W.D.Wa: TRO stops state budget cut of food assistance for legal aliens

A district court in Washington issued a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) prohibiting the termination of state funded food assistance for legal immigrants.  Applying strict scrutiny, the court held that the agency rule eliminating funding for the state program likely violated Equal Protection.  The notices also likely violated Due Process.  Pimental v. Dreyfus, 2011 WL 321778 (W.D. Wash. Jan. 28, 2011).  Judge Pechman is a Clinton nominee.

Congress cut off funding for food stamps for legal immigrants in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act but permitted states to provide food assistance to legal immigrants ineligible for federal benefits.  In 1997, Washington passed a state law exercising its option to provide state funded benefits.  In Sept. 2010, the state Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) issued a final rule eliminating the program, due to budget cuts, effective February 1, 2011.  The named plaintiff is a legal immigrant with children who are United States citizens.  The notice she received did not explain why ineligible household members did not meet the citizenship requirements or specify the verification relied upon by the agency.

The agency did not object to the certification of the class, and the court quickly listed the reasons why certification was warranted.  DSHS objected to certification of a due process subclass, and the court granted leave for the plaintiff to amend the complaint to clarify the language in the designation of the subclass.

Turning to the TRO, the court first addressed the likelihood of success on the merits.  The important question for the Equal Protection claim was whether strict scrutiny or rational basis review applied.  The court began by citing Supreme Court precedent for the principle that “state classifications based on alienage are generally subject to strict scrutiny.”  The agency’s reliance on cases involving federal classifications was rejected.  The district court explained that rational basis review was appropriate for alienage classifications in administering federally funded benefits but not for state funded benefits.

The court similarly rejected the defendant’s argument that the elimination of the state program left only the federal alienage classifications.  The court characterized the plaintiff’s claim as being whether the elimination of the state program while continuing in the federal program violated Equal Protection.  The court concluded that strict scrutiny applied to that question.

DSHS further argued that strict scrutiny should apply only if the state acts inconsistent with the uniform law set by Congress.  The court cited district court cases from New York and Hawaii for the principle that federal law does not establish a uniform law for state funded food assistance benefits.  In the absence of uniform federal law, the court concluded, strict scrutiny applies.

After a lengthy discussion of the standard of review, the court then disposed of the merits in one sentence: “State budgetary considerations are not a compelling interest for a state to discriminate against aliens or immigrants.”  As a result, under strict scrutiny, the plaintiff had established a likelihood of success on the merits for the Equal Protection claim.

Regarding the Due Process claim, the agency argued that individual notice was not required when benefits are terminated by a change in law.  The court distinguished cases in which Congress had legislated the change in law.  The court focused on the fact that the regulatory agency had brought about the change through rule making.  The court stated: “Since Plaintiff and other class members do not have the opportunity to express their objections by voting DSHS out of office, the notices are subject to due process standards.”  The court found that the notice likely violated Due Process, by not specifying who was ineligible, the verification utilized, or the method for pro-rating the ineligible member’s income and expenses.

DSHS also challenged plaintiff’s standing for the Due Process claim.  The court acknowledged that due to the scheduled termination of the program, eligibility issues “may be moot.”  Nevertheless, “[s]ince Plaintiff has suffered an injury in fact that is traceable to DSHS’s inadequate notice and it is likely that the injury will be redressed by injunctive relief, Plaintiff has standing to bring the Due Process claim.”

The agency did not contest irreparable harm, and the court concluded that the TRO was needed to prevent irreparable harm.  On the balance of hardships, the court found that the plaintiff and class members’ need for food outweighed administrative inconvenience or monetary loss to the government.  The court further held that the “public has a strong interest in insuring that public programs are administered in compliance with Due Process.”

The court’s TRO order was quite broad: “The Court ORDERS Defendant not to terminate Plaintiff’s or other Class members’ state-funded food assistance under the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants on January 31, 2011 or to deny any Class members’ application for such benefits after that date because of lack of funding.”  While the plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction, the court did not address that relief except to require the parties to confer whether additional briefing and hearing were needed on the preliminary injunction.  If so, the parties needed to submit a schedule to the court.

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