According to a news report, in 2002, Urban Justice Center lawyers discovered that the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) was illegally terminating the food stamp benefits of thousands of low-income people with disabilities. The discovery led to the April 1, 2002, filing, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, of a civil complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by four named plaintiffs on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly-situated persons, all of whom were represented by attorneys from private firms and the Urban Justice Center. The defendants named were officials of the HRA and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). According to the complaint, despite years of warnings from the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), which administers the Food Stamp program, the city's HRA and the state's OTDA employed a computer program that automatically terminated the food stamps of public assistance/welfare recipients when they were approved for SSI (supplemental security income), the federal benefit for people who are poor and severely disabled. The plaintiffs alleged that the terminated SSI recipients, however, were "categorically eligible" to receive food stamps under the Food Stamps Act and should not have been terminated from receiving this public benefit. The complaint alleged that the defendants' conduct violated: 1) the Food Stamps Act ("FSA"), 7 U.S.C.A. §§ 2011, 2014, 2015, and 2020, and implementing federal and state regulations; 2) the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12132 et seq. and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 et seq.; and 3) the due process and equal protection clauses of the New York constitution and of the federal constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, as well as other state law provisions. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief, class certification, and an award of attorneys' fees and costs.
Over the ensuing months, discovery, confidentiality of records litigation, and conferences to update the court on the status of the litigation and settlement prospects occurred. In February 2006, a defendant filed an answer to the complaint. In an unpublished order the next month, Magistrate Judge Kevin Nathaniel Fox set a discovery cut-off date for September 21, 2006. The case's docket sheet reflects that settlement talks had been proceeding among the parties, as had been a review by the USDA of aspects of the dispute, resulting in extension of the discovery cut-off date. Subsequently, District Judge Richard M. Berman issued an unpublished order on February 7, 2007, discontinuing the action, subject to its restoration upon application of a party.
By May 25, 2007, plaintiffs' counsel advised that the action should be restored for the limited purpose of approving and implementing a settlement. Settlement documents were submitted to the court and its preliminary approval of a class certification and of the settlement followed, in July 2007. Final approval awaited a fairness hearing the judge set for September 27, 2007. On that day, Judge Berman issued the court's judgment approving the class action settlement that had been negotiated.
The settlement agreement noted that the city and state defendants had modified their prior practices, including the computerized welfare management system, so that automatic termination of food stamp benefits should no longer occur simply because a class member began receiving SSI benefits, after having had public assistance benefits terminated. Staff and administrative law judges, likewise, had been advised of this change in practice, according to the settlement document. The settlement obligated the state defendant (the OTDA) to write to the USDA seeking its' acquiescence to the terms of the stipulation. Without that acquiescence, the defendants had no obligations under the settlement. Absent USDA acquiescence within seven months of the stipulation, the parties would again meet to determine how to resolve the case, including by trial.
The stipulation reflected that the parties had agreed upon a class certification to include "all residents of New York City who are: (1) SSI recipients living alone; or (2) SSI couples; or (3) SSI recipients living with others, described in ...[other portions of the stipulation], whose public assistance Food Stamps have been or will be discontinued by City defendant between April I, 1999 and the expiration date of this agreement due to receipt of SSI without making a separate determination of eligibility for non-public assistance food stamps." The settlement obligated the state to identify households eligible to receive food stamp benefits that had been wrongly denied them during the relevant period and, within 12 months, to perform a mass re-budgeting to restore the benefits to these households. The settlement set out details of this process and complexities of eligibility levels, as well as the notice obligations the settlement imposed upon the defendants to alert food stamps recipients of the settlement's terms. The city defendant had monitoring and tracking duties under the terms of the settlement, which described that court jurisdiction would terminate at the end of twenty-seven months from the court judgment adopting the settlement' terms, unless enforcement actions modified that period. Under the settlement, plaintiffs' attorneys were to receive payments for fees and costs from the state defendant in the aggregate amount of $117,500 and from the city defendant in the aggregate amount of $120,000.
The docket does not show subsequent activity, but according to a New York Times article (Leslie Kaufman, A Surprise Bounty, Provided by a Food Stamp Lawsuit, in New York Times, Nov. 26, 2008) it took a year for the Department of Agriculture to approve the settlement, and the resulting awards totaled $12 million, distributed to nearly 9,500 households in the five boroughs in the form of credits to electronic benefit cards, to be used for food. The credits were capped at 21 months of benefits; the 18 largest reimbursements just top $5,000, and most plaintiffs received far less.
The awards began to be distributed in October 2008.Mike Fagan - 06/24/2008