Court Grants Final Approval To Landmark Settlement That Provides Greater Accessibility to Government Services For Tens of Thousands of Low-Income New Yorkers with Disabilities
TUESDAY, JUNE 23, 2015

The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP today announced that Federal District Court Judge Katherine B. Forrest granted final approval to what she described as a “landmark” class action settlement in a civil rights lawsuit that will result in greater access to government services for over 30,000 low-income New Yorkers with disabilities and help to avert hunger and homelessness for many vulnerable families and individuals. The case has already resulted in the payment of millions of dollars of retroactive benefits to over 14,000 class members under a partial settlement finalized in October 2014.

The case, Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 05 CV 6920, was filed in 2005 in Federal Court in the Southern District of New York against the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) alleging that the welfare agency’s programs and systems did not comply with federal, state and local laws protecting individuals with disabilities. The lawsuit claimed that without needed accommodations, disabled clients were losing benefits when they could not comply with HRA rules. The prior City administration agreed to proceed with settlement discussions on the eve of trial on the case in December 2013.

Kathleen Kelleher, a Staff Attorney in the Civil Law Reform Unit and the lead attorney for The Legal Aid Society on the case, said: “This landmark settlement reaffirms the rights of people with disabilities to be treated with dignity and fairness. We are hopeful that clients with disabilities will no longer face hunger and homelessness simply because they cannot get help to access the critical government services provided by HRA.”

The settlement requires HRA to, among other things, systematize accommodations necessary to meet individual’s needs. Staff attorney Susan Welber, another principal attorney on the case explained: “Just like you may need a ramp if you are in a wheelchair to get access to a building, HRA clients with disabilities often need simple things in order to access their benefits, like help getting to appointments or even just filling out forms.” Under the settlement, HRA will be required to screen for and offer commonly needed accommodations.

The settlement represents a sea change in the way people with disabilities will be served, affirming the agency's commitment to assisting people with disabilities to get the help they need and preventing loss of benefits due to disabilities.

“We are happy to have been part of such an important litigation and thrilled to have achieved such a great result for our pro bono clients,” said Sean Murphy, Milbank's lead attorney on the case.

 

Key Provisions

In the settlement, HRA has agreed to change some rules and systems to make Cash Assistance and SNAP programs and benefits more accessible to people with disabilities.

  1. Screening. HRA will do a better job of identifying people who may need help because of disabilities by improving its screening methods - including identifying clients who may need help with disabilities that may be hard to identify - like mental health impairments.
  2. Quicker Access to Disability Help. The Settlement ensures that when people ask for disability help they receive it right away.
  3. Case Management Services to Meet Individual Needs. Under the settlement all class members will receive some degree of case management services, with more intensive services provided to those with more serious barriers.
  4. Prevention of Lost Benefits Related to Disabilities. HRA will employ new management techniques to investigate cases of disabled individuals to ensure that they do not inappropriately lose benefits because of their disabilities.
  5. Improved Ability to Communicate with the Agency. HRA will also work to improve its phone and other communication systems - so that disabled clients can get in touch with the agency, especially when they have emergencies.

“On behalf of our clients, we are pleased that the new Administration has made these important commitments to low-income New Yorkers with disabilities,” said Seymour W. James, the Attorney-in-Chief. “We are optimistic that this landmark settlement will result in real improvements in the lives of low-income New Yorkers and that they will be treated with dignity and fairness.”

 

Past Achievements in the Case

Since it was filed in 2005, the action has also achieved other benefits for thousands of low-income New Yorkers receiving public assistance.

First, Plaintiffs secured an order which prevented the City from transferring disabled individuals to one of three segregated disabled-only welfare centers in the City rather than permitting them to be served in one of 29 regular neighborhood offices in the five boroughs.

Second, Plaintiffs secured retroactive benefits for more than 14,000 households who lost public assistance benefits as a result of being transferred to segregated disabled-only centers.

Third, Plaintiffs secured a Court order protecting the rights of homebound clients whose cases were mistakenly closed due to HRA systems errors and directing reimbursement of any lost benefits.

The plaintiffs are also represented by Kenneth Stephens, Supervising Attorney, and Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society's Civil Practice Law Reform Unit. In addition to Mr. Murphy, Pro Bono counsel from Milbank Tweed includes Sarah Rothenberg and Andrea Hood.