554 F.Supp. 539 (D.Vt. 1982), Civ. A. 80-317, Colbeth v. Wilson

Docket Nº:Civ. A. 80-317
Citation:554 F.Supp. 539
Party Name:Colbeth v. Wilson
Case Date:September 22, 1982
Court:United States District Courts, 2nd Circuit, District of Vermont

Page 539

554 F.Supp. 539 (D.Vt. 1982)

Deborah COLBETH, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated


David WILSON, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Social Welfare.

Civ. A. No. 80-317.

United States District Court, D. Vermont.

Sept. 22, 1982

On Renewal Motion for Summary Judgment Dec. 14, 1982.

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Wendy Morgan, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., St. Johnsbury, Vt., for plaintiff.

Michael McShane, Asst. Atty. Gen., Vermont Dept. of Social Welfare, Montpelier, Vt., for defendant.


COFFRIN, District Judge.

In this civil action, plaintiff, on behalf of herself and others similarly situated, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against defendant David Wilson in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Social Welfare. Plaintiff contends that defendant's interpretation and implementation of the Vermont Food Stamp Manual violates her rights under the Food Stamp Act of 1964, as amended, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2011-2029 (1976 & Supp. IV 1980) its accompanying regulations, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Jurisdiction is predicated upon 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1337, 1343(a)(3) (Supp. IV 1980). Plaintiff further alleges that the court has pendent jurisdiction over her statutory claims. Finally, plaintiff asserts that her requests for declaratory and injunctive relief are authorized by 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, 2202, (1976 & Supp. IV 1980) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Supp. IV 1980). This court granted plaintiff's Motion for Class Certification on December 14, 1981. 1

Defendant generally denies the allegations set forth in the complaint. Defendant also submits that this court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter, 2 plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and the claims are barred by operation of the Eleventh Amendment to the

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U.S. Constitution. The case is now before this court on cross-motions for summary judgment.


The Department of Agriculture, pursuant to the Food Stamp Act of 1964, instituted a food stamp program. The purpose of the original Act has been characterized as bifurcated, with equal emphasis upon enhancing the agricultural economy and raising levels of nutrition among low-income families. United States Department of Agriculture v. Murry, 413 U.S. 508, 514, 93 S.Ct. 2832, 2835, 37 L.Ed.2d 757 (1973) (Stewart, J., concurring); H.R.Rep. No. 345, 95th Cong., 1st Sess. 422-23, reprinted in 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 1704, 2350-51 [hereinafter, "1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News ----."] The revised declaration of policy inserted into the Act in 1977 "place[d] the anti-hunger policy in a paramount position and ... downgrade [d] the disposition of [agricultural] surpluses as a program goal." 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 2350-51.

Under the original Food Stamp Act, the States determined food stamp eligibility. The federal government only required that State standards be consistent with those adopted by the State for use in conjunction with other federally aided public assistance programs. 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 1987. The 1971 amendments, however, substantially modified the Act. By means of the amendments, Congress vested in the Secretary the authority to establish uniform national standards of eligibility for participation by households in the food stamp program. Food Stamp Act--Amendments of 1971, Pub.L. No. 91-671, 84 Stat. 2048 (1971), cited in Compton v. Tennessee Department of Public Welfare, 532 F.2d 561, 563 (6th Cir.1976). Federal standards, comprised of income eligibility, resource (assets) eligibility, and work registration requirements, were substituted for the State criteria. Food stamp eligibility became predicated upon the finding that an applicant household's anticipated monthly income was less than the amount that would allow it to purchase a nutritionally adequate diet when spending not more than 30 percent of its available income. The income eligibility limits thus focused upon the household's net income, an artificial concept based upon a definition of income that included certain payments received by or made on behalf of household members, excluded other such payments, and was further adjusted by the subtraction of various deductions. 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 1987, 1995.

Congress again revised the Act in 1977. Food Stamp Act of 1977, Pub.L. No. 95-113, §§ 1301-1304; 91 Stat. 958 (1977). "The old system of Secretarial discretion within the parameters of Congressional goals [was] abandoned in favor of Congressionally set income limitations implementing the broadly-stated Congressional goal," namely, to facilitate participation in the food stamp program of households whose incomes substantially limited their ability to obtain a nutritious diet. 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 1995.

The 1977 amendments also eliminated the previous program requirement that eligible households purchase food stamps, and in its stead established a system whereby households received an allotment of stamps. Household income remained the predicate for eligibility and, in its definition of income, Congress "cast the broadest possible net," encompassing "all income from whatever source derived." 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 2001. See Carter v. Blum, 493 F.Supp. 368, 370-71, 371 n. 8 (S.D.N.Y.1980). In lieu of the various itemized deductions previously allowed by the Secretary, Congress established a standardized deduction as well as certain limited deductions designed to serve as work incentives and to equalize the circumstances of working and nonworking households. 1977 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News at 2037. Included in the latter category of deductions were a 20 percent earned income deduction and a dependent care deduction with a stated ceiling. Id. at 2045, 2393. Relatedly, the amended Act made provision for program-related monetary allowances for such expenses as travelling or training; unless otherwise

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excluded by law, the allowances were included in income, but thereafter excluded under the reimbursement exclusion provision of the amended Act. Id. at 2003-04. In so proceeding, Congress remained true to its expansive definition of income, yet accommodated its concern for preserving work incentives.

The statutory provision at issue in the instant case is 7 U.S.C. § 2014, which establishes exclusions from income in the assessment of eligibility for food stamps. In particular, we are concerned with section 2014(d)(5), which, from the time of the 1977 amendments until subsequent to the filing of this suit, excluded "reimbursements which do not exceed expenses actually incurred and which do not represent a gain or benefit to the household." Also of relevance is 7 C.F.R. § 273.9(c)(5) (1982), which defines excluded income. Section 273.9(c)(5) of the Vermont Food Stamp Manual is identical to 7 C.F.R. § 273.9(c)(5).

Subsequent to the filing of this action, Congress amended 7 U.S.C. § 2014(d)(5) to exclude from household income "reimbursements which do not exceed expenses actually incurred and which do not represent a gain or benefit to the household: Provided, that no portion of benefits provided under title IV-A of the Social Security Act, to the extent it is attributable to an adjustment for work-related or child care expenses, shall be considered such reimbursement ...." 7 U.S.C.A. § 2014(d)(5) (West Supp.1982) (emphasis added). Title IV-A of the Social Security Act is the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) section of the Act, which appears at 42 U.S.C.A.§§ 601-615 (West 1974 & Supp.1982).

Plaintiff filed application for food stamp benefits with the State Department of Social Welfare (DSW) in September 1980. Later that month, DSW issued a Notice of Decision denying the application on the ground that plaintiff's income was in excess of DSW standards. Factored into the computation of plaintiff's income for purposes of determining her eligibility for food stamp benefits was a figure representing her monthly AFDC grant. The AFDC grant was computed on the basis of plaintiff's gross income less allowable deductions for employment-related child care and transportation expenses. Once plaintiff's net income was determined for purposes of AFDC calculations, however, the AFDC grant was increased by the exact amount of the total allowable deduction for child care and transportation expenses.

When considering plaintiff's eligibility for food stamp benefits, DSW included in its computation of income the full amount of the AFDC grant; that is, DSW recognized no exclusion of the amount representing child care and transportation expenses by which the AFDC grant had been increased. This calculation procedure rendered plaintiff ineligible for food stamp benefits. Defendant concedes that plaintiff would have been eligible for a food stamp allotment if the amount by which her AFDC grant was augmented as a result of the deductions had been considered as an exclusion from income for purposes of the food stamp program.

DSW did exclude from plaintiff's gross income certain child care and transportation subsidies that plaintiff received from non-AFDC sources. Pursuant to a provision of the State Welfare Assistance Manual, the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS) furnished certain additional child care costs on behalf of persons such as plaintiff. DSW excluded these monies from gross income in the determination of plaintiff's eligibility for food stamp allotments. Similarly, plaintiff received monies for transportation costs incurred in conjunction with her enrollment in a Work Incentive Program. DSW also excluded these monies from plaintiff's income in the determination of her eligibility for food stamp benefits.

This case requires us to examine the interaction of the eligibility calculation provision of the AFDC statute and that section of the Food Stamp Act that provides...

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