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Lausier v. Commissioner, Maine Department of Health and Human Services

Superior Court of Maine, Aroostook

September 17, 2018

IRENE LAUSIER, Petitioner,
v.
COMMISSIONER, MAINE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES Respondent.

          ORDER ON 80C APPEAL

          THE HON. HAROLD STEWART JUSTICE

         Before the Court is an appeal by Petitioner, Irene Lausier ("Ms. Lausier") of a Hearing Officer's decision upholding a determination by Respondent Commissioner, Maine Department of Health and Human Services ("DHHS"), to reduce Ms. Lausier'a Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program ("SNAP" or "food stamp" or "Food Supplement") benefits on the ground that she was no longer entitled to claim a certain "standard utility allowance." Based on a relevant Federal and Maine statutory and regulatory structure, ineligibility for the allowance would have the effect of reducing Ms. Lausier's monthly SNAP benefit from $1 92, 00 to $62.00.

         In response. Ms. Lausier requested a hearing, which was held on lanuary 24, 2018. In a February 1, 2018, decision, the Hearing Officer upheld the DHHS decision to reduce Ms. Lausier's benefits. Ms. Lausier then petitioned in a timely manner for review by this Court.

         Because there appears to be key decisional documentation, upon which DHHS relied, absent from the record of this case, the Court hereby vacates and remands for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         BACKGROUND

         An administrative hearing was held in Caribou, Maine on January 24, 2018, at which Ms, Lausier was present along with her counsel, (Hearing Transcript 1.) Ma. Lausier's case had not been "updated" since 2012. (Id. 3.) On November 7, 2017, DHHS determined that Ms. Lausier was no longer allowed to use a certain Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program ("LIHEAP") allowance "toward her food stamp supplement." (Id. 4.)

         As stated by DHHS at the hearing:

[DHHS] maintains that they acted correctly according to food stamp policy section 555-5 and 555-6. This policy states that in order to automatically qualify for the full standard utility allowance the household must receive a payment greater than $20 annually . .. from LIHEAP. Operating memorandum 14-8 and operating memorandum 17-3 provide further clarification of this policy. They state that the food stamp household that receives the LIHEAP payment would be the one eligible for the LIHEAP expense given the full standard utility allowance. For example, two separate food stamp households share the same apartment. For LIHEAP purposes both households will be viewed as one household. For food stamp purposes, however, only the food stamp household that received the LIHEAP payment will be eligible for the full standard utility allowance.

(Id. 4-5.) (alterations added.)

With regard to the "operating" memoranda, the Hearing Officer stated:
Well just to he clear the operating memorand[a] [are] not promulgated policy. So I'm not bound by it. - . I will treat it simply as argument. It's not evidence. I'm not bound by it and there is a [L]aw [C]ourt case that I am standing in the place of the [DHHS] Commissioner and I am not bound by the department[']s interpretations of its own rules. I am (he one interpreting the rules.

(Id. 6-7.) {alterations added), Upon cross-examination by Ms. Lausier's counsel, DHHS explained that there had been a change mandated at the Federal level:

DHHS: "In the time I've been a worker at one point we just had to ask, do you apply for fuel assistance, and if you told us yes, we allowed [the full standard utility deduction]. Then the "[Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture] came in and said no that's wrong .., And so, both people on the [LIHEAP] application aren't receiving the [allowance] even though they are both on the application.

(Id. 14.) (alterations added).

         Ms. Lausier, who shares a residence with another person, Mr. Harold Cormier, explained that the LIHEAP money "comes in Harold's name." (Id. 18.) "We use it to help pay the rent and help pay the electricity," (Id.)

In closing argument before the Hearing Officer, counsel for Ms. Lausier stated:
.. . [T]he rule that I think [DHHS] is relying on for years .., is if the household gets more than $20 of LIHEAP they are assumed to qualify for the full standard utility allowance. And that rule appears to be based on 7 CFR . .. 273.9 . . . [and] it states the standard utility allowance .. . should be given to households that receive direct or indirect assistance from [LIHEAP]. And [Ms. Lausier] obviously receives at least indirect assistance. Her food stamp household does because she testified she uses that to defray the cost of the electric bills,

(Id. 19-20.)

Counsel for Ms. Lausier also argued:
Counsel for Ms. Lausier: I think the new policy ... is such a strict and really almost punitive interpretation . . . that it doesn't accord with how legislation like this should be construed. .. It should be construed literally in favor of qualifying applicants....

(Id. 22.) (alterations added).

         On February 1, 2018, the Hearing Officer issued a written decision, concluding that "[DHHS] was correct in reducing [Ms.] Lausier's Food Supplement benefits." (Hearing Officer Decision 3.) (alteration added.)

         The Hearing Officer made a number of factual findings, including that Ms Lausier and Mr. Cormier "have chosen to be treated as separate households for [SNAP] benefits."[1] (Id. 2.) (alteration added), The Hearing Officer then explained the reasoning for his decision, in part, as follows:

In regards to Maine Food Supplement Certification Manual, FS-555-5, Ms. Lausier argues that the regulation allows both Ms. Lausier and Mr. Conner to receive the [Full Standard Utility Allowance]. The Hearing Officer disagrees. If multiple households share heating and cooling expenses, each household is entitled to the [Full Standard Utility Allowance.] Ms. Lausier and Mr. Cormier do not share heating and cooling expenses. They do not have any separate heating and cooling expenses. In regards to LIHEAP, Maine Food Supplement Certification Manual, FS-555-5 specifically states:
In order to automatically qualify for the Full Standard Utility Allowance (FSUA) when utility expenses are included in the rent, the household must have received a payment greater than $20 annually in Lower Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) benefits or in other similar energy assistance benefits in the current month or in the immediately preceding 12 months.
Ms. Lausier and Mr. Cormier have chosen to be treated as separate households .... Ms. Lausier's household is not receiving LIHEAP benefits. Mr. Cormier is receiving the LIHEAP benefits, The language of the regulation is clear that Mr. Lausier does not receive the [Full Standard Utility Allowance],

(Id. 3-4.)

         The Hearing Officer also concluded that nothing in relevant Federal regulations (7 CFR § 273.9) required otherwise. The Hearing Office rejected Ms. Lausier's contentions that she was (1) receiving "indirect assistance because Mr. Cormier receives the LIHEAP benefits and he shares them with her," or (2) that DHHS was somehow prohibited from prorating the [Full Standard Utility Allowance.]" (Hearing Officer Decision 4.) After reviewing the relevant Federal regulations, the Hearing Officer also concluded that "'indirect assistance' refers to a situation where a payment is made on behalf of the household .. . [but] it does not refer to a situation where anther household voluntarily shares the payment that the other household received." (Id. 5.)

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court will "not disturb the decision of an agency such as the Department of Health and Human Services unless the agency abused its discretion, committed an error of law, or made factual findings not supported by substantial evidence in the record." Wheaton v. HHS, 2008 ME 48, ¶ 5, 943 A.2d 568 (citing Cobb v. Bd. Of Counseling Prof'l's Licensure, 2006 ME 48, ¶ 10, 896 A.2d 271). The Court will also "defer to an agency's construction of its own rules and regulations, and of regulations governing a program that it administers, unless a contrary result is 'plainly compelled].'" Id. (citing Becker v. Bureau of Parks & Lands, 2005 ME 120, ¶ 2, 886 A.2d 1280) (alteration in original).

         II. ANALYSIS

         The case at hand is resolved in part according to whether 2014 changes to Federal law governing the SNAP program eliminated Ms. Lausier's eligibility for the "standard utility allowance" pursuant to relevant Maine regulations. This has real consequence for Ms. Lausier. If she is not entitled to the allowance, her monthly SNAP benefit will in fact be reduced from $192.00 to $62.00.

         DHHS maintains that the 2014 changes render Ms. Lausier ineligible. Ms. Lausier disagrees. The Court must analyze both the relevant Federal statutory provision, corresponding Federal regulations, and then examine how DHHS has implemented the changes through its own regulations, principally those found in the Maine Food Supplement Manual. DHHS also made its decision here based on certain internal memoranda that have not been codified, The Hearing Officer apparently did not base his decision on these memos for this reason.

         The Court begins its analysis with a review of the pertinent Federal law. As a consequence of 2014 amendments[2], 7 U.S.C, 2014(e)(6)(C) now provides:

(i) In general In computing the excess shelter expense deduction, a State agency may use a standard utility allowance in accordance with regulations promulgated by the Secretary, subject to clause (iv), except that a State agency may use an allowance that does not fluctuate within a year to reflect seasonal variations.
(ii) Restrictions on heating and cooling expenses. An allowance for a heating or cooling expense may not be used in the case of a household that-
(I) does not incur a heating or cooling expense, as the case may be;
(II) does incur a heating or cooling expense but is located in a public housing unit that has central utility meters and charges households, with regard to the expense, only for excess utility costs; or
(III) shares the expense with, and lives with, another individual not participating in the supplemental nutritional assistance program, another household participating in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or both, unless the allowance ...

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