Levels of Departmental Compliance Related to Timeliness of Fair Hearings Under the Federal Food Stamp Act of 1964

By Dustin Bennett, Albany Government Law Review

 

I.            Introduction

            Statutes are created to set the law on a given topic that the government wishes to control, and are created for individuals as well as for governmental agencies to follow. In pursuit of enforcing these statutes, different agencies within the Executive Branch set regulations creating guidelines for the proposed class or classes to follow. State agencies and departments fall into one of the classes that may be required to follow these promulgated regulations.

            The Federal Food Stamp program,[1] which is an important part of federal benefits law, is one of these statutes. The department that deals with this law the most is the Department of Social Services (DSS), known under different titles depending on the state and administered at the county (or other jurisdictional) level. Regulations that departments such as DSS regularly face, to comply with these laws, are regulations regarding timeliness of benefits and hearing appeals.[2]  The departments deal with so many individual cases that some cases inevitably fall through the cracks. However, according to the regulation, all cases must be dealt with within a specified period of time.[3]  This has caused a dilemma for state departments. In determining the level to which an agency must comply with the regulation, case law has been created causing a circuit split on which level is sufficient. Most courts that have ruled on this issue have held that the departments must “strictly comply” with the federal regulation,[4] meaning every case has to be dealt with within that regulation-created period of time. One circuit has ruled in favor of only requiring “substantial compliance,”[5] but this compliance level has yet to be completely defined and implemented.

            This article will give a brief overview of the case law regarding which level of compliance is currently required within the circuits, and why there may be such a back-and-forth concerning which level is the correct level. In conclusion, this article will explain why substantial compliance should be the preferred compliance level.

II.            Substantial Compliance

            The Third Circuit has been the only circuit to definitively rule that substantial compliance is required of the states.[6]  In Shands v. Tull, a 96% compliance rate was found to meet the level of substantial compliance.[7]  In Shands, a group of appellees were initially seeking Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits from the state of New Jersey. When their claims were denied, the plaintiffs took an administrative appeal which under federal regulations should have been completed within ninety days, but eventually concluded somewhere within 94 and 111 days.[8]  According to the studies performed, from November of 1976 until January 1977, 83% of the administrative appeals in New Jersey were completed within the ninety days, but from June of 1977 until August 1977 the compliance rate increased to 96%.[9]  The court determined that certain language of the statute such as “failure to comply substantially,” and provisions allowing for bonuses for compliance, evinced an “implied intent” for requiring substantial compliance.[10]  The awards bonus allowed for bonuses on rates of error in determining eligibility when the rate of error was less than four percent.[11]  Ultimately, the court reached the conclusion that New Jersey had achieved substantial compliance when the state met the ninety-day limit in ninety-six percent of the cases.[12]

            The Second Circuit has yet to fully decide the issue, which has to date only been left to the district courts to decide. Currently, there seems to be no solid rule of law. The outcome of each decision has depended upon the unique circumstances of each case.

            The Eastern District of New York followed the Shands approach in 1988 in Moore v. Perales.[13]  Although the court was unable to give a definite number, it did mention a five percent payment error rate, alluding to at least finding for a 95% compliance rate.[14]  In Moore, a class of plaintiffs brought suit complaining that the State, as defendant, had failed to comply with a fair hearing decision issued.[15]  For food stamps, Judge Sifton concluded that the FSA showed an implied intent to hold the state to substantial compliance, using §2020(g)’s provision that enforcement wouldn’t take place if there was a showing of “good cause,” as well as §2025(c), which was the food stamp equivalent to an award bonus in AFDC but with a payment error rate set at five percent.[16]  Ultimately, he decided that substantial compliance is required, but was unable to put forth a concrete number to follow because no data on the level of compliance had been brought before the court.[17]

III.            Strict Compliance

            As noted previously, other circuits that have held that full compliance is needed in such an area as Federal Benefits Law. In 1991, the Ninth Circuit determined that full compliance was needed with the federal regulations on timeliness.[18]  The plaintiffs in Withrow v. Concannon,were applicants for either AFDC, Food Stamps, or Medicaid, and brought a class action against the State, as defendant, for a failure to issue timely decisions.[19]  The court found that full compliance was required, reasoning that the standard related to the termination of federal funds was not the proper standard to apply when determining individual rights in regard to timeliness.[20]  The State argued that total compliance was not practical; however the court followed the decision in Haskins v. Stanton decision and held that impossibility of perfect compliance is not a defense, that an injunction is not required for every sporadic instance of noncompliance, and that it is at the discretion of the district court to determine the de minimis standard.[21]  Judge Trott disagreed with the majority’s holding as to the requirement of full compliance and cited to the Shands case in support of his position. Similar to Moore v. Perales, Judge Trott found that the word “substantially” within the AFDC statute and “good cause” in § 2020(g) reveal a congressional intent to simply hold the states to the level of substantial compliance.[22]  He reasoned that the substantial compliance standard doesn’t give the states a chance to perform duties “in a haphazard fashion,” but is a stringent enough standard that is understanding of the circumstances.[23]

            The court in Haskins v. Stanton also required full compliance for the state defendants.[24]  The plaintiffs in Haskins brought a claim against the State of Indiana and Lake County because their applications for food stamps were not processed by officials within the deadlines set by the Food Stamp Act.[25]  In its decision regarding compliance, the court reasoned that since the defendants were already required to follow the terms of the Food Stamp Act which required strict compliance, enforcing strict compliance with an injunction was no extra burden on the defendants.[26]

            As noted previously, the court in Moore, decided in the Eastern District of New York, held that substantial compliance is the level at which the state defendants are to be held; however the court in the Southern District of New York decided differently in 1995. The case involved four named plaintiffs who failed to receive “aid continuing benefits” after succeeding in fair hearings which were requested when the learned of changes affecting their benefits.[27] Concerning the issue of compliance, the court found that the City agency had failed to give timely aid continuance in at least ten percent of the cases (and most likely substantially more), and ultimately determined that such a finding was enough for the plaintiffs to “have shown substantial likelihood of success on the merits” to claim relief.[28]

IV.            Conflicting Interests

            When considering which level of compliance a court should favor, two policy issues are readily apparent: the individual liberties of those seeking benefits under the Federal Benefits Law, and the ability of a state department to make a determination within the time limits of every individual case.[29] Concerning the individual bringing a case against the state department, the court must look at the individual’s civil liberties, namely the individual’s due process rights.[30] Individuals are entitled under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to receive due process when possibly being deprived of life, liberty, or property.[31]  When individuals are awarded benefits, they are then entitled to due process when those benefits are to be reduced or even eliminated.[32]  Part of affording due process is providing a timely administrative hearing.[33]

            The United States was founded upon individual liberties, but practicality is what helps the country to thrive. Throughout the year, departments such as the Department of Social Services receive an exorbitant amount of cases. To require these departments to be timely on each and every case is essentially demanding perfection from a government agency. Like the expression “humans aren’t perfect,” neither are governmental agencies which are run by imperfect individuals–to demand that governmental agencies be perfect is unreasonable. Understandably, courts are hesitant to intrude upon individual rights, but requiring a high compliance rate, as seen in Shands,[34] allows for a large amount of individuals to exercise their rights while challenging agencies to stay on top of their caseloads. The Legislature seems to have expected this result. As stated by the courts in Moore and Shands, there are provisions within the Federal Food Stamp Act that award bonuses for high levels of compliance.[35]  It is unlikely that the Legislature would have included this language without expecting some percentage of failure.

V.            Conclusion

            As illustrated, there is currently a circuit court split throughout the country on what level of compliance should be used when states implement Federal Benefits Law. Most agree that “strict compliance” is the key; however, the Third Circuit, where this topic originated in case law, has held that only “substantial compliance” is required. This is a topic that seems to hinge on a split decision which may not be resolved for quite some time.

 

[1] 7 U.S.C. §§ 2011–2036a (2013).

[2] 7 C.F.R. § 273.15(c)(1) (2013). In New York, the Department of Social Services deals mostly with benefit administration, while the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance deals with the appeals of individuals regarding their benefits. An individual will bring an appeal when her benefits have been changed (lowering the amount) or discontinued, or when her application for benefits has been denied.   See Frequently Asked Questions, Off. of Temporary and Disability Assistance, https://otda.ny.gov/hearings/faq.asp (last visited Mar. 29, 2014).

[3] 7 C.F.R. § 273.15(c)(1).

[4] See Withrow v. Concannon, 942 F.2d 1385, 1388 (9th Cir. 1991); Haskins v. Stanton, 794 F.2d 1273, 1277 (7th Cir. 1986); Morel v. Giuliani, 927 F. Supp. 622, 635 (S.D.N.Y. 1995).

[5] See Shands v. Tull, 602 F.2d 1156, 1160 (3d Cir. 1979).

[6] See id. at 1161.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 1157.

[9] Id. at 1158.

[10] Id. at 1160.

[11] Shands, 602 F.2d at 1160 (citing 42 U.S.C.A. § 603(j) (West Supp. 1979)).

[12] Id. at 1161.

[13] Moore v. Perales, 692 F.Supp. 137 (E.D.N.Y. 1988).

[14] Id. at 145.

[15] Id. at 140.

[16] Id. at 145.

[17] Id.

[18] Withrow, 942 F.2d at 1387–1388.

[19] Id. at 1386.

[20] Id. at 1387.

[21] Id. at 1387–1388.

[22]Withrow v. Concannon, 942 F.2d 1385, 1390 (9th Cir. 1991) (Judge Trott, dissenting).

[23] Id.

[24] Haskins, 794 F.2d at 1277.

[25] Id. at 1274.

[26]Id. at 1277.

[27] Morel, 927 F.Supp at 628.

[28] Id. at 637.

[29] See id. at 626–627.

[30] See id. at 627.

[31] U.S. Const. amend. V; U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

[32] See Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970).

[33] 7 C.F.R. § 273.15(c)(1) (2010). Under SNAP a state agency must provide an administrative hearing as well as a decision within 60 days of the individual’s request to be considered timely.

[34] Shands, 602 F.2d at 1161.

[35] Id. at 1160; Moore, 692 F. Supp. at 145

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