Federal Judge Blocks Government Guidance on Emergency Financial Aid
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By Mark Kantrowitz

June 13, 2020

A federal judge has blocked the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance that limited eligibility for emergency financial aid grants to students.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) created a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), half of which is supposed to go to students “for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus.”

The CARES Act did not define the term “student” and did not include any restrictions on eligibility for the emergency financial aid grants.

The U.S. Department of Education, however, issued guidance and an interim final rule that limit the emergency financial aid grants to students who are eligible for federal student aid, preventing many veterans, low-income students, minority students, first-generation students, foster youth, single parents and disabled students from receiving the emergency financial aid grants. The guidance and regulations also prevent international students and undocumented students from receiving emergency financial aid grants.




Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit on May 19, 2020 to block the U.S. Department of Education’s restrictions on eligibility for the emergency financial aid grants to students. 

On Friday, June 12, 20202, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice granted AG Ferguson’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Department of Education. 

The Judge wrote, in his decision: “The harm to students that stems from the eligibility restriction is not only the inability to access (the CARES Act) funds; the harm is in the inability to access these emergency funds in a timely manner. Absent injunctive relief, students will continue to be denied access to emergency relief funds to which they are likely otherwise entitled.”

A preliminary injunction is an indication that the public will suffer irreparable harm if the motion is not granted and that the lawsuit will likely succeed on the merits. 

The preliminary injunction blocks the U.S. Department of Education from applying their guidance and interim final rule to colleges and universities in the State of Washington. The preliminary injunction does not, however, allow international students and undocumented students to receive emergency financial aid grants, as the preliminary injunction does not lift the restrictions of 8 USC 1611(a).

[Update: Another federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, issued a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Department of Education in a lawsuit filed by the California Community College System on June 17, 2020. The Judge’s ruling goes further than the similar ruling in Washington state, allowing non-citizens to receive the emergency financial aid grants. She referred to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of the CARES Act as “strained.” The U.S. Department of Education has said that it will appeal both the California and Washington rulings.]

[Update: On September 3, 2020, U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin issued a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Department of Education in a lawsuit filed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, blocking implementation of the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance concerning the CARES Act.]


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