NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED FEDERAL LAWYERS
Last Updated on: 24th August 2023, 12:52 am
Responding to USDA SNAP Violations: Protecting Your Legal Interests
Each year, merchants across the United States, including the state of New York, receive notification that they have violated the laws or regulations associated with the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Through SNAP, certain individuals are able to make qualified food purchases from a merchant using the program’s EBT card.
If you have received notification of a USDA SNAP violation, you may be like many merchants and not understand what next steps you must take to protect your legal interests. You may not know what you need to do to respond properly to a USDA SNAP violation. There are, in fact, certain strategies to employ when it comes to responding to a SNAP violation allegation.
The USDA SNAP Violation Process
The USDA SNAP violation process occurs in phases. The process commences with what is known as the issuance of a charging letter from the agency to you as the merchant.
Responding to a Charging Letter
The process of addressing an alleged SNAP violation commences when the USDA delivers a charging letter to you as the owner of a business that participates in the EBT program. The charging letter sets forth the specific violation or violations that have alleged to occurred in regard to SNAP.
You need to keep in mind that you have only 10 days to respond to the charging letter. If you fail to respond within that 10-day time frame, the USDA is likely to issue a final determination that you are guilty of the violations outlined in the initial charging letter. This can result in the removal of your business from participating in the USDA SNAP program.
In responding to the charging letter, you must specifically delineate how and why the allegations made by the agency in regard to SNAP are false. You cannot just make a general denial of the allegations contained in the charging letter.
Many merchants elect to retain the professional services of skilled, experienced USDA SNAP violation lawyers to respond to a charging letter. By retaining legal representation, a merchant is placed in the best possible position to protect legal rights and to ensure a proper response to a charging letter.
Pursuing an Administrative Appeal
Once the response to the charging letter is submitted to the USDA, the agency will respond to you as the merchant. The USDA may concur with your position regarding the allegations contained in the initial charging letter. In the alternative, the agency may reject your contentions and maintain that a violation or violations of SNAP rules and regulations have occurred. The agency may also conclude that some alleged violations should be dismissed, while other alleged violations will be maintained.
When this determination is received from the agency, you have a set period of time in which to respond by seeking what is called an administrative appeal of that decision. The request for an administrative appeal of the initial agency determination must set forth with specificity why you believe the USDA has erred in making an initial determination that SNAP violations have occurred.
You need to keep in mind that there are specific rules which must be followed when pursuing an administrative appeal regarding a SNAP violation case. If you do not follow the requirements set forth to the letter, you run the risk of having your appeal “thrown out.” In the grand scheme of things, retaining an experienced attorney who understands the appeal process typically is the wisest course of action when it comes to responding to this phase of a USDA SNAP violation.
If you do not obtain the relief desired through an administrative appeal of a USDA SNAP violation, you have the legal ability to seek what is known as a judicial review of an agency determination. The judicial review actually involves commencing a case in the United States District Court.
You must understand that the rules of procedure of the U.S. District Court are complex. Indeed, even many seasoned attorneys struggle with the rules of procedure of the federal court. In addition, when a case involves a judicial review of an administrative agency, court procedures become all the more complicated.
There also exists a specific time frame in which judicial review must be sought in the U.S. District Court. If you miss the deadline, the decision of the USDA regarding the SNAP violation stands. If the agency previously decided to remove your store from the SNAP program, that determination remains in place.
The pleading, or legal paperwork, needed to commence a judicial review of the decision of the USDA must be completed precisely as required by federal law and the rules of the court. The failure to properly complete this paperwork will result in the court not accepting your request for judicial review.
Because of all of the different ways in which seeking judicial review of the determination of the USDA regarding a SNAP violation can “go off the rails,” you likely are best served hiring legal counsel if you have not already done so by this juncture in time. There are attorneys that not only routinely practice in federal court but who have backgrounds in pursuing the judicial review of agency determinations, including those associated with the USDA SNAP program.
Retain Legal Representation
You likely best protect your legal rights and interests by contacting a skilled, experienced lawyer directly after receiving a charging letter alleging USDA SNAP violations. Taking a proactive approach can make the difference between formulating appropriate responses at all stages of the case and failing to do so altogether.
The first step in retaining the professional assistance of an experienced USDA SNAP violations lawyer is scheduling an initial consultation. At an initial consultation, an attorney will provide you with an evaluation of your case. Legal counsel will advise possible strategies to defend against alleged SNAP violations.
During an initial consultation with qualified legal counsel about your case, you will also have an opportunity to ask questions. As a matter of practice, a USDA SNAP violations attorney charges no fee for an initial consultation.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is structured to provide wholesome, nutritious food to millions of people in the United States. The SNAP program also provides economic benefits to merchants that participate in the program, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. SNAP oftentimes is referred to as the largest and most important safety net when it comes to food assistance in the United States.
Compliance with SNAP Rules and Regulations
A merchant or vendor participating in the SNAP program needs to take care to remain in compliance with rules and regulations. Even a diligent vendor may end up facing a violation allegation. An allegation of a breach of the rules or regulations associated with the program are transmitted initially to a SNAP participating vendor through what is known as a charging letter.
Types of Violation Allegations
There is a wide array of different types of violation allegations that participating vendor might face. With that noted, there are certain types of violation allegations more frequently made by the USDA in regard to SNAP merchants or vendors.
False SNAP Application
A common type of violation made by the USDA against a SNAP vendor involves the initial application submitted by a merchant to gain entrance into the program in the first instance. With some frequency, the agency issues a charging letter that contends a vendor included false information in that initial application.
This type of allegation can have serious consequences. In many instances, a contention that a merchant provided false information when applying to participate in the SNAP program results in the permanent removal of a vendor from the program.
Permitting Unqualified Purchases
Another of the most common types of SNAP violations involves a merchant that permits unqualified purchases. A consumer enrolled in the SNAP program is permitted to purchase specific types of food items from a vendor.
Examples of items that are not permitted to be purchased via the SNAP program include alcohol and tobacco, pet food, and non-food items like cleaning products. In addition, hot food intended to be consumed in the store itself cannot be purchased with an EBT card through the SNAP program.
A vendor has a legal obligation to make certain employees are trained properly in regard to what can and cannot be purchased through a SNAP EBT card. An employee not understanding these parameters does not provide a defense to a vendor alleged to be permitting improper or unqualified purchases.
Setting Up a Customer Tab
A related violation a vendor can face involves setting up what might best be described as a tab. Through this impermissible process, a merchant allows a customer to place unqualified items on a tab at the store. The consumer then pays off the accumulated tab using a SNAP EBT card.
EBT Card Trafficking
A vendor can face a SNAP violation charging letter when an allegation is made regarding trafficking. Trafficking is the term the USDA utilizes in regard to the use of stolen or fraudulent EBT cards.
If a vendor knowingly permits the utilization of a stolen or fraudulent EBT card, the merchant can face violation action by the agency. Action can be taken against a vendor who lacks actual knowledge if the merchant reasonably should have known that a stolen or fraudulent card was utilized in a purchase transaction.
Inaccurate Coupon Accounting
Inaccurate coupon accounting is another type of SNAP violation engaged in by some vendors. This occurs when a merchant’s total coupon redemptions are higher than the actual amount of food sold during a particular period of time.
Disqualification from WIC Program
Many vendors participate both in SNAP and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. If a merchant ends up disqualified from the WIC program, the vendor faces the prospect of a violation notice from SNAP as well.
Responding to a Charging Letter
A SNAP vendor typically first learns of an allegation of a violation or violations upon receipt of what technically is known as a charging letter. A charging letter sets forth allegations surrounding a SNAP violation or violations. Oftentimes, the agency contends that a vendor has committed multiple violations.
Upon receipt of a charging letter, a vendor has 10 days to file an appropriate response with the USDA SNAP program. The failure to submit a response within this established timeframe results in the allegations made by the agencies being accepted as true. The agency is then in a position to take further action against a merchant, which can include removing a vendor from the SNAP EBT program.
A response to a charging letter needs to set forth with specificity why the vendor believes it has not committed a violation or violations. In many instances, a response to a charging letter is best prepared and submitted to a skilled, experienced lawyer with a specific background in USDA SNAP violations.
When a response to a charging letter is submitted to the USDA, the agency reviews it and the responds itself. If no relief is provided by the agency at this juncture, a vendor can then seek an administrative review of the decision to date made by the agency in regard to SNAP violations.
If a vendor yet again fails to gain relief through the agency administrative review process, a merchant can pursue what is called judicial review in the United States District Court. The overall process of challenging the allegations that commence with a charging letter is complex, particularly when the matter ends up in federal court. This reality underscores the necessity of engaging the professional services of a skilled, experienced USDA SNAP violations lawyer.
Retain a USDA SNAP Violations Attorney
Scheduling an initial consultation is the first step in hiring a USDA SNAP violations lawyer. During this first appointment, a lawyer will examine the violations alleged by the agency. Legal counsel will discuss possible strategies to counter the allegations. A vendor obtains answers to questions about a violation case. As a general practice, legal counsel charges no fee for an initial consultation with a prospective client in a case involving a merchant facing USDA SNAP violations.
Snap Fraud: Understanding the Consequences and Preventive Measures
A Look at the Facts
Snap fraud occurs when individuals sell their SNAP benefits for cash or provide false information on their application to receive more benefits than they are entitled to. However, thanks to improvements in the program and increased oversight from the USDA, trafficking in SNAP has significantly decreased over the years. The trafficking rate has dropped from four cents on the dollar in 1993 to one cent since 2006. The federal government continues to aggressively combat snap trafficking.
Ensuring the Right People Get Helped
The USDA works diligently to protect American taxpayers and ensure that SNAP benefits reach those who need them the most. They employ aggressive methods to control trafficking, such as analyzing snap purchase data and identifying suspicious transaction patterns. Undercover investigations are also conducted, and collaboration with other investigative agencies helps enforce snap regulations.
Snap has implemented an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system, which provides the USDA with new tools to track and take action against snap trafficking. EBT transactions help identify suspicious activity and trafficking.
How They Prosecute
The USDA has established a special unit dedicated to investigating and analyzing snap fraud. With over 100 investigators and analysts nationwide, they ensure that retailers comply with snap regulations. Retailer data is analyzed, and undercover investigations are conducted when necessary. Penalties for retailers caught violating snap regulations include fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to five years. Recipients caught trafficking in food stamps may face temporary disqualification from 12 to 24 months, permanent program disqualification, and repayment of illegally obtained benefits.
Dos and Don’ts of Joining SNAP
For individuals using their benefits for food, there is no need to worry. It is crucial to always tell the truth on the application, as providing false information is considered trafficking and can lead to legal trouble. Income changes should be reported to a caseworker. If you come across suspicious activities related to snap, report them to the USDA at (800)424-9121.
Additionally, it is essential to keep your PIN number and EBT card secure. Never sell your benefits for cash or pay money to apply for snap. The program is free to join, and you should not share your EBT card or PIN number with anyone outside your family.
Becoming a Responsible Public Citizen
As a responsible citizen, it is crucial not to ignore suspicious activity and avoid spreading myths about the snap program. Retailers, in particular, have a responsibility to tell the truth on their applications and train their employees on snap rules. Buying benefits for cash or selling ineligible foods is strictly prohibited. Having policies in place helps retailers in case of snap regulation violations. Retailers should ensure compliance with USDA requirements, including documentation of policies, procedures, and internal reviews for employee compliance. Seeking legal advice can help retailers stay up to date with the latest snap regulations.
Types of Violations
USDA inspectors look for various red flags when identifying snap violations. The most common violation is the sale of benefits for cash. Lying on an application to receive more benefits than entitled to is another common violation. Retailer violations are also monitored, and charge letters are issued outlining the violation and potential sanctions. Legal assistance can guide individuals on how to respond and defend against alleged fraud charges. The federal government takes an aggressive approach to prosecute snap regulation violators, with penalties ranging from temporary disqualification to permanent program disqualification.
Preventing Snap Fraud as a Business
Businesses face unique challenges when it comes to snap fraud, as charges can be raised even if violations occur due to employee actions or management oversight. Disqualification from the program can result in significant financial losses. Business owners must adopt measures to prevent violations and seek legal advice to ensure compliance with snap regulations.