Federal Appeals Court Affirms that Connecticut Food Stamp Applicants Can Sue for Timely Benefits

The NCLEJ and Greater Hartford Legal Aid legal teamIn a major victory for food stamp applicants, represented by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and Greater Hartford Legal Aid, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on July 6, 2015 that applicants can hold a state agency accountable for failing to provide food stamps in a timely manner. (The federal law requires states to decide applications and issue benefits within 30 days of application, and 7 days for those with emergency needs.) The unanimous decision came in Briggs v. Bremby, which challenged Connecticut’s widespread delays in processing applications and issuing benefits, leaving families to go hungry while awaiting food stamps. The federal District Court in Connecticut had ruled for the food stamp applicants and ordered the state to comply with federal law, but the Commissioner of the state agency appealed, arguing that food stamp applicants have no right to ask the court to enforce the federal laws requiring timely issuance of benefits.

In its July 6th decision concluding that applicants can bring a lawsuit to enforce the federal food stamp timely processing requirements, the Second Circuit also rejected the Defendant’s argument that federal SNAP application processing regulations excused it from complying with the 30 and 7 day requirements. The Second Circuit is the first Circuit Court to address this issue in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002). Following a request from the Second Circuit, the United States had submitted an amicus brief supporting the food stamp applicants. The opinion was written by Judge Calabresi and joined by Judges Hall and Carney.

The Second Circuit opinion affirms the earlier ruling by Connecticut Federal District Court Judge Bryant to grant the motion of low-income for stamp applicants for an order pending a full trial on the merits to require the state to timely process applications for food stamps.

In her initial 41-page ruling, issued on December 4, 2012, Judge Bryant had denied the state’s request that the Court throw out the law suit entirely. She also found that the denial of essential benefits such as food stamps undeniably constitutes irreparable harm and that the low-income families who brought the case are likely to succeed on the merits because they presented credible evidence that defendant has engaged in ongoing, persistent systemic delay in providing food stamps to eligible families. When the case was filed in early 2012, the low-income applicants presented evidence showing that in the months leading up to the lawsuit, each month some 4400-5000 households had to wait more than 30 days for their applications to be decided. And more than 50% of those facing an emergency had to wait over 7 days for the state to decide their applications. Families had been suffering extensive delays for at least two years.

The State appealed the District Court’s decision to the Second Circuit, which dismissed the appeal. The State then tried to get permission to appeal a second time, but was denied that permission.

On May 13, 2013, the District Court Judge entered a more detailed order, providing for explicit deadlines by which the State must improve its performance, monitoring procedures, and a procedure to get individual relief for those households that fall through the cracks in the state’s processing of food stamp applications. Following the May 13, 2013 order, the State appealed again to the Second Circuit, and that appeal resulted in the July 6, 2015 victory for food stamp applicants.

The District Court’s order requiring the State to improve its performance, upheld by the Second Circuit, means that thousands of hungry Connecticut residents will get food stamps sooner and within the time Congress required.

Plaintiffs are represented by Marc Cohan, Gina Mannix, and Greg Bass of NCLEJ and by Giovanna Shay, Lucy Potter and Cecil Thomas of Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

Read the Second Circuit decision

For press reports related to the Second Circuit decision, see:

Read the December 2012 decision

For earlier press reports, see: