On June 12, 1974, respondent met for about 15 minutes with Don Connelly, a field representative of the Social Security Administration (SSA), and orally inquired of him whether she was eligible for "mother's insurance benefits" under § 202 (g) of the Social Security Act (Act), 64 Stat. 485, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 402 (g). Connelly erroneously told her that she was not, and she left the SSA office without having filed a written application. By the Act's terms, such benefits are available only to one who, among other qualifications, "has filed application." 42 U. S. C. § 402 (g) (1) (D). By a regulation promulgated pursuant to the Act, only written applications satisfy the "filed application" requirement. 20 CFR § 404.601 (1974).
Respondent eventually filed a written application after learning in May 1975 that in fact she was eligible. She then began receiving benefits. Pursuant to § 202 (j) (1) of the Act,
Respondent then brought this lawsuit in the District Court for the District of Vermont,
Judge Friendly dissented. He argued that the majority's conclusion is irreconcilable with decisions of this Court, e. g., Federal Crop Insurance Corp. v. Merrill, 332 U.S. 380 (1947); Montana v. Kennedy, 366 U.S. 308 (1961); INS v. Hibi, 414 U.S. 5 (1973) (per curiam), and with decisions of other Courts of Appeals, Leimbach v. Califano, 596 F.2d 300 (CA8 1979); Cheers v. Secretary of HEW, 610 F.2d 463 (CA7 1979).
We agree with the dissent. This Court has never decided what type of conduct by a Government employee will estop the Government from insisting upon compliance with valid regulations governing the distribution of welfare benefits. In two cases involving denial of citizenship, the Court has declined to decide whether even "affirmative misconduct" would estop the Government from denying citizenship, for in neither case was "affirmative misconduct" involved. INS v. Hibi, supra, at 8-9; Montana v. Kennedy, supra, at 314-315. The Court has recognized, however, "the duty of all courts to observe the conditions defined by Congress for charging the public treasury." Federal Crop Insurance Corp. v. Merrill, supra, at 385. Lower federal courts have recognized that duty also, and consistently have relied on Merrill in refusing to estop the Government where an eligible applicant has lost Social Security benefits because of possibly erroneous replies to oral inquiries. See Leimbach v. Califano, supra, at 304-305; Cheers v. Secretary of HEW, supra, at 468-469; Goldberg v. Weinberger, 546 F.2d 477, 481 (CA2 1976), cert. denied, 431 U.S. 937 (1977); Simon v. Califano, 593 F.2d 121, 123 (CA9 1979); Parker v. Finch, 327 F.Supp. 193, 195 (ND Ga. 1971); Flamm v. Ribicoff, 203 F.Supp. 507, 510 (SDNY 1961). This is another in that line of cases,
Connelly erred in telling respondent that she was ineligible for the benefit she sought. It may be that Connelly erred because he was unfamiliar with a recent amendment which afforded benefits to respondent. Id., at 947. Or it may be that respondent gave Connelly too little information for him to know that he was in error. Id., at 955 (Friendly, J., dissenting). But at worst, Connelly's conduct did not cause respondent to take action, cf. Federal Crop Insurance Corp. v. Merrill, supra, or fail to take action, cf. Montana v. Kennedy, supra, that respondent could not correct at any time.
Similarly, there is no doubt that Connelly failed to follow the Claims Manual in neglecting to recommend that respondent file a written application and in neglecting to advise her of the advantages of a written application. But the Claims Manual is not a regulation. It has no legal force, and it does not bind the SSA. Rather, it is a 13-volume handbook for internal use by thousands of SSA employees, including the hundreds of employees who receive untold numbers of oral inquiries like respondent's each year. If Connelly's minor breach of such a manual suffices to estop petitioner, then the Government is put "at risk that every alleged failure
Finally, the majority's distinction between respondent's "substantiv[e] eligib[ility]" and her failure to satisfy a "procedural requirement" does not justify estopping petitioner in this case. Congress expressly provided in the Act that only one who "has filed application" for benefits may receive them, and it delegated to petitioner the task of providing by regulation the requisite manner of application. A court is no more authorized to overlook the valid regulation requiring that applications be in writing than it is to overlook any other valid requirement for the receipt of benefits.
In sum, Connelly's errors "fal[l] far short" of conduct which would raise a serious question whether petitioner is estopped from insisting upon compliance with the valid regulation. Montana v. Kennedy, supra, at 314. Accordingly, we grant the motion of respondent for leave to proceed in
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE MARSHALL, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN joins, dissenting.
A summary reversal is a rare disposition, usually reserved by this Court for situations in which the law is settled and stable, the facts are not in dispute, and the decision below is clearly in error. Because this is not such a case, I dissent from the majority's summary reversal of the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and would instead grant the petition and set the case for plenary consideration.
The issue here is important, not only in economic terms to respondent Hansen, but in constitutional terms as well. The question of when the Government may be equitably estopped has divided the distinguished panel of the Court of Appeals in this case, has received inconsistent treatment from other Courts of Appeals, and has been the subject of considerable ferment. See, e. g., Corniel-Rodriguez v. INS, 532 F.2d 301 (CA2 1976); United States v. Lazy FC Ranch, 481 F.2d 985 (CA9 1973); United States v. Fox Lake State Bank, 366 F.2d 962 (CA7 1966); Walsonavich v. United States, 335 F.2d 96 (CA3 1964); Simmons v. United States, 308 F.2d 938 (CA5 1962); Semaan v. Mumford, 118 U. S. App. D. C. 282, 335 F.2d 704 (1964); Eichelberger v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 88 F.2d 874 (CA5 1937). See generally K. Davis, Administrative Law of the Seventies § 17.01 (1976); Note, Equitable Estoppel of the Government, 79 Colum. L. Rev. 551 (1979). Indeed, the majority today recognizes that "[t]his Court has never decided what type of conduct by a Government employee will estop the Government from insisting upon compliance with valid regulations governing the distribution of welfare benefits." Ante, at 788. The majority goes on to suggest that estoppel may be justified in some circumstances. Yet rather than address the issue in a comprehensive
Indeed, the majority's attempt to distinguish conflicting decisions of other courts itself demonstrates the impropriety of today's summary disposition. The majority declines to "consider the correctness of these cases" and instead simply notes that they are distinguishable on their facts from the present case. Ante, at 789, n. 4. Yet the majority fails to explain why or how these purported factual distinctions affect the legal question of when the Government may be equitably estopped. Thus, the lower courts are left guessing whether the factual differences cited by the majority are of any real consequence. For example, the majority distinguishes Semaan v. Mumford, supra, on the ground that "estoppel did not threaten the public fisc." Ante, at 789, n. 4. Even accepting this characterization as correct,
Moreover, in summarily reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeals, the majority glosses over the sorts of situations— such as that presented by this case—that have increasingly led courts to conclude that in some cases hard and fast rules against estoppel of the Government are neither fair nor constitutionally required. The majority characterizes Connelly's conduct in this case as little more than an innocent mistake, based possibly on his unfamiliarity with a "recent
While these characterizations certainly facilitate the summary disposition the majority seeks, they do not fit this case. The "recent amendment" had been in effect for a year and a half when respondent was incorrectly informed that she was not eligible. Moreover, it is quite clear that respondent provided Connelly with sufficient information on which to make a correct judgment, had he been so inclined.
In my view, when this sort of governmental misconduct directly causes an individual's failure to comply with a purely procedural requirement established by the agency, it may be sufficient to estop the Government from denying that individual benefits that she is substantively entitled to receive. Indeed, in an analogous situation, we concluded that before an agency "may extinguish the entitlement of . . . otherwise eligible beneficiaries, it must comply, at a minimum, with its own internal procedures." Morton v. Ruiz, 415 U.S. 199, 235 (1974). At the very least, the question deserves more than the casual treatment it receives from the majority today.
"An individual who would have been entitled to a benefit under subsectio[n]. . . (g) . . . of this section for any month after August 1950 had he filed application therefor prior to the end of such month shall be entitled to such benefit for such month if he files application therefor prior to the end of the twelfth month immediately succeeding such month. . . ." 42 U. S. C. § 402 (j) (1).