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Garnett v. Zeilinger

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 31, 2018

SHONICE G. GARNETT et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
LAURA ZEILINGER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         States 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.

         The 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.

         I. Factual Background

         A. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”)

         Congress 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.).[1] 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. § 273.2.

         One of 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).

         Eligible 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).

         Within 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).

         Another 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. § 275.24.

         Along 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.

         B. The District's administration of SNAP

         In the 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.

         On 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”).[2] 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.

         C. Procedural history

         In 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.[3] 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).

         The 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.

         After 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. at 6.

         Following 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 resolution.

         II. Legal Standard

         “A 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).

         III. Analysis

         The 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.

         A. Plaintiffs' motion for an injunction requiring the District to process initial and recertification SNAP applications in a timely manner.

         First, 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 applications.

         1. Likelihood of success on the merits

         In 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 ...


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