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Application Delay Lawsuit Ends Long Lines and Processing Delays in Utica

August 17, 2011

Author: Susan C. Antos

In January of this year, the Empire Justice Center and Legal Services of Central New York filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of those who had applied or attempted to apply for public assistance, food stamps and Medicaid in Oneida County against the Oneida County Department of Social Services (OCDSS).  The case, Howard v. Soldato, 10-CV-1557, was brought in federal court, in the Northern District of New York and alleged a number of violations of state and federal law, including: the County’s failure to comply with federal and state application processing timeframes and the county’s practice of deterring, discouraging and preventing persons from filing applications for food stamps, Medicaid, cash assistance and emergency assistance.

The situation was so bad that in October of 2010, the Oneida County Executive, Anthony Picente, in presenting his budget to the County Board of Legislators, noted that security camera tapes documented that needy families - desperate for financial assistance - started forming lines to get into OCDSS as early as 3:42 a.m. in the morning.  The reason for such desperation was that the number of individuals seen each day was limited to 10-12 per day and many people had to return day after day to get a coveted interview slot. When the OCDSS office doors opened at 8:30 a.m. in the morning, those in line were seen on a first-come first-served basis.

After the lawsuit was filed, the United Public Service Employees Union, the union representing the  OCDSS workers told the Utica Observer Dispatch that it was just a “matter of time” before the County was sued because approximately 70 workers had been laid off.

Judge David Hurd certified the plaintiff class on February 3, 2011, and the matter was settled in its entirety on April 7, 2011 when Judge Hurd signed a stipulation and order of settlement.  Among other things, the order requires Oneida County to comply with federal and state law when processing cash assistance, food stamp and Medicaid applications. To assure that the Defendant complies with the law, the County will remain under the Court’s jurisdiction for three years.  During that time, the Defendant will make a “know your rights” flyer, designed by plaintiff’s counsel,  prominently available in the waiting room. The defendant was also required to train its staff on the provisions of the order.  Although not required by the order, the Utica Observer Dispatch reported that Oneida County hired 20 additional examiners, many of whom had been among those previously laid off, increasing its welfare examiner workforce by 15%.

In addition to the foregoing, all applicants for temporary assistance and food stamps will receive an individualized notice advising them of the application processing deadlines in their individual cases and the right to a fair hearing if their application is not processed within that time. The Defendant has to provide the plaintiff’s counsel with detailed quarterly reports regarding all delayed cases and allow plaintiff’s counsel an opportunity to inspect these files.  Counsel for the plaintiff’s and the defendants will meet on a quarterly basis to discuss the progress of defendant’s compliance or resolve issues regarding compliance.

The plaintiffs were represented by Sam Young, Litigation Director at Legal Services of Central New York and Susan Antos, Senior Staff Attorney at the Empire Justice Center in Albany.  The pleadings and orders are available in the Benefits Law Database at http://onlineresources.wnylc.net/welcome.asp?index=Welcome

 





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