Federal Judge Hears Arguments Over Lifting Food Stamps Cap in California

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Whether California households already maxed out on government food aid can receive extra pandemic-related assistance may turn on how much deference a federal judge decides to give the Agriculture Department’s interpretation of the emergency coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March.

U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam declined to lift the ceiling on emergency food stamp allotments in June in response to a class action challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cap on monthly benefits.

The lawsuit sought to enjoin the department from denying any requests from the state of California for additional food stamps, claiming the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted by Congress on March 18, set aside extra money for SNAP benefits for households experiencing temporary income loss.

The state has yet to officially enter the fray but signaled in court documents its intent to seek benefits on behalf of households already receiving the maximum monthly benefit.

California had requested a flat emergency allotment of $60 per SNAP participant, a request that the USDA denied only because the state wanted to dole it out “equitably” to all SNAP recipients in the state contrary to the USDA’s guidance. 

The USDA, which administers the SNAP program, believes Congress intended the new law to “top off” households experiencing “temporary food needs,” not provide an across-the-board SNAP increase for households already receiving maximum benefits. 

Counsel for two food stamp recipients maintains that the USDA wrongly interprets Section 2302 of the FFCRA as empowering it to limit emergency allotments to those that bring a household up to its maximum benefit.

On Thursday, attorneys for the government were back in court raising essentially the same arguments.

Lindsay Nako, special counsel with the non-profit Impact Fund, told Gilliam that the FFCRA actually created a separate SNAP benefit and that the USDA’s contrary interpretation “has denied emergency food support to a million of California SNAP households, nearly half, and indeed the most vulnerable half.”

But Gilliam wondered where he should draw the line. Raising an admittedly “colossal” hypothetical figure, he asked Nako if the plaintiffs were asking that the USDA be required to grant any future request California might make for additional benefits no matter what the amount.

“What I’m really asking is what am I ordering the USDA to do in your requested world?” he added. 

“In our requested world you are ordering the USDA to follow the statute,” Nako said, which would be to issue an order barring the USDA from “denying an otherwise appropriate request solely because it provides emergency allotments to maximum allotment households.”

Nako informed Gilliam of a parallel action in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, led by a plaintiff who shares the judge’s surname. Laughing, he said, “Now I have to recuse myself.”

Arguing for the government, Justice Department attorney Rachel Westmoreland said the SNAP program is already strained, pointing to a declaration by USDA official David Burr that warns of a rapidly depleting reserve of SNAP funds. 

“Based on the funds currently available, USDA lacks sufficient funding to provide separate emergency allotments at the maximum monthly allotment for the household size to all households receiving SNAP for a future month without being statutorily required to reduce regular SNAP payments,” Burr writes.

Gilliam took the arguments under submission, but not before asking attorneys to submit additional briefing on whether he should defer to the department’s reading of the FFCRA under a doctrine known as Chevron deference, whereby a judge cannot substitute their own interpretation of a statute for a government agency’s, as long as it’s reasonable. 

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