(CN) - Washington did not violate the rights of legal immigrants when it canceled a food-stamp program to save about $7 million in state funds, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday, revoking an injunction that kept the benefits going for more than a year.
The Washington Legislature scrapped the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants (FAP) early last year to save money, but it was soon hit with a class action that claimed the move had violated the equal protection and due process rights of more than 10,000 legal immigrants who received food stamps through the program.
Lead plaintiff Monica Navarro Pimentel claimed that she relied on the program to feed her family, and that canceling it amounted to discrimination against immigrants. U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle quickly issued a preliminary injunction, finding that the class had a strong likelihood of success because a balanced budget does not generally excuse discrimination.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously reversed Wednesday.
Pimentel has neither a likelihood of success nor standing to pursue the issues she cited in her complaint, as she failed to show that the state had treated her differently than other residents when it canceled the program, the Seattle-based panel ruled.
"When Washington terminated FAP, the state denied the plaintiff class benefits that it did not and still does not grant to citizens and other aliens," the unsigned decision states. "Thus, the difficulty with Pimentel's claim is that she offers no similarly situated individuals as a foundation for her equal protection claim."
"Because Pimentel points to no citizens or aliens in Washington currently receiving FAP-like, state-funded food assistance benefits, the termination of FAP does not constitute discrimination, much less alienage-based discrimination, and therefore should not have been subjected to strict scrutiny," the panel added.
Pimentel's attorney, Gregory Provenzano, with Columbia Legal Services in Olympia, Wa., told Courthouse News that no decisions have been made about a next step, but that he had not yet had a chance to review the decision in detail.
The also court said Pimentel did not have standing to pursue the due-process claim. In her complaint, Pimentel questioned the notice requirements of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program for which she is admittedly not eligible. The state's Department of Social and Health Services administers both SNAP and FAP benefits under its Basic Food Program, and the eligibility forms that Pimentel completed did not distinguish between SNAP and FAP benefits.
"A careful consideration of the contours of the SNAP program, including the statutory scheme, source of funding, extent of state involvement, and history, demonstrates that SNAP is a federal program which the state merely assists in administering, rather than a state program which receives federal assistance, and that its beneficiaries are differently situated from, and cannot be compared to, Pimentel," the 26-page ruling states.
"Thus, although the allegedly deficient notice may affect the benefit determinations for other individuals who are potentially SNAP recipients, the deficiency has no bearing on Pimentel's eligibility for food benefits," the panel found. "We agree with the state that Pimentel lacks the concrete and particularized interest required for standing to claim a procedural due process violation with respect to SNAP benefits."
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna applauded the decision.
"Today's ruling recognizes the ability of our state Legislature to make the necessary reductions in our state budget to address Washington's revenue shortfall," McKenna said in a statement sent to Courthouse News. "These decisions are always extremely difficult but the lower court ruling would have essentially tied the state's hands and could have cost us roughly $16.5 million at a time when every penny counts."
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