Hall v. U.S. Dep't of Agric.

Decision Date31 December 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20-16232,20-16232
Citation984 F.3d 825
Parties Robin HALL ; Steven Summers, Individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; George Perdue, In his official capacity as United States Secretary of Agriculture, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

MILLER, Circuit Judge:

As part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First Act), Pub. L. No. 116-127, 134 Stat. 178 (2020), which provides for emergency assistance to households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Section 2302(a)(1) of the Families First Act authorizes "emergency allotments to households participating in [SNAP] ... to address temporary food needs not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size." Id. § 2302(a)(1), 134 Stat. at 188. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers SNAP, concluded that the statute allows households receiving less than the maximum monthly allotment of SNAP benefits to be brought up to the maximum but does not permit those already receiving the maximum to be given any additional benefits. We are asked to decide whether USDA has correctly interpreted the statute. We conclude that it has.


Congress created SNAP—formerly known as the food stamp program—to

"alleviate ... hunger and malnutrition" by "increasing [the] food purchasing power" of low-income households. 7 U.S.C. § 2011 ; see Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-246, § 4001(b), 122 Stat. 1651, 1853–82. SNAP is a federally funded, state-administered program that distributes monthly benefits, or "allotments," to eligible households. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2013(a), 2020. Households can use those allotments "to purchase food from retail food stores." Id. § 2013(a).

A household's monthly allotment is calculated by reference to the "thrifty food plan," which is "the diet required to feed a family of four," as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2012(u), 2017(a). The value of each household's allotment is equal to the cost of the thrifty food plan, adjusted for household size, minus 30 percent of the household's income. Id. § 2017(a). Households with no income receive the maximum monthly allotment, which is equal to the entire cost of the thrifty food plan, adjusted for household size. Id. §§ 2012(u), 2017(a).

On March 18, 2020, Congress enacted the Families First Act, which provides for supplemental SNAP benefits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. See Families First Act, § 2302, 134 Stat. at 188. "In the event of a public health emergency declaration by the Secretary of Health and Human Services ... based on an outbreak of [COVID-19] and the issuance of an emergency or disaster declaration by a State based on an outbreak of COVID-19," section 2302(a)(1) of the Families First Act directs the Secretary of Agriculture to provide "for emergency allotments to households participating in [SNAP] under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to address temporary food needs not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size." Id. § 2302(a)(1), 134 Stat. at 188. Section 2302(a)(2) further permits the Secretary to "adjust, at the request of State agencies or by guidance in consultation with one or more State agencies, issuance methods and application and reporting requirements under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to be consistent with what is practicable under actual conditions in affected areas." Id. § 2302(a)(2), 134 Stat. at 188.

When Congress enacted the Families First Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services had already issued the emergency declaration required to invoke section 2302(a)(1). See Press Release, United States Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary Azar Declares Public Health Emergency for United States for 2019 Novel Coronavirus (Jan. 31, 2020). Individual States, including California, had followed suit with their own disaster declarations. See Press Release, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, Governor Newsom Declares State of Emergency to Help State Prepare for Broader Spread of COVID-19 (Mar. 4, 2020).

USDA immediately began to implement the Families First Act. On March 20, the agency issued a sample request form for States entitled "Request to Provide Emergency Allotments (Supplements) to SNAP Households." The form suggested that a requesting State frame its request so as "to bring all households up to the maximum benefit due to pandemic related economic conditions for up to 2 months." The form also asked the State to certify that COVID-19 had affected the medical and economic wellbeing of its residents, as measured by criteria such as whether "[r]esidents of the State are confirmed to have contracted Covid-19" and whether "[b]usinesses have closed or significantly reduced their hours."

The California Department of Social Services submitted to USDA a request for emergency allotments. But California's request did not seek to top off the SNAP benefits of participating households at "the maximum benefit," as contemplated by USDA's guidance. Instead, to ensure that those households already receiving the maximum benefit would still receive an emergency allotment, California proposed that all SNAP households in the State receive an extra $60 per person, per month.

USDA rejected California's request as contrary to the guidance in the sample request form. Reserving its objections, California then revised its request "in accordance" with USDA's guidance. USDA approved the revised request, reiterating the agency's position that "SNAP households that already receive the maximum monthly allotment for their household size are not eligible for [emergency allotments]."

On April 21, USDA restated that view in an updated guidance. Later that month, California asked to extend the distribution of emergency allotments to eligible households in line with its revised request. USDA approved the request.

Although the State of California continues to disagree with USDA's interpretation of the statute, it has not challenged that interpretation in court. The plaintiffs in this case, Robin Hall and Steven Summers (collectively, "Hall"), are Californians who normally receive the maximum monthly allotment of SNAP benefits and therefore are not eligible for emergency allotments under USDA's interpretation of the Families First Act. Hall brought this putative class action against USDA and the Secretary of Agriculture challenging the agency's interpretation of section 2302(a)(1) as arbitrary and capricious and in excess of statutory authority. See 5 U.S.C. § 706(2). Hall also sought a preliminarily injunction barring USDA "from denying any otherwise appropriate request from California under section 2302(a)(1) ... because it provides emergency [SNAP] allotments to households receiving the maximum monthly benefit amount."

The district court denied a preliminary injunction. Hall v. USDA , 467 F. Supp. 3d 838 (N.D. Cal. 2020). The court began by explaining that to obtain a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish that (1) she "is likely to succeed on the merits," (2) she "is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief," (3) "the balance of equities tips in [her] favor," and (4) "an injunction is in the public interest." Id. at 844 (quoting Winter v. NRDC, Inc. , 555 U.S. 7, 20, 129 S.Ct. 365, 172 L.Ed.2d 249 (2008) ). Mandatory injunctions requiring a deviation from the status quo, the court noted, are "particularly disfavored."

Id. (quoting Garcia v. Google, Inc. , 786 F.3d 733, 740 (9th Cir. 2015) ).

Turning to section 2302(a)(1), the district court "acknowledge[d] that [Hall's] facial reading of Section 2302 has some persuasive force," but it determined that the statute is not "unambiguous on its face." 467 F. Supp. 3d at 845. The court noted that USDA had estimated "that providing emergency allotments to raise all SNAP households to the maximum monthly allotment will cost an additional $2 billion per month," and that Congress had appropriated six months’ worth of such funding shortly after it enacted the Families First Act. Id. at 846 ; see Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, § 6002, 134 Stat. 281, 508 (Mar. 27, 2020). Hall's interpretation, by contrast, "would cost an additional $6.7 to $7 billion per month, and would quickly outpace SNAP's appropriated funds." 467 F. Supp. 3d at 847. The court also observed that "Congress has not suggested that the USDA's guidance or its implementation of the [Families First Act] is inconsistent with its intention," and that, "[t]o the contrary, some members of Congress have publicly lamented that the [Families First Act] did not go far enough in assisting SNAP participants, and advocated for increasing the maximum monthly allotment." Id. (footnote omitted). The court concluded that because section 2302(a)(1) is ambiguous, and USDA's interpretation is reasonable, Hall did not show "a ‘clear likelihood of success on the merits,’ as [a plaintiff] must to obtain a mandatory injunction." Id. at 848 (quoting Stanley v. University of S. Cal. , 13 F.3d 1313, 1316 (9th Cir. 1994) ).

Finally, although the district court declined to reach the remaining preliminary-injunction factors, it noted "considerable reservations" about Hall's "ability to establish redressability" because even after a favorable ruling, "California, an independent sovereign, must renew its request for emergency allotments" before applicants can receive them. 467 F. Supp. 3d at 848.

After the district court denied a preliminary injunction, Hall asked this court for an emergency injunction pending appeal. A motions panel denied an injunction but ordered that the appeal be expedited.


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