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Cooley LLP Provides Pro Bono Counsel To Obtain Wrongfully Terminated Public Benefits For Thousands Of Low-Income Households

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

  • Organization: The Legal Aid Society

Cooley has played a major role as co-counsel in two federal class actions that addressed New York City’s illegal reduction of Safety Net Assistance (“SNA”) to families with children and New York State’s improper termination or denial of Food Stamps to low-income households. The class action addressing administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) also challenged the State’s failure to adjudicate SNAP fair hearings in a timely manner.

Kenneth Stephens, a Supervising Attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Law Reform Unit, who worked closely with Cooley partners on both cases said: “Cooley’s active role in these two cases, with significant contributions of time and talent from partners, associates and support staff, has helped us achieve landmark successes. We have reversed years of policies and practices that were subjecting more than one hundred thousand families to illegally harsh and unnecessary sanctions. Together we have not only stopped these practices from continuing, but also secured nearly $100 million in retroactive benefits for our low-income clients.”

In August 2010, Cooley LLP joined The Legal Aid Society (“Legal Aid”) and The New York Legal Assistance Group (“NYLAG”) as co-counsel in Hercules v. Doar, a federal class action against the City and the State for illegally reducing Safety Net Assistance (“SNA”) to families with children. The benefit reduction was for excessively long periods when the recipients were sanctioned for alleged violations of the public assistance employment requirements. Although families can be penalized or sanctioned for up to six months when they miss a mandatory appointment, due to a long-term computer programming issue incorrect notices informed SNA recipients living with children that they were subject to penalties in excess of six months, which only applies to childless households. Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Civil Practice, said that “this 'computer error' had persisted for over six years, during which time the City had been shortchanging thousands of low-income families with minor children."

After three years of litigation, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York approved a negotiated settlement in which the City will issue more than $3 million in retroactive benefits payments. More than 7,000 New York City recipients of SNA will receive retroactive payments of between $100 and $718. Approximately 8,000 additional households are eligible to receive Hercules payments when they return to receiving public assistance within the next 34 months.

The City and the State have corrected their computer systems, modified their sanction notices to include information necessary to allow individuals to challenge the duration of their sanctions, and lifted any improper sanctions currently in effect. They will also delete the sanctions resulting from these improper notices from class members’ records and will not count them in assessing any future penalties. Legal Aid, NYLAG, and Cooley will monitor the City’s notices for the next 34 months to ensure that similar problems do not recur.

The Cooley legal team was comprised of Jason Koral, Jennifer Lerner, Jennifer Pavane Kenter, and former partner William O’Brien. Legal Aid’s attorneys included Lester Helfman, Susan Sternberg, Susan Bahn, and Kenneth Stephens. NYLAG’s lawyers were Jane Greengold Stevens, Julia Russell, and Danielle Tarantolo.

On the heels of this “Herculean” victory, in June 2013 the United States District Court in the Southern District approved the negotiated settlement in Richard C v. Proud (12 CIV 5942), which challenged the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s (“OTDA”) failure to advise individuals facing SNAP employment sanctions that they had the ability to stop the sanctions from going into effect. Richard C also challenged the State’s failure to adjudicate SNAP fair hearings within the mandated federal timeline. The lawsuit was brought by The Legal Aid Society, The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, The Empire Justice Center, and Cooley LLP.

The settlement will erase or eliminate as many as 200,000 improperly issued employment sanctions. OTDA has agreed to issue retroactive benefits to individuals wrongly denied or terminated from SNAP due to an alleged employment violation between August 3, 2009 and December 14, 2012. The average sanction, which lasts about three months, costs a family over $400 in benefits. The retroactive benefits are expected to result in over $80 million in 100% federally funded SNAP benefits to low-income households in New York State.

As part of the settlement, OTDA agreed to continue its suspension of SNAP employment sanctions. Prior to the suspension last December, agencies such as the City’s Human Resources Administration imposed approximately 5,000 sanctions monthly, reducing clients’ benefits by more than $2 million each month. No new sanctions will be imposed until OTDA has a process that is in compliance with federal law, and provides individuals a “second chance” to avoid the sanction.

To correct the failure of processing SNAP fair hearings in accordance with federal law, "SNAP only” fair hearing decisions (cases that do not also involve cash assistance) will be issued within 60 days of the initial fair hearing request. For the next two years, OTDA will provide monthly statistics to class counsel to ensure that the federal deadline requirements are met.

The Cooley legal team was comprised of partner Jason Koral and associate Nicholas Flath. Legal Aid’s lead attorneys in the case are Kenneth Stephens and Sumani Lanka. Empire Justice Center’s lawyers include Bryan Hetherington and Barbara Weiner. Attorneys Marc Cohan and Jenny Pelaez were part of the team from the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

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