Judge: Evidence of ‘systemic failure’ in food stamp program

Citing evidence of an “ongoing, persistent systemic failure” to comply with federal law, a judge has granted a preliminary injunction against the state Department of Social Services over delays in handling applications for food stamps.

“The low levels of timeliness rates are persuasive evidence that the State has failed to timely provide food stamps in compliance with the unambiguous mandates of [federal law],” U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant wrote.

She was ruling on a request for an injunction filed by attorneys with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, who alleged that delays in processing food stamp applications violated federal law. They asked for the court to require that DSS process all food stamp applications and issue benefits within the federally mandated timeframes.

“At the preliminary injunction stage, the Plaintiffs have presented credible evidence that the state is not failing in one or a very few sporadic instances but instead that there is ongoing, persistent systemic failure to comply with the strict unambiguous mandates imposed by the [Food Stamp Act] which warrant injunctive relief,” Bryant wrote.

The next step will be a hearing to determine the appropriate injunctive relief, and to define who will be included in the plaintiff class, said Gregory Bass, Greater Hartford Legal Aid’s litigation director.

Before filing the lawsuit, legal aid attorneys tried to negotiate an arrangement with DSS that would have led to improved compliance with federal timeframes for processing applications, but those talks didn’t produce an agreement, Bass said.

“Our approach has been that the court doesn’t need to micromanage the agency, that the court needs to issue an injunctive order telling them to comply with federal law within a reasonable timeframe, and if they don’t, then we have the means to enforce that order with the court,” Bass said.

DSS spokesman David Dearborn said the department’s attorneys are reviewing Bryant’s ruling. He said it’s important to note that the department is serving more than 212,000 households with food stamp benefits — a record number.

“Legal issues aside, this means that more people than ever qualify for — and are currently getting — this federal assistance through DSS,” Dearborn said. “Meanwhile, the Malloy administration’s investments in staffing and technological upgrades are going to transform and modernize the business model at the agency.”

Dearborn said the department is “making positive strides in improvement,” and said that the federal government ranked Connecticut first in improving its rate of negative errors — people being denied or losing benefits incorrectly — and in the top 10 in improvement in its positive error rate.

Bryant noted, among other things, that while caseloads were increasing, DSS had reduced staffing by 19 percent between 2002 and 2009, and by another 8 percent in September and October 2011.

DSS has cited changes made in an effort to improve its performance in handling applications, including assigning some workers to focus on the food stamp program — formally referred to as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The department has also hired more than 200 new workers to handle applications for new and renewed benefits.

Bryant wrote that the department’s efforts were “commendable,” but didn’t make injunctive relief moot or take away the court’s authority to rule on the plaintiffs’ request.

Bass said he and his colleagues applauded DSS for hiring more workers. “But it’s not working,” he said, citing continued delays in processing applications and the recent discovery of 125 boxes of applications — some unprocessed — in the Hartford regional office.

“We hear that story over and over again of people telling us they submitted paperwork, everything they’ve been asked to do, on time,” Bass said. “And [they] don’t get benefits.”

Up to 54 percent overdue

Federal law sets two timeframes for getting food stamps to qualified applicants. For most cases, they must be provided within 30 days. People in dire financial circumstances must get them in 7 days.

In her ruling, Bryant cited figures that the percent of applications pending for longer than 30 days ranged, in one 25-month period, from 18 percent in May and August 2011 to 40 percent in November 2011.

During that timeframe — January 2010 to February 2012 — at least 20 percent of applications were acted upon a month late; during one month, as many as 32 percent were a month late.

The performance was even worse for the applications required to be processed in seven days. Fifty-four percent of them took longer than the mandated seven days in December 2011; between August 2010 and February 2012, the month with the best performance was 35 percent in July 2011.

$75 a month and waiting

The named plaintiff in the case, James Briggs, was living on $75 a month in payments from a state fund for veterans when he applied for food stamps on Jan. 20, 2012.

At the time, Briggs had had colon cancer for five years, and the medical expenses had left him unable to pay all his bills or maintain his car. When his car broke down in November 2011, he couldn’t afford to repair it and lost his job as a furniture manager at Big Lots.

On Feb. 9, Briggs got a request from DSS to provide proof of citizenship and a letter from the veterans’ fund. He faxed the information that day and the day after, according to a court filing.

But on Feb. 22, Briggs got a notice from DSS saying his application had been delayed because more verification was still needed. “You should keep trying to get the verification we need,” it said.

The court filing said Briggs tried several times to reach the department at the number listed on the notice but couldn’t get through, and his messages weren’t returned.

Because Briggs had been spending his savings on medical care and his income on food, he wasn’t able to pay for the room where he was staying, and had been asked to leave, according to the request for an injunction, which was filed March 5.

“I am ill and it is very difficult to live without enough money for food,” he said in an affidavit. “I have survived with the help of friends.”

Briggs finally received his benefits shortly after the lawsuit was filed, said Lucy Potter, a plaintiff attorney in the case. But when it was time for his case to be renewed, he received a notice saying he would be cut off, even though he submitted the proper forms. Ultimately, he did not lose benefits.

“He’s been getting his benefits, but not without problems,” Potter said.

53rd in the country

Briggs’ attempt to get benefits came nearly a year after federal officials came to Connecticut to warn that the state could face federal sanctions if it didn’t improve its handling of the program.

At the time, the state ranked 53rd in the country in the proportion of cases in which food stamps were denied or terminated wrongly, behind the other 49 states as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam.

Connecticut also ranked 52nd in its rate of providing accurate benefits, and near the bottom in timeliness.

Dearborn said that for the most recent full-year reporting period, Connecticut’s error rate improved to 50th in the nation, and that interim data for 2012 shows the state’s error rate is 47th in the country.

Separately, attorneys with the New Haven Legal Assistance Association have filed a class action lawsuit against DSS over delays in processing Medicaid applications, alleging that the erosion of agency staffing had left thousands of poor residents without access to medical coverage.