On July 16, 2020, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia(“CLS”) and Morgan Lewis filed a class action lawsuit against The United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) on behalf of Pennsylvanians denied emergency food assistance during the COVID-19 crisis. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) included a provision providing for emergency additional SNAP (food stamp) benefits so that low income families could have access to food during the pandemic. Nearly 40% of Pennsylvania SNAP households, including many elderly people, families with young children, and people with disabilities, currently receive no emergency SNAP at all due to the USDA’s violation of the law.
Even in normal times, SNAP benefits are meager, and recipients struggle to afford nutritious food. The pandemic has made it even harder for people that are struggling to get by to safely and affordably access food. In April 2020, food prices increased more than they have in a single month in the last 46 years.
Plaintiffs Latoya Gilliam and Kayla McCrobie face increased challenges in getting the food they need during the pandemic, but are receiving no emergency allotments at all. As plaintiff Latoya Gilliam states, “It was very hard to get by even before the pandemic hit, but it is even harder now. I need extra SNAP so my two-year-old son and I can get by during the pandemic.” Similarly, plaintiff Kayla McCrobie says, “Because of the pandemic, I cannot buy all of the food I need for proper nutrition. I sometimes don’t have enough food, and skip meals. I am feeling the health effects of that.”
The lawsuit, Gilliam v. USDA, alleges that the USDA, the federal agency that oversees SNAP, misinterpreted the FFCRA by imposing an artificial limitation on the amount of emergency allotments SNAP households can receive.USDA’s interpretation violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how agencies interpret statutes. USDA’s erroneous guidance to states says emergency allotments can only bring SNAP households up to the maximum, normal monthly SNAP amount for their household size. The poorest SNAP households, those who are already getting the maximum SNAP amount because their incomes are so low, get no emergency allotments at all, while households with higher incomes are receiving relatively generous emergency allotments. In March, Pennsylvania requested permission to give every SNAP household extra benefits to assist in meeting emergency food needs, but USDA denied that request based on its misguided reading of the FFCRA.
John Lavelle, lead attorney for Morgan Lewis on the case, said: “USDA’s interpretation of the law is keeping food off the tables of Pennsylvania families during a time of desperate need. We are asking the Court to invalidate USDA’s cap on emergency allotments, which denies emergency SNAP to those who need it most.”
Louise Hayes, lead attorney at CLS on this litigation, said: “It is unconscionable that the poorest families in Pennsylvania are being denied emergency allotments because of the USDA’s unlawful position. Congress cannot have intended to give substantial help to the least-poor of the poor, while denying help altogether to the most poor.”
Ms. Gilliam and Ms. McCrobie are asking the court to preliminarily enjoin USDA from unlawfully denying emergency food assistance to the poorest SNAP recipients.