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Last Updated on: 26th July 2023, 08:29 pm
If you operate a retail food store that accepts SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, you have a responsibility to follow all program rules and regulations. Violating any SNAP requirements can result in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) imposing stiff penalties, including permanent disqualification from participating in SNAP or receiving a substantial civil money penalty (CMP).
Receiving a CMP notice from the USDA can be downright scary. These fines can total tens of thousands of dollars per violation. And figuring out how to respond to avoid getting slapped with massive fines is confusing. Do you need a lawyer? How do you find the right one? What will it cost?
This guide will walk you through everything you need to know if you find yourself facing SNAP sanctions. I’ll explain CMPs, how to avoid the harshest penalties, and most importantly, how to find the best legal counsel to protect your business.
There are a range of SNAP violations that can trigger a CMP from the USDA FNS, including:
These offenses represent violations of the SNAP retailer agreement every store owner signs. Committing any of them opens up the possibility of getting slammed with a CMP.
Civil money penalties for SNAP offenses can range from $5,944 to $100,000 per violation. The specific fine amount depends on the severity and circumstances of the infraction.
Trafficking or selling major ineligible items like alcohol and tobacco generally result in maximum $100,000 fines. Other violations like sales tax fraud may warrant smaller penalties of $5,000-$10,000.
Regardless of the violation, the potential fine amounts are steep. Multiple offenses can stack up into hundreds of thousands in CMPs.
After determining SNAP violations have likely occurred, the USDA FNS will send an official charge letter that details the alleged offenses. This letter will propose a specific CMP amount they plan to impose.
It may be tempting to just accept the initial penalty offer and pay the fine to make the issue go away. But doing so can be a big mistake that hurts you in the long run.
The USDA tends to issue extremely high initial penalty offers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. They make the opening offer intentionally high to scare retailers into accepting it without a fight.
But savvy retailers who challenge the charges can often get those massive initial fines dramatically lowered. Contesting the allegations is the smart play rather than blindly accepting whatever astronomical penalty the USDA threatens you with first.
Trying to navigate the SNAP sanctions process alone without expert help is difficult. Once you receive an official charge letter and proposed CMP from the USDA FNS, immediately consulting with a lawyer experienced in food stamp cases is wise.
An attorney can help formulate the best defense, gather evidence refuting the allegations, and negotiate with the USDA for a reduced penalty. They know how to tilt the scales back in your favor.
Without legal counsel, retailers tend to flounder through the administrative review process and end up stuck with outrageously high fines. The input of a skilled lawyer can mean the difference between successfully defending your business or folding under the weight of massive penalties.
Not all lawyers are created equal when it comes to fighting SNAP sanctions. To beat the charges and fines, you need an attorney who focuses specifically on USDA matters and has a proven track record handling these cases.
Here are the credentials to look for when vetting SNAP defense lawyers:
A seasoned FNS sanctions lawyer will know all the ins and outs of getting USDA penalties reduced or tossed out. Their expertise can save your business.
Lawyer fees vary, but expect to pay $3,000-$7,000 as a retainer upfront to start the SNAP review process. Attorneys typically bill hourly, so your total costs depend on how long it takes to resolve the charges.
The length of the sanctions process differs case-by-case. But between the initial retainer and hourly billing, plan for legal counsel to cost around $7,000-$15,000 on average.
While that seems expensive, it’s minor compared to the $50,000, $100,000 or higher fines the USDA will otherwise slam you with. A good lawyer more than pays for themselves by getting penalties lowered or tossed out. Don’t let cost deter you from hiring the best legal defense.
If you receive a USDA charge letter proposing stiff CMPs for SNAP violations, taking swift action is critical. The faster you engage experienced legal counsel, the better your odds of defeating the sanctions.
Don’t accept inflated USDA penalty offers or try fighting alone. Consult a seasoned FNS lawyer to leverage their expertise protecting retailers. With the right legal firepower, you can avoid getting steamrolled by excessive fines. Carefully vet attorneys and focus on picking one well-versed in food stamp cases. Investing in top-notch legal representation now can save your business.
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