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St. Martin-Iberia-Lafayette Community Action Agency v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

August 17, 2017

ST. MARTIN-IBERIA-LAFAYETTE COMMUNITY ACTION AGENCY
v.
U.S. DEPT. OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL.,

          MAG. JUDGE, CAROL WHITEHURST

          RULING AND ORDER

          DEE D. DRELL, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on application for a preliminary injunction on behalf of St. Martin-Iberia-Lafayette, Community Action Agency ("SMILE") and against the United States Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS")[1]. The case was initiated on July 28, 2017, when SMILE filed its complaint (Doc. 1) and an Ex Parte Motion for Temporary Restraining Order (Doc. 2). The motion was denied in a written ruling on August 1, 2017 (Doc. 10).

         In a telephone conference, during T.R.O. consideration, the court agreed to conduct a hearing on the possible issuance of a preliminary injunction, remarking that the request for preliminary injunction was fairly made in the original pleadings. We therefore set the hearing on August 15, 2017. Notwithstanding that fixing, plaintiff SMILE elected to file a separate, specific motion for preliminary injunction, in which SMILE repeated its request for relief and added an additional ground of deprivation of due process rights.[2]

         The hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction was conducted on August 15, as scheduled. Evidence was taken and argument, with legal authorities from both sides were accepted by the court. The matter is thus ripe for consideration.

         For several reasons that follow, we must deny the preliminary injunction.

         I. Findings

         As detailed at the hearing, the evidence established the following. SMILE has held the position as grantee for the federally funded Head Start program in the tri-parish area (St. Martin, Iberia, and Lafayette) for a number of years. In December of 2016, SMILE appeared on HHS's Head Start, Region Six, Dallas, Texas Office radar when HHS received letters alleging problems at certain SMILE facilities regarding child abuse and neglect. HHS immediately went into action and in January of 2017, it dispatched a team for the purpose of making a surprise inspection. As a result, several deficiencies were verified and SMILE was required to correct these deficiencies within 30 days.

         In that same time frame, SMILE was also in the status of reorganization having hired a new CEO/Director, Dr. Christopher Williams. Dr. Williams did expend efforts at addressing the situation but in a follow-up visit by HHS in April, it determined that SMILE had not fully addressed the deficiencies HHS found in January and subsequently addressed with SMILE. Additionally, several new deficiencies were found during that April follow-up visit. As a result, HHS undertook its own evaluation and ultimately made two relevant decisions. The first of these was the decision to terminate SMILE as the Head Start grantee for that tri-parish area. That decision was appealed administratively and the appeal is pending. The second decision was made on an "emergency" basis- to suspend grant funding to SMILE for a period of 30 days, such suspension being potentially renewable for subsequent 30 day periods. HHS acted, ostensibly, pursuant to its own regulations, specifically, 45 C.F.R.§ 1304.4.

         At the hearing, the HHS, Head Start, Region Six Program Manager from the Dallas, Texas Office, Kimberly Chalk, testified in detail as to the evaluative and decision making process in this particular instance. She stated that while suspensions of this nature were quite rare, action was necessary and warranted here. Specifically, Ms. Chalk testified that the emergency suspension was triggered and necessary because not only had SMILE failed timely to remedy deficiencies but continued to incur new ones even after being notified of those found during the January visit. In her observation, the primary concern in these cases is always the welfare of the children in Head Start programs. Because the deficiencies in this case primarily involved issues of abuse and neglect on SMILE's watch, the action of suspension was necessary.

         We find Ms. Chalk's testimony to be most persuasive. In this case, HHS was notably diligent in pursuing resolution of the problems at SMILE. Yet, we still must answer the question of whether HHS's actions were proper in view of the present law in this area.

         II. Jurisdiction

         Actions by a federal agency acting within its usual purview are most often exercised in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 U.S.C. §§701-706. Section 702 of the Act provides in relevant part that "[a] person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute, is entitled to judicial review thereof." Additionally, Section 704 of the Act, entitled "Actions Reviewable" provides:

Agency action made reviewable by statute and final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court are subject to judicial review. A preliminary, procedural, or intermediate agency action or ruling not directly reviewable is subject to review on the review of the final agency action. Except as otherwise expressly required by statute, agency action otherwise final is final for the purposes of this section whether or not there has been presented or determined an application for a declaration order, for any form of reconsideration, or, ...

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