Right of Disabled Public Assistance Recipients to Reasonable Accommodations

Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 05 Civ. 6920 (LTS) (S.D.N.Y.)

Nature of Claims: The plaintiffs in this action are public assistance recipients in New York City who are disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or State and local statutes and regulations, and whose public assistance cases were transferred (or scheduled for transfer) to one of three “hub centers” in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. In most cases, these hub centers were much farther from the clients’ homes than are their local Job Centers, and entailed longer, more arduous, and often more expensive commutes. The plaintiffs alleged that under the ADA and State and local laws prohibiting disability discrimination, the City welfare agency (HRA) may not operate separate “hub centers” for disabled clients unless those clients are offered a voluntary choice to be served at those facilities and, even in that event, only if separate facilities are necessary to provide them with aids, benefits, or services that are as effective as those provided to non-disabled clients. The plaintiffs also allege that HRA used notices and procedures designed to deter and discourage clients from requesting an exemption from a hub center assignment as a reasonable accommodation, and that HRA lacks procedures necessary to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled clients in a manner that allows them to comply with the conditions of eligibility for public benefits at their local Job Centers.

Background: On April 19, 2006, the district court certified a class and a subclass, and enjoined HRA from involuntarily reassigning class members’ welfare cases to the hub centers. Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 235 F.R.D. 248 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). The main class is defined as “recipients of public assistance, food stamps and/or Medicaid who have received or will receive a notice from the New York City Human Resources Administration involuntarily transferring their case to one of three ‘hub’ centers in Manhattan, the Bronx or Brooklyn in connection with the WeCARE program.” The subclass is defined as “main class members who (a) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (b) have a record of such an impairment, or (c) are regarded as having such an impairment.”

In addition, the Court found “that Plaintiffs have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of this claim under state and federal law.” On the state law segregation claims, the Court found that it is uncontested that as WeCARE-eligible recipients of public assistance, (1) class members were involuntarily transferred to hub centers; (2) unlike non-disabled individuals, they were precluded from attending to recertification and other issues through their neighborhood public assistance offices; and (3) that “[t]his distinction in the provision of services turns solely on WeCARE designation which is, itself, based solely on the presence of a disability.” On the federal segregation claim, the Court found that the WeCARE program “clearly violates the mandate that persons with disabilities be given the opportunity to participate in mainstream service delivery mechanisms.”

Current Status: On November 15, 2006, the court granted plaintiffs’ motions to amend the complaint; to intervene additional class members as party plaintiffs; and to amend the main class definition. The amended class definition is “recipients of public assistance, food stamps, and/or Medicaid who are or will be designated as participants in the WeCARE program.” Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83424 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 15, 2006). The additional claims allege that HRA has a pattern and practice of denying class members’ reasonable accommodations at their local Job Centers.

On November 29, 2006, plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment and for an award of retroactive relief with regard class members whose cases were closed or sanctioned in connection with their transfer to a hub center, and who were otherwise eligible for assistance. The motion for partial summary judgment was fully submitted on January 30, 2007. However, rather than deciding the issue, Judge Swain issued an order on March 20, 2009 dismissing this motion without prejudice to a request of either party to restore the motion. We are currently negotiating with the City to determine whether we can settle this motion rather than resubmit it the Court.

During the course of negotiations in the case in chief, we discovered that the City had made mistakes when it conducted a project to “re-code” cases of homebound clients so that the computer listed each homebound individually on the computer rather than by case. HRA agreed to identify these cases and pay them retroactive relief. The parties are engaged in negotiations over how to determine how to identify these individuals and issue relief to them.

No. Persons Affected: Over 30,000 disabled public assistance recipients have been designated as participants in the WeCARE program.

Reported Decisions: Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 235 F.R.D. 248 (S.D.N.Y. 2006); Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83424 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 15, 2006).