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Iliana- driven to the brink


In front of a judge, everyone should have the opportunity to defend themselves.

However, Iliana* found herself trying to make her case before an administrative judge who didn't speak her language. A daunting task when you consider what was at stake: she faced an unfair termination of her family’s primary source of income for her and her four children, the family’s public assistance.

Iliana was the primary care taker for her two severely disabled children, and she needed a car that was big enough to make sure they had access to the health care they required – one child needs a wheelchair and receives specialized care at a medical center that is 30 minutes away. Unfortunately, Iliana’s poor credit history meant that she had to take out a subprime auto loan in order to purchase a used vehicle that was big enough for her family’s needs.

When the county found out she owned the car, they determined it was worth more than the “asset limit” allowed and they tried to terminate the family's public assistance. The car was worth too much money, they said, even though the outstanding loan was more than the value of the car.

Iliana and her family faced stricter “asset limits” under this system, where people with disabilities were more likely to be denied public assistance if they had a car. Because Iliana was the full-time caretaker of her two disabled children, she was not able to work. If she had been able to work or show that she was looking for work, the county would have used a greater “asset limit” and allowed her to keep her car while receiving public assistance. 

Thankfully, Iliana contacted Empire Justice Center, and her civil legal aid attorneys defended her. They eventually convinced the county to allow her to keep her public assistance as well as her car, and spoke up for her when the interpreter did not accurately communicate Iliana’s testimony at the hearing. (One of her attorneys is bilingual.)

Without Empire Justice Center's legal representation (and bilingual staff) Iliana and her children faced serious repercussions to their family's income and the health of her children. Thanks to her attorneys’ advocacy the family was allowed to keep the car they needed and did not lose their main form of income.

 *name has been changed 




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But our work didn't stop there...

Empire Justice recognized that this was a systemic issue in New York State, and that many other families faced the same decision: liquidate your crucial assets, such as a car needed for employment or to access healthcare, in order to receive public assistance, or lose your public assistance because of the same unjust asset rules.

This is not right. Our policies should be encouraging savings as a path out of poverty, rather than forcing families to liquidate their only assets.

So Empire Justice put pressure on state lawmakers to make a change in the overarching policy, and in early 2016, the legislation passed. New York State raised the level of exemption for a car to more accurately reflect the current cost of a decent car, with continuing increases over the next two years. The legislation also did away with the two tiered system that created a different level for people with disabilities. Now it is a single standard, eliminating the disparate impact it had created for people with disabilities.

In addition, Empire Justice filed a class action lawsuit challenging how the State determines the value of a car when someone applies for public assistance. The State’s policy unjustly punishes low-income families who are often the victims of predatory loans. More to come on this lawsuit soon!