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Brooks v. Roberts

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 5, 2017

DERRICK BROOKS, CLIFTON DEMECO, and BRIAN BLOWERS, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
SAMUEL D. ROBERTS, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Defendant.

         APPEARANCES:

          NATIONAL CENTER FOR LAW & ECONOMIC JUSTICE, INC. Attorneys for Plaintiffs

          EMPIRE JUSTICE CENTER - ALBANY Attorneys for Plaintiffs

          HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN Attorney General for the State of New York Attorney for Defendant

         OF COUNSEL:

          MARC COHAN, ESQ. PETRA T. TASHEFF, ESQ. SAIMA A. AKHTAR, ESQ. SUSAN C. ANTOS, ESQ. C. HARRIS DAGUE, ESQ. Ass't Attorney General

          DAVID N. HURD, United States District Judge

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

         TABLE OF ABBREVIATIONS ........................................... 3

         I. INTRODUCTION ..................................................... 4

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND ..................... ........................ 5

         A. Federal Program ......................... ....................... 5

         B. New York State's Implementation . . ................................ 8

         C. Named Plaintiffs ........................ ....................... 12

         D. Recent Document Revisions.. .................................... 14

         III. DISCUSSION.. ..................................................... 15

         A. Class Certification .............................................. 15

         1. Legal Standard. . ......................................... 15

         2. Rule 23(a).. ............................................. 18

         a. Numerosity.. ....................................... 18

         b. Commonality ....................................... 20

         c. Typicality .......................................... 22

         d. Adequacy of Representation ........................... 23

         3. Rule 23(b) .............................................. 24

         B. Preliminary Injunction. . ......................................... 26

         1. Legal Standard. . ......................................... 27

         2. Likelihood of Success.. .................................... 29

         a. Fourteenth Amendment.. ............................. 31

         i. ABAWD "Classification". . ....................... 34

         ii. Benefit Termination.. ........................... 35

         (1). Notice. . ................................ 35

         (2). Opportunity to Be Heard.. .................. 38

         b. SNAP Act and Regulations .. .......................... 39

         i. ABAWD "Classification". . ....................... 40

         ii. Benefit Termination.. ........................... 41

         3. Irreparable Harm. . ....................................... 46

         4. Public Interest and Balance of Hardships.. ..................... 48

         C. Failure to Name a Necessary Party. . .............................. 48

         1. Legal Standard. . ......................................... 48

         D. Failure to State a Claim.. ........................................ 50

         1. Legal Standard. . ......................................... 50

         2. Fourteenth Amendment .................................... 51

         a. ABAWD "Classification".. ............................. 51

         b. Benefit Termination .................................. 52

         3. SNAP Act and Regulations ................................. 53

         a. ABAWD "Classification".. ............................. 53

         b. Benefit Termination .................................. 53

         IV. CONCLUSION.. .................................................... 54

         V. ORDER .................................... ....................... 55

         VI. ADDENDUM. . ..................................................... 56

         TABLE OF ABBREVIATIONS

         ABAWD: Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents

         DSS: Department(s) of Social Services

         FNS: Food and Nutrition Service

         NOAA: Notice of Adverse Action

         OTDA: New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance

         SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

         SNAP Act: Food and Nutrition Act of 2008

         USDA: United States Department of Agriculture

         MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

         I. INTRODUCTION

         The named plaintiffs Derrick Brooks ("Brooks"), Clifton DeMeco ("DeMeco"), and Brian Blowers ("Blowers") (collectively "plaintiffs") seek relief on behalf of themselves and a putative class of fellow New York State residents receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP") benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, who have had, are now having, or will have their benefits terminated.[1] The benefits were terminated following New York's implementation of a federal rule imposing a three month time limit on receipt of food stamps by able bodied adults without dependents ("ABAWDs") unless they meet work requirements. Plaintiffs seek relief from defendant Samuel D. Roberts ("defendant"), in his official capacity as Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (the "OTDA"). The OTDA is designated by the United States Department of Agriculture (the "USDA") Food and Nutrition Service (the "FNS") as the state agency to provide food stamp benefits to low income New York residents like plaintiffs.

         Plaintiffs' Class Action Complaint ("Complaint") alleges declaratory and injunctive relief under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-02 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is necessary to enjoin defendant from terminating or continuing to terminate the SNAP benefits of plaintiffs and the proposed class and subclasses, a practice which allegedly violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, federal statutes, and implementing regulations. Plaintiffs seek both a prohibitory injunction enjoining defendant's actions as well as a mandatory injunction compelling defendant to reinstate benefits.

         The parties have filed three motions: (1) plaintiffs have moved for class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 23 and (2) a preliminary injunction under Rule 65, while defendant has moved for (3) dismissal of the Complaint in its entirety under Rule 12 on the basis that plaintiffs fail to name a necessary party and fail to state valid causes of action for due process and statutory violations. The three motions were fully briefed, with supplemental briefing on plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction. Oral argument was heard on November 30, 2016 in Utica, New York, where decision on all three motions was reserved.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Federal Program

         Congress established the federally funded, state-administered food stamp program in 1964. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2011-2036(c); 7 C.F.R. §§ 271-285. Food stam p applicants are entitled to food stamps under federal law subject to satisfying certain objective criteria for eligibility, such as employment requirements and household income. In 2008, the federal food stamp program was renamed SNAP, and the Food Stamp Act was renamed the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (hereinafter the "SNAP Act"). The head of the USDA, the Secretary of Agriculture, is charged with promulgating implementing regulations for the food stamp program. 7 U.S.C. § 2013(c); 7 C.F.R. § 273.

         At the federal level, SNAP is administered by the USDA FNS. The federal government provides complete funding to states for all benefits and provides fifty percent of the administrative costs. Each state must designate an agency responsible for administering SNAP and ensuring federal compliance; in New York this is the OTDA. As Commissioner of the OTDA, defendant is responsible for the operation of the SNAP program in New York, as carried out by the 58 social services districts.

         The OTDA determines the eligibility of applicant households and certifies and recertifies their eligibility in accordance with rules set forth by the federal SNAP Act. The OTDA certifies eligible households for a specified period of time, called a certification period. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(4); 7 C.F.R. § 273.10(f). Households must then apply to renew their eligibility, a process called recertification. 7 C.F.R. § 273.14. As part of the eligibility determination, applicants must have an interview with a SNAP worker (through the local county Departments of Social Services (the "DSS")).

         In addition to meeting income requirements, work requirements are also in place for certain adults known as able bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs. 7 U.S.C. § 2015(o). An ABAWD is an individual between the ages of 18 and 50 who is not disabled and does not have a dependent under the age of 18. ABAWDs must satisfy work requirements to maintain eligibility for SNAP benefits. ABAWDs who are not working at least 80 hours per month (paid or unpaid), participating in an employment and training program at least 80 hours per month, or complying with a designated work program, cannot receive SNAP benefits for more than three months in a 36 month period (the "work rules"). Id. § 2015(o)(2).

         Federal law provides certain conditions under which ABAWDs may be exempt from the work rules and thus able to receive benefits in excess of three months within a 36 month period. These circumstances include if the ABAWD is receiving temporary or permanent disability benefits, responsible for the care of a child or incapacitated household member, pregnant, or already exempt on another basis, such as those receiving unemployment compensation for example, or meet certain other criteria (the "exemptions"). Id. § 2015(o)(3). According to defendant, an ABAWD may assert and document an exemption at any time, including after receiving notice that benefits will be terminated for being an ABAWD and failing to comply with the work rules. Defendant contends that if an ABAWD properly asserts and documents an exemption, benefits are not terminated for failure to meet the work rules. A good cause provision also exists for individuals who temporarily cannot comply with the 80 hour a month work requirement because of temporary circumstances beyond their control, such as illness or lack of transportation (the "good cause exceptions"). 7 C.F.R. § 273.24(c).

         In November 2015, the FNS issued a guidance document to states advising that they must screen ABAWDs for exemptions from the work rules and connect ABAWDs with information to maintain eligibility. Compl. ¶ 44. States are also responsible for assessing an individual's fitness for work. The mandatory SNAP interview conducted by the DSS is critical in doing so.

         Federal law requires that when a state or the DSS determines that a recipient's benefits should be terminated because of non-compliance with a program rule, such as the ABAWD work rules, a notice of adverse action must be sent to the recipient no later than 10 days before the effective date of the termination or reduction of benefits. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(10); 7 C.F.R. § 273.13(a)(1). For the notice to be legally adequate, it must explain in easily understandable language, the proposed action and the reason for the proposed action. 7 C.F.R. § 273.13(a)(2). The regulations dictate that the notice must include the household's right to request a fair hearing, the telephone number of the food stamp office, (and if possible, the name of the person to contact for additional information); the availability of continued benefits; and the liability of the household for any overissuances received while awaiting a fair hearing if the hearing official's decision is adverse. Id. Finally, if there is an individual or organization available that provides free legal representation, the notice must also advise the household of the availability of the legal services. Id. Relatedly, with any proposed reduction or termination in benefits, the household must be provided an opportunity for a fair hearing and continued benefits until the hearing decision. 7 C.F.R. § 273.15(a). The SNAP Act also mandates that any benefits improperly denied by a state must be promptly restored. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(b).

         B. New York State's Implementation

         Due to high unemployment from 2009 to 2015, New York had a statewide waiver of the ABAWD work rules, meaning that they were not being enforced. Due to improved economic conditions, the waiver was set to expire at the end of calendar year 2015. Accordingly, the three month within 36 month time limit was set to be reincorporated into SNAP eligibility requirements in New York starting January 1, 2016. On January 1, 2016, the expiration of the waiver became effective in 33 counties of New York's 62 counties.[3] Compl. Ex. 1. Approximately 53, 000 SNAP recipients in New York are currently subject to time- limited SNAP benefits because they are believed to be ABAWDs living in areas no longer under a waiver. Compl. ¶ 51. This action stems from defendant's alleged defective notice to these SNAP recipients. Plaintiffs contend defendant failed to properly inform those recipients that they are now subject to additional work rules, and face termination of benefits for noncompliance.

         On or about December 3, 2015, the OTDA mailed out a one page letter to certain SNAP households believed to contain at least one ABAWD living within counties where the waiver was set to expire. Akhtar Decl., Ex. 3, ECF No. 9-4 (the "Notice of ABAWD Status"). According to defendant, it was mailed to the head of the SNAP household and was generated from information in the OTDA's information management system. In order to receive the Notice of ABAWD Status, the household had to have an open SNAP case in October 2015 when the letter was generated, and meet the ABAWD criteria in the computer system for the letter to be generated, thereby missing some ABAWDs. For example, the Notice of ABAWD Status was not provided to ABAWDs whose case was not open as of October 2015 or whose household composition may have changed to include an ABAWD after October 2015. Further, it was only sent to those in counties where the waiver was known to be expiring. As a result, some ABAWDs whose benefits were later terminated, never received information about the ending of the waiver, the reintroduction of the three month out of 36 month time limit, or the work rules with which they were expected to comply.

         The letter advised that the recipient was receiving it because "you or someone in your household has been determined to be an . . . ABAWD." Notice of ABAWD Status. It did not identify specifically who was the ABAWD in the household. It explained what an ABAWD is and what one must do in order to maintain SNAP eligibility (comply with work rules) and that failure to comply with the work rules without good cause would result in the termination of benefits. The Notice of ABAWD Status advised the recipient to contact the DSS if the ABAWD is in fact meeting the work rules or to discuss how to meet them. It did not inform the recipient that they could request a fair hearing to dispute their ABAWD status. It noted that if SNAP eligibility is lost, it may be regained again but did not indicate how. It also advised to contact the DSS "if you believe that everyone in your SNAP household should be exempt from these requirements because each adult individual meets one or more of the conditions listed." Id. The exemptions, though not respectively identified as such, are listed. The Notice of ABAWD Status also provides that, for ABAWDs living in certain areas with high unemployment, the work rules will not apply. The letter does not identify which counties were still subject to waivers or partial waivers.

         At the time the Notice of ABAWD Status was disseminated, the OTDA contacted all the DSS to provide them with guidance on enforcing the work rules. The Notice of ABAWD Status was a one time mailing by the OTDA and defendant left additional notification of ABAWD status to the DSS offices. The DSS were advised but not required to provide the same Notice of ABAWD Status in the application and recertification processes to New York residents and were permitted to send their own letters to SNAP recipients subject to work rules in order to more fully assess whether the recipients meet ABAWD status or qualify for an exemption or good cause exception. Only four out of 58 of the DSS opted to mail letters offering to assist potential ABAWDs in finding employment and training programs, or show they were not subject to ABAWD work rules. For those SNAP households due to recertify in early 2016, the recertification packet mailed out by the OTDA was supposed to contain information about the ABAWD work rules, exemptions, and good cause exceptions to further inform recipients of the work rules. The DSS was again encouraged but not required to relay ABAWD status to households during the application and recertification interviews.

         According to plaintiffs, though the OTDA is the state agency charged with operating SNAP in New York, it fails to mandate a specific process or requirement that the DSS employees (who actually see the SNAP clients) inform the applicant or recipient of their status as an ABAWD, what the work rules are, what the time limits are, what the exemptions are, or how good cause may be claimed.

         In February 2016, the OTDA advised the DSS not to discontinue benefits for ABAWDs failing to meet the work rules until after the completion of the third full month of benefits. The OTDA provides to the DSS the form notice for terminating benefits. This Notice of Adverse Action is computer generated using the OTDA's information management system. Beginning on April 1, 2016, the DSS began notifying SNAP households with ABAWDs not in compliance with the work rules that their benefits would be reduced or discontinued.

         The Notice of Adverse Action states that benefits will be discontinued as of a set date because the recipient is an ABAWD not meeting the work rules (therein defined). See e.g., DeMeco Decl., Ex. 2, ECF No. 9-13 (the "NOAA"). It does not explain what specific information led the DSS to the determination that the recipient is an ABAWD and does not identify which months of SNAP benefits were countable to reach the three month time limit. It advises that if the ABAWD is meeting the work rules already, he or she should provide documentation to the DSS, and contact information is provided. Plaintiffs contend the NOAA fails to include sufficient information on how to do so. For those who are not meeting the work rules, but would like to continue receiving benefits, the NOAA indicates the recipient should contact the DSS to discuss what work opportunities may be available. Plaintiffs argue this is insufficient advice on how to regain eligibility. For those who cannot meet the work rules, plaintiffs assert that the NOAA fails to include enough detailed information on what exemptions are available, how to document meeting an exemption, whom to contact to pursue an exemption, and makes no mention of the good cause exceptions. The NOAA also contains information regarding the individual's right to appeal the determination and the right to a fair hearing or conference with a supervisor.

         After the termination of benefits to ABAWDs, the OTDA often assesses an overpayment for benefits issued between the end of the third countable month and the actual termination of benefits. Plaintiffs contend that because the overpayment results from the same inadequate process that results in the defective and unlawful ABAWD terminations, these overpayment rescissions are also unlawful.

         C. Named Plaintiffs

         Plaintiff Brooks resides in Schenectady, New York in the County of Schenectady. The County of Schenectady's waiver expired January 1, 2016. Brooks began receiving SNAP benefits in December 2015 but did not receive the Notice of ABAWD Status mailed in December 2015 advising him of the impending ABAWD work rules. He received a NOAA shortly after April 19, 2016 advising that his benefits would be terminated effective April 29, 2016. Brooks Decl., Ex. 1, ECF No. 9-10. He is unable to work consistently due to poor health but was unaware he could be exempted from ABAWD work rules because he did not receive the Notice of ABAWD Status prior to the expiration of the waiver in his county, and the NOAA he received did not mention an exemption or good cause exception for those whose physical condition make them unfit to work the required 80 hours per month.

         Plaintiff DeMeco lives in Floral Park, New York in the County of Nassau. The County of Nassau's waiver expired January 1, 2016. DeMeco had been receiving SNAP benefits for several years but did not receive the Notice of ABAWD Status mailed in December 2015 advising him of the impending ABAWD work rules. He received a NOAA on June 24, 2016 with a mailing and effective date of June 17, 2016. DeMeco Decl., Ex. 2, ECF No. 9-13. He spends many hours each week caring for his ill father but was unaware he could be exempted from ABAWD work rules because he did not receive the Notice of ABAWD Status prior to the expiration of the waiver in his county, and the NOAA he received did not mention an exemption or good cause exception for those who act as the primary caretaker of an incapacitated person.

         Plaintiff Blowers resides in West Sand Lake, New York in the County of Rensselaer. The County of Rensselaer's waiver expired January 1, 2016. Blowers had been receiving SNAP benefits since 2015 and did receive the Notice of ABAWD Status mailed in December 2015 advising him of the impending ABAWD work rules. Blowers Decl., Ex. 1, ECF No. 9-15. Although he cannot work 80 hours a month because of his health problems, he did not seek an exemption or good cause exception because the Notice of ABAWD Status left him confused and unsure of whom to contact to do so. In July 2016 he recertified for benefits, and during the recertification interview, the DSS worker told him he was assumed to be able bodied. In August 2016 he received a NOAA that his benefits would be discontinued in September 2016 and he needed to repay the $970 he received as an non-compliant ABAWD from April through August 2016. Blowers Decl., Ex. 2, ECF No. 9-16.

         D. Recent Document Revisions

         After the completion of briefing on the instant motions, defendant advised the undersigned that the OTDA had been in the process of revising the notices provided to SNAP applicants and recipients and revision was complete. ECF No. 33. The revisions were finalized and took effect on October 23, 2016. Various changes were made to the NOAA and to the decision letters received by new SNAP applicants approved for benefits and by recipients recertified as eligible for continued benefits. Guinn Decl., Exs. A ("Revised NOAA"), B ("Revised Application Decision"), C ("Revised Recertification Decision"), ECF Nos. 37-2-37-4. The revised notices however do not replace in full the prior documents that are the subject of plaintiffs' motions for class certification and preliminary injunction and defendant's motion to dismiss. Only discontinuances of benefits for a recipient's failure to comply with the work rules after October 23, 2016 are accomplished using the Revised NOAA. Similarly, only notifications of benefits approvals and recertifications after October 23, 2016 are accomplished using the Revised Opening Letter and the Revised Recertification Letter. The parties submitted supplemental briefing on the revised notices and maintain their positions.

         Specifically, the Revised NOAA contains a detailed explanation of ABAWD qualifications, exemptions, and includes a section entitled "Good Cause." It provides information concerning the immediate restoration of benefits if the termination was improperly taken, a detailed description of how to challenge the agency's decision, an explanation on how to regain eligibility following benefit termination, and advice on what a recipient could do to continue receiving benefits beyond the three month time limit.

         The OTDA also made similar alterations to its SNAP Opening Letter which is issued to all newly eligible SNAP households and its SNAP Recertification Letter which is issued to all SNAP households found eligible upon periodic recertification. The Revised Opening Letter and the Revised Recertification Letter now each include two pages of detailed information regarding who constitutes an ABAWD, explanation of the work rules, and a description of the exemptions and good cause exceptions.

         Notably, plaintiffs do not have a class representative who received the Revised Opening Letter or Revised Recertification Letter, or who were notified by the Revised NOAA that their benefits were reduced or terminated.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Class Certification

         1. Le ...


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