Preserving and Improving Public Benefits

"Thanks to the work of Columbia Legal Services on the Washington Food Assistance Program, my family and I did not go hungry."  - CLS client, on legal representation in 2011 affecting 10,000 families in need of basic food assistance.


Since the early 1980’s Columbia Legal Services and its’ predecessor organizations have made a deep impact on the provision of basic human services needs in Washington State.  Using litigation under theories of due process, equal protection, violation of federal law etc. advocates established expertise and credibility for later policy impact.  Some highlights of this advocacy include:

Food Benefits:

  • 1988: Required the Office of Administrative Hearings to provide interpretation services to applicants for food assistance in appellant proceedings. 
  • Reinstatement of food benefits to 41,000 elderly and disabled recipients after DSHS incorrectly used Emergency rule-making procedures, until DSHS completed proper rule-making procedures
  • 2011: One year delay of legislative decision to reduce state food assistance benefits to 50% of the federal level.  State food assistance is a look alike program to federal food stamps provided to immigrants who cannot qualify for food stamps under federal law.  Washington had fully matched the federal benefits from program inception in 1997 until 2011.

Cash benefits:

  • 1983: Compelled the prompt replacement of lost benefits checks, (Lawrence v. Gibbs)
  • 1983: Changed eligibility requirements so that mandatory payroll deductions cannot be counted as income for eligibility purposes (Williams v Gibbs)
  • 1985: Challenge to unreasonable delays of application approvals, which resulted in tremendous hardships for those hopging for assistance. (Peterson v. Rahm
  • 1989: Stopped DSHS process of “consolidating assistance units,” which calculated all children living at one address as one "assistance unit," which had the effect of drastically reducing the amount of cash benefits.  (Beaton v Thompson)
  • 1990: Forced an end to warrantless searches in welfare fraud investigations (Owens v Thompson)
  • 1991: Required state agencies to provide forms and notices in the five most common languages (Reyes v Thompson) 
  • 1998: Challenged constitutionality of residency requirements for receipt of TANF benefits. (Ruffin v Quasim)
  • 1997: Required DSHS to provide assistance to homeless children and their families
  • 1981-2014: Advocated in the state legislature to protect the General Assistance-Unemployable program for temporarily incapacitated adults 

Unemployment benefits 

  • 1984: Unemployment benefits cannot be suspended without a prior notice and right to a hearing  
  • 1987: Prevented collection of overpayments before a hearing. (O’Brien v. Brooks)

Social Security Disability (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits

  • 1981: The federal government instituted a wholesale cleansing of the disability rolls ending assistance to most persons with mental illnesses.  A class action challenged those terminations in Washington state.
  • 1984: Benefits were denied when cases were reviewed under improper and unlawful standards. Our advocacy resulted in benefits being reinstated and reviewed (Morrison v Schweiker) 
  • 1987: SSDI and SSI benefits cannot be garnished for collection of a debt


  • 1983: Medicaid must provide all  treatments that the treating physician deems “medically necessary” (Mead v Burdman)
  • 1984: Medicaid must provide transportation to medical appointments, (Van Hoy v DSHS)
  • Persons losing Medicaid under one eligibility category must be considered for eligibility for other Medicaid programs before benefits can be terminated. 
  • 1989: Recipients cannot be billed for provider for costs not reimbursed by Medicaid  
  • 1990: Medicaid must provide durable medical equipment when it is medically necessary with significant weight given to the opinion of the treating physician. (Bowers v Thompson) 
  • 1995: Dental reimbursement rates must be sufficient to actually purchase dental services


Child Support

  • 1989: Legislature provided custodial parents with notice and a right to hearing when state seeks to establish child support obligation against a non-custodial parent
  • 1990: Child support obligations should be adjusted for disability and economic hardship Mathews v Thompson