Judge Keeps Pressure on DC in Food-Stamp Challenge

WASHINGTON (CN) – The District of Columbia must face a lawsuit over its slow processing of food-stamp applications and its failure to notify recipients when it’s time to recertify their benefits, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Having already certified two classes back in March, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper hammered D.C. Health and Human Services in May for failing to timely process 95 percent of applications to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The district has faced a court order since then to improve processing time for benefits, and it argued last month that there is no need anymore for the case against it to remain in place.

Rejecting the claim of mootness Thursday, however, Cooper pointed to the district’s own admission that it fails to process all applications within the 30-day statutory window.

“As such, at any given moment there are recipients who are not receiving SNAP benefits owed under the law because of a delay in processing their applications,” the 24-page opinion says. “There is thus a constant class of individuals suffering the injury complained of (loss of SNAP benefits) because of the challenged conduct.” (Parentheses in original).

The challengers also seek relief from the district’s failure to notify beneficiaries when it was time to recertify their benefits, Cooper noted. Indeed several plaintiffs in the case say this conduct has led to their benefits being terminated.

Since SNAP benefits must be recertified every six to 12 months, Cooper said it was likely the plaintiffs in that class will within a year be faced with the possibility of again loosing benefits if they do not receive recertification notices.

Cooper did agree Thursday to dismiss one claim of the lawsuit: a challenge of the district’s failure to provide a written notice of processing delays, along with notice of a right to a hearing.

None of the plaintiffs in the case identified an injury they could trace to the alleged conduct, the ruling says.

“Even if the district had provided notice of any delay in processing and of the right to seek a due process hearing, that would not have altered the fact that the plaintiffs were not receiving the SNAP benefits they were due under the law and thus would not have alleviated the injury that the plaintiffs identify,” the ruling says.

Jennifer Mezey with the Legal Aid Society in the District of Columbia, which initiated the complaint with the law firm Hogan Lovells and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said they were pleased overall with the ruling.

“We think that this goes a long way to holding the district accountable for making sure that they’re getting people their food stamp benefits they need so much,” Mezey said in a phone interview. “And hopefully will bring about improvements in the system so that people don’t have to go to federal court in order to get their food stamp benefits.”

Conrad Risher with the D.C. Office of the Attorney General did not respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling.

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