Monday, July 27, 2015

Food Stamp law can be enforced through Section 1983

Under the Food Stamp Act, the government must give benefits within 30 days of the application and within seven days for especially needy households. Can plaintiffs sue a state to enforce these time limits under Section 1983? The Court of Appeals says Yes.

The case is Briggs v. Bremby, decided on July 6. The  court entered a preliminary injunction against the State of Connecticut after finding the State was not timely issuing benefits.The issue here is whether the Food Stamp Act can be enforced through Section 1983, the federal civil rights law that allows you to seek relief for the violation of federal civil rights. Not every federal statute can be enforced through Section 1983. Under Supreme Court authority, the statute can predicate a Section 1983 action (which allows for compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys fees) under the following circumstances:

1) “Congress must have intended that the provision in question benefit the plaintiff,” 2) “the plaintiff must demonstrate that the right assertedly protected by the statute is not so vague and amorphous that its enforcement would strain judicial competence,” and 3) “the statute must unambiguously impose a binding obligation on the States.”
All three prongs are satisfied here. The Food Stamp time limits establish a right that is neither vague nor amorphous and they impose binding obligations on the states. The Second Circuit (Calabresi, Hall and Carney) also finds that Congress intended these provisions to benefit Food Stamp applicants. (Connecticut argued that the law was intended only to guide states in how to marshal their resources when administrating the Food Stamp program). And, although the law grants enforcement authority to the Secretary of Agriculture, the Court further finds that Congress did not expressly or impliedly signal that it did not want people to enforce the statute through Section 1983.

For plaintiffs, suing to enforce a statute under Section 1983 is quite desirable. That statute gets you all the damages you want, plus attorneys' fees. It also gets you into federal court. What strikes me about this case is that the modern Supreme Court has scaled back on the statutes that can predicate a Section 1983 claim. I wonder if the government will ask the Supreme Court to take on this case.

No comments: