On August 1, 2020, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP and Equal Justice Society (collectively, “Plaintiffs’ co-counsel”) filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, California, challenging the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Treasury (collectively “Treasury”)’s decision to withhold CARES Act economic assistance payments from incarcerated people nationwide.
The lead plaintiffs are Colin Scholl, currently incarcerated in Salinas Valley State Prison in Monterey, California, and Lisa Strawn, a woman paroled from San Quentin on July 14, 2020. Plaintiffs and the proposed class seek a determination that Defendants’ conduct is illegal and an Order that they make the required payments immediately.
Background: Congress passed the CARES Act to provide sorely needed economic assistance during the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the Act, Congress allocated aid of up to $1,200 (plus $500 per qualifying child) to all American citizens and legal permanent residents below a certain income level who were not claimed as dependents. Incarcerated persons, and their families on the outside, are among the most economically disadvantaged people in the country.
Indeed, according to one study, people who are incarcerated had a median income of only $19,185 before their incarceration, compared to $41,250 for non-incarcerated people. Low-income families are disproportionately more likely to have a relative behind bars.
The Treasury, however, has refused to issue stimulus payments authorized by Congress to eligible incarcerated persons, thereby further exacerbating the economic disadvantages they and their families suffer.
“The Treasury Department’s unlawful withholding of these allocated funds undermines the health and safety of incarcerated people and the families they support,” said Kelly M. Dermody of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case. “At a time when COVID-19 is tearing through prisons, it is unforgivably heartless to steal COVID economic aid from those most in need.”
The populations that COVID-19 has decimated—low-income children of color, Black people, Latinx people and other people of color—are also disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration,” said Mona Tawatao of the Equal Justice Society, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The Treasury Department’s theft of CARES Act supplements is both illegal and cruel as it subverts Congress’ plan to provide fast and direct economic assistance to families who need help the most.”
The lawsuit alleges that over 1.4 million incarcerated people have been affected by Defendants’ actions. Many rely on financial assistance from their friends or families on the outside, people who are already suffering in the current economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of others will be re-entering society soon, and need help to get back on their feet at a time when the job market has collapsed. Incarcerated people also need to spend their own money—or that of friends and family who are already hard-pressed to make ends meet—to stay in touch with loved ones through expensive telephone and mail services, critical lifelines to support their rehabilitation. Further, many incarcerated people have outstanding child support and restitution obligations, and stimulus payments can be used to support children in need as well as crime victims.
The plaintiffs are Colin Scholl and Lisa Strawn. The Lieff Cabraser legal team representing them and the proposed class are Kelly M. Dermody, Yaman Salahi, and Jalle H. Dafa, joined by Eva Jefferson Paterson, Mona Tawatao, Lisa Holder, and Christina Alvernaz of the Equal Justice Society.
The defendants are the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the United States Commissioner of Internal Revenue Charles Rettig, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and the United States of America.