The Legal Aid Society's Civil Practice And Kramer Levin Win Important Victory In Food Stamp Case

In a case brought by The Legal Aid Society and pro bono counsel Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, New York State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings issued a decision in Smith v. Berlin, denying motions to dismiss and granting our motion to intervene a plaintiff, amend the complaint, and, most importantly, certify the case as a class action.  The class as certified by the court consists of all past, current and future recipients of public assistance or Food Stamps in New York City since July 8, 2007, who have received the City Human Resources Administration's Conciliation Notification or Notice of Decision and whose public assistance or food stamps have been reduced or discontinued for allegedly violating a work requirement. This case was handled by Lester Helfman, a Staff Attorney in the Society's Civil Practice Brooklyn Neighborhood Office.

Employable Public Assistance and Food Stamp recipients are required to participate in work-related activities as a condition of receipt of benefits.  Failure to comply which is “willful” and “without good cause” results in a pro-rata reduction in benefits for a prescribed minimum period of time which period increases with subsequent violations and until compliance (if the household consists of a single person, pro-rata reduction means a discontinuance of benefits altogether.)  These reductions or discontinuances are known as "employment sanctions."  Prior to the imposition of the sanction, HRA is required to issue a Conciliation Notice which gives the recipient an opportunity to avoid the sanction by explaining why the infraction was either not willful or that there was good cause for the infraction.  By statute, the Conciliation Notice must inform the recipient what she can do to avoid the sanction and explain in plain language what constitutes good cause for non-compliance and give examples of what sort of evidence would warrant an exemption from work activities that may be provided at the conciliation conference.  If HRA determines that the infraction was willful or there was no good cause for the failure to comply, it is required by statute, regulation and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution to issue a Notice of Decision advising the recipient of the sanction and which explains the necessary actions that must be taken to avoid the sanction, and which also states the reason why the infraction was determined to be willful and without good cause.  The notice also must advise the recipient of her rights to challenge the sanction at a Fair Hearing.  At any point in time, there are between 18,000 and 22,000 people sanctioned or in the sanction process. 

Therefore, in this case the class numbers in the hundreds of thousands.  The essence of our case is that the Conciliation Notice and the Notice of Decision used by HRA fail to provide information required by statute, regulation and the Due Process Clause, resulting in the recipients' inability to present useful information at the Conciliation conference and the Fair Hearing, resulting in the imposition of sanctions in cases where the infraction was not willful, or for which there was good cause, or where the recipient in fact had complied with the requirements.