September 17, 2020

More than 700,000 Pennsylvanians who were left out of extra SNAP “emergency allotments” when USDA denied Pennsylvania’s request for authority to issue them to all SNAP households may be able to get them pursuant to a federal court order issued on September 11. The case Gilliam v. USDA was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Congress provided for “emergency allotments” for SNAP households “to address temporary food needs” during COVID-19 as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act enacted in March. USDA was to grant state requests to issue the payments when supported by sufficient data. USDA’s implementation memoranda, however, limited the relief to SNAP households that were not already at the maximum benefit amount.

Plaintiffs in the litigation, represented by attorneys from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and the law firm Morgan Lewis, sued USDA for its denial of Pennsylvania’s request to issue the extra SNAP payments “to address temporary food needs” to all SNAP households, including those already receiving the SNAP maximum benefit level.

The court found that excluding from “SNAP households” those who were already at the maximum benefit level was at odds with the clear statutory language and congressional intent. It explained, “[I]f Congress had intended to deny any relief under Section 2302(a)(1) to households at the maximum applicable allotment, it would have said so expressly.” Moreover, the Court pointed out, “USDA’s interpretation reads the word ‘emergency,’ and the phrase ‘emergency allotments’ out of the statute or, at a minimum, renders them meaningless and superfluous as to nearly half of Pennsylvania’s SNAP households who also happen to be in the most dire need of emergency assistance.”

Under the preliminary injunction granted on September 11, while the litigation continues, USDA shall approve or deny Pennsylvania’s requests for emergency allotments to address the temporary food needs of Pennsylvania SNAP households on the basis of sufficient supporting data without limiting the relief to those not already at the maximum benefit level.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia attorney Louise Hayes said, “USDA’s mistaken guidance put a nonsensical cap on emergency allotments. Under the USDA’s interpretation of the FFCRA, the poorest SNAP recipients got no help during the pandemic, while the least-poor SNAP recipients received the most help. The Court agreed with us that this exclusion of the poorest households from emergency help cannot have been what Congress intended.