A federal court in California recently struck down the Trump Administration policy that prevented currently and formerly incarcerated individuals from receiving their $1,200 stimulus payments under the COVID-19 lockdown relief bill. The preliminary injunction requires the U.S. Treasury, the IRS, and the United States of America to stop withholding CARES Act stimulus funds from individuals based solely on their incarcerated status. The case is Scholl v. Mnuchin, 20-cv-05309-PJH.
Because of the decision, thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated folks will now be entitled to the $1,200 check that non-incarcerated Americans have already received. For more information about who is eligible and how to file, please visit the IRS’s “Economic Impact Payment Information Center.”
Congress passed the CARES Act to help stimulate the economy during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Act allocates, among other things, $1,200 to “eligible individuals,” as well as $500 for each qualifying child. An “eligible individual” is defined as “any individual” other than: (1) someone who isn’t an American citizen, (2) any individual who is claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, and (3) an estate or trust. 26 U.S.C. § 6428(d).
Though the Act did not explicitly or impliedly exclude incarcerated people, the Trump Administration refused to issue checks to anyone currently in prison or jail. In fact, after the IRS sent 84,861 payments to incarcerated individuals, the government required them to return the payments. Plaintiffs Colin Scholl and Lisa Strawn filed a class action on behalf of themselves and other currently and formerly incarcerated persons, asserting that excluding them from the COVID-19 relief was unlawful.
The court’s injunction rejected the Trump administration’s practice of withholding CARES Act payments from individuals on the basis of their history of incarceration, at least until trial. The court also certified the class, so that all those Americans denied relief in this manner could proceed together.
The court recognized the current economic reality faced by many incarcerated individuals across the U.S., and subsequently, how refusal of the CARES Act payment has caused and would continue to cause “irreparable harm.” Most individuals who enter prison were economically disadvantaged beforehand. Inmates often must purchase basic necessities to survive while incarcerated, as the court explained:
[P]risons do not provide all basic necessities required by incarcerated persons, including food and hygiene. With respect to food, incarcerated people supplement their food with items from the commissary, especially since … some institutions have reduced the number of calories or meals provided to inmates…. [S]ome penal institutions require inmates to pay for their own soap and personal hygiene items.
Scholl v. Mnuchin, at 31.
The economic strain on family and loved ones of inmates has only intensified since the pandemic struck. Id at 31. As of October 15th, there are 1,560 cases per 10,000 prisoners in California, which is 623% higher than California overall. In the first three months of the pandemic, more than 10,000 federal prisoners applied for compassionate release, though only 156 were approved. Many states have suspended visitation--including legal visits--all together. The pandemic, as well as the opinion itself, raises concerns about whether America’s prisons are humane, if inmates do not have necessities for survival.
The Court found that the Trump administration’s interpretation of the CARES Act would likely be considered “arbitrary and capricious.” Scholl v. Mnuchin, at 28. “Defendants have not directed the court to any other evidence indicating that the Treasury Department or IRS gave any reason for its decision, much less an adequate one.” Id. at 34.
Among other things, Trump’s administration claimed that the plaintiffs had shown no injury, but the court found that the denial of CARES ACT payments now, when they are most needed, was a sufficient injury. Id. at 11-12.
For more information about the case, please visit Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein’s blog post, “Federal Judge Certifies Class, Orders Trump Administration to Stop Denying Pandemic Relief Funds to Incarcerated Persons.” For information about the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people, please visit Equal Justice Initiative’s article, “COVID-19’s Impact on People in Prison.”