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WILLIS v. LASCARIS

June 11, 1980

Pearl WILLIS, Florene Bouges, and Clara Robinson, on behalf of themselves, their minor children, and all persons similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
John LASCARIS, Commissioner, Onondaga County Department of Social Services, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MUNSON

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Presently before the Court are two motions by plaintiff food stamp recipients for class certification pursuant to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and for declaratory and injunctive relief to enjoin defendant Commissioner of the county department of social services from reducing the food stamp allowances of plaintiffs and their proposed class, on the grounds that defendant's notice of such reductions does not satisfy the requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Plaintiffs also claim that the form of notice used by defendant violates both federal and New York State administrative regulations.

 II. Facts

 Plaintiffs Pearl Willis, Florene Bouges, and Clara Robinson, each receive public assistance in the form of food stamps, and funds from either the Aid to Families of Dependent Children Program (AFDC), or Social Security benefits. During the last week of October, 1979, the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, the agency responsible for administering these public assistance programs to the local community, sent all food stamp recipients a notice entitled "Reduction In Food Stamps." The Department's notice informed the food stamp recipients that they "may receive a reduced amount of Food Stamps on November 1, 1979," *fn1" and that the "possible" change was "being made because your Public Assistance heat allowance is being added to your Public Assistance grant effective November 1, 1979. Therefore, your Food Stamp net income is increased." *fn2"

 Briefly, the public assistance heat allowance is added to a public assistance household's cash grant every fall to enable it to pay its heating bill. In the summer, this allowance is removed from a household's public assistance allotment. As a result of the addition and subsequent subtraction of the heat allowance every year, a household's income, for purposes of the food stamp program, increases every fall and decreases in the following summer. Since a household's entitlement to food stamps is dependent on its income, the addition of the heat allowance every fall increases the household's income and reduces its entitlement to food stamps.

 The Department's notice also explained that if a reduction in food stamps was required, the food stamp recipient could request a hearing on their case. Moreover, if the request for a hearing was made by October 31, 1979, the notice stated that the current rate of the recipient's food stamp grant would be continued. Yet should the Department's decision be found to be correct after the hearing, then the food stamp recipient would owe the Department the value of the food stamps that were paid in excess. The notice stated further that if a request for a hearing was made after October 31, 1979, then the recipient would receive the reduced amount of food stamps until a final determination was made by the Department on their case. Finally, the Department's notice offered the recipient an opportunity to discuss their case with the food stamp office, which, the notice said, could be consulted with to "find out if free legal advice is available." *fn3" To appreciate the importance of the notice in question, it would be useful to explain how a household qualifies for public assistance, and the relationship between the public assistance and food stamp programs.

 In order to qualify for public assistance, *fn4" the income of an applicant's household is compared to minimum income levels or "standards of need" as set by the particular public assistance program. A family of four in Onondaga County is said to have "basic needs" of $ 258.00 per month, "shelter needs" of $ 120.00 a month, and "heat needs" which are calculated over the course of eight months at $ 50.00 per month. Thus, a family of four with no income from non-public assistance sources is entitled to a "full grant" of $ 378.00 per month in the summer and $ 428.00 during the remainder of the year. The difference being attributable to the $ 50.00 in heat allowance paid over eight months of the year. The food stamp budgeting principles are similar. For example, a destitute family of four is entitled to an allotment of $ 204.00 per month in food stamps.

 In most instances, should a household's income increase during the year, then there would be a corresponding reduction in the household's public assistance grant. To keep abreast of changes in a household's income, and to guarantee the fair dispersal of public assistance funds, a household's income and public assistance benefits are calculated on a month to month basis, see 7 C.F.R. 273.10(a), and New York Food Stamp Manual pp. 87-92 (hereinafter referred to as State Manual), or for such period of time as a household's income can be accurately predicted. If the household's income changes in the meantime, recipients are required to report such changes so that their benefits can be recalculated accordingly.

 Still, not every form of a household's income will be included in calculating income for purposes of a particular social service program. Generally, for instance, public assistance programs do not consider food stamps as income, and therefore, a household's public assistance grant will not be effected by the fact that it also receives "income" in the form of food stamps. In the food stamp program, however, if a household receives other forms of public assistance, such a grant will be considered "income" when computing that household's food stamp allotment. Thus, a household that is without income except for a public assistance grant, is entitled to a food stamp allotment appropriate for the dollar amount of the household's public assistance grant.

 More specifically, a household's food stamp allotment is determined as follows: The household's "gross income" is first computed by totaling the household's income, *fn5" and then from that figure is subtracted (1) the earned income deduction, which equals twenty per cent of earned income, and (2) a standard deduction of $ 70.00, and (3) the dependent care deduction. The figure that remains is termed the household's "adjusted income," from which is subtracted the "excess shelter costs deduction." This calculation produces the household's "net food stamp income." Upon subtracting thirty per cent of the "net food stamp income" from the maximum food stamp allotment for a household of the applicant's household's size yields the applicant's food stamp entitlement. *fn6"

 The most complicated budgeting calculations are involved in determining the "excess shelter cost" deduction. *fn7" The combined "dependent care" and "excess shelter costs" deductions are subject to a maximum of $ 90.00. Consequently, if a household has monthly dependent care expenses of $ 90.00 or more, it is entitled to the maximum $ 90.00 deduction, and there is no need to calculate its "excess shelter costs." But if a household's dependent care expenses are zero, or some other amount less than $ 90.00, then all or part of the $ 90.00 maximum will be available as a deduction for "excess shelter costs," which must then be calculated.

 "Excess shelter costs" is the amount by which a household's total shelter cost exceed fifty per cent of "adjusted income." In computing the "excess shelter costs" the Department adds together the household's monthly rent or mortgage payment, its heating bill, its non-heat utility bill, the basic monthly telephone bill, and certain other shelter expenses, and compares this sum to fifty per cent of "adjusted income." If the expenses add up to more than the "adjusted income" figure, the amount of the difference is the "excess shelter cost," which is applied against any amount of the $ 90.00 maximum deduction which remains available after dependent care expenses have been deducted.

 Every fall, when the heat allowance is added to a household's income, a household's food stamp budget changes. *fn8" First, "unearned income" and "adjusted income" are increased by the amount of the heat allowance. Second, the additional heat allowance income may affect the amount of the "excess shelter costs" deduction because this deduction is computed by reference to fifty per cent of "adjusted income." Third, the new figure for "net food stamp income" will require a recalculation of the household's food stamp allotment. A fourth variable that may effect the household's income and food stamp allotment is the way in which the heat allowance itself is administered. If a household's heat is included in the rent, then that household would not be entitled to the heat allowance. Where a household ...


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