Restraining Order in Food Stamp Notice Lawsuit Submitted to Judge for Approval

December 23, 2019 10:00 am

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Attorneys for the ACLU of Rhode Island and the state Department of Human Services have agreed on language to form the basis of a temporary restraining order against the Department’s continued use of procedurally deficient notices that have demanded SNAP recipients reimburse the state for overpayments that they purportedly received years earlier. The notice, the ACLU alleged in the lawsuit filed last week, failed to provide sufficient information for recipients to determine its accuracy.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell, Jr., agreeing with the arguments made by the ACLU on behalf of plaintiff Carmen Correa, verbally found that the notices being sent recipients likely violated federal SNAP regulations and the due process rights of the recipients. The proposed order, submitted by the parties for his consideration, includes such a finding, as well as a determination that the plaintiff and other similarly-situated SNAP recipients “will suffer irreparable harm” from the continued use of the deficient notices in the absence of a restraining order.

The proposed order temporarily bars the state from issuing any more of the demand letters based on purported agency or household errors, and further bars DHS from processing any SNAP benefit reductions for individuals who have already received the notices. The order also puts on hold any pending administrative appeals filed by recipients contesting the overpayment determinations.

DHS is also required in the next month to notify all households that received the deficient letter of the terms of the restraining order. Finally, the order indicates that a hearing on a preliminary injunction against the agency’s practice will be scheduled before January 14th, when the TRO would otherwise expire.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Woonsocket resident Carmen Correa, who obtains SNAP benefits for herself and her thirteen-year-old niece. She recently received a notice from DHS demanding that she repay $1,925 in benefits that the agency claims were allegedly overpaid to her more than four years ago. The only explanation given was that the overpayment was due to “Agency Error.” While the notice advised Correa of her right to a hearing to contest DHS’s determination, the ACLU lawsuit argues that it “does not contain sufficient information to allow a reader to determine whether the overissuance is correct or whether Plaintiff has grounds to contest it.”

The Department’s efforts to recoup alleged overpayments were halted a few years ago as a result of the enormous problems of inaccuracy and untimeliness with benefits that occurred in 2016 when UHIP went online. Citing the “long-standing problems of the UHIP program,” the suit claims there is a “very high probability that the data used to determine alleged overpayments is erroneous.”

Correa was given a month to sign an overpayment agreement with the state or else face what the lawsuit calls “harmful” cuts to her SNAP benefits. If those cuts occur, the lawsuit claims that Correa “will have great difficulty feeding herself and her niece” and, unable to pay her bills, could have her utilities shut off. The suit points out that federal SNAP regulations require overpayment notices to “include the reason for the claim and an explanation of how the [amount] was calculated,” information missing from the notice to Correa.

Additional information about the suit can be found here.

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