PSLS celebrates Illinois Supreme Court Decision Affirming the Rights of SNAP Recipients

February 24, 2023

On January 20, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a fully favorable decision in a case brought by PSLS Attorney Patty Nelson. The decision holds that where the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) charges a recipient of benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps, with an overpayment, DHS bears the burden of proof. In her arguments to the Illinois Supreme Court, Patty relied on a 1989 appellate court decision litigated by PSLS Attorney Linda Rothnagel, which found that DHS had the burden of proof in a SNAP overpayment case because DHS must provide some reliable evidence of an overpayment.

Nelson represented Ayesha Chaudhary, an immigrant and single mother of three. Two of her children have severe illnesses, requiring Ayesha to work part-time to help care for her children. Ayesha relied on SNAP benefits. Years after paying her benefits, DHS sent Ayesha a notice that she was responsible for an overpayment of more than $21,000. This was based on information suggesting to DHS that Ayesha’s ex-husband was living with her and receiving SNAP benefits on his own account. Ayesha had been divorced before receiving the SNAP benefits and had not resided with her ex-husband. At the hearing, DHS told Ayesha it was her burden to prove her ex-husband had not been living with her. DHS then decided that Ayesha’s evidence was insufficient to meet her burden.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court and trial court decisions that DHS erred by placing the burden of proof on Ayesha. Several Illinois public interest agencies, including Shriver Center, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance, Legal Council for Health Justice, Equip for Equality, and Legal Aid Chicago, filed an amicus brief that highlighted the vulnerability of the SNAP population, the rarity that counsel represents SNAP recipients, and the devastating consequences for all of society when vulnerable people are not fed. The Supreme Court’s decision recognized the reality of many SNAP recipients going into hearings without an attorney in its analysis of why the burden of proof should lie with the DHS.

Prairie State congratulates Patty and all involved on this victory, which will have far-reaching effects on legal aid clients.