Where two Maryland taxpayers alleged a Montgomery County cash-assistance program that pays residents, including foreign nationals in the country without documentation, violates a federal statute that prohibits undocumented persons from receiving state and local benefits, the suit was dismissed because the federal statute did not authorize private enforcement.
Two Maryland taxpayers filed suit in Maryland state court against two county officials, challenging a program established by the Montgomery County Council. The Emergency Assistance Relief Payment Program, or EARP, provides cash assistance to residents, including foreign nationals present in the country without documentation, who meet certain income requirements and do not qualify for state or federal pandemic-related aid.
The plaintiffs asserted that the EARP violates a federal statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1621(a), which, subject to a few exceptions, generally prohibits undocumented persons from receiving state and local benefits. Recognizing that section 1621 does not authorize private enforcement, the plaintiffs styled their claim as arising under the Maryland common law doctrine of taxpayer standing, which “permits taxpayers to seek the aid of courts, exercising equity powers, to enjoin illegal and ultra vires acts of [Maryland] public officials where those acts are reasonably likely to result in pecuniary loss to the taxpayer.”
After the county officials removed the case to federal court, the district court granted summary judgment to the county officials.
Plaintiffs argue that their action does not raise a substantial federal question because their claim is based on the Maryland taxpayer standing doctrine, and the defendants’ violation of federal law is merely an element of their state law claim. The plaintiffs also contend that exercising federal jurisdiction would infringe on the proper balance between state and federal courts. The court disagrees.
Plaintiffs’ claim raises a substantial federal issue because, at its core, the claim seeks to enforce a federal statute. Although the plaintiffs attempt to use the Maryland taxpayer standing doctrine as the procedural vehicle for their claim, they do not seek to advance any state law right or enforce any duty established under state law.
Instead, their complaint contains a single theory of liability, namely, that the county defendants’ implementation of the EARP violates a federal law. Accordingly, resolution of the plaintiffs’ claim necessarily requires a court to interpret various terms in section 1621 to determine whether the EARP is consistent with the statutory scheme enacted by Congress.
For the same reasons, exercising federal jurisdiction would not disrupt the “congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.” Suits seeking to interpret and enforce a federal law like section 1621 are properly brought in federal court and do not undermine state courts’ ability to resolve questions of state law.
The plaintiffs contend that they may seek enforcement of section 1621 under the Maryland taxpayer standing doctrine. Thus, in the plaintiffs’ view, a violation of federal law merely is an element of their cause of action authorized under Maryland law. The court disagrees.
The Maryland taxpayer standing doctrine does not grant any substantive rights to Maryland taxpayers, but merely confers standing in state court for taxpayers to enforce a right or obligation imposed by some other provision of law. Thus, the plaintiffs in the present case do not assert any substantive duty or right provided under the standing doctrine, or even a right defined under Maryland law. Instead, the sole theory of liability advanced in the complaint is the county defendants’ alleged violation of section 1621.
It is undisputed that Congress did not authorize private enforcement of section 1621. The plaintiffs cannot evade this fundamental principle by invoking Maryland’s taxpayer standing doctrine to excuse the lack of a Congressionally authorized right of action.
Quattlebaum, J., dissenting:
I agree with my colleagues that the district court had subject-matter jurisdiction. I write separately, however, on the issue of Article III standing, which is an issue that I believe should preclude the taxpayers’ claim. While Supreme Court precedent compels the result that municipal taxpayer claims can satisfy Article III standing, that precedent, which is 100 years old, seems logically inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s recent precedent. Therefore, I respectfully submit that the doctrine of municipal taxpayer standing should be reconsidered by the Supreme Court.
I also see no reason, as a general rule, why Maryland—either through its legislative process or by common law—could not provide taxpayers with a private right of action to enjoin an expenditure of money by state or local officials that violates federal law regardless of whether any private right of action exists in the underlying federal law. The limitation of this principle, however, lies with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution and the preemption doctrine. Since the district court did not address the issue of whether Maryland recognizes a state law cause of action or whether that cause of action is preempted in this case, I would reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings.
Bauer v. Elrich, Case No. 20-1707, Aug. 10, 2021. 4th Cir. (Keenan), from DMD at Greenbelt (Messitte). Michael Bekesha for Appellants. Catherine Carroll for Appellees. Lindsey Powell for Intervenor United States. VLW 021-2-279. 30 pp.