This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).






Deb Forthun, et al.,





Kevin Goodno, Commissioner of Human Services,



Waseca County Department of Human Services,



Filed August 29, 2006

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Halbrooks, Judge



Waseca County District Court

File No. C5-05-277



Kenneth R. White, MacKenzie & Gustafson Ltd., 326 South Minnesota Avenue, P.O. Box 360, St. Peter, MN 56082; and


Charles H. Thomas, Law Offices of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Inc., 12 Civic Center Plaza, Suite 3000, P.O. Box 3304, Mankato, MN 56002 (for appellants)


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Margaret H. Chutich, Assistant Attorney General, 900 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent Commissioner of Human Services)


Paul Dressler, Waseca County Attorney, Patrick M. Moen, Assistant County Attorney, 307 North State Street, Waseca, MN 56093 (for respondent Waseca County Department of Human Services)



            Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Willis, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


            Appellants challenge the district court’s order affirming the Commissioner of Human Services’ decision that they must reimburse the county for part of the cost of their son’s out-of-home placement.  Appellants contend that they did not have the opportunity to be heard regarding their ability to pay and that they do not have the ability to pay because, although the county is seeking income that is attributable to their son, the claim was asserted eight months after the last income attributable to their son was received.  Because the commissioner did not err in the determination that equitable estoppel is inapplicable to this case or in the interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 256B.35 (2004), we affirm the commissioner on those issues.  But because appellants did not have an opportunity to be heard on the issue of their ability to support their son and the court made no findings on this issue and because the applicability of Minn. Stat. § 256M.60, subd. 6, has not been addressed, we reverse and remand for further proceedings. 


            Appellants Deb and Thomas Forthun’s son, S.F., was adjudicated delinquent in October 2002.  As a result of that adjudication, S.F. was placed in out-of-home (OOH) treatment facilities on multiple occasions between October 2002 and March 2004.  Respondent Waseca County (county), which incurred costs of $24,712.43 for S.F.’s out-of-home placements, sought $4,865.45 in reimbursement from appellants under Minn. Stat. § 260B.331 (2004).

            The county initially issued parental-fee determinations to appellants in November 2002 and August 2003.  Appellants challenged those determinations to the county but failed to appeal those determinations to respondent Commissioner of Human Services (commissioner).  In March 2004, the county issued a third parental-fee determination.  Appellants again challenged the determination to the county, and the county upheld it.  This time, however, appellants appealed the decision to the commissioner, who heard evidence and concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over the November 2002 and August 2003 parental fees because appellants did not file timely appeals.  But the commissioner determined it did have jurisdiction over the March 2004 parental-fee assessment.  On the merits of that appeal, the commissioner reversed the fee on the ground that appellants lacked the ability to pay the March 2004 parental fee because their household income was below the federal poverty guidelines. 

            The county subsequently sought reimbursement from the family for the same OOH placements, based on income attributable to S.F. individually.  Between November 2002 and March 2004, S.F. received SSI and RSDI benefits totaling $6,879.  The county mailed appellants the reimbursement notice in November 2004.  Appellants challenged that decision, arguing that the county failed to offset the payments with a personal-needs allowance for S.F. while he was in the OOH placements, as required under Minn. Stat. § 256B.35 (2004), and that the county should be estopped from collecting reimbursement because it delayed in seeking the funds and the money was no longer available. 

During the hearing before the commissioner on January 13, 2005, appellant Deb Forthun testified that S.F.’s monthly social-security benefits were approximately $485 and that the money had been spent for general household expenses and for S.F.’s personal items contemporaneous with the OOH placements.  The commissioner determined that S.F. is not entitled to the personal-needs allowance offset based on the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 256B.35 and that appellants are not entitled to equitable relief.  The commissioner concluded that because the costs of S.F.’s OOH placements far exceeded the income attributable to him during that time frame, appellants are obligated to pay the county what it is seeking—$4,792.45 (following deduction of a $73 credit).

Appellants appealed the commissioner’s decision to the district court, and the district court affirmed.  This appeal follows.




Appellants raise three issues on appeal to this court:  (1) whether the county is precluded from pursuing the parents of a child in OOH placements when the parents’ income is below the federal poverty guidelines; (2) whether the county is precluded from pursuing the parents’ assets when it was aware of the child’s income and did not seek to collect it during the OOH placements; and (3) whether the county must give the child a personal-needs-allowance credit in calculating any recoverable amount.

When reviewing a district court’s decision to affirm or reverse an administrative agency’s determination, we independently examine the agency’s decision.  Reserve Mining Co. v. Herbst, 256 N.W.2d 808, 824 (Minn. 1977).  The scope of our review of a decision of the Commissioner of Human Services is governed by Minn. Stat. § 14.69 (2004).  Kaplan v. Washington County Cmty. Soc. Servs., 494 N.W.2d 487, 489 (Minn. App. 1993).  Giving no deference to the district court’s review, we are to determine if the decision was:  (a) in violation of constitutional provisions; (b) in excess of the statutory authority or jurisdiction of the agency; (c) made upon unlawful procedure; (d) affected by other error of law; (e) unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted; or (f) arbitrary or capricious.  See Minn. Stat. § 14.69. 

Minn. Stat. § 260B.331, subd. 1(b) (2004), which provides for the county’s reimbursement of the cost of care for children in OOH placements, states that

[t]he court shall order . . . the parents or custodian of a child . . . to use the total income and resources attributable to the child for the period of care . . . except for clothing and personal needs allowance as provided in section 256B.35, to reimburse the county for the cost of care . . . .  Income and resources attributable to the child include, but are not limited to, social security benefits [and] supplemental security income.


Minn. Stat. § 260B.331, subd. 1(b).  The statute further provides that


[i]f the income and resources attributable to the child are not enough to reimburse the county for the full cost of the care, . . . the court shall inquire into the ability of the parents to support the child and, after giving the parents a reasonable opportunity to be heard, the court shall order . . . the parents to contribute to the cost of care . . . .  Except in delinquency cases where the victim is a member of the child’s immediate family, when determining the amount to be contributed by the parents, the court shall use a fee schedule based upon ability to pay that is established by the local social services agency and approved by the commissioner of human services.


Id., subd. 1(c) (2004).


            Appellants argue that the district court erred on several grounds:  (1) by determining that they are responsible for reimbursing the county because it is undisputed that their family income is below the federal poverty level and they never had an opportunity to be heard on their ability to support S.F.; (2) because the county delayed in seeking S.F.’s income, it is equitably estopped from seeking it now; and (3) because the county can only collect the income attributable to the child while the child is in the OOH placement.

            The facts in this matter are undisputed.  During the period of October 2002 to March 2004, S.F. was in four OOH placements for a total cost of $27,712.43.  S.F. first received SSI income in October 2002, a fact that was provided to the county by appellant Deb Forthun in October 2002.  While Ann Ruedy, Waseca County Fiscal Officer, testified at the January 13, 2005 hearing that her office was unaware until June 2004 that S.F. had income attributable to him, she acknowledged that the county, as an entity, had the information in October 2002.  And there is no allegation that appellants have been anything but forthcoming with this income information.

            Because appellants have received food stamps and medical-assistance benefits for approximately seven years, they have been required to complete monthly income reports.  As a result, appellants have properly reported S.F.’s income, in addition to their other income, each month since October 2002.  S.F.’s income for the time frame that he was in OOH placements has been calculated to be $6,879 in RSDI and SSI payments.

Appellants’ fundamental argument to this court is that reimbursement to the county for S.F.’s OOH placements under Minn. Stat. § 260B.331, subd. 1(b), is barred because their family income, including the income attributable to S.F., is below the federal poverty guideline for a family of five.  While this argument was also made to the commissioner, it was not addressed in the commissioner’s decision. 

Yet on a previous appeal, when appellants successfully challenged the March 2004 parental fee, the Minnesota Human Services Department appeals referee based her decision on that very ground, stating

[b]ecause appellant’s household income is less than the federal poverty level no matter how the county defines her household, the county here improperly imposed the March 31, 2004 parental fee and that fee must be reversed.  See Minn. Stat. § 256M.60, subd. 6 (fee may not be charged when household income is below federal poverty level).


This September 9, 2004 decision was not challenged by the county.  Instead, its response was to attempt to accomplish the same reimbursement objective by a different approach—collecting the past income individually attributable to S.F.

            While Minn. Stat. § 260B.331 (2004) clearly allows the county to pursue the income attributable to S.F., it is somewhat fictional to regard S.F.’s income as being separate from the family’s total income, particularly when a family of five is living below the federal poverty line.  Further, Minn. Stat. § 260B.331, subd. 1(c), explicitly requires the court to “inquire into the ability of the parents to support the child and, after giving the parents a reasonable opportunity to be heard, the court shall order . . . the parents to contribute to the cost of care, examination, or treatment of the child . . . .”  Having reviewed the transcript of the January 13, 2005 hearing, we conclude that such an inquiry and opportunity to be heard on the ability-to-support issue did not occur.

            Therefore, we reverse the commissioner’s determination that appellants must reimburse the county in the amount of $4,792.45 and remand so that the commissioner can address the applicability, if any, of Minn. Stat. § 256M.60, subd. 6 (2004), to this matter and for findings on the parents’ ability to support S.F. as required by Minn. Stat. § 260B.331, subd. 1(b).

On a related note, appellants also assert that the county cannot recapture S.F.’s income because the statute only provides for reimbursement from the child’s income while the child is in the out-of-home placement and not afterward.  But the statute provides that the county may be reimbursed from “resources attributable to the child for the period of care,” not that reimbursement can only occur during the period of care.  Minn. Stat. § 260B.331, subd. 1(b).  Therefore, this argument is without merit.



Because this mater is being remanded and related issues have been raised here, we will address them at this time.  We therefore consider appellants’ equitable-estoppel argument.

“As a general rule, for equitable estoppel to lie, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant, through his language or conduct, induced the plaintiff to rely, in good faith, on this language or conduct to his injury, detriment or prejudice.”  Ridgewood Dev. Co. v. State, 294 N.W.2d 288, 292 (Minn. 1980).  “‘[E]stoppel is available as a defense against the government if the government’s wrongful conduct threatens to work a serious injustice and if the public’s interest would not be unduly damaged by the imposition of estoppel.’”  Yeh v. Cass County, 696 N.W.2d 115, 131 (Minn. App. 2005) (quoting Ridgewood Dev. Co., 294 N.W.2d at 293), review denied (Minn. Aug. 16, 2005).  “But if there is no wrongful conduct by the government, this court’s inquiry should stop.”  Id.

Appellants argue that the county’s wrongful conduct is the fact that it failed to pursue in a timely manner S.F.’s income as a source of reimbursement.  As a result, appellant Deb Forthun testified that S.F.’s income was spent on the needs for both S.F. and the family in general.  While appellants make a very practical and, even sympathetic, argument, it cannot sound in estoppel because there was no wrongful governmental conduct in this case.  Therefore, the doctrine of equitable estoppel is inapplicable.  We affirm the commissioner on this issue.



The third argument that appellants assert focuses on their claim that any amount to be reimbursed should reflect a reduction under Minn. Stat. § 256B.35 (2004) for S.F.’s personal-needs allowance.  Minn. Stat. § 256B.35 provides for a personal-needs allowance for individuals receiving certain kinds of OOH care.  The statute provides that “welfare allowances for clothing and personal needs for individuals receiving medical assistance while residing in any skilled nursing home, intermediate care facility, or medical institution . . . in this state shall not be less than $45 per month from all sources.”  Minn. Stat. § 256B.35, subd. 1(a). 

Appellants contend that, despite the statute’s plain language limiting the personal-needs allowance to someone “residing in any skilled nursing home, intermediate care facility, or medical institution,” it should apply to all OOH placements.  In appellants’ words, this is because “[t]he Legislature intended to establish a single standard for budgeting for the personal needs of individuals subject to State regulation” and that “it is unlikely that the legislature viewed a personal care allowance for a child in a care facility as more deserving or needy than one in any other setting.”  But appellants do not cite any authority in support of that argument.

Appellants’ interpretation of the statute calls into question the maxim of “expressio unius est exclusio alterius” or “the expression of one thing indicates the exclusion of another.”  See Harris v. County of Hennepin, 679 N.W.2d 728, 731 (Minn. 2004); see also Minn. Stat. § 645.19 (2004) (“Exceptions expressed in a law shall be construed to exclude all others.”).  The maxim is a rule of construction and an aid to determining legislative intent.  N. Pac. Ry. Co. v. City of Duluth, 243 Minn. 84, 89, 67 N.W.2d 635, 638 (1954).

The county raises a different canon of statutory construction: the requirement that a statute “should be construed as a whole to harmonize all its parts and, whenever possible, no word, phrase or sentence should be deemed superfluous, void or insignificant.”  Owens v. Federated Mut. Implement & Hardware Ins. Co., 328 N.W.2d 162, 164 (Minn. 1983).  The county contends that, in contravention of this canon of construction, appellants’ interpretation essentially ignores the fact that three types of facilities are enumerated in the statute.  We agree.

Because the legislature specifically listed three types of care facilities in the statute, it necessarily excluded all others.  The statute is unambiguous; the offset for a personal-needs allowance is limited by statute to circumstances when individuals are in skilled-nursing homes, intermediate-care facilities, and medical institutions only.  We therefore affirm the commissioner on this issue.

            Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.