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SLOAN v. USDA

December 6, 1971

Florence SLOAN et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
The UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE et al., Defendants


Beeks, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: BEEKS

Plaintiffs filed this action to compel the Secretary of Agriculture (Secretary) to allow concurrent operation of the Commodity Distribution Program with the Food Stamp Program in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties in the State of Washington. Plaintiffs allege that, although they qualify for food stamps, their incomes are so low that they cannot afford them. *fn1" This matter came before the Court on plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, but because of the urgency of the situation the parties have agreed to submit the matter on the merits for final disposition.

 Prior to January 11, 1971, the Food Stamp and Commodity Distribution Programs could be administered in the same area only "during emergency situations caused by a natural or other disaster as determined by the Secretary." *fn2" The provision quoted was, however, recently amended to read as follows: *fn3"

 
(b) In areas where the food stamp program is in operation, there shall be no distribution of federally donated foods to households under the authority of any other law except that distribution thereunder may be made: (1) during temporary emergency situations when the Secretary determines that commercial channels of food distribution have been disrupted; (2) for such period of time as the Secretary determines necessary, to effect an orderly transition in an area in which the distribution of federally donated foods to households is being replaced by a food stamp program; or (3) on request of the State agency: Provided, That the Secretary shall not approve any plan established under this Act which permits any household to simultaneously participate in both the food stamp program and the distribution of federally donated foods under this clause (3).

 While the State of Washington is not a party hereto, the state agency which would administer the commodity distribution program stands ready and willing to put it into operation. *fn4" A request by this agency to so do was tendered to, and rejected by, the Department of Agriculture (DOA). *fn5" Defendant Charles M. Ernst (Ernst), Western Regional Director of DOA's Food and Nutritional Service, has stated that, although "regulations issued to implement [the new legislation] do spell out requirements for dual operation, the Department has decided that it will not approve any dual operations." *fn6" Ernst was of the opinion that "dual operation of Food Distribution and the Food Stamp Program in the same locality cannot be justified." *fn7"

 Similarly, defendant Richard Lyng (Lyng), the Assistant Secretary of DOA who has authority for the administration of DOA's food distribution programs, has said that "the Department envisions no expansion of the Supplemental Food Program now in operation in Seattle. . . . [We] do not plan to approve any dual operations of the Food Distribution and Food Stamp Programs in any area." *fn8" These statements are in conflict with testimony of Lyng before a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs on September 23, 1971. *fn9" The administrative actions of DOA, however, indicate that DOA plans to approve no dual operations in any metropolitan area. Indeed, the Secretary was shown the State's plan for commodity distribution, but apparently believed that his department had no duty to study it. *fn10"

 The statute provides that dual operation cannot be undertaken in the same area "except that distribution . . . may be made . . . on request of the State agency . . ." as long as no one household may qualify for both programs at the same time. *fn11" States which institute dual operation of the programs must pay the full cost of handling and issuing the commodities. *fn12" The statute is ambiguous as to who "may" make the distribution. Plaintiffs contend that the Secretary has no discretion in the matter, that after a request of the proper state agency the Secretary must approve every request, provided that no household shall participate simultaneously in both programs.

 This Court disagrees. Plaintiffs would make the statute read ". . . that distribution . . . may be made by the State in its sole discretion. . . (3) on request of the State agency . . . ." *fn13" If the state were given complete discretion whether to initiate a commodity distribution program in the same area where food stamps were being issued, the state would not have to make any request at all. The correct interpretation is that the Secretary has discretion to authorize dual operation upon request of the state agency.

 
encourage the domestic consumption of [them] . . . by increasing their utilization through . . . donations . . . among persons in low income groups as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture . . . *fn14"

 The second section provides that

 
. . . the Commodity Credit Corporation is authorized, on such terms and under such regulations as the Secretary of Agriculture may deem in the public interest . . . (3) in the case of food commodities to donate such commodities . . . to such State . . . agencies as may be . . . approved by the Secretary, for use in the United States . . . in the assistance of needy persons. . . . *fn15"

 Clearly the Secretary has discretion to authorize dual operation in a case such as this: where the state is operating under the Food Stamp Program, requests institution of the Commodity Distribution Program in the same areas, and submits a plan for such distribution. *fn16"

 However, discretionary power may be abused. The discretion of the Secretary must be reasonably exercised in light of the intent of Congress in enacting the Food Stamp Act and its amendments: ...


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