Protecting the Safety Net

One way that systemic racism and inequality impact Legal Aid’s client community is how government programs treat those they are meant to serve. Americans of means need only check a box or two on their tax forms to receive thousands of dollars in tax deductions for owning a home. Yet people who use programs meant to help them put food on the table or obtain health insurance are often assumed to be committing fraud or treated with skepticism or scorn. Legal Aid sees time and time again how low-income clients who are eligible for, and in dire need of, government assistance have to comply with complicated rules and unresponsive government agencies in order to obtain the benefits to which they are lawfully entitled.

Ensuring that District residents have access to safety-net benefits has been more critical than ever this year. Legal Aid’s Public Benefits Unit continued its work to make benefits such as SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid available to those who need it as government agencies went to mostly virtual operations.  Additionally, Legal Aid also focused on ensuring that our client community obtained the Economic Impact (or stimulus) Payments authorized by Congress in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act. 

Unsurprisingly, individuals in our client community – those who need this assistance the most because of the dual disparate impacts of the pandemic itself and the resulting economic devastation – faced myriad challenges in obtaining to receiving their payments. These challenges include:

  • Eligibility. Some of our clients were ineligible because of their immigration status and others because they were adults who were claimed as dependents by someone else on their taxes.
  • Accessibility. Many individuals in our client community who did not automatically receive stimulus payments had to use an online filing tool to register to receive payments. Some clients had difficulty accessing and using the online filing tool due to technology constraints.
  • Confusion about Processes and Deadlines. The Internal Revenue Service rolled out this program quickly. Because of that, however, the rules governing the processes and deadlines for obtaining stimulus payments were constantly in flux, making it difficult for our clients and their advocates to keep up to date.
  • Garnishment for Child Support. Some of our clients had their stimulus payments garnished to repay child support obligations. Although this garnishment was legal (as opposed to garnishment for other debts, which was prohibited), it still produced confusion for our clients.

Recognizing this critical need, Legal Aid worked to educate legal services providers, inform our clients, and provide resources for our client community at large to ensure that those who qualified for stimulus payments could access them.

Keeping Food on the Table

As part of a cruel attempt to dismantle key portions of the safety net, late in 2019 the Trump Administration sought to circumvent Congress and institute a new rule that would have kicked nearly 700,000 Americans off the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. The rule, set to go into effect on April 1, 2020, would have prevented so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs) from receiving SNAP benefits for 33 of 36 months unless they met certain (often in our view irrational and unrealistic) work requirements.

Legal Aid, along with our pro bono partners at Alston & Bird, sued the Administration in January on behalf of two individual clients, Damon Smith and Geneva Tann, and non-profit Bread for the City to stop the rule from going into effect. The lawsuit was consolidated with a case brought by almost two dozen state and local attorneys general. Inexplicably, even as the pandemic was bearing down on the nation, the Administration refused to back down. 

Fortunately, on March 13 (the same day Legal Aid shut its doors and switched to remote operations) Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminarily injunction to halt the implementation of the rule.

“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential.”

Chief Judge Beryl Howell, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

In October, Chief Judge Howell vacated the rule, stating that it “radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.”

This victory could not have come at a more important time as tens of thousands of DC residents are struggling to put food on the table. Though DC residents continue to face problems accessing the SNAP program. In February, for example, just before the pandemic hit, DC resident Lenora Reid submitted multiple food stamps applications. However, these applications were not processed, and she went without food stamps for months during the pandemic. Fortunately, we were able to intervene and get her application processed accurately, as well as getting her all the back benefits which she had been unlawfully denied.

Major Settlement Involving Wrongly Confiscated Tax Refunds

In October 2020, Legal Aid reached a major settlement with the Social Security Administration (SSA) in a federal class action matter challenging the agency’s practice of seizing tax refunds based on alleged decades-old benefits overpayments, some of which went back to the 1970s. SSA typically had no documentation to support their claims of overpayments. In some cases, the benefits in question were paid to a relative of the taxpayers whose funds were seized, and not to taxpayers themselves.

In 2015, Legal Aid, together with Alston & Bird, had filed a lawsuit alleging that the SSA had confiscated the plaintiffs’ tax refunds without notice, in violation of federal law, and without the due process required under the Constitution. SSA sought to avoid a decision on the merits of the case by refunding the seized funds to the three named plaintiffs, waiving their overpayments, and then moving to dismiss the action. The trial court agreed to dismiss the case, but Legal Aid appealed, seeking to resolve the underlying issue that SSA should not be able to confiscate tax refunds in order to pursue decades-old alleged debts for which the agency had no documentation.

During the course of the litigation, SSA issued an internal notice ending its practice of confiscating tax returns to repay itself for decades-old debts. SSA then offered repayments for the tax return money previously taken, resulting in repayments of more than $10 million to more than 13,000 taxpayers. But even this remedy was incomplete because SSA took the position that all of the plaintiffs, whether they received repayments or not, still owed the decades-old debts.

In the settlement, SSA agreed to notify roughly 30,000 class members of the right to apply for a “waiver” of their alleged debt, meaning that, if the application is granted, the supposed debt will cease to exist. Most such requests should be granted because of the relatively small amounts of the debts (many under $1,000) and because of their extreme age.

“It never seemed fair that the government withheld my tax refund just because it thought I was overpaid Social Security benefits more than 30 years ago. It seemed especially wrong that the government never told me that I owed it anything before taking my money.”

One of the three named plaintiffs

The appellate briefing and settlement negotiations were led by Jonathan Levy, Director of the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project. Established in 2004 with seed money from the DC Bar Foundation, which continues to provide generous support, Legal Aid’s Appellate Project has become a “model of excellence” that the National Legal Aid and Defender Association has urged other legal services programs to emulate. The Project was named for its founding Director, Barbara McDowell, after her untimely death.

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