United States District Court, District of Columbia
SHONICE G. GARNETT et al., Plaintiffs,
LAURA ZEILINGER, Defendant.
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
Factual and Procedural Background
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
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).
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 They sought injunctive and declaratory
relief to remedy these systemic violations. Id. at
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,
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.
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).
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.
Whether plaintiffs have standing
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.
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).
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).
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
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.
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.
that backdrop, the Court turns to the plaintiffs'
standing to bring each of their three claims.
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.
Whether plaintiffs had standing when the complaint was
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.
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. 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.
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. Her injury (lack of benefits) is thus
traceable to the conduct she challenges (the failure to
process initial applications within the mandated timelines).
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. 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
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 ...