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Garnett v. Zeilinger

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 23, 2018

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Last year, a group of District of Columbia residents filed suit against Laura Zeilinger, director of the department that administers the District's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”). They alleged that the District's administration of the program fails to adhere to statutory, regulatory, and constitutional requirements. Specifically, plaintiffs contend that the District (1) failed to process their SNAP benefit applications in a timely manner; (2) failed to send timely notices that their eligibility to receive benefits needed to be recertified; and (3) failed to provide any notice of benefit processing delays and the right to a hearing. The Court stayed the District's obligation to respond to the complaint pending resolution of the plaintiffs' motions on class certification and a preliminary injunction. Now that those motions have been resolved, the District has moved to dismiss the amended complaint. The Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part, dismissing the third claim but keeping the remaining two.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The Court addressed the relevant factual and legal background at length in its prior opinions. See Garnett v. Zeilinger (“Garnett II”), __F.Supp.3d__, 2018 WL 2451226, at *1-3 (D.D.C. May 31, 2018) (preliminary injunction opinion); Garnett v. Zeilinger (“Garnett I”), 301 F.Supp.3d 199, 203-04 (D.D.C. 2018) (class certification order). It will therefore provide only an abbreviated background here.

         The SNAP program provides benefits to low-income households to help them purchase food. States that elect to participate in the program receive funding for benefits and 50% of administration costs from the federal government. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2013(a), 2025. In return, States must administer their programs in accordance with federal statutory and regulatory requirements. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e), 7 C.F.R. § 273.2 As relevant here, States must process applications for benefits-both initial applications and applications submitted to recertify eligibility, known as “recertification applications”-within specific timelines. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(3), (9). They also must issue notices informing recipients of the need to recertify eligibility for benefits (known as “recertification notices”) so as to allow recertification without a break in benefits. Id. § 2020(e)(4).

         In August 2017, a group of District residents brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Laura Zeilinger alleging that the District was failing to administer its SNAP program in accordance with federal requirements by (1) not processing applications for benefits within the statutorily-mandated timeframes, (2) not timely issuing recertification notices prior to the expiration of benefits as required by statute, and (3) not providing notice of delays in processing applications and of the right to a hearing. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 171-73[1] They sought injunctive and declaratory relief to remedy these systemic violations. Id. at 31-32.

         Contemporaneous with the complaint, plaintiffs filed a motion to certify two classes. See Garnett I, 301 F.Supp.3d at 204. Shortly thereafter, they moved for a preliminary injunction. See Garnett II, 2018 WL 2451226, at *4. The Court stayed the District's response to the complaint pending the resolution of the two motions. See Minute Order (Sept. 15, 2017). Following a status conference, a period of limited expedited discovery, a hearing on both motions, and additional rounds of briefing, the Court granted the motion for class certification on March 28, 2018 and partially granted the motion for a preliminary injunction on May 31, 2018. See Garnett I, 301 F.Supp.3d at 211-12 (certifying three classes); Garnett II, 2018 WL 2451226, at *1 (granting preliminary injunction). The Court entered the preliminary injunction simultaneously with this ruling. See Preliminary Injunction Order (Aug. 23, 2018).

         In its May 31 ruling on the preliminary injunction request, the Court directed the District to respond to the complaint by July 2018. The District filed this motion to dismiss, which is now ripe for review.

         II. Legal Standards

         The District has moved to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). In addressing such a motion, “[t]he court assumes the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and construes reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor, but is not required to accept the plaintiff's legal conclusions as correct.” Sissel v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (Rule 12(b)(6)); see also Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (Rule 12(b)(1)). For a motion under Rule 12(b)(1), the Court may consider materials outside the pleadings. Jerome Stevens Pharma., 402 F.3d at 1253. In contrast, for a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court may consider only the facts in the complaint, documents attached to or incorporated into the complaint, or matters of which the Court may take judicial notice. See, e.g., EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial School, 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997).

         III. Analysis

         The District moves to dismiss each of the plaintiffs' three claims on the same three grounds: that the plaintiffs lack standing, that they have no cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and that, even if they met those threshold requirements, they have not stated a valid claim. The Court takes those arguments in turn.

         A. Whether plaintiffs have standing

         In challenging the plaintiffs' standing on all three claims, the District advances the same basic argument: that the individual plaintiffs have not shown (1) an ongoing injury that is (2) traceable to the challenged conduct. As to ongoing injury, the District notes that the named plaintiffs' specific complaints about their SNAP benefits have been resolved and all are now receiving the benefits they are legally due. Def.'s Mem. P. & A. Supp. Mot. Dismiss (“Def.'s MTD”) at 11-12. As to traceability, the District argues that the named plaintiffs' delays were caused by idiosyncratic problems, not the District's challenged conduct. Def.'s Reply at 2-4. The plaintiffs respond that the District's arguments go to mootness, not standing, and that exceptions to mootness-primarily voluntary cessation, see Pls.' Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Dismiss (“Pls.' Opp'n) at 11-13, but also the inherently transitory exception, id. at 13 n.5-apply.

         In fact, both issues are in play here: The District's argument that any injuries the plaintiffs suffered are not traceable to the challenged conduct goes to the plaintiffs' standing. “[S]tanding is assessed by considering the facts at the time the complaint was filed.” Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Export-Import Bank of the U.S., 85 F.Supp.3d 250, 260 (D.D.C. 2015). To establish standing, a plaintiff has the burden of showing that she “(1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Id. (citation omitted). Where a plaintiff seeks injunctive relief, the plaintiff must show either an ongoing injury or a future injury. See, e.g., Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015). A future injury is sufficient to sustain standing only “if the threatened injury is certainly impending or there is a substantial risk that the harm will occur.” Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, 134 S.Ct. 2334, 2341 (2014).

         On the other hand, the District's contention that the named plaintiffs cannot invoke federal-court jurisdiction because they are now receiving benefits is really about mootness. Just as Article III requires that plaintiffs have standing when they initiate a lawsuit, they must retain a justiciable controversy throughout the litigation. See, e.g., Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 136 S.Ct. 663, 669 (2016). If not, “the case must be dismissed as moot.” McBride v. Comm. to Review Circuit Council Conduct & Disability Orders of the Judicial Conference of U.S., 264 F.3d 52, 55 (D.C. Cir. 2001). But there are exceptions to this general rule: for instance, a case need not be dismissed when the case becomes moot due to the defendant's voluntary cessation of the challenged conduct. See, e.g., Nat'l Black Police Ass'n v. District of Columbia, 108 F.3d 346, 349 (D.C. Cir. 1997).

         For each claim, then, the Court will start with whether the plaintiffs had standing at the initiation of the suit and will then address, as necessary, whether their current receipt of SNAP benefits moots the case and requires dismissal. Because these issues arise on a motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs need only “state a plausible claim” that the requirements of standing are met. Food & Water Watch, Inc. v. Vilsack, 808 F.3d 905, 913 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). In so determining, the Court “accept[s] the well-pleaded factual allegations” in the complaint “as true and draw[s] all reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor.” Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015). The Court does not, however, “assume the truth of legal conclusions” nor will it “accept inferences that are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court can consider materials outside of the complaint, such as a plaintiff's sworn declaration. Food & Water Watch, 808 F.3d at 913.

         Class actions such as this present several wrinkles in the analysis of standing and mootness. As to standing, individual named plaintiffs representing a class must have standing to pursue their own individual claims at the time the suit was filed. See 1 Newberg on Class Actions § 2:3 (5th ed.). The named plaintiffs cannot rely only upon the standing or injuries of other class members. Id. But, so long as the individual named plaintiffs have standing, the Court need not consider the standing of any absent class members. See id. Where there are multiple classes, as here, each class needs to have one representative with individual standing. See id. § 2:5. In addition, the relief that the individual named plaintiffs have standing to pursue must be consistent with the relief sought by the class. See id. § 2:6. As relevant here, this means that where a class seeks injunctive relief the named plaintiffs must have standing for the same sort of injunctive relief the class seeks. See id. § 5:7.

         Mootness doctrine also has some distinctions in the class action context. First, the Supreme Court has recognized that if a named plaintiff's claims become moot after a class is certified, the Court retains jurisdiction over the case so long as other class members retain a live claim. See, e.g., Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66, 74 (2013). Second, there are unique exceptions to mootness in class action situations. As relevant here, mooting of the named plaintiff's claims-even before class certification-will not require dismissal of the case if “the challenged conduct and the claims raised are ‘so inherently transitory that the trial court will not even have enough time to rule on a motion for class certification before the proposed representative's individual interest expires.'” Id. at 76 (quoting County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44, 52 (1991)). This “inherently transitory” exception applies in “circumstances in which the challenged conduct [is] effectively unreviewable, because no plaintiff possess[es] a personal stake in the suit long enough for litigation to run its course.” Id.

         Against that backdrop, the Court turns to the plaintiffs' standing to bring each of their three claims.

         1. Claim 1

         In their first claim, plaintiffs allege that the District is failing to process benefits for SNAP applications-both initial applications and recertification applications-within the timelines imposed by statute, see 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(3), (9). Am. Compl. ¶ 171. This claim corresponds to the first two classes that the Court certified: (1) District residents whose initial applications for SNAP benefits were not or will not be processed on time and (2) District residents whose recertification applications for SNAP benefits were not or will not be processed on time. See Garnett I, 301 F.Supp.3d at 212. The Court will focus its standing inquiry on the named representatives of Class 1 and Class 2: Shonice G. Garnett, Richard Messick, Jr., Kathryn Harris, and Linda Murph.

         a. Whether plaintiffs had standing when the complaint was filed

         As noted, to establish standing to seek injunctive relief, the named plaintiffs must demonstrate that at the time the complaint (or amended complaint) was filed they suffered (1) an actual injury that was ongoing (or a sufficiently definite threat of future injury), (2) that was traceable to the defendant's challenged conduct, and (3) that is redressable by an injunction from this Court.

         First, all but one of the individual named plaintiffs pled an ongoing actual injury at the time of suit. According to their sworn affidavits, at the time the suit was filed the named plaintiffs were not receiving SNAP benefits they were entitled to under the law. See Decl. of Shonice G. Garnett [ECF No. 2-16], ¶ 5; Decl. of Linda Murph [ECF No. 27-20], ¶ 6; Decl. of Kathryn Harris [ECF No. 27-6], ¶ 3.[2] The lack of SNAP benefits is, as the Court discussed in its preliminary injunction opinion, clearly an actual injury. See Garnett II, 2018 WL 2451226, at *6-7. And since the plaintiffs were at that moment deprived of SNAP benefits, they suffered an ongoing injury as required for injunctive relief.[3]

         Second, despite the District's arguments to the contrary, the named plaintiffs stated an injury that was traceable to the relevant challenged conduct. As to Shonice Garnett, the remaining named plaintiff representing the class of individuals with delayed processing of initial applications, her declaration states that she filed an initial application on July 10, 2017. Decl. of Shonice G. Garnett [ECF No. 2-16], ¶ 7; see also First Decl. of Laura Zeilinger [ECF No. 31-1], ¶ 157b. Ms. Garnett further alleges that she was not receiving benefits associated with that application as of August 24, 2017, more than 30 days after her application was filed. Decl. of Shonice G. Garnett [ECF No. 2-16], ¶ 11. Director Zeilinger's declaration states that Ms. Garnett was provided benefits by August 31, 2017, seemingly confirming Ms. Garnett's account of events. First Decl. of Laura Zeilinger [ECF No. 31-1], ¶ 157d. Thus, Ms. Garnett has attested that she was not receiving SNAP benefits she was due under the law because the District had failed to process her application within 30 days.[4] Her injury (lack of benefits) is thus traceable to the conduct she challenges (the failure to process initial applications within the mandated timelines).

         The same goes for Linda Murph, one of the two named representatives for the class of individuals who experienced delayed processing of recertification applications. According to Ms. Murph, she was due to recertify her eligibility in April 2017 and submitted an application then. Decl. of Linda Murph [ECF No. 27-20], ¶ 5. She attests that she received benefits in May but did not receive any after that. Id. ¶ 6.[5] The Zeilinger Declaration recounts multiple mishaps that apparently led to the termination of Ms. Murph's benefits, including inadvertently entering an incorrect recertification due date. First Decl. of Laura Zeilinger [ECF No. 31-1], ¶ 159. But the declaration does not refute that (1) Ms. Murph submitted a recertification application in April 2017 or (2) her application was untimely processed. As such, given the standards to demonstrate standing on a motion to dismiss, the Court concludes that Ms. Murph has adequately alleged that she was not receiving SNAP benefits she was due because the District failed to process her April 2017 recertification application.

         So, too, for Kathryn Harris, the other named representative for the class of individuals with delayed processing of recertification applications. Ms. Harris states in her declaration that she was due for recertification and completed a recertification application on September 14, 2017. Decl. of Kathryn Harris [ECF No. 27-6], ¶ 5. However, her benefits were terminated at the start of October 2017. Id. ¶ 3. The Zeilinger Declaration confirms that Ms. Harris (1) submitted a recertification application (albeit via email rather than mail or in person) and (2) was not receiving SNAP benefits during the first part of October 2017. First Decl. of Laura Zeilinger [ECF No. 31-1], ¶ 163. Thus, Ms. Harris has adequately alleged at this juncture that she was not ...


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