Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction against the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) requiring it to comply with strict federal time frames for processing applications to recertify eligibility for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Court ordered this extraordinary remedy after finding that the agency’s own data showed that it failed to process 40 percent of SNAP renewal applications within the time period mandated by federal law. Although the Court declined, at this time, to order a preliminary injunction against DHS based on its delays in processing initial applications, it nevertheless ordered the agency to submit reports about its progress in this area, stating that injunctive relief might be appropriate in the absence of improvement.
This ruling is the latest development in Garnett v. Zeilinger, a lawsuit that Legal Aid filed on August 28, 2017, together with Hogan Lovells and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, alleging systemic failures in DHS’s administration of SNAP benefits. The suit, filed on behalf of individual clients and Bread for the City, alleged that SNAP recipients have wrongfully seen their benefits terminated, delayed and/or suspended, often without notice, forcing them to turn to emergency food programs for help. Earlier this year, on March 28, 2018, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.
In the Court’s preliminary injunction decision, it acknowledged the harms that Legal Aid clients had experienced as a result of the District’s illegal activities, including that plaintiff Shonice Garnett had to “skip meals all the time,” declarant Nelson Bostic “would just have days where [he] didn’t get enough to eat,” and declarant Elizabeth Telson and plaintiff Kathryn Harris had difficulty finding appropriate meals given the dietary restrictions imposed by their medical conditions. He also found to be irreparable, the injuries caused to declarants Diamond Moore and Sandra Bonilla de Leonzo who had to choose between rent and food for themselves and their children. And at the preliminary injunction hearing, the Court expressed his concern about individuals who had to line up at 3:00 am and spend hours in line to get their benefits.
Legal Aid is pleased that the Court saw the harms that our clients have experienced as a result of the District’s failure to comply with the strict federal SNAP requirements and has ordered the District to comply with these requirements and report on its progress. We will continue to pursue our claims in order to ensure that all of the District families who rely on this essential program to meet their nutritional needs never have to choose between feeding their families and paying their rent.