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BIGGS v. BLOCK

March 20, 1986

SONJA BIGGS, et al, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHN R. BLOCK, SECRETARY, etc., et al, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEXLER

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

WEXLER, District Judge

 This action arises out of allegedly improper categorization of Home Relief benefits for purposes of calculating Food Stamp entitlements. Plaintiffs, who received Home Relief benefits prior to being declared eligible for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments, assert that the inclusion of Home Relief benefits as countable income in determinations of Food Stamp eligibility is violative of the Food Stamp Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2011 et seq., and regulations promulgated thereunder, 7 C.F.R. § 271 et seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the equal protection guarantees of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. In an attempt to rectify the purportedly unlawful treatment of Home Relief benefits, plaintiffs have filed this class action against John R. Block, Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), Cesar Perales, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services ("State DSS"), and Joseph A. D'Elia, Commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Social Services ("Nassau DSS").

 The State DSS has moved for an order dismissing plaintiffs' claims against him. The State DSS argues that plaintiffs lack standing to pursue declaratory and prospective injunctive relief and that the Eleventh Amendment bars their claim for retroactive relief against the State.

 I.

 A.

 The Food Stamp program, which is designed to alleviate hunger and malnutrition among low income households, is governed by the Food Stamp Act ("Act"), 7 U.S.C. § 2011 et seq. and regulations promulgated, under authority granted by the Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2013(c), by the Secretary of the USDA, 7 C.F.R.§ 271 et seq. Participation in Food Stamp program is dependent upon an applicant's financial situation. To this end, the Act and its accompanying regulations set forth a myriad of requirements for eligibility. See 7 U.S.C. § 2014; 7 C.F.R. § 273. A crucial element in the determination of eligibility is the level of a household's income. 7 U.S.C. § 2014; 7 U.S.C. § 273.9. Not all money that becomes available to a Food Stamp applicant, however, is necessarily countable as income. For instance, all loans (except for educational loans on which repayment is deferred) are to be excluded in calculating the household's income for Food Stamp purposes. 7 U.S.C. § 2014(d)(4); 7 C.F.R. § 273.9(c)(4).

 The overall Food Stamp program is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture. Each state which participates in the program must develop a plan for submission and approval by the Food and Nutrition Service. 7 U.S.C. § 2020. Each state's plan is implemented and administered by an appropriate state agency. The federal government, through the USDA, finances 100% of Food Stamp benefits and 50% of the administrative costs associated with participating states' programs. The remaining 50% of administrative expenses is the individual state's responsibility. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2013, 2025, 2027.

 Under New York's Food Stamp Plan, defendant Perales, as Commissioner of the State DSS, is responsible for the administration of the Food Stamp program in New York. N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. §§ 17, 20, 34, 95. New York administers its Food Stamp program through local social services districts. *fn1" In order for each local district to participate in the Food Stamp program, the local commissioner is required to submit to the State DSS a local plan that accords with federal and state requirements. Defendant D'Elia, in his capacity as Commissioner of the State DSS, is responsible for the administration of the Food Stamp program within Nassau County. N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. §§ 65, 95.

 B.

 Home Relief is a state public assistance program. Home Relief is available, subject to certain limitations, to "[a]ny person unable to provide for himself, or who is unable to secure support from a legally responsible relative, who is not receiving needed assistance or care under [other state public assistance programs], or from other sources." N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. § 158(a). Perales, as State Commissioner, is responsible for the administration of all Home Relief in New York. N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. §§ 17, 20, 34. D'Elia, as Nassau County Commissioner, is responsible for administration of the Home Relief program in Nassau County. N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. § 62.

 As a condition for receipt of Home Relief benefits, an applicant who reasonably appears to meet the criteria for federal SSI payments, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381a-1382; 20 C.F.R. § 416, is required to apply for SSI. N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. § 198(a), 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 370.7(b). If the applicant qualifies for Home Relief. Home Relief benefits will be paid until federal SSI payments begin to be received. N.Y. Soc.Serv.L. § 138(a). As a further condition for Home Relief Eligibility, the applicant must sign a written authorization form *fn2" allowing the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") to send any retroactive SSI payment to the local Department of Social Services in order for the local department to deduct the amount of any Home Relief it had paid the applicant during the period for which the applicant has been retroactively covered by SSI. 42 U.S.C. § 1383(g)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 416.1902; N.Y. Soc. Serv. L. § 158(a); 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 370.7. State regulations define this amount of recoverable Home Relief as "interim assistance." 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 370.7(a)(1). After deducting the amount of Home Relief paid, the local department must remit to the individual the outstanding balance with a written accounting of its calculations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1910(b).

 II.

 Plaintiffs in this action are SSI recipients who, pursuant to the statutory and regulatory scheme outlined above, received Home Relief benefits while awaiting a determination of their eligibility, for SSI. After determining that each of the named plaintiffs had established his or her SSI eligibility, the HHS Secretary forwarded individual retroactive checks to the Nassau DSS where, in turn, part or all of the amount of Home ...


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