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Penne Nienow, Plaintiff and Appellee v. Maggie anderson

April 4, 2013


Appeal from the District Court of Ward County, Northwest Judicial District, the Honorable Douglas L. Mattson, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Crothers, Justice.

N.D. Supreme CourtNienow v. Anderson, 2013 ND 53 This opinion is subject to petition for rehearing. [Go to Documents]

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REVERSED. Opinion of the Court by Crothers, Justice.

[¶1] The North Dakota Department of Human Services appeals a district court order reversing and remanding the Department's order decreasing Penne Nienow's monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP") benefits. We reverse the district court order and reinstate the Department's final order reducing Nienow's SNAP benefits.


[¶2] Nienow received SNAP benefits sporadically from Ward County Social Services ("County") since 2006, but consistently since 2009. SNAP benefits are based on financial eligibility subject to periodic reviews for continuing qualification. Nienow's eligibility was reviewed in 2011. Prior to this, Nienow received $120 per month in SNAP benefits. The County performed a review and interviewed Nienow, during which she disclosed she received $22,900 in June 2011 from a five-year mineral rights lease.

[¶3] The County determined Nienow received income from a prior lease and, therefore, the 2011 payment was a recurring lump-sum payment. The County reduced Nienow's SNAP benefits to $16 per month. Nienow filed a request for hearing to the Department, and an evidentiary hearing was held. The County's representative testified Nienow stated that she leased the mineral rights and received income from the lease every five years and that she had leased the rights at least once before. After the hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") concluded the County correctly determined Nienow's income and properly reduced her SNAP benefits. The Department adopted the ALJ's findings and conclusions.

[¶4] Nienow appealed the Department's order to the district court. The district court reversed and remanded, concluding Nienow's payment was a mineral leasing bonus, a nonrecurring lump-sum payment, and should not have been considered as income in determining Nienow's eligibility. The Department appeals the district court order, arguing Nienow's SNAP benefits properly were reduced.


[¶5] "When a decision of an administrative agency is appealed from the district court to this Court, we review the agency's decision and the record compiled before the agency." Ennis v. N.D. Dep't of Human Services, 2012 ND 185, ¶ 6, 820 N.W.2d 714 (quotation omitted). "Under the Administrative Agencies Practice Act, N.D.C.C. ch. 28-32, courts exercise a limited review in appeals from an administrative agency's decision." Id. The district court under N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46, and this Court under N.D.C.C. § 28-32-49, must affirm a final order of an administrative agency unless:

"1. The order is not in accordance with the law. 2. The order is in violation of the constitutional rights of the appellant. 3. The provisions of this chapter have not been complied with in the proceedings before the agency. 4. The rules or procedure of the agency have not afforded the appellant a fair hearing. 5. The findings of fact made by the agency are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence. 6. The conclusions of law and order of the agency are not supported by its findings of fact. 7. The findings of fact made by the agency do not sufficiently address the evidence presented to the agency by the appellant. 8. The conclusions of law and order of the agency do not sufficiently explain the agency's rationale for not adopting any contrary recommendations by a hearing officer or an administrative law judge." N.D.C.C. § 28-32-46. "In determining whether an administrative agency's findings of fact are supported by a preponderance of the evidence, we do not make independent findings of fact or substitute our judgment for that of the agency; rather, we determine only whether a reasoning mind reasonably could have determined the agency's factual findings were proven by the weight of the evidence from the entire record." Ennis, at ¶ 7 (quotation omitted). "Questions of law are fully reviewable on appeal from an agency's decision." Id. (quotation omitted). However, "an administrative agency's reasonable interpretation of a regulation is entitled to deference." Id. (quotation omitted).


[¶6] "The federal SNAP food stamp program is designed to promote the general welfare and safeguard the public's health and well-being by raising the level of nutrition among low-income households." Ennis, 2012 ND 185, ¶ 8, 820 N.W.2d 714; see 7 U.S.C. § 2011 and 7 C.F.R. § 271.1(a). "[T]he program is administered at the local level by county social services boards, under supervision by the Department." Ennis, at ¶ 8. The Department must apply the federal uniform standards in determining eligibility of applicant households. 7 C.F.R. § 273.8(a). Eligibility is limited "to those households whose incomes are determined to be a substantial limiting factor in permitting them to obtain a more nutritious diet." 7 C.F.R. § 273.9(a). Households may be ...

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