Legal Aid is pleased to announce that it has reached a settlement agreement with the District of Columbia Department of Human Services (DHS) and the District of Columbia Department of the Environment (DDOE) that will result in additional Food Stamps benefits for thousands of District residents. Working with the law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP as a project of the firm’s Barbara McDowell Pro Bono Initiative, Legal Aid brought suit against DHS and DDOE at the Office of Administrative Hearings when the District failed to implement the Food Stamps Expansion Act of 2009 in a timely matter.
Jennifer Mezey, Legal Aid’s Public Benefits Unit Supervisor, was lead counsel on the case, and was assisted by Law Firm Fellows Henry Smith and David Young (deferred associates supported by the law firms of Steptoe & Johnson LLP and Ropes & Gray, respectively). Jerry Hartman, Maureen Donahue Hardwick, and Courtney Abbott were key members of the team at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. The team also received valuable assistance from David Reiser at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP and Marc Cohan and Gina Mannix at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
Food Stamps are a critical benefit that enables thousands of District families to put food on the table. This is a federal program that helps low-income families and individuals buy food and stimulates the District economy through these food purchases. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010, there were approximately 119,000 individuals in approximately 66,000 households receiving Food Stamps in the District with each household receiving, on average, about $250 per month.
The legal dispute centered on the date on which the Food Stamps Emergency Expansion Act of 2009 became effective. The legislation had been spearheaded by Councilmembers Michael Brown and Tommy Wells, with support from a wide array of advocacy groups led by D.C. Hunger Solutions and its executive director Alexandra Ashbrook. Among other changes, the Food Stamps Expansion Act increased Food Stamps allotments for thousands of beneficiaries by making all beneficiaries eligible to receive the maximum “Standard Utility Allowance” in their shelter cost calculations. For some beneficiaries, this will result in a larger deduction from their countable income for shelter expenses which will lower their net income sufficiently to receive a higher Food Stamps allotment for the household.
Because the District government failed to begin implementing the Act by the spring of 2010, Legal Aid filed fair hearing requests with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) in July 2010 challenging the failure to implement the benefits expansion. In its brief to OAH, Legal Aid argued that Food Stamps beneficiaries were entitled to the expanded benefits as of October 15, 2009 – the effective date of the emergency legislation containing the Food Stamps Expansion Act.
The District government agreed to mediate the dispute, and after several months of negotiating, a settlement was reached. Under terms of the settlement, the District agreed to recalculate Food Stamps benefits for all current and former beneficiaries who were receiving benefits at any time between January 2010 and the present using the maximum Standard Utility Allowance and award any resulting increased benefits. In addition, DHS and DDOE finalized their memorandum of understanding so that the maximum Standard Utility Allowance is now being awarded to all beneficiaries prospectively as of February 1, 2011. The agreement stated that the expected time frame for the recalculation of the retroactive payments is expected to be 24 months.
This is an important victory for Food Stamps beneficiaries. Families with children and extremely low-income individuals, many of whom have no other source of income, will be able to feed themselves much better because of this case. The fact that this settlement was obtained through a project created in the memory of our former colleague Barbara McDowell makes this settlement even more meaningful for Legal Aid.
 The Food Stamps program name was changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in October 2008. However, District government materials still refer to the program as Food Stamps so that is the name we are using in this blog.