WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge who restored federal funding last month for teen-pregnancy prevention groups expounded on her decision Friday, saying that the government’s silence in slashing the grants at issue spoke volumes.
“Under the most elementary precepts of administrative law, an agency has no choice but to provide a reasoned explanation for its actions, and it cannot undertake to act in a manner that is contrary to its own regulations,” U.S. District Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson wrote.
Four groups — Policy and Research LLC, Project Vida Health Center, Sexual Health Initiatives for Teens North Carolina, and the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy — brought the underlying challenge in February 2018.
Seven months earlier, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services abruptly cut the budgets of a program called the TPPP, short for Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, that has existed since 2010.
TPPP awards run on five-year cycles, and there were two years left in the latest cycle when when Health and Human Services announced the underlying shift.
“The most striking thing about the agency action that plaintiffs challenge in this case is the fact that HHS provided no explanation whatsoever for its decision to ‘shorten” the project periods pertaining to plaintiffs’ grants,” Jackson wrote, abbreviating the name of the agency. “The agency merely announced the change as a foregone conclusion, an ipse dixit if you will, and presumably expected plaintiffs not to notice that their grants were being terminated two years early without any statement of cause or a finding that any of the other circumstances set forth in HHS’s termination rules existed. In its summary judgment brief, the agency breezily contends that its ‘policy concerns with the current TPPP Program are a matter of public record.’
“But as far as the administrative record is concerned, HHS said nothing to plaintiffs at the time that it cut short their project periods, and it certainly did not undertake the kind of reasoned analysis of potential causes that the APA and its own regulations require,” the ruling continues, using an abbreviation for the Administrative Procedures Act.
To resolve the matter expeditiously, Jackson awarded the challengers summary judgment in a bench decision on April 19. Her ruling Friday formalizes those findings.
“In short, it is clear to this court that, while a federal agency’s allocation of congressionally appropriated grant funding is the type of discretionary action that is presumptively unreviewable, HHS’s regulations provide clear and applicable standards for evaluating plaintiffs’ challenge to the agency’s decision to shorten the project periods for plaintiffs’ federal awards, such that HHS’s decision to shorten plaintiffs’ project periods is not unreviewable agency action,” the ruling states. “And because HHS terminated Plaintiffs’ grant funding within the meaning of the HHS regulations without any explanation and in contravention of its own regulations, HHS’s action easily qualifies as an arbitrary and capricious act under the APA.”
HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in an email that the agency is disappointed with the ruling.
“As numerous studies have shown, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is not working,” Oakley said. “Continuing the program in its current state does a disservice to the youth it serves and to the taxpayers who fund it. Communities deserve better, and we are considering our next steps.”
Back in August last year, a month after it disbanded program funding, HHS released a statement that identified various failures.
“Overall, of the 37 funded and evaluated projects, 73% either had no impact or had a negative impact on teen behavior, with some teens more likely to begin having sex, to engage in unprotected sex, or to become pregnant,” the department’s release said.
Judge Jackson nevertheless slammed the funding cuts as arbitrary and capricious.
“It is undisputed that these organizations [that receive TPPP funding] are not able to obtain alternative sources of funding to offset the loss of funds from the TPPP grants, and the loss of funding will force Plaintiffs to cease ongoing studies, terminate programs currently taking place in various communities, and lay off employees,” Jackson wrote.