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Trump Ninth Circuit Judge Eric Miller cast the deciding vote to deny families who already receive the maximum allotment of food assistance benefits to obtain any additional allotments under the Trump Administration’s interpretation and implementation of a new statute passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The December 2020 case was Hall v. USDA.
On March 18, 2020, Congress enacted the Families First Act (FFA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. FFA provided for secondary Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administered SNAP and allowed households receiving less than the maximum monthly allotment of SNAP benefits to be brought up to the maximum, but it did not allow those already receiving the maximum to be given any additional benefits.
The California (CA) Department of Social Services submitted to USDA a request for emergency SNAP allotments. CA’s request sought to ensure that those households already receiving the maximum benefit but still in need would receive an extra $60 emergency allotment per person, per month.
The USDA rejected CA’s request as contrary to USDA guidance. California resubmitted a revised request and the USDA approved the revised request but it restated that SNAP households already receiving the maximum monthly allotment for their household size are not eligible for an extra $60 allotment.
Robin Hall and Steven Summers (Hall), CA residents who normally receive the maximum monthly allotment of SNAP benefits, filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA and the Secretary of Agriculture challenging the agency’s interpretation of FFA and sought a preliminarily injunction barring the USDA “from denying any otherwise appropriate request from California because it provides emergency [SNAP] allotments to households receiving the maximum monthly benefit amount.”
The district court denied a preliminary injunction and Hall appealed.
The majority, with Trump Judge Miller casting the deciding vote, affirmed the district court’s ruling that the USDA correctly interpreted the FFA.
Chief Judge Sidney Thomas dissented, contending that the USDA’s interpretation of the FFA cannot be “squared with the text of the provision and structure of the statute”. He went on to say the statute states that the
“USDA must ‘provide . . . for emergency allotments to households participating in [SNAP] to address temporary food needs not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size. In my view, the most grammatical and logical construction of ‘not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment’ (the “limiting clause”) is as a cap on the value of “emergency allotments. Congress did not qualify the phrase “households participating in [SNAP]. Therefore, the statute, by its plain terms, makes all SNAP households eligible for emergency aid, not just those that had enough income to afford some of their pre-COVID food needs.”