Tens of thousands of low-income households across New York State who were improperly cut off or denied Food Stamps will be receiving retroactive food stamp benefits as a result of a federal class action lawsuit filed against the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). The United States District Court in the Southern District approved the negotiated settlement in Richard C v. Proud (12 CIV 5942), which challenged OTDA’s failure to advise individuals facing SNAP employment sanctions that they had the ability to stop the sanctions from going into effect. Richard C also challenged the state’s failure to adjudicate SNAP fair hearings in a timely manner. United States District Judge Jesse M. Furman gave the settlement final approval on June 19, 2013.
As many as 200,000 improperly issued employment sanctions will be erased/eliminated as part of the settlement, and OTDA has agreed to issue back benefits to each individual who was wrongly denied or terminated from SNAP due to an alleged employment violation between August 3, 2009 and December 14, 2012. Individuals who are sanctioned lose their benefits for two, four or six months. The average sanction lasts about three months and costs a family over $400 in benefits. The back awards will be issued within the next five months, and are expected to result in over $80 million in 100% federally funded SNAP benefits to New York State to be spent in local economies.
As part of the settlement, OTDA has agreed to continue its suspension of SNAP employment sanctions which it imposed in December. Advocates estimate that prior to the suspension, agencies such as the City’s Human Resources Administration imposed about 5,000 sanctions each month. Individuals who are sanctioned lose their benefits for two, four or six months. The average sanction lasts about three months and costs a family over $400 in benefits. Under the settlement, no new sanctions will be imposed unless and until the agency comes up with a process that complies with federal law, and provides individuals a “second chance” to avoid the sanction.
Finally, the state has committed to processing SNAP fair hearings in a timely fashion in accordance with federal law. “SNAP only” fair hearing decisions (cases that do not also involve cash assistance) will be issued within 60 days of the date of the initial fair hearing request. As part of the settlement agreement, OTDA will provide monthly statistics to class counsel for 24 months to ensure that the deadlines are being met and to identify any cases in which they are not.
OTDA will issue individual notices to all class members who had been wrongly sanctioned; the notices will explain the provision of restored benefits and expungement of prior sanctions.
Class counsel for plaintiffs were The Legal Aid Society, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Empire Justice Center, and Cooley LLP (pro bono counsel).
Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society, which first brought the lawsuit last August on behalf of an unemployed father and his two minor children, said: “This is an historic settlement. Punishing a family by literally taking food off of their table is a very harsh measure, and one that is too often imposed erroneously. Federal law has long provided that food deprivation only be used as a sanction after allowing an individual a “second chance” to comply. This sound principle, grounded in prudence and fairness, will now be extended to all New Yorkers, and those who have been unfairly deprived of benefits in the past will receive justice.”
“For years the state had illegally sanctioned SNAP recipients if they allegedly missed a work-related appointment, without informing them that they could have kept their benefits simply by rescheduling the appointment,” noted Bryan Hetherington, Chief Counsel with the Empire Justice Center. “As a result of our negotiated settlement, the state has agreed to fix its broken sanction process and will issue back benefits to everyone who was wrongly cut off. “ Jenny Pelaez, Paul M. Dodyk Fellow/Staff Attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said: "The settlement ensures that low-income New Yorkers who rely on the modest support provided by the food stamp program are not wrongfully delayed, or are inappropriately cut off, from receiving crucial aid that helps them put food on the table for their families and children."
View the complete settlement (PDF)
State Must Reimburse Millions in Lost Food Stamps
Monday, July 01, 2013
By Cindy Rodriguez
A major legal settlement will provide significant relief for food stamp recipients who lost their benefits recently. The settlement stems from a 2012 federal class action lawsuit that alleges the state violated federal rules by stopping people's benefits before allowing them a chance to correct infractions.
Legal Aid brought the lawsuit, along with two other organizations. Lead attorney Kenneth Stephens said the state would now pay back an estimated 200,000 people for more than $80 million in lost benefits. The federal government covers the cost of the extra food stamps. Stephens said that people were often sanctioned for missing appointments that could have easily been rescheduled.
"You do not need to rely on a very harsh almost draconian rule that takes away food as a punishment before giving people a second chance," Stephens said.
Stephens said one of his clients lost benefits after missing an appointment with a social worker because he was working. The attorney said losing benefits often puts people in the position of having to choose between paying for food, rent or medical expenses.
According to the settlement, New York state also halted a large portion of its sanctioning process for food stamp recipients in December. It's unclear when or if sanctions will be reinstated.
The state confirmed the settlement but would not comment further.
All Things Considered
Anchor: New York State has agreed to reimburse food stamps recipients who say they were improperly cut off from the benefit for infractions that they should have been allowed to correct first. Legal Aid lawyer Kenneth Stevens was a lead attorney in the class action case. Kenneth Stevens: There are people who were sanctioned because they had doctor’s appointments. There are people who were sanctioned because maybe on a particularly hot and humid day, they had a health condition.
Anchor: Stevens estimates about 200,000 people will be reimbursed for a much as 80 million dollars in lost food stamps.