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Smith v. United States Department of Agriculture

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 8, 2016

ANGELA SMITH, Plaintiff,


          THELTON E. HENDERSON United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on separate motions to dismiss Plaintiff’s Class Action Complaint by Defendants United States Department of Agriculture (“UDSA”) and Tom Vilsack (“Federal Defendants”) and Defendant Will Lightbourne (“State Defendant”). Dkt. Nos. 30 (“Fed. Mot.”), 31 (“State Mot.”). After carefully considering the parties’ written and oral arguments, the Court hereby GRANTS the Defendants’ motions, for the reasons set forth below.


         The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) is a federally-funded food assistance program administered by the states. See 7 U.S.C. § 2011 et seq. SNAP is designed to alleviate hunger by supplementing the monthly food budgets of low-income households throughout the United States. Dkt. No. 1 (“Compl.”) ¶ 11; Dkt. No. 38 (“Opp’n”) at 1. Plaintiff is one of the millions of Americans who rely on monthly food assistance through SNAP to survive. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 14, 24.

         In September 2015, a Congressional budget impasse nearly caused a federal government shutdown. Id. ¶ 2. If Congress did not reach agreement on federal appropriations before the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2015, a “funding gap” would have resulted and the federal government would have been forced to “begin[] a ‘shutdown’ of affected activities, including the furlough of non-essential personnel and curtailment of agency activities and services.” Id. ¶ 15. On September 23, 2015, with such a shutdown looming, the USDA sent a letter to state SNAP administrators stating, “should Congress fail to act . . . [t]his would require USDA to take steps, including the deauthorization of retailers in the first several days of the month to prevent SNAP benefits from being redeemed during an appropriations lapse.” Id. ¶ 18. A spokeswoman for USDA also stated, “[i]f Congress does not act to avert a lapse in appropriations, then USDA . . . will be forced to stop providing benefits within the first several days of October, ” and “[o]nce that occurs, families won’t be able to use [SNAP] benefits at grocery stores to buy the food their families need.” Id. ¶ 17. Fearing this outcome, Plaintiff filed the Complaint on September 30, 2015, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of a nationwide class of SNAP beneficiaries. Id. at 17. The Complaint brings three claims: violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 U.S.C. § 500; violation of the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, 7 U.S.C. § 2011; and Declaratory Relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-02. Id. ¶¶ 65-73.

         But the threatened federal shutdown never occurred. On September 30, 2015, Congress passed an appropriations measure temporarily continuing funding for federal projects and activities. Continuing Appropriations Act, 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-53, 129 Stat. 502 (Sept. 30, 2015). Congress later passed a permanent resolution that authorized funding for the federal government (and SNAP) through the 2016 fiscal year. Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, Pub. L. 114-113, 129 Stat 2242 (Dec. 18, 2015). Congress also provided for a SNAP contingency fund of $3 billion through December 31, 2017 and extended the existing $3 billion contingency fund through December 31, 2016 (rather than September 30, 2016, as planned). Id.


         Dismissal is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 12(b)(1) when a federal court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Federal courts’ subject-matter jurisdiction is limited by Article III’s “case or controversy” clause, which requires, among other things, that a plaintiff have standing, that the plaintiff’s claims be “ripe” for adjudication, and that the plaintiff’s claims not be “moot.” Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750 (1984). Standing, ripeness, and mootness are therefore appropriate topics on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss. See White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214, 1242 (9th Cir. 2000) (“Because standing and mootness both pertain to a federal court’s subject-matter jurisdiction under Article III, they are properly raised in a motion to dismiss under [Rule] 12(b)(1).”). These requirements extend throughout the life of a litigation. See Wolfson v. Brammer, 616 F.3d 1045, 1053 (9th Cir. 2010) (“A case or controversy must exist at all stages of review, not just at the time the action is filed.”).

         The party asserting federal subject-matter jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing its existence. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). But in reviewing a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, courts must take the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint as true and draw “all reasonable inferences in [plaintiff’s] favor.” Wolfe v. Strankman, 392 F.3d 358, 362 (9th Cir. 2004). A Rule 12(b)(1) motion may be facial or factual: “In a facial attack, the challenger asserts that the allegations contained in a complaint are insufficient on their face to invoke federal jurisdiction. By contrast, in a factual attack, the challenger disputes the truth of the allegations that, by themselves, would otherwise invoke federal jurisdiction.” Safe Air for Everyone v. Meyer, 373 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2004).


         The Federal and State Defendants both move to dismiss the Complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), on the grounds of standing (i.e., lack of injury-in-fact), prudential ripeness, mootness, and that Plaintiff does not challenge a final agency action. Fed. Mot. at 8-18; State Mot. at 6-10. The State Defendant also moves to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), on the basis that Plaintiff fails to allege sufficient facts to state a claim against Director Lightbourne. State Mot. at 4-6.

         I. Plaintiff’s allegations fail to satisfy Article III’s case or controversy requirement.

         Even assuming Plaintiff suffered an injury-in-fact and that her claims were ripe at the time of filing, this Court would lack subject-matter jurisdiction under Article III if Plaintiff’s claims are now moot. White, 227 F.3d at 1242. The Court therefore addresses this issue first.

         “A case becomes moot when interim relief or events have deprived the court of the ability to redress the party’s injuries.” Am. Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa. v. Baker, 22 F.3d 880, 896 (9th Cir. 1994) (quoting United States v. Alder Creek Water Co., 823 F.2d 343, 345 (9th Cir. 1987)). “The basic question is whether there exists a present controversy as to which effective relief can be granted.” Id. (quoting Village of Gambell v. Babbitt, 999 F.2d 403, 406 (9th Cir. 1993)). If not, then federal courts lack jurisdiction because “moot questions require no answer.” Wolfson, 616 F.3d at 1053 (quoting North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971)). Accordingly, “[e]ven where litigation poses a live controversy when filed, the [mootness] doctrine requires a federal court to refrain from deciding it if ‘events have so transpired that the decision will ...

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