The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced a favorable settlement in its third, and latest, class-action lawsuit against the R.I. Department of Human Services related to the state’s UHIP computer system. This suit, filed last December in U.S. District Court by ACLU cooperating attorneys Ellen Saideman and Lynette Labinger, had challenged the adequacy of notices sent by the DHS to some SNAP recipients, demanding that they reimburse the state for benefits overpayments that they purportedly received years earlier.

Under the detailed settlement agreement signed today by U.S. District Court Chief Judge John McConnell, Jr., the state be required to provide recipients specific reasons for its claim that an overpayment was made, and must also document how the amount of the alleged overpayment was calculated. A temporary restraining order that was issued shortly after the suit was filed has barred the state from issuing any more demand letters based on purported agency or household overpayment errors, and further barred DHS from processing any SNAP benefit reductions for individuals who had received the faulty notices.

Under today’s settlement, that ban will continue until new, more detailed letters go out to households, expected to be sometime in September.  Individuals who previously had benefits reduced under the faulty notices will be entitled to have the reductions restored to them if a new notice is not sent out to them. The state also agreed to pay $58,000 in attorneys’ fees.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Woonsocket resident Carmen Correa, who obtains SNAP benefits for herself and her thirteen-year-old niece. Last fall, she received a notice from DHS demanding that she repay $1,925 in benefits that the agency claims were allegedly overpaid to her more than four years earlier. The only explanation given was that the overpayment was due to “Agency Error.” While the notice advised Correa of her right to a hearing to contest DHS’s determination, the ACLU lawsuit argued that it “does not contain sufficient information to allow a reader to determine whether the overissuance is correct or whether Plaintiff has grounds to contest it,” in violation of Correa’s due process rights.

The Department’s efforts to recoup alleged overpayments were halted a few years ago as a result of the enormous problems of inaccuracy and untimeliness with benefits that occurred in 2016 when UHIP went online. Citing the “long-standing problems of the UHIP program,” this most recent suit claimed there is a “very high probability that the data used to determine alleged overpayments is erroneous.”

Additional information about the suit can be found here.

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Saideman said today: “With DHS seeking to recoup payments that were made years ago – back to 2014 for Carmen Correa – it is extremely important that the agency provide SNAP recipients the reason for the overpayment and how it was calculated.  I am very pleased that this settlement will give Ms. Correa and other food stamp recipients the information they need to know if the agency has made another error and incorrectly determined an overpayment.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “The prospect of the state erroneously taking money from SNAP recipients in the middle of a pandemic is an intolerable scenario. We are therefore glad that we were able to reach a favorable resolution in this case and ensure due process safeguards are in place to prevent grievous mistakes like that from happening.”

Information about the ACLU’s previous UHIP-related lawsuits can be found here and here.