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Law360 (June 10, 2020, 10:58 PM EDT) -- A California federal judge appeared skeptical Wednesday of efforts to block U.S. Department of Agriculture guidance that denies emergency food aid created under a new coronavirus law to certain households, saying Congress' ongoing consideration of another proposal to increase nonemergency food aid suggests the USDA may have it right.
During a teleconference hearing, U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. said the question at hand "boils down" to figuring out what Congress intended when lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March and created an emergency food aid fund.
"The issue here is not whether Congress made the wisest decision or whether the court would make the same decision if it were sitting in Congress and deciding to vote, because those are questions that could very much be debated," the judge said.
Judge Gilliam noted that there is a proposed law working its way through Congress that would increase the maximum food allotment nationwide by 15%. The judge said that suggests that Congress didn't intend the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to give families who reached their maximum allotment additional aid.
Therefore, the judge said, it is also not "inconceivable" that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is properly limiting the emergency food aid under the new law.
"It does strike me that at least these external indicators don't reflect the flashing red light that the USDA just had it totally wrong," he said.
The judge's comments came during a hearing on a motion for preliminary injunction in a proposed class action filed by Robin Hall and Steven Summers in March. The lawsuit seeks to block the USDA's guidance restricting benefits to households in poverty that have already reached their maximum monthly food allotment under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The suit also seeks to certify a proposed class of SNAP recipients in California who receive their maximum monthly allotments and asks the court to declare the guidance runs against the new law.
During the hearing on the motion Wednesday, Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class that the agency's limits are illogical and that they're harming families most in need during this crisis.
He said Congress understood that some families were already receiving their maximum monthly allotment when lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Prieto said Congress also understood that food prices would rise and that there would be challenges to obtaining food during the pandemic.
But Prieto said the USDA is now trying to impose limits and its approach would allow certain families to receive more food assistance, even though they haven't lost income, while denying those living in poverty additional aid.
"It's not even a logical way to approach the problem," Prieto said.
He added that the harm in this case is very serious and irreparable, particularly since one in four California households are currently food-insecure.
In response to the judge's comments, Prieto argued that the plain language of the statute suggests that Congress didn't intend to restrict food aid to the neediest during the crisis, although he acknowledged that there is sparse legislative history in the record on lawmakers' intent in drafting the emergency statute.
He also argued that the proposed 15% increase of the maximum allotment does not support the position that Congress aimed to limit SNAP benefits in this case.
"Raising everything 15% would be one way to do that, but it's not the only way to do that," he said.
Prieto pointed out that it was clear in March that COVID-19 was going to impact the need for food, but at the time food chain disruptions weren't equal across the states, so increasing the food allotment maximums "across the board" didn't necessarily make sense as a policy.
Prieto also rebutted the USDA's suggestion that the issue is strictly a problem of lost income, noting that the statute doesn't address lost income, it addresses "temporary food needs."
But counsel for the government, Rachael Westmoreland, argued that allowing households that have reached their maximum allotments to receive more food aid would essentially let them double the amount of food assistance they receive, when Congress has already indicated that the maximum allotment is sufficient.
"Congress knows how to make clear statements if it wants to and it didn't here," she said.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Gilliam took the arguments under submission. But before wrapping, the judge stressed that the issues presented in this case are of "enormous public significance."
The proposed class of SNAP recipients is represented by Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty.
The government is represented by Rachael Westmoreland of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division.
The case is Robin Hall et al. v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al., case number 4:20-cv-03454, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
--Editing by Bruce Goldman.
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