Judge denies state’s request to dismiss federal SNAP lawsuit

Mary Holmes says she subsisted on hardly any food for more than a month as she struggled to recertify her eligibility for federal food assistance earlier this year.

She spent hours on the phone trying to speak to someone at Missouri's Department of Social Services (DSS) for her mandatory interview, as her prepaid phone minutes dwindled. With no internet access, disabled and lacking transportation, she ultimately paid $10 to a relative to drive her to a DSS office.

But Holmes was told "they were not doing interviews that day" and someone would be in touch. A few days later, she answered a call from DSS's automatic dialer. The dialer is supposed to connect applicants who pick up to interviewers, but Holmes instead found herself in a familiar limbo. She was told she was number 692 in the queue, as if she had been the one to place the call.

She waited for four hours and still did not reach a representative.

Holmes's saga attempting to regain eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits is laid out in a lawsuit filed earlier this year in federal court. The state tried to get the case dismissed, arguing it was moot since Holmes and the other plaintiff -- listed in the lawsuit as "L.V." -- were eventually able to receive benefits.

But U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool ruled last week the lawsuit would move forward.

"Both plaintiffs are disabled and not able to work. They expect to need SNAP to meet their nutritional needs in the future," Katharine Deabler-Meadows, staff attorney with National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said in an interview. "They'll have to recertify their eligibility, so they'll have to navigate it again."

The lawsuit alleges DSS has violated federal SNAP law in far-reaching, "systemic" ways, depriving eligible households of timely access to benefits. And Harpool seemed persuaded during a March temporary restraining order hearing, saying: "I am disappointed it took court intervention for these two individuals to get what they needed."

A 'dysfunctional' call center

The federal lawsuit was filed in February by the New York-based National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and Stinson LLP on behalf of Holmes, L.V., and the nonprofit advocacy organization Empower Missouri.

To apply for SNAP, households must file an application, complete an interview, and submit verification after the interview. Households with net income at or below the federal poverty line -- $13,590 for a household of one, or $18,310 for a household of two -- and limited available resources can qualify.

The average value of benefits was $163.83 per person per month in May, the most recent available data. That month, 647,541 individuals received benefits, or roughly one in 10 Missourians.

Once a household files an application, DSS places calls to applicants through an automated dialer which is supposed to connect applicants to an interviewer quickly, but does so imperfectly. The lawsuit alleges some applicants answer and are placed in the queue, as happened to Holmes, are not called at all, or miss the call because they do not know when to expect it.

When applicants call back, they are placed in a queue, sometimes behind hundreds. Because of a "dysfunctional" centralized call center, applicants in Missouri cannot get through to the mandatory interview stage, and are thus deprived of their ability to access federal benefits, according to the lawsuit.

In part because of limited in-person hours, the lawsuit alleges, most applicants have no choice but to confront the overloaded call-center. "In practice, Missouri does not provide in-person interviews," the lawsuit claims. Even when the centers are open and easily accessible, they sometimes do not provide interviews, as in Holmes's case, or merely direct applicants to a phone "as if they had remained at home," the lawsuit states.

For those with disabilities seeking accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they, too, must go through the overloaded call center to request accommodations, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit notes that in 2014, DSS sent a letter expressing concern about excessive wait times to the private vendor then servicing the call center. (The state no longer contracts with a private vendor.) Then, the wait times were "in excess of six minutes long." Throughout the pandemic, applicants have faced wait times of hours.

Missouri is part of a shift toward "perhaps over relying on remote options in a way that doesn't work for everybody," said Katharine Deabler-Meadows, staff attorney with National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

Difficulty scheduling interviews contributes to a high rejection rate of SNAP applicants, the lawsuit alleges. In September, October and December 2021, the overall rejection rate ranged from a third to almost half of all applications, according to DSS data. At that time, over half of those applications rejected were due to failure to complete an interview, according to the lawsuit.

The most recent data available, from May, shows DSS rejected around a third of applications.

"(DSS does) have an obligation to evaluate applications and make sure that only eligible people receive the benefit," Harpool said at the March hearing, "but we're talking here about people eating."

During that same March hearing, Harpool referred to the "inapprop ... no, that's a bad word. Illegal difficulty in scheduling an interview." The plaintiffs and the state agreed at that hearing that DSS would conduct eligibility interviews for Holmes and L.V. within 48 hours, which they did, to provide relief while the lawsuit progressed.

'Still unacceptably long'

The state argued the following month for the case to be dismissed, saying the claims were moot because after the litigation was filed, the plaintiffs received benefits.

The plaintiffs responded L.V. and Holmes would be forced to navigate the call center in future years to recertify their eligibility. Interviews for recertification are required every 12-24 months.

Both L.V. and Holmes are disabled and unable to work, so they expect to need SNAP in the future. The plaintiffs claimed, too, that Holmes is still owed SNAP benefits from Jan. 10, when she submitted the application, to March 8, when she was interviewed.

The state also argued the nonprofit Empower Missouri has no standing to sue since it is not directly harmed by DSS practices, and thus cannot prove a concrete injury to their activities connected to DSS practices. The plaintiffs argued the state's inefficiencies force the organization to redirect resources to anti-hunger advocacy programs.

In arguing for the case to be dismissed, the state pointed to improvements in DSS practices since the time the lawsuit was filed. The average time for a caller to be connected to an interviewer has decreased from more than three hours in January, to just under one hour in May, according to a late-June declaration from director of the Family Support Division Kim Evans. DSS reassigned processing personnel to customer service calls in March, the declaration states, and has also held job fairs "to attempt to hire more employees" in the call centers.

The judge ruled this is a "positive step," but the 56-minute wait time "is still unacceptably long and particularly burdensome for financially struggling Missouri citizens in need of SNAP benefits."

"Further," Harpool wrote, "the court ponders whether any such progress would have been made but for the filing of this lawsuit."

A spokesperson for DSS said, "the Department of Social Services does not comment on pending litigation."

The parties are in discovery now, which they anticipate to continue into early next year.

The lawsuit asks the court to order DSS to make procedural changes that would bring the state into compliance with federal law. The federal government funds SNAP benefits -- it is the largest federal program targeted toward reducing food insecurity among low-income people -- and splits administrative costs with the state. The federal government requires that a state's administering agency provides benefits to all eligible households who submit an application, and provide "timely, accurate, and fair service."

"We are hoping to get a system in place where people in Missouri can finish their SNAP applications and do their interviews even if they have limited phone access or are disabled, in a timely manner, and a reliable manner," Deabler-Meadows said.

In terms of difficulty accessing benefits, Deabler-Meadows said, "Missouri is part of a national trend, but the conditions are more severe."

The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.