Dist. of Columbia v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., Civil Action No. 20-119 (BAH)

Citation444 F.Supp.3d 1
Decision Date13 March 2020
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 20-119 (BAH)
Parties DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Plaintiffs, v. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, et al., Defendants. Bread for the City, et al., Plaintiffs, v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Nicole Suzanne Hill, David Brunfeld, Kathleen M. Konopka, Office of the Attorney General for the District Of Columbia, Vikram Swaruup, Office of the Attorney General, Chinh Q. Le, Jennifer F. Mezey, Nicole Dooley, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Daniel G. Jarcho, Kelley C. Barnaby, Hilla Shimshoni, Jean Richmann, Kaelyne Yumul Wietelman, Alston & Bird LLP, Washington, DC, Jean Richmann, Alston & Bird LLP, San Francisco, CA, Raechel J. Bimmerle, Alston & Bird LLP, Atlanta, GA, Matthew Colangelo, Eric R. Haren, Joel Marrero, New York State Office of the Attorney General, New York, NY, Joshua Perry, Office of the Connecticut Attorney General, Hartford, CT, Toni L. Harris, Michigan Department of Attorney General Lansing, MI, Ali Patrick Afsharjavan, Minnesota Attorney General'S Office, St. Paul, MN, Aimee D. Thomson, Office Of The Attorney General, Impact Litigation Section, Philadelphia, PA, Jessica Merry Samuels, Michelle S. Kallen, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, VA, Elizabeth Roberson-Young, Office of the Attorney General, Jeffrey VanDam, Illinois Attorney General'S Office Chicago, IL, Melissa Lewis, Dept. of the Attorney General, State Of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, Susan P. Herman, Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, ME, for Plaintiffs.

Chetan A. Patil, Liam Holland, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

BERYL A. HOWELL, Chief Judge In this country of plenty, the federal and state governments work together to ensure that low-income Americans and their families do not go hungry. The largest federal food assistance program that serves as the cornerstone of this joint federal-state effort to reduce hunger — and hunger's adverse effects on health, educational achievement, and housing security — is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. A new federal rule poised to go into effect in a few weeks, in April 2020, would dramatically alter the long-standing operations of the SNAP program, placing more stringent requirements on states' award of SNAP benefits with concomitant, virtually immediate effects on the lives, by the federal government's estimate, of over one million individuals currently receiving SNAP benefits. Of those million, nearly 700,000 would lose their benefits. Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential.

Nineteen states, the District of Columbia, the City of New York, and three private plaintiffs have moved to enjoin preliminarily and to stay this new federal rule, issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), that would limit state-implemented waivers of the work requirements on which receipt of food assistance from SNAP may be conditioned. See Final Rule, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Requirements for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, 84 Fed. Reg. 66782 (Dec. 5, 2019) ; see also State Pls.' Mot. for Prelim. Inj. or 5 U.S.C. § 705 Stay Pending Judicial Review ("State Pls.' Mot."), ECF No. 3; Pls.' Mot. for Prelim. Inj. ("Private Pls.' Mot."), Bread For the City, et al. v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., et al. , 20-cv-127, ECF No. 4.

The low-income Americans targeted by USDA's Final Rule depend on monthly SNAP benefits to avoid hunger. These SNAP participants may wield little political or economic power, but, nonetheless, USDA's proposed changes to take away nutrition benefits from almost 700,000 people prompted "more than 100,000 comments," the "majority" of which the agency concedes were opposed to the proposed changes. 84 Fed. Reg. at 66783–84. Notwithstanding these critical comments, USDA proceeded in the challenged Final Rule to adopt changes that, in some respects, were more draconian than those initially proposed. Although the hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals who stand to lose their benefits had little direct voice in that rulemaking process, the process exists to protect them and ensure that the agency cannot terminate their benefits arbitrarily. Under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), agency rules, like USDA's, are unlawful unless the agency has considered the relevant evidence, has weighed the consequences of its actions, and has rationally justified its choices. USDA says it did all that here, but USDA is not the arbiter of the Final Rule's legality. The courts are, and this Court has determined that aspects of the Final Rule are likely unlawful because they are arbitrary and capricious. USDA will be enjoined from implementing those aspects of the Final Rule nationwide pending final judicial review.

The Final Rule relates to provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) that conditioned the eligibility for SNAP benefits of able-bodied adults without disabilities, or ABAWDs, on meeting work-related requirements. See Pub. L. No. 104-193 § 824, 110 Stat. 2105, 2323 (1996) (codified at 7 U.S.C. § 2015 ). Recognizing that the imposition of inflexible work requirements would undermine the SNAP program's effectiveness in alleviating hunger, Congress created two relevant exceptions. First, PRWORA provided that, "[o]n the request of a State," USDA "may waive the work requirements" in "area[s]" that "do not have a sufficient number of jobs" for ABAWDs. 7 U.S.C. § 2015(o)(4)(A). Portions of the challenged Final Rule set to become effective on April 1, 2020, redefine waiver "area[s]" and limit the ways that states can show lack of sufficient jobs. See 84 Fed. Reg. at 66802 ; see also id. (printing parts of the regulation to be codified, including the challenged portions: (f)(2) and (f)(4)). Second, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (BBA) allowed states to exempt from the work requirements up to 15% of all "covered individuals in the State." 7 U.S.C. § 2015(o)(6)(C)(D) ; see also Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-33 § 1001, 111 Stat. 251, 252 (1997). Portions of the Final Rule set to become effective on October 1, 2020, limit states' ability to carry unused discretionary exemptions to later years. See 84 Fed. Reg. at 66802. For the reasons stated below, plaintiffs' motions are DENIED as to the discretionary exemption portions of the Final Rule. Plaintiffs' motions are GRANTED as to the waiver portions of the Final Rule.

I. BACKGROUND

Review of the procedural background follows discussion of the statutory framework, the regulatory framework, and the challenged Rule.

A. Statutory Framework

Congress created SNAP in 1964 "to alleviate ... hunger and malnutrition" by providing "supplemental nutrition assistance" to "low-income households." 7 U.S.C. § 2011 ; see also Food Stamp Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-525, 78 Stat. 703 (1964). SNAP offers non-cash benefits that can be used to buy eligible food at approved retail stores. See 7 U.S.C. § 2011 ; id. at § 2013(a). The program served an average of 42.1 million recipients per month in fiscal year 2017. See 83 Fed. Reg. 8013, 8013 (Feb. 23, 2018). Average monthly benefits are about $123, while average monthly benefits for ABAWDs are around $160. See USDA, Characteristics of Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (2018), https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/characteristics-able-bodied-adults-without-dependents; see also Edward Bolen Decl. ("Bolen Decl."), Att. 2 at 228, ECF No. 3-2 (quoting the figure for ABAWDs).

USDA "is authorized to formulate and administer" SNAP, 7 U.S.C. § 2013(a), and has delegated those responsibilities to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a part of USDA, 7 C.F.R. § 271.3(a). Congress also explicitly granted USDA authority to "issue" regulations "necessary or appropriate" to implement SNAP and prescribed that USDA "shall promulgate all such regulations in accordance with" the APA's notice and comment rulemaking procedures. 7 U.S.C. § 2013(c).

States, including the District, also play a significant role in administering SNAP. See 7 U.S.C. § 2012(r) (including the District in the relevant definition of "State").

By statute, state agencies "have responsibility for certifying applicant households" as eligible for SNAP and for "issuing" benefits. Id. § 2020(a)(1); see also Garnett v. Zeilinger , 313 F. Supp. 3d 147, 151–52 (D.D.C. 2018) (describing state responsibilities). The federal government funds at least half of each state's costs to "operat[e]" SNAP, 7 U.S.C. § 2025(a), and federal funds cover the full cost of SNAP benefits paid, see id. § 2019.

1. Work Requirement Waivers

PRWORA, which amended the Food Stamp Act of 1977, conditioned ABAWD's eligibility for SNAP benefits on meeting work-related requirements. ABAWDS are specifically defined as individuals between 18 and 49 years of age who are not "medically certified as physically or mentally unfit for employment," are not "a parent or other member of a household with responsibility for a dependent child," are not pregnant, and are not "otherwise exempt under subsection (d)(2)." 7 U.S.C. § 2015(o)(3) ; see also id. § 2015(d)(2) (providing a variety of exemptions, including for students and for those participating in drug treatment programs). Under 7 U.S.C. § 2015(o), ABAWDs can only receive SNAP benefits for three months in a "36-month period" unless they are working or participating in job training for "20 hours or more per week, averaged monthly." Id. § 2015(o)(2).1

Congress recognized that blunt application of those work requirements in areas where few jobs are available would advance neither PRWORA's goal of engaging ABAWDs in the...

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