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ACORN v. FEMA

Topic(s): Protecting Constitutional Rights and Requirements
Status: closed
Citation: 463 F. Supp. 2d 26 (D.D.C. 2006)
Date Of Involvement: 08/29/2006
Docket: 06-1521-RJL

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Description:

We brought this case on behalf of ACORN and individual hurricane survivors against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to challenge, on constitutional due process grounds, FEMA’s procedures for notifying hurricane survivors of the reasons for FEMA’s determinations that they were ineligible for continued housing assistance benefits. Following entry of a preliminary injunction requiring FEMA to provide adequate notice of the reasons for FEMA’s ineligibility determinations, housing benefits were granted to more than 1,000 hurricane evacuee households that FEMA had erroneously determined to be ineligible.

We filed this lawsuit on August 29, 2006, and sought a temporary restraining order to stop FEMA from terminating housing rental assistance to thousands of evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The evacuees had been receiving short-term housing rental assistance under Section 403 of the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, but FEMA had found them ineligible for transition to long-term housing benefits under Section 408 of the Act. We argued that FEMA had violated the due process rights of hurricane evacuees denied long-term housing benefits by failing to provide adequate explanations of the reasons for FEMA’s ineligibility determinations. Because of the inadequacy of FEMA’s ineligibility notices, the evacuees were unable to mount meaningful appeals of FEMA’s decisions.

Although the district court denied plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order, it converted the motion to a motion for a preliminary injunction and set a briefing and hearing schedule. On November 29, 2006, the court granted plaintiffs’ motion and entered a preliminary injunction against FEMA. The court rejected each of FEMA’s arguments, observing that “[i]t is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights.” ACORN v. FEMA, 463 F.Supp.2d 26, 29 (D.D.C. 2006). The court ordered FEMA “to provide, as soon as possible, more detailed explanations for the denials of evacuees’ eligibility for housing assistance benefits under Section 408, including the factual and statutory basis for the denial and more fulsome instructions as to how each evacuee may either cure their ineligibility problem(s) or proceed with an appeal.” Id. at 36. The court also ordered FEMA to restore Section 403 short-term housing assistance benefits to the evacuees pending receipt of the more detailed explanations and a chance to appeal and to pay the evacuees the short-term assistance benefits they would have received during the time that the preliminary injunction motion was pending. Id. at 36-37.

FEMA filed a notice of appeal and a motion to stay the order pending appeal. The district court denied FEMA’s motion for a stay, and over the next seven weeks held twelve status hearings to ensure FEMA’s compliance with the preliminary injunction. On December 22, the court of appeals stayed two provisions of the preliminary injunction, but not the main relief sought by plaintiffs and ordered by the court: a detailed explanation for FEMA’s ineligibility decisions.

According to FEMA, the court’s preliminary injunction of November 29 covered approximately 5,000 evacuee households that FEMA had determined to be ineligible. By January 26, 2007, as a result of this litigation, at least 1,063 evacuee households obtained the Section 408 housing benefits to which they were entitled but had been erroneously denied. On that date, the district court observed that the issues on appeal were largely moot, and all evacuees who could reasonably be located had received a more detailed notice and an opportunity to appeal. Therefore, on January 30, 2007, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit against FEMA.