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January 25, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pauley, District Judge.


On December 16, 1998, plaintiffs Lakisha Reynolds, Georgina Bonilla, April Smiley, Lue Garlick, Adriana Calabrese, Jenny Cuevas and Elston Richards ("plaintiffs") filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Jason Turner, Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (the "City defendants"), together with Brian J. Wing, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and Barbara DeBuono, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health (the "State defendants"). The class action complaint alleges that the City systematically prevents otherwise eligible individuals from obtaining food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance by, inter alia, imposing unreasonable requirements upon such individuals during the application process.

Plaintiffs seek preliminary and permanent injunctive relief on behalf of a proposed class of all New York City residents who have or will apply for food stamps, Medicaid and/or cash assistance. Presently before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.*fn1 For the reasons below, plaintiffs' motion is granted in part.


A. Introduction

New York City's Human Resources Administration ("HRA") is the public agency charged with making food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance available to needy individuals. At the present time, HRA is reengineering the way in which its approximately 18,000 employees accomplish that mission. Until recently, HRA processed applications for food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance at offices known as "Income Support Centers." However, in March 1998 HRA began converting its 31 Income Support Centers to "Job Centers" in an effort to effectuate changes in federal and State welfare policy.

Those policy changes unfolded with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 ("PRWORA"). (See Smith Decl. ¶ 1; Lee Decl. ¶ 3.) PRWORA dramatically changed the climate for welfare programs in New York and around the country. Among other things, PRWORA ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children ("AFDC") program and replaced it with a block grant program known as the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ("TANF").

One of the express statutory purposes of TANF is to "end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage." 42 U.S.C. § 601(a)(2). TANF contains several provisions meant to encourage cash assistance recipients to obtain paid employment. For example, TANF requires that non-exempt parents or caretakers engage in work activities no later than 24 months after receipt of assistance. See 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(1)(A)(ii). TANF also establishes a 5-year lifetime limit on benefits, under the expectation that recipients will secure employment to support their children and themselves. See 42 U.S.C. § 608(a)(7). To ensure that States require recipients to work, TANF includes escalating "work participation rates" that States must meet to avoid reductions in their block grants. See 42 U.S.C. § 607. New York participates in TANF through two cash assistance programs: Family Assistance, which is available to pregnant women and families with a minor child, and Safety Net Assistance, which is available to childless adults. See N Y Social Services Law §§ 158 and 349.

The City defendants maintain that the procedures utilized at job centers implement these policies by focusing on the employment opportunities and responsibilities of applicants, while assuring that assistance is available to those in need. (See Smith Decl. ¶¶ 2, 8.) HRA has already converted 14 of its 31 income support centers to job centers. HRA plans to complete the conversions by April 1999. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 5.)

Apart from providing cash assistance through the Family Assistance and Safety Net Assistance programs, HRA's job centers are responsible for administering the federal food stamps and Medicaid programs. The following sections provide a brief overview of those programs.

1. The Food Stamp Program

Congress established the federally funded, State-administered food stamp program in 1964 to "safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households." 7 U.S.C. § 2011. To be eligible for food stamps, a household's net income must be equal to or below the federal poverty line, as defined in 42 U.S.C. § 9202(2), and its available financial resources may generally not exceed $2,000. See 7 U.S.C. § 2014(c), (g). New York participates in the food stamp program, and therefore is bound to comply with all applicable federal requirements. See generally Rothstein v. Wyman, 467 F.2d 226, 232 (2d Cir. 1972).

Under the Food Stamp Act, a State agency is required to establish procedures governing the operation of food stamp offices that best serve households in the State. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(2)(A). In carrying out this mandate, a State agency must "provide timely, accurate, and fair service to applicants for, and participants in, the food stamp program." See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(2)(B)(i). A household is entitled to apply for food stamps on the first day it contacts a food stamp office during business hours. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(B)(iii). The State agency must provide eligible applicants that complete the initial application process with food stamps as soon as possible, but no later than 30 calendar days following the date the application was filed. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(3); 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(g).

2. "Expedited" Food Stamps

Expedited issuance of food stamps is generally available to households with very little income and liquid resources, households whose housing costs exceed their income and liquid resources, and certain migrant and seasonal worker households. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(9)(A)(i)-(ii); 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(i)(1). If eligible, an applicant for expedited food stamps must receive them no later than seven days after the date of application. See 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(9). The State agency's application procedures must be designed to identify households eligible for expedited service at the time the household requests assistance. See 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(i)(2).

3. Medicaid

Medicaid, enacted in 1965 as Title XIX of the Social Security Act, see 42 U.S.C. § 1396 et seq., is a jointly financed federal-state program designed to provide medical assistance to those who lack sufficient income and resources to pay for health care. A State that choses to participate in the Medicaid program must implement a plan that complies with all applicable federal statutes and regulations.

New York State participates in the Medicaid program by providing financial assistance for medical services for both the "categorically needy," which includes the aged, blind, disabled and needy individuals with dependent children, as well as the "medically needy." See 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A), (C). Federal law generally requires that applications for Medicaid be processed and eligibility determined within 45 days, 42 West Page 335 C.F.R. § 435.911(a)(2), except where the applicant claims a disability, in which case the application must be processed in 90 days. See 42 C.F.R. § 435.911(a)(1).

B. Factual Background

The following factual summary is derived from the parties submissions and is intended to provide background for the discussion that follows.

1. Application Process Under The Income Support System

In the income support centers, any individual seeking public assistance is provided with a State-approved joint application form for food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance, together with screening forms for domestic violence and alcohol and substance abuse. (See Lee Decl. ¶ 8.) Such individuals may qualify for either the Family Assistance Program or Safety Net Assistance. (See Lee Decl. ¶ 8 n. 1.) During that visit, the application specialist registers the applicant and schedules appointments with Eligibility Verification and Review ("EVR"), the Office of Child Support Enforcement ("OCSE"), and the "I" interview. The "I" interview is the full application interview that generally takes place within five to seven days of the application date. However, if the applicant has emergency needs, the "I" interview will take place on the application date.

2. Application Process Under The Job Center System

The application process at job centers is more rigorous. After an initial interview with a Financial Planning Unit Receptionist, the applicant is required to meet with a Financial Planner, an Employment Planner, a Social Services Planner, and to engage in extensive job search activities before the "I" interview.

On arrival at a job center, the applicant is screened by a receptionist who inquires as to the type of assistance sought and the applicant's zip code. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 9.) The receptionist explains that cash assistance is now subject to a time limit, and that the applicant will be required to seek employment during the application process. Then the receptionist provides the applicant with a Participant Job Profile and Assessment Form ("PJP"). Completion of the PJP triggers the application process.

After the applicant submits the completed PJP to a receptionist, a Financial Planning Unit Supervisor reviews the PJP, logs the applicant's name into the Job Center Daily Activity Log, and assigns the applicant to a financial planner. While the applicant is waiting for his appointment with the financial planner, receptionists often make announcements informing applicants about the time limits for public assistance. (See Kahn Decl. ¶ 4; Smith Decl. ¶ 12.)

Applicants are registered in the Welfare Management System ("WMS") on the day the PJP is completed. The agency's timeliness in complying with federal and state mandates with regard to food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance applications is measured from the date the PJP is completed. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 12.) Thus, the formal application process under both the income support centers and the job centers begins on the first day that the applicant enters the office and completes the document required by that office. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 12.)

After completing the PJP, the applicant meets with a financial planner, who reviews the PJP and interviews the applicant to determine if any emergency needs requiring an immediate response are present. Applicants are customarily handed a form entitled "Information About an Expedited Food Stamp Interview." Applicants are considered for expedited food stamps if they request an expedited food stamp interview on this form. (See Flaum Decl. ¶¶ 8, 22, 36, 49, 73, 83, 103.)

If there is an emergency need, the financial planner either determines the applicant's eligibility for emergency benefits or arranges to have the applicant evaluated by an emergency assistance team or the Homeless Diversion Unit. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 20.) After any emergency is addressed, the financial planner explores whether there are any potential alternatives to cash assistance. These alternatives include whether the applicant has relatives who can assist him, access to bank accounts, or other possible sources of government benefits, such as veterans' benefits, pension, social security, and community services. In addition, the applicant is reminded about the time limits relating to cash assistance. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 16.) At the conclusion of this interview, the financial planner schedules the remaining appointments that the applicant is required to attend, including the Employment Planner interview, the Social Services interview, the "I" interview, and job search orientation activities.

After meeting with the financial planner, the applicant is interviewed by the employment planner. The employment planner is responsible for connecting the applicant with work activities. If the applicant is not exempt from work activities, then the applicant is immediately assigned job search activities.*fn2 The employment planner reviews with the applicant a calendar called the "35/50 Days to Employment Calendar" which charts the appointments the applicant is expected to keep and outlines the steps that should be taken to search for and obtain employment. Following an orientation, daily job search activities are then scheduled over a six week period.

At some point, after the job search orientation and while the applicant is still performing job search activities, the "I" interview is scheduled.*fn3 Assuming the applicant has submitted all of the required paperwork and documentation and has appeared for all scheduled appointments, this is the phase where an eligibility determination is made. (See Smith at ¶ 42.)

When evaluating an applicant's entire application, separate determinations should be made for each type of assistance requested. A separate determination is necessary because the requirements and standards under each program are different. For example, while work requirements exist for cash assistance, they do not affect eligibility for food stamps or Medicaid. If the applicant requests only food stamps and/or Medicaid, job center staff are required to give an immediate referral to a non-public assistance food stamp or Medicaid office. Income support centers and job centers are only authorized to process joint applications for food stamps and/or Medicaid in conjunction with a request for cash assistance. (See Smith Decl. ¶ 19.)

C. The Complaint

Plaintiffs allege that the City defendants are providing applicants with false and misleading information in an effort to prune the welfare rolls. Plaintiffs further allege that the City defendants are impermissibly raising impediments to applications by needy individuals for food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance. Their 57-page complaint alleges twelve separate claims for relief. Plaintiffs' first seven claims for relief assert private rights of action based on alleged violations of various federal statutes and regulations. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that:

  • Defendants' policies[] and practices of deterring,
    discouraging and preventing individuals and
    families from filing applications for food stamps
    benefits violate plaintiffs' and plaintiff class
    members' rights under 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(2);
    7 C.F.R. § 273.2(c)(2), (6), (e)(1), (g); 272.5,
    273.2(g); 273.10.
  • Defendants' policies[] and practices of deterring,
    discouraging and preventing individuals and
    families from filing applications for expedited
    food stamps benefits violate plaintiffs' and
    plaintiff class members' rights under
    7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(9); 7 C.F.R. § 273.2(i)(2), (3).
  • Defendants' policies[] and practices of failing to
    determine plaintiffs' eligibility for food stamps
    separate from their eligibility for cash assistance
    violate plaintiffs' and plaintiff class members'
    rights under 7 U.S.C. § 2014(b) and
    7 C.F.R. § 273.2(j)(1)(iii) and 273.10(i).
  • Defendants' policies[] and practices of failing to
    contact applicants who withdraw their food stamps
    applications to confirm the withdrawal and to
    advise them of their right to reapply at any ...

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