Understanding SNAP Regulations and Violations
As a food store retailer, there are several laws and regulations that you need to adhere to. In most cases, retail owners have no problem adhering to the general rules and guidelines such as selling food that is fit for the purpose intended. However, there are certain government instituted programs that expose these store owners to litigation issues due to violations. One of the notable examples is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
SNAP is a government initiative aimed at replacing the 1990s Food Stamp Program. SNAP is designed to provide food purchasing help to needy families and individuals. People under this program are given an Electronic Benefits Transfer Card that operates in a similar manner with a bank debit card. Beneficiaries of the food program use the card when purchasing food. To prevent SNAP fraud, this card has limitations. For instance, SNAP recipients are not allowed to use the cards to purchase electronic goods. The U.S Code of Federal Regulations also governs use of these cards. Retailers who violate these laws receive a SNAP violation letter from the USDA.
Penalties for SNAP violations include heavy fines and penalties. Serious violations can lead to temporary or permanent disqualification. In most cases, the store owners are not aware of the violations. Often, it is dishonest employees who use the SNAP program for their own selfish benefits. If you have received a violation charge, you should not take it lightly. It is always best to consult with a SNAP violation attorney. The legal expert will examine the merits of your violations and advice you appropriately.
The importance of seeking legal advice
When a charge letter is presented to a store, there is often a time limit in which the owner is expected to respond. In most cases, the charged party has 10 days to respond to the allegations detailed in the charge letter. Failure to make a response within the allocated time can paint the store in a negative light. In addition to this, the governing agency will render a verdict, and the store owner may not be given a chance to defend themselves. Knowledge of the law is crucial in preparing a defense against a SNAP violation charge. Without legal experience, you cannot defend your store. Retaining a violation lawyer gives you a better fighting chance.
There are several responses that the lawyer can help you make. Based on the validity of the allegations, you can challenge the findings or make a request to pay a civil money penalty. It is important to note that penalties can be expensive to the tune of thousands of dollars. The USDA imposes heavy fines so as to curb such violations. Making a civil fine request does not mean that it is will be automatically granted. There are certain factors that the USDA will consider to determine whether you qualify for a fine.
• The first thing they will check is if there is a store compliance policy in place. The policy needs to be in writing and in effect at the time the allegations were filed.
• The store also needs to be in a position to prove that a compliance policy was in place prior to the charge and it was not drafted after the violation allegations were made.
• The USDA can grant a civil fine penalty if the store had instituted a training program to train all employees on the SNAP regulations and EBT payments.
• The agency will also seek to establish whether the ownership of the store benefited or was aware of the violations. Any involvement by the management can lead to a temporary or permanent disqualification.
Any store that receives a violation charge needs to consult with a SNAP violation attorney. Failure to take action, or taking the wrong actions after a violation charge can have negative and significant consequences. The USDA is mandated by Congress to issue a disqualification for a period of up to 5 years. This can lead to huge losses that can be hard to recover from.
Defenses against a SNAP violation charge
There are several defenses that can be used in defending SNAP violations. Once you respond to the USDA allegations and they still believe that you are in violation, the case enters into the administrative appeal phase. At this stage, the Department will have issued a letter stating they intend to suspend or disqualify the store. In such a situation, the store is given 10 days to make an appeal. If no appeal is made, the store will have to comply with the decision by the Department. If you retain a lawyer, they will notify the agency within 10 days that they intend to challenge the decision. The lawyer will also proceed to collect evidence to prove your claim. The attorney will also use the federal code, case laws, and regulations to challenge the decision of the department.
In the event that the USDA fails to overturn its earlier decision, the store owner can file a judicial review. This is done in the Federal District Court. This appeal is similar to a normal trial case. The parties are expected to conduct discoveries and file motions before the judge. At this stage, you need an attorney who has trial experience. Filling reviews and preparing documents is very different from trying a case before a judge. When enlisting the services of a violation lawyer, you need to ask if they have the skills and stamina to defend your case if it goes to trial. Remember that the Department will get the service driven lawyers. It is therefore ill advised for you to attempt to defend yourself without legal consultation and representation.
Thousands of stores have been closed since 2013 when Congress issued this mandate. Hiring a lawyer can, therefore, make the difference between closing your business and keeping your doors open.
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