assessment. Petitioners’ Brief at 21. Petitioners argue that the bill’s title is deceptive because it “does not state that it ends General Assistance cash benefits.” Petitioners’ Brief at 28.

Slip op. at 16. Petitioners further argued that the final title of the bill was deceptive because it did not explicitly state that “providing for definitions for general assistance” meant the elimination of the cash benefit program to put “reasonable persons on notice of the subject of the bill.” Slip op. at 18. The Department asserted that the language in the title was sufficient to put reasonable persons on notice of the topics addressed by House Bill 33 and was therefore not deceptive.

Commonwealth Court held that the Act complied with state constitution’s single-subject rule, because all provisions were germane to providing certain low-income individuals with benefits related to basic necessities of life, concluding that:

As the Supreme Court has stated, the diverse provisions in Act 12 “as a whole” pertain to the provision of “basic necessities of life to certain low-income individuals.” Weeks II, 222 A.3d at 730. The form and nature of the assistance varies, but the topic is “sufficiently narrow to fit within the single-subject rubric ….” Id. We reject Petitioners’ contention that because some of the provisions raise revenue for this assistance, Act 12 violates Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Slip op. at 15. The court further held that the Act did not violate state constitution’s original-purpose rule, because bill’s final purpose was same as original purpose, and because the bill’s final title was not deceptive. Reasoning that the bill’s final purpose was the same as the original purpose, the court reasoned that:

Viewed in reasonably broad terms, the original purpose of House Bill 33 was to amend the Human Services Code’s provisions on medical assistance to low-income individuals. Notably, “neither the volume of the additions to the original bill nor the expansions of the subject matter’s parameters will give rise to a violation of Article III, Section 1, provided the original and final versions fall under the same broad, general subject area.” Phantom Fireworks [Showrooms, LLC v. Wolf, 198 A.3d 1205, 1223 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018)]. Each amendment, even the elimination of the General Assistance cash benefit program, pertained to the provision of medical assistance to certain low-income persons.

Slip op. at 17-18. As to the title of the bill, the court concluded that:

The title of House Bill 33 did not have to identify the language that would be stricken from the Human Services Code in order to satisfy Article III, Section 1. Petitioners have cited no authority for their view that deletions from a statute must be recited in the title of the bill. The fact that the legislature could have chosen more precise language or used meaningful punctuation in the language in the title of House Bill 33 does not demonstrate deception.

Slip op. at 19. Accordingly, the court concluded that the amended petition for review does not state a claim under Article III, Sections 1 or 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, sustained the Department’s preliminary objections, and dismissed the amended petition for review.


For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.