United States District Court, District of Columbia
SHONICE G. GARNETT et al., Plaintiffs,
LAURA ZEILINGER, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
that participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (“SNAP”) must comply with
strict statutory deadlines for processing benefit
applications and periodically recertifying benefit
eligibility. Plaintiffs, three classes of District of
Columbia residents, have sued the director of the agency that
administers the District's SNAP program for alleged
noncompliance with these deadlines and now move for a
preliminary injunction. The injunction sought would compel
the District to: (1) adhere to the statutory timelines for
processing both initial and periodic recertification
applications; (2) timely notify eligible households that
their benefits will expire absent recertification; and (3)
notify households of any delay in the processing of their
applications and of their right to a hearing to contest
adverse or delayed eligibility determinations.
Court will grant the plaintiffs' motion in part. It will
issue an injunction requiring the District to process SNAP
recertification applications within the statutory deadlines,
which it has fallen well short of doing in the recent past.
The Court declines, however, to extend that injunction to the
processing of initial applications. The evidence before the
Court suggests that the District is making progress towards
full compliance with that particular deadline, with the
active assistance and supervision of the Department of
Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, the federal
agency that oversees SNAP. Additional judicial intervention
is therefore unnecessary at this juncture and would be
contrary to the public interest. The Court will instead
continue to monitor the District's performance as the
litigation progresses and consider extending the injunction
to initial applications as warranted. Finally, the Court will
also decline to issue injunctions ordering the District to
provide the requested notifications, finding that the
plaintiffs have not adduced sufficient evidence at this stage
of the litigation to establish a likelihood of success on the
merits of those claims.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
originally enacted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program (“SNAP”) in 1964 in an effort to combat
hunger and malnutrition by providing assistance to low-income
households for purchasing food. See Food Stamp Act
of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-525, 78 Stat. 703 (codified at 7
U.S.C. §§ 2011 et seq.). States can elect
to participate in SNAP and, if they do, are responsible for
certifying household eligibility for benefits, issuing
benefits, and otherwise administering the program on the
state level. Id. §§ 2013(a), 2020(a)(1); 7
C.F.R. § 271.4. The federal government, in turn,
provides the funding for benefits and covers 50 percent of
the administrative costs borne by the States. 7 U.S.C.
§§ 2013(a), 2025. If a State elects to participate,
it must administer its SNAP program in accordance with the
SNAP Act and the Secretary of Agriculture's implementing
regulations. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e); 7 C.F.R.
the responsibilities that participating States have is
verifying a household's eligibility to receive benefits.
7 U.S.C. § 2020(a)(1). A household is eligible for SNAP
benefits if its net income is below the federal poverty line
and its assets generally do not exceed $2, 000. Id.
§ 2014(c), (g). The statute and pertinent regulations
also detail how States must process applications for
benefits. First, States must allow a household to apply for
SNAP benefits the same day that it contacts a SNAP program
office in person during office hours. Id. §
2020(e)(2)(B)(iii). Once a State receives an application for
benefits, it must “promptly” certify a
household's eligibility. Id. § 2020(e)(3).
This certification process must be completed and benefits
provided no later than thirty days after the
application's filing. Id. For certain households
with extremely low income-less than $150 per month or liquid
assets less than $100-the State must provide benefits no
later than seven days after an application is filed.
Id. § 2020(e)(9)(A). These are known as
“expedited” applications. States must also notify
the household when it acts on the household's
application, by sending an approval, denial or “pending
status” notification within the statutory time period.
7 C.F.R. § 273.10(g).
households are certified to receive benefits for a specific
period of time, known as the “certification
period.” See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(4).
States are required to ensure that households receive a
notice at the start of the last month of their certification
period, warning them of the expiration of the certification
period and of the need to recertify eligibility to continue
receiving benefits. Id. For any household that
submits a recertification application no later than fifteen
days prior to the expiration of its certification period, the
State must provide benefits-if the household remains
eligible-without a break in service. Id. Finally,
States must provide households the opportunity for a hearing
if the household is aggrieved by the State's action.
Id. § 2020(e)(10).
the federal government, the Secretary of Agriculture has
delegated most of the administration of SNAP to the Food and
Nutrition Service (“FNS” or “the
Service”), a component agency of the Department of
Agriculture. 7 C.F.R. § 271.3. The Service engages in
detailed oversight of the States' administration of their
SNAP programs. For instance, State agencies are required to
submit a variety of plans to the Service for approval, such
as plans for the computerization of benefit program
administration, id. § 272.10, annual budget
plans, id. § 272.2(c)(1)(i), and plans for
quality control sampling, id. § 275.11(a).
See also id. § 272.2(d) (listing other plans
requiring Service approval). In addition, States must submit
a quarterly summary of their operations to the Service.
Id. § 272.2(c)(1)(ii).
way in which the Service oversees the administration of State
benefit programs is through an annual “quality control
review” process. As part of their performance reports
to the Service, State agencies are required to perform a
quality control review on a sample of households that either
received SNAP benefits (“active” cases) or had
benefits suspended, denied, or terminated
(“negative” cases). Id. §
275.10(a). Each case in the sample is then reviewed to check,
among other things, whether the household received the
correct amount of benefits or whether the State accurately
terminated or denied benefits. Id. State agencies
submit the results of this quality control review to the
Service, which further analyzes the results to determine
whether the State is in compliance with its obligations and
to determine error rates for the State's grants and
denials of benefits. Id.; see also id.
§ 275.3(c) (discussing the Service's verification of
State-reported error rates); id. § 275.23(b)(2)
(same). Based on the information reported through the quality
control review, the Service also awards bonuses to States
that show “high or improved performance” on a
variety of measures, including error rates for payment
determinations, accuracy of benefit determinations, and
timeliness of processing applications. Id. §
with this reporting and approval oversight, the Service can
levy punitive sanctions if State agencies do not comply with
their statutory and regulatory obligations. For instance, the
Service may temporarily suspend all or a portion of the
federal funds a State receives to cover administrative costs.
Id. § 276.4(b). This suspension “shall
remain in effect until [the Service] determines that a State
agency has taken adequate corrective action to correct the
problem causing the suspension.” Id. The
Service can also disallow all or part of the administrative
funds the State agency receives. Id. §
276.4(c). Prior to suspending or disallowing funds, the
Service must provide a warning to the State agency.
Id. § 276.4(d). To avoid the proposed sanction,
the State agency typically must submit a corrective action
plan that “determine[s] appropriate actions to reduce
substantially or eliminate deficiencies in program
operations.” Id. § 275.16(a); see
also id. § 276.4(d)(ii) (requiring submission of a
corrective action plan). The State agency can
administratively appeal any suspension or disallowance of
federal funds. Id. § 276.4(f); see also
id. § 276.7 (describing the administrative appeal
process). Finally, the Service can also elect to seek
injunctive relief against the State in federal court to
ensure compliance. Id. § 276.5.
The District's administration of SNAP
District of Columbia, SNAP is administered by the Economic
Security Administration, an agency within the District's
Department of Human Services. Def.'s Opp'n Pls.'
Mot. Prelim. Inj. (“Def.'s Opp'n”) Ex. A
(“First Zeilinger Decl.”), ¶ 6. The
Administration also oversees the District's other
assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families (“TANF”). Id. ¶ 7. The
District operates five service centers spread throughout the
city to provide in-person assistance to those seeking
benefits. Id. ¶ 13. These service centers are
operated Monday through Friday and handle applications for
SNAP and other benefits, including interviewing applicants
and processing applications. Id. ¶¶ 13-14.
In addition to running the five service centers, the District
also operates a call center that residents can contact by
telephone for assistance with benefits-related issues.
Id. ¶ 17. As with the service centers, the call
center operates Monday through Friday, though it also has an
automated self-service interactive hotline available 24 hours
a day, seven days a week. Id. ¶¶ 18-19.
October 23, 2017, the District received a letter from the
Service indicating it would need to submit a corrective
action plan aimed at raising the District's rate of
timely processed applications for SNAP benefits. Pls.'
Reply Def.'s Opp'n (“Pls.' Reply”)
Ex. 1, Ex. O (“October 23, 2017 FNS
Letter”). The District submitted a draft corrective
action plan on December 14, 2017, which the Service could not
approve due to a lack of sufficient detail. Def.'s Suppl.
Br. Supp. Opp'n (“Def.'s Suppl. Br.”) Ex.
1 (“Fourth Zeilinger Declaration”), ¶¶
8-9. A revised plan was submitted on February 9, 2018, which
the Service again declined to approve because of insufficient
detail. Id. ¶¶ 10-11. The Service arranged
a training on March 14, 2018 to assist the District in
creating an appropriate plan. Id. ¶ 12. The
District submitted a new working draft to the Service on
March 28, 2018, and the Service indicated that the draft was
“what [it's] looking for.” Id.
¶¶ 13-14. The second revised plan was submitted to
the Service on April 11, 2018. Id. ¶ 15. The
Court is unaware of its acceptance status at this time.
August 2017, a group of D.C. residents filed suit against
Laura Zeilinger, the Director of the District's
Department of Human Services, alleging that the
District's administration of SNAP was deficient in
several respects. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that
the District was: (1) failing to process initial applications
for benefits and to provide benefits to eligible households
within the applicable statutory time limits, in violation of
the SNAP Act, Am. Compl. ¶ 171; (2) failing to implement
the SNAP recertification process so as to allow eligible
households to continue to receive benefits without a break in
service, also in violation of the SNAP Act, id.
¶ 172; and (3) failing to provide notice of delays in
processing applications and of the opportunity for a hearing,
in violation of the SNAP Act and the Due Process Clause of
the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, id. ¶ 173.
The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief
correcting these violations. In conjunction with their
complaint, the plaintiffs filed a motion for class
certification, which the Court granted on March 28, 2018,
certifying three classes. See Garnett v. Zeilinger,
2018 WL 1524748 (D.D.C. March 28, 2018).
plaintiffs then filed this motion for a preliminary
injunction seeking an order requiring the District to (1)
process SNAP benefit applications in accordance with the
statutory timelines, (2) provide the opportunity for
recipients to complete the recertification process and have
SNAP benefits issued for the new certification period in a
timely manner, and (3) send written notice of processing
delays and of the opportunity for an administrative hearing
to households whose applications were delayed in processing.
Mem. Law Supp. Pls.' Mot. Prelim. Inj. (“Pls.'
Mot. Prelim. Inj.”) at 1.
the District filed its opposition to the motion for a
preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs moved to stay briefing
to allow them to conduct limited, expedited discovery on
several factual issues raised by the District's
opposition, including a dispute over the accuracy of several
reports submitted by the District to the Food and Nutrition
Service. At a December 1, 2017 status conference, the Court
directed the parties to meet and consider whether the case
should be stayed to allow for further discussion of
settlement or the narrowing of disputed issues. See
Minute Order (Dec. 1, 2017). When the parties reported that
they were unable to reach any agreement, the Court granted in
part the plaintiffs' motion for expedited discovery.
See Order (Dec. 15, 2017). It permitted the
plaintiffs to conduct a limited, four-hour corporate
representative deposition on four specific topics and ordered
the District to make more recent versions of the relevant
timeliness reports available to the plaintiffs. Id.
this discovery, the parties completed briefing on the
preliminary injunction motion. The Court held a hearing on
the motion (along with the then-pending motion for class
certification) on March 19, 2018. It then ordered a further
round of briefing addressing some additional issues, which
was completed on April 24, 2018. The motion is now ripe for
preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never
awarded as of right.” Winter v. Nat. Res. Def.
Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 24 (2008). The party seeking
a preliminary injunction thus bears the burden of making a
“clear showing that [he] is entitled to such
relief.” Id. at 22. To make such a showing,
the party must establish: “(1) that he is likely to
succeed on the merits, (2) that he is likely to suffer
irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, (3)
that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and (4) that
an injunction is in the public interest.” Sherley
v. Sebelius, 644 F.3d 388, 392 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting
Winter, 555 U.S. at 20).
plaintiffs move for a three-fold injunction that would
require the District to: (1) adhere to the statutory
timelines for the processing of all SNAP benefit
applications, (2) send out recertification notices on time as
required by the statute, and (3) provide recipients notice of
any delays in processing their applications and of their
right to a hearing. The Court will grant the plaintiffs'
first request in part but will deny the other two.
Plaintiffs' motion for an injunction requiring the
District to process initial and recertification SNAP
applications in a timely manner.
the plaintiffs request an injunction requiring the District
to process initial and recertification applications in
accordance with the statutory timelines. Looking to the four
factors for injunctive relief, the Court will grant this part
of the plaintiffs' request as to the processing of
recertification applications and will impose monitoring and
reporting requirements as to the processing of initial
Likelihood of success on the merits
order to obtain a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs must
first demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits.
Sherley, 644 F.3d at 392. Whether the plaintiffs
have met this requirement depends in part on whether the SNAP
Act requires absolute or substantial compliance with the
timelines for processing applications. The District argued at
the hearing that the Court should follow the approach taken
by the Third Circuit in Shands v. Tull, 602 F.2d
1156 (3d Cir. 1979), which only required substantial
compliance with the statute. But Shands is not the
proper analog here. For one, Shands is of limited
value because it involved a different statutory provision and
scheme, namely a requirement under the Aid to Families with
Dependent Children program (now the TANF program) to provide
hearings upon request. Id. at 1160. Moreover, the
approach taken in Shands has since been rejected by
multiple courts, which have instead required absolute
compliance with statutory requirements for the administration
of welfare programs. See, e.g., Withrow v.
Concannon, 942 F.2d 1385, 1387-88 (9th Cir. 1991);
Alexander v. Hill, 707 F.2d 780, 784 (4th Cir.
1983); Reynolds v. Giuliani, 2005 WL 342106, at *17
(S.D.N.Y. Feb. 14, 2005). This includes multiple decisions
involving the SNAP Act processing timelines at issue ...