(Updated 8:53 p.m.) Just one week after the Department of Social Services found 125 boxes of unprocessed social service applications in its regional office, U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Bryant granted a preliminary injunction against the agency for delays in processing food stamp applications.
In her 41-page decision, Bryant noted that “there is ongoing, persistent systemic failure to comply with the strict unambiguous mandates imposed by the [Food Stamp Act],” which requires the state to process the application within 30 days.
“The low levels of timeliness rates are persuasive evidence that the state has failed to timely provide food stamps in compliance with the unambiguous mandates,” Bryant wrote.
Bryant was ruling on a class action lawsuit filed in March by Greater Hartford Legal Aid and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
The lawyers filed the case because the state agency had failed to process food stamp applications within the required time limits in up to 41 percent of cases.
“The delays meant that thousands of Connecticut’s families that should qualify for this help have not been able to put food on the table,“ GHLA Attorney Lucy Potter said.
“The denial of essential public benefits like food stamps, which help provide for basic nutrition and sustenance, undeniably constitutes irreparable harm,” Bryant wrote in her decision.
Bryant acknowledged the agency’s “ameliorative measures to improve its timeliness rates,“ but said it’s not enough to dismiss the lawsuit or block the injunction.
“Such action while commendable does not render injunctive relief moot, nor does it deprive the Court of its authority to grant injunctive relief ,” Bryant concluded.
According to information provided to the court, between January 2010 and February 2012, the percent of applications pending over 30 days has ranged from 18 percent in August 2011 and May 2011 to 40 percent in November 2011. In addition, the percentage of all decisions made a month late ranged from 20.5 percent in July 2011 to as many as 32 percent in December 2011.
Between August 2010 and February 2012, the percentages of expedited applications pending at the end of the month that were overdue ranged from 95 percent for December 2011 to 72 percent in June 2011.
Staffing shortages also have been cited as a contributing factor in the delays.
Greater Hartford Legal Aid attorneys have indicated that the agency has reduced staffing by 19 percent between 2002 and 2009 and by another 8 percent in September and October 2011 despite increasing caseloads. The approximately 120 workers hired last year to help with the increasing caseload haven’t made a dent in the delays, according to attorneys.
The agency, which is currently dealing with an antiquated system involving all paper and no database of electronic records, said its attorneys are reviewing the ruling.
“In general, however, it’s important to point out that DSS is currently serving a record number of Connecticut households with SNAP benefits — over 212,000,” David Dearborn, an agency spokesman, said. “Legal issues aside, this means that more people than ever qualify for — and are currently getting — this federal assistance through DSS.”
Meanwhile, the Malloy administration’s investments in staffing and technological upgrades are going to transform and modernize the service model at the agency, he said.
Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby has said that the effort to modernize the system, which handles 5 million pieces of paper and 900,000 phone calls per month, will take until 2013.
“The commodity we need is really time,” Bremby said back in July. “We’re trying to correct the neglect of many years.”
In addition to this lawsuit, New Haven Legal Assistance also has a class action pending against the agency for its failure to process Medicaid applications in a timely manner. That lawsuit was filed in January.