The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice  (NCLEJ) today announced the dismissal of its almost three-year-old lawsuit that challenged the widespread failure of the state Department of Human Services (DHS) to timely provide SNAP food stamp benefits to needy families due to its troubled UHIP computer system.

Today’s action followed the state’s compliance with a detailed settlement agreement entered in February 2017 by U.S. District Court Chief Judge William Smith, authorizing dismissal of the lawsuit if the State achieved at least a 96% timeliness rate for 11 out of 12 consecutive months in processing both emergency and regular SNAP applications. In November 2017, the state’s timeliness rate was so poor that Judge Smith felt compelled to appoint a Special Master to oversee the state’s efforts to comply with the agreement.

When the suit was filed in 2016, the ACLU and NCLEJ argued that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation” of UHIP was causing “thousands of households to suffer the imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.” The two named plaintiffs, representative of thousands of others, faced multiple delays in getting their food stamps.

The figures for last month showed a 96.1% timeliness rating, making it the eleventh month out of the last 12 where the timeliness rate exceeded the 96% goal. In dismissing the case, the state also agreed to make a final payment of attorneys’ fees to the lawyers who handled the case.

After the suit was filed, the ACLU set up a hotline to expedite applications for some of the people facing hardships getting their SNAP benefits due to UHIP problems, and within days had received over 100 calls. An informal process to address those complaints was set up and codified in the 2017 settlement agreement, and helped accelerate the resolution of numerous problems brought to the attention of the ACLU and NCLEJ.

The NCLEJ, co-counsel in the suit with the ACLU, is a national organization that promotes economic justice for low-income families. Greg Bass, one of the NCLEJ attorneys in the case, said today: “The timely delivery of food stamps, required by federal law, has been difficult for many states to achieve.  We are gratified that, as a result of extended litigation, the efforts of Commissioner Hawkins, as well as the commitment and attention to detail of the court-appointed Special Master, have significantly contributed to the turnaround in Rhode Island in complying with this federal mandate that eligible households receive their food stamps on time.  The litigation has resulted in new systems being put into place that should enable the State to ensure, moving forward, that Rhode Island’s neediest residents are better able to put food on the table.”

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger added: “When we first brought this case in December 2016, we were met with the claim that ‘everything was under control’ and our presence was unnecessary. As we reached and passed August 2017, when approximately half of eligible households were still not receiving their food stamp assistance in a timely manner, we heard excuses and explanations that a 96% compliance rate was unrealistic.  We pressed on, and with the determination of the plaintiffs, supported by the ACLU of RI and the NCLEJ, the sustained efforts of the State administrators and line workers, and the stewardship of the federal court and the Special Master appointed by the Court to oversee compliance, the State has now reached the goal set out by the Court. We are satisfied that the State now has systems in place to sustain its obligations to timely process food stamp applications for our most vulnerable Rhode Island families.”

Background information about the case can be found here.