Federal Judge Ends 10 Years of Litigation; Improves Access to Services for 30,000 New Yorkers with Disabilities

The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy announced on Tuesday a landmark settlement that reaffirms the rights of people with disabilities to be treated with dignity and fairness by all government agencies.

Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest gave final approval of the settlement which will benefit some 30,000 low-income New Yorkers with disabilities. The settlement was covered in the New York Law Journal, Capital New York, and Law 360.

New York Law Journal
Judge Finalizes NYC Deal With Disabled Beneficiaries
By Jessica Corso
June 23, 2015

A federal judge ended 10 years of litigation on Monday when she signed off on a class action settlement between New York City and disabled residents who say they were forced to travel hours from their homes to receive public assistance benefits like Medicaid and food stamps.

U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest said she received no complaints about the agreement and gave final approval to a settlement that changes the way benefits are doled out to individuals with physical, mental and learning disabilities in New York City.

"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,” plaintiffs’ attorney Susan Welber of the Legal Aid Society said in a statement when the settlement was announced in March.

The agreement directs the city’s Human Resources Administration to put in place policies that would better identify those with disabilities, especially those with mental and learning disabilities that are more difficult to detect. The government will also be required to keep in better contact with those deemed disabled so that individuals aren’t dropped for missing appointments or failing to fill out form.

Other provisions include making necessary forms easier to read and a promise by the city to make it easier for homebound individuals to receive assistance.

“The programmatic changes that this settlement sets out will allow us to systematize accommodations that will meet each individual’s needs,” HRA Commissioner Steven Banks said in a statement in March. “These changes are consistent with HRA’s ongoing reforms to promote access for all of our clients, in this case people with disabilities.”

The agreement ends a suit that was filed in 2005 by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of three disabled public welfare recipients who live in Queens but say they were forced to travel an hour to an hour and a half from their homes to a hub in Manhattan to maintain their benefits. Previously, all three women had gone to centers within their own neighborhoods, according to the suit.

All three women were participants in an HRA program known as WeCare that set up three hubs in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn for disabled welfare beneficiaries that the administration of then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said would better assist the disabled individuals, according to LAS attorney Katie Kelleher.

The hubs were shut down in 2006 and disabled recipients redirected to their local welfare centers after Judge Forrest ordered the city government to stop forcibly redirecting disabled recipients there.

Kelleher told Law360 Tuesday that a changing of the guard really helped speed up a 10-year negotiating process.

“We just didn’t really have very much of a willing partner,” in the Bloomberg administration, Kelleher said. The administration of current Mayor Bill DeBlasio, however, “realized some of the policies that they had in place served as barriers to people with disabilities and that without help, without reasonable accommodations, some of those clients were not going to be able to keep their cases open and get benefits.”

Counsel for the negotiating parties weren’t the only ones celebrating the end of the suit, according to Kelleher.

“Yesterday in court — I’m sure this will never happen again in my career — Judge Forrest in the Southern District gave both sides bottles of champagne,” she said. “She had teased us that she was going to release confetti when this was settled.”

The class was represented by Susan Welber and Katie Kelleher of the Legal Aid Society, with Sean Murphy, Andrea Hood and Sarah Rothenberg of Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy LLP serving as pro bono counsel.

The government was represented by Zachary W. Carter and David Alan Rosinus Jr.