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BIGGS v. LYNG

October 1, 1986

SONJA BIGGS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RICHARD E. LYNG, SECRETARY, etc., et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEXLER

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

WEXLER, District Judge

 Plaintiffs Sonja Biggs, Linda Braunstein, Peter De Respiris, Gaston Inman, Louis Jackson, Constance Scandola, and Janet Triant bring this action on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated against Richard E. Lyng, 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 Nassau County Department of Social Services ("Nassau DSS"). Plaintiffs are Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") recipients who received Home Relief benefits while awaiting determination of their eligibility for SSI. Plaintiffs allege that defendants' policy of categorizing the Home Relief they received as countable income for purposes of calculating their entitlement to benefits under the Food Stamp Act, 7 U.S.C.§ 2011 et seq., violates the Act 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 under the law guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

 Upon consideration of a motion by the State DSS to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint, this Court held that plaintiffs lacked standing to pursue certain declaratory and prospective injunctive relief they sought and dismissed plaintiffs' claims for such relief. The Court held, however, that plaintiffs' claims for retroactive relief were viable and fell outside the scope of that which is barred by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. Biggs v. Block, 629 F. Supp. 1574 (E.D.N.Y. 1986). Subsequently, the Court certified that the litigation could be maintained as a class action on behalf of members of a class consisting of:

 All persons who have received Food Stamp benefits in New York State since September 14, 1983, and who (1) have received Home Relief benefits; and (2) pursuant to a Repayment of Interim Assistance Authorization, have repaid State and local Departments of Social Services part or all of the Home Relief benefits received by them for any month in which their households were eligible for Food Stamps.

 Biggs v. Lyng, No. CV 84-5006 (E.D.N.Y. June 23, 1986). *fn1"

 Plaintiffs now move, and defendants each cross-move, for summary judgment. As the material facts are not in dispute, the case is ripe for a final adjudication of the merits. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.

 I.

 The Court has already described at some length the interlocking federal and state statutory and regulatory schemes relevant to plaintiffs' claims, Biggs, 629 F. Supp. at 1575-77, but perhaps it might be useful to reiterate, at least in nutshell form, the relationship between the various provisions. Eligibility for the Food Stamp program, which is designed to alleviate hunger and malnutrition among low income households, 7 U.S.C. § 2011; United States Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 93 S. Ct. 2821, 37 L. Ed. 2d 782 (1973), depends in large part on the level of a household's income. 7 U.S.C. § 2014; 7 C.F.R. § 273.9. Not all monies that may become available to a Food Stamp applicant, however, are necessarily countable as income. The Food Stamp Act and its accompanying regulations establish, for instance, that all loans (except for educational loans on which repayment is deferred) are to be excluded in calculations of a household's income for purposes of Food Stamp eligibility. 7 U.S.C. § 2014(d)(4); 7 C.F.R. § 273.9(c)(4).

 Administration of the Food Stamp program involves both federal and state participation. The federal government finances 100% of Food Stamp benefits and overall administration of the program is the responsibility of the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA. Each state that participates in the program must submit a plan for approval by the USDA, but each state's plan is implemented and administered by an appropriate state agency and a state must pay 50% of administrative expenses associated with its plan. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2013, 2020, 2025, 2027. Under New York law, the State DSS is ultimately responsible for administration of the Food Stamp program within the state, but the program's actual administration on the local level is the responsibility of local social service districts, each of which must submit to the State DSS its own local plan that accords with federal and state requirements. N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law. §§ 17, 20, 34, 65, 95.

 Home Relief is a state public assistance program similarly administered statewide by the State DSS and locally by the local Departments of Social Services ("local DSS's"). N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law §§ 17, 20, 34, 62, 158(a). As one of the conditions for receiving Home Relief, applicants who appear to meet the requirements for federal SSI payments are required to apply for such federal benefits, which are designed to provide supplemental income to aged, blind, or disabled persons. 42 U.S.C. § 1381; N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 158(a); 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 370.7(b). As an additional condition for receiving Home Relief, an applicant must sign a written authorization form allowing the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") to send to the local DSS any retroactive SSI payment that may be awarded to the applicant. Upon receipt of such payment, the local DSS will deduct the amount of any Home Relief it had paid the applicant during the period retroactively covered by SSI and forward the balance to the individual. This recoverable Home Relief is defined by the state to be "interim assistance," and eligibility for any Home Relief benefits ceases upon an individual's receipt of SSI payments from the federal government. 42 U.S.C. § 1383(g)(1); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1902, 1910(b); N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law §§ 138-a, 158(a); 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 370.7.

 Plaintiffs, as the Court has noted in its earlier opinions, are SSI recipients who, pursuant to the relevant federal and state provisions, obtained Home Relief while awaiting determinations of eligibility for SSI and were eventually found by HHS to be eligible for such federal benefits. HHS forwarded individual checks to the Nassau DSS upon determining each plaintiff's eligibility for SSI, whereupon the Nassau DSS recouped part or all of the amount of Home Relief benefits paid to the individual plaintiffs through deductions from the retroactive lump sum SSI payments.

 During the period in which plaintiffs awaited decisions as to their eligibility for SSI, they not only received Home Relief through the operation of the state's public assistance program, but also obtained Food Stamps from the federal government. The Home Relief payments each plaintiff received were included as countable income in calculations of the level of entitlement of the plaintiff's household to Food Stamp benefits.

 Plaintiffs allege that the inclusion of Home Relief as countable income for Food Stamp purposes resulted in underpayment of Food Stamp benefits to which they were rightfully entitled. Specifically, plaintiffs argue that defendants' failure to reclassify the interim assistance provided under the Home Relief program from countable income to excludable income upon the Nassau DSS's recovery of the monies provided to plaintiffs pending determination as to SSI eligibility violated the provisions of the Food Stamp Act and its accompanying regulations requiring that the proceeds of all loans (except educational loans upon which repayment has been deferred) be excluded from countable income. Plaintiffs further contend that defendants' policy unconstitutionally deprived the members of the class of equal protection of the laws in that all other loan proceeds (except for the educational loans specifically declared to be countable income in the statute and regulations) are categorized as excludable income.

 II.

 § 2014(d) of the Food Stamp Act, titled "Income excluded in computing household income," provides, in pertinent part, "Household income for purposes of the food stamp program shall include all income from whatever source excluding only. . (4) all loans other than educational loans on which repayment is deferred." 7 U.S.C. § 2014(d). The relevant regulation promulgated by the Secretary of the USDA similarly states, "Income exclusions. Only the following items shall be excluded from household income and no other income shall be excluded: . . . (4) All loans, including loans from private individuals as well as commercial institutions, other than educational loans on which repayment is deferred." 7 C.F.R. § 273.9(c)(4).

 § 2014(d) and the USDA regulation have their roots in the 1977 amendments to the Food Stamp Act, which was originally enacted in 1964. As the Court noted above, supra § I, Congress established the Food Stamp program in an effort to reduce hunger and malnutrition among the nation's poor. In the mid-1970's, however, seemingly widespread concern about the rapid growth and cost of the Food Stamp program led Congress to undertake a comprehensive study designed to gain information as to the actual operation of the program, the nature of the participants in the program and their income levels, and the kinds and extent of administrative problems. 1977 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 1704, 1978. After the completion of the study, Congress passed a number of amendments to the Food Stamp program designed to accomplish several major objectives, namely, (1) the tightening of administration of the program and the reduction of fraud and abuse; (2) the elimination of non-needy households from the program so that those who do not need Food Stamps do not get them; (3) the facilitation of the participation of the needy so that those who do need Food Stamps in fact receive them; (4) the keeping of costs close to the level then existing; (5) the simplification of administration; and (6) the minimization of any loss of benefits to currently needy participants. Id.

 As part of its efforts to achieve these goals, Congress decided to inject into the Food Stamp Act a definition of the term "income," which up until that point the Act had been lacking. The regulations in force in 1977 tended either to define income tautologically (for example, "income means all income which . . ") or all-inclusively (for instance, "all payments received by or made on behalf of household members"), or to rely upon lists of specific items that were deemed to constitute income. Congress determined that the best approach would be to combine the different methods the regulations employed. To this end, Congress established that household income for Food Stamp purposes is to include "all income from whatever source derived" with the sole exceptions to be the specific exclusions contained in the amended Act. Id. at 2001.

 Congress' intent in amending the Act in this manner was "to cast the broadest possible net including all forms of what has been found to constitute income," and exclude only those items which the Act specifically declared to fall outside the reformulated Act's definition of income. Id. Congress consciously maintained the preexisting policy of considering all loans besides educational loans upon which repayment is deferred to be items excludable from countable income. Id. at 2012. Also, it should be noted that, as the legislative history underlying a subsequent, further amendment of the Food Stamp Act in 1980 indicates, under the system adopted in 1970, "assistance payments from Federal or federally aided public assistance programs or State or local benefit programs are considered to be fully includable income unless the law providing for the ...


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