DC Ordered to Get Food-Stamp Program in Shape

WASHINGTON (CN) – Officials who administer food stamps in the District of Columbia must divert resources to improve how the agency processes applications, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

In a 31-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper called it undisputed that the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services processes less than 95 percent of applications on time for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

This means 500 to 1,000 low-income households receive their benefits late every quarter, Cooper said. He also noted that the processing rate for recertification applications is much lower, clocking in at about 59 percent.

With no regulatory oversight for recertification applications in place, Cooper said the situation warrants court intervention.

“The harms described in these affidavits — forgoing food or other necessities — are clearly irreparable in nature,” he wrote.

Issuing an injunction, Cooper ordered the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services to improve processing time for SNAP recertification applications, and to keep the court apprised of its progress.

Led by Shonice Garnett, the challengers are likely to succeed on part of their claims, Cooper said, because the agency falls far short of absolute compliance with the law. The law, Cooper emphasized, says that “states shall process applications within a specific number of days, without limitations or caveats.”

Illustrating the nature of the harm, Cooper quoted one of the plaintiffs as saying that spending money on food caused her to fall behind on rent and her electricity bill.

Bread for the City, a safety-net nonprofit, brought the suit last year as a class action with Garnett and other low-income D.C. residents.

They contend that D.C. is slow to process food-stamp applications, and is quick to strip benefits without a hearing or a reminder for beneficiaries to reapply.

Jennifer Mezey with the Legal Aid Society in the District of Columbia filed the complaint with attorneys from Washington-based Hogan Lovells and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York.

“We’re very pleased that Judge Cooper recognized the harm to our clients from the District’s illegal practices and we’re very glad that he’s ordered both the injunctive relief and the reporting requirements,” Mezey said in a phone interview.

Mezey said she has not yet informed her clients of the injunction, but noted that some of them were gratified that Cooper seemed to appreciate during a March 19 hearing how difficult it was for them to obtain benefits in the district.

That includes having to line up outside of service centers at 3 a.m., which Mezey said Cooper asked the district about twice during the hearing.

Cooper certified three classes in the case just over a week later, on March 28, but stopped short Thursday of granting the full relief the D.C. residents requested.

They had asked the court to require D.C. Health and Human Services to adhere to the statutory timeline for processing initial applications as well, and to timely notify households when they need to recertify. They also asked Cooper to require the department to notify households of delays and their right to a hearing to contest adverse determinations.

Cooper said the city is close to full compliance with its application processing timeliness rate, noting that the rate for the first quarter of 2018 jumped to nearly 95 percent, up from 80 percent for a time period spanning October 2016 to March 2017.

Cooper also noted that the city is preparing a corrective-action plan to address the rate at which it processes initial applications, which requires it to raise the rate to 95 percent within one year, or face sanctions.

Cooper also expressed reluctance to order any further relief since the agency that oversees SNAP, the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, is monitoring the district’s progress toward full compliance.

But Cooper said he would continue to monitor the ongoing regulatory process, and will consider further action if the District’s processing rates don’t increase, or it fails to comply with or progress in its corrective action plan.

Conrad Risher with the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia did not respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling.

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