Alameda County Gets Break on Tardy Food Stamps

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge Wednesday temporarily suspended an order that Alameda County report on its attempt to speed up processing of food stamp applications, but refused to alter a second part of the injunction.
     The county sought to modify two provisions of a permanent injunction: that its social services agency report on “pending, expedited applications” for food stamps; and that it inform applicants of the need to recertify their benefits to keep receiving them.
     U.S. District Judge James Donato on Wednesday suspended the reporting requirement for three months, but refused to touch the recertification.
     “It is a trivial, de minimis step consistent with the spirit of the injunction,” Donato said. “I think it will benefit the class, and I have not heard a single thing that persuades me that Alameda is put out even in the slightest.”
     Lead plaintiff Donald Ray Lilley’s September 2015 class action claimed Alameda County’s tardy processing left more than 10,000 people waiting for benefits in the East Bay.
     Donato in March ordered the county social services agency to process food stamp applications faster.
     Federal law requires that counties process applications for CalFresh food stamp benefits within 30 days and emergency food assistance requests within three days.
     At the end of July 2015, Alameda County had 10,657 pending CalFresh applications and ranked dead last among the state’s 58 counties for processing requests on time, according to the state’s Department of Social Services.
     The injunction requires the county to submit monthly reports to plaintiffs’ counsel on the number of applications received and processed, and those not assigned to a caseworker within seven days.
     If the percentage of applications denied exceeds the percentage denied in the previous month by more than 10 percent, the county must turn over a random sample of 30 cases to plaintiffs’ counsel to determine if the denials were properly issued.
     The Social Services Agency has increased its rate for processing pending, expedited applications by 10 percent in the past six months to a rate of 96 percent in June, the county said in a July 8 reply memorandum.
     “The agency clearly does not need information about pending, expedited applications to improve its timeliness rate,” the county said in the reply memorandum.
     But Donato said he does not understand why the county refuses to include language about recertification in its notice materials to applicants.
     Defendants’ counsel Eri Reding said the recertification language is unnecessary because CalFresh applicants already receive information about it through multiple channels.
     “It’s not like there is a void of information on this topic,” she said.
     “Why is a little extra [information] going to kill you?” Donato asked, adding that making the changes would be easy. Changes to electronic materials would need to be made just one time and posters need be updated with a single sentence, he said.
     Redding said application processing is a small part of the CalFresh program, and that the plaintiffs’ premise for including recertification language could be applied to the other components of the CalFresh program.
     Donato was not persuaded.
     “Typically, you draw the line when it is one step too far,” the judge said. “It is hard for me see how a little tiny change in your applications one time is a step too far.”
     Plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Loran said the recertification language is needed to protect applicants from unknowingly being dropped from the system and learning only at the grocery store that they can’t pay for their food.
     “It’s a draconian outcome if it does happen,” Loran said. “It’s difficult to come back from that and we wanted to be sure the county has taken affirmative steps to make sure that is not happening.”
     In their opposition to the county’s motion to modify the injunction, the plaintiffs said they tried to compromise with the county by requiring that it update its posters and paper applications only going forward, so it would not have to spend money reprinting them, but the county rejected the compromise.
     Attorney Loran is with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw & Pittman.

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