Court Hammers Connecticut on Delays With Food Stamps

     MANHATTAN (CN) – Connecticut must issue food stamps to applicants in as few seven days, the Second Circuit ruled Monday, rejecting the state’s reliance on federal law.
     The injunction upheld today says households that are “especially needy” can receive food stamps within a week, but other applicants must receive benefits within 30 days of their applications, as mandated by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
     James Briggs brought the federal class action to enforce SNAP’s time limits, and U.S. District Judge Vanessa Bryant issued the injunction after finding evidence of systemic failures in the state’s handling of food stamps.
     Nearly one-fifth of recipients from August 2010 to February 2012 had to wait longer than 30 days for stamps and more than half of the stamps sought by the especially needy took longer than the mandated seven days, the court found.
     In appealing Bryant’s injunction, Assistant Attorney General Hugh Barber had argued before the Second Circuit that there is no right to a timely receipt of food stamps, and that federal regulations excuse the state authority from statutory deadlines.
     Barber representing Roderick Bremby, the state’s commissioner of social services.
     Class counsel Marc Cohan with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice meanwhile cited the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case Blessing v. Freestone.
     Blessing allows for private litigants to enforce a right via federal lawsuit as long as Congress intended for the law to have such a benefit, the law is not vague and its binding limitations on states are unambiguous.
     Looking at the language and effect of the Food Stamp Act, “these factors establish that Congress has conferred individual rights upon food stamp applicants in clear and unambiguous terms,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for a three-judge panel Monday.
     David Dearborn, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Social Services, meamwhile emphasized “Connecticut’s tremendous progress with timeliness and accuracy over the past several years, while serving increased numbers of eligible households,” adding that the office is reviewing the disappointing decision.
     Barber failed to sway the court that administrative enforcement of the Food Stamp Act’s time limits undermines any private right to a timely eligibility determination.
     “We conclude that Congress did not impliedly preclude private enforcement of the Food Stamp Act’s time limits by granting enforcement powers to the secretary of Agriculture,” Calabresi wrote. “And we therefore hold that the time limits for allocating food stamps provided in 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(3) and (9) are privately enforceable through lawsuits brought under § 1983.”
     Federal regulations do not excuse the state for missing deadlines either, the court found.
     Though the state said certain language required Social Services to determine an applicant’s eligibility only “promptly,” Calabresi said “the obvious problem with this interpretation is that there would be no way for the DSS to complete certification and provide an allotment of food stamps to all ‘eligible households’ within 30 days of the filing of an application, as 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(3) expressly requires, if the DSS did not first determine – not only ‘promptly,’ but well within 30 days – which households are ‘eligible’ and which are not.”
     The safety net of regulations that the government created in case a state agency misses a statutory deadline “cannot be read to repeal those deadlines,” Calabresi added.
     Briggs has said he spent more than a year fighting with state officials over his tardy food stamps. Connecticut at one point had ranked dead last among all states – as well as behind Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam – in terms of the timely and accurate allocation of food stamps. Social Security’s Dearborn meanwhile said the state is currently on par to receive a top-10 ranking from federal regulators in terms of its payment accuracy.
     The state estimates a little more than 230,000 households are on food stamps.
     After Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Connecticut faced misappropriation-of-benefits allegations with regardd to special-disaster-related food stamps. The scandal resulted in dozens of state-employee firings.
     Meanwhile congressional Republicans continue to seek cutbacks to the $74 billion SNAP program.
     Class counsel Cohan said he is not sure the ruling applies to other states, but added there is no other legal precedent regarding SNAP.

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