Judge Rules FEMA Within Its Authority to Deny Texas Flood Victims Aid

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge dismissed claims against the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought by Texas homeowners who said the agency wrongly denied them home-repair assistance after a flood.

In a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, DC last September, the 26 plaintiffs from four Texas counties claimed the agency denied all or part of their repair-assistance requests after storms in 2015 and 2016 substantially damaged their homes and never explained why.

The plaintiffs say FEMA failed to disclose the standards it relied upon to deny them disaster assistance despite a congressional mandate that they do so.

In short, they said, “nobody outside FEMA can discern how FEMA decides eligibility for disaster assistance.”

They argued federal law requires FEMA to make decision on aid distribution only through ruled published in the Code of Federal Regulations.

But in a ruling announced Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Amit Metha says the plaintiffs misinterpreted the Congressional mandate that forms the basis of their claim.

The mandate, now known as the Stafford Act, but originally named the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, directs FEMA to provide assistance to people affected by major disasters in the United States.

A 2000 amendment to the Act clarified that the agency was to exercise its own discretion when distributing their aid, and FEMA argued, in response to the lawsuit, that that’s exactly what it did.

As to the plaintiffs’ argument in regard to the Code of Federal Regulations, Mehta said a plain reading of the Stafford Act simply doesn’t support their claim.

Referencing the Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in La Union Del Pueblo Entero v. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mehta said, “The court explained that ‘although the C.F.R. materials do not lay out the criteria, standards, and procedures for determining eligibility for assistance with as much specificity as might be desired, we cannot conclude that the regulations contravene Congress’s directive to issue eligibility regulations.’”

The judge said this conclusion applies to the current case as well.

“The Stafford Act’s discretionary function exception bars Plaintiffs’ challenge to FEMA’s … rulemaking,” Mehta said.

Brittany Trotter, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency had no comment on the ruling.

Jerome Wesevich, who represented the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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