Law360 (June 18, 2020, 7:26 PM EDT) -- A California federal judge has refused to block U.S. Department of Agriculture guidance that denies emergency food aid created under a new coronavirus law to certain households, ruling that it's Congress' job to make such determinations.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. shot down the proposed class' request for a preliminary injunction blocking 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, saying the plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers haven't shown a clear likelihood of success on the merits.
"The court acknowledges that plaintiffs' argument that all SNAP households need support in the midst of the pandemic is compelling as an equitable matter," he said. "However, Congress, not the court, is charged with determining how best to weigh and triage the needs of all Americans during this time of crisis, taking into account the budgetary costs and benefits of various policy choices."
Judge Gilliam pointed out that the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which is working its way through Congress, increases the maximum food allotment nationwide by 15%. The judge said that suggests that Congress didn't intend the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March, to double the allotment of those who had hit the maximum.
"Increasing the maximum monthly allotment by 15% in light of COVID-19 would seem unnecessary if the FFCRA already increased this maximum by 100% in the form of emergency allotments," he said.
Hall and Summers filed their proposed class action in March, and Judge Gilliam heard arguments in the case earlier this month. The suit also seeks to certify a proposed class of SNAP recipients in California who received their maximum monthly allotments and asks the court to declare the guidance runs against the FFCRA.
Judge Gilliam raised concerns about the HEROES Act's proposed 15% increase at the hearing earlier this month.
But Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class 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," Prieto 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.
Judge Gilliam, however, was unmoved on Wednesday, denying the plaintiffs' bid for a preliminary injunction.
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.
--Additional reporting by Dorothy Atkins. Editing by Nicole Bleier.
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