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Because an award of New York's Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) benefits to qualified applicants is mandatory and not discretionary (at least to the extent the program is funded in any given year), HEAP applicants possess a sufficient property interest in the receipt of HEAP benefits to warrant due process protection in their demonstration of eligibility.
Congress enacted the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act ("LIHEAA") in 1981 in response to the rising costs of oil-based energy. LIHEAA was intended to, and has since its passage, assisted the states in providing home energy assistance to low income families. On the other hand, New York's Home Energy Assistance Program ("HEAP") was created by the New York State Legislature in 1983, in order allow the state to take advantage of the LIHEAA block grant program. All HEAP applications were required to be processed within 30 business days. HEAP applicants were notified of the granting or the denial of HEAP benefits in a notice issued by the social service district or by the alternative certifier. Ordinarily, applicants have 60 days from the date of the HEAP notice, during which they may request an administrative "fair hearing" to challenge the agency's eligibility and/or benefits level determination. Under state regulations, however, fair hearings may not be requested more than 105 days after the close of the HEAP program year. As such, when HEAP applicants receive notice of the grant or denial of HEAP benefits more than 105 days after the termination of the program year, they were totally foreclosed from seeking a fair hearing. Plaintiffs, New York Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) applicants, filed suit against defendant state officials, alleging violations of due process and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act (LIHEAA). Plaintiffs contended that the denial of the right to a fair hearing (by virtue of the operation of the 105 day rule, when combined with delays in providing notification of benefits) violated due process and the LIHEAA. Plaintiffs also claimed that the HEAP notices - by failing to provide information on how the applicant's benefits eligibility and allotment was calculated - did not meet the requirements of due process. Granting the applicants summary judgment, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York found a denial of the right to a fair hearing and inadequate notice. The defendant officials appealed the declaratory and injunctive relief.
Under the circumstances, was there sufficient evidence to warrant a finding of due process violations on the part of the defendants?
The court noted that HEAP applications were being processed untimely with notices going out too late for applicants to request timely hearings. When funded, HEAP benefits to qualified applicants were mandatory. Thus, an applicant had a sufficient property interest in the receipt of the benefits, regardless of whether he received past benefits, to warrant due process protection in demonstrating eligibility. According to the court, the existing procedures were inadequate. A claim of entitlement was the same as it would be if HEAP were not contingent on sufficient funds. The adverse effects of erroneous denials were evident. The court averred that while processing times had improved, it was still likely some applicants would be deprived of fair hearing rights. Thus, the court held that the fair hearing injunctive relief was proper. The notices were facially insufficient as to why the agencies decided what they did.