Landmark Settlement To Benefit Tens of Thousands of Low-Income New Yorkers with Disabilities

The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP today announced the preliminary approval of a landmark settlement in a civil rights lawsuit affecting over 30,000 New Yorkers with disabilities. The class action law suit, Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 05 CV 6920, was filed in 2005 in Federal Court in the Southern District of New York because low-income New Yorkers with disabilities were being denied access to benefits by the City's welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration.

Kathleen Kelleher, a Staff Attorney in the Civil Law Reform Unit and the lead attorney for The Legal Aid Society on the case, said that "This is a landmark settlement that reaffirms the rights of people with disabilities to be treated with dignity and fairness by all government agencies, especially those charged with protecting the most vulnerable families."

"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.

Lovely H. challenged HRA's rules and systems for people with disabilities who receive cash assistance, SNAP and Medicaid. The case alleged that HRA programs and systems did not comply with federal, state and local laws protecting individuals with disabilities - failing to provide the accommodations clients need to comply with HRA rules. Staff attorney Susan Welber 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." The lawsuit alleged that without needed accommodations, clients were losing benefits when they could not comply with HRA rules and were put at risk of hunger and homelessness.

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.

Key Provisions

In the proposed 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 of The Legal Aid Society. "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 15,000 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.