United States: Federal Court Of Appeals Ruling Requires Improved Services For Poor New Yorkers Living With Aids
Last Updated: June 11 2003

Calling New York City’s AIDS services bureaucracy "dysfunctional," the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today ruled that over 31,000 impoverished New Yorkers living with AIDS and HIV-related illnesses have a legal right to improved access to public benefits and health care under federal disability-rights laws.

Affirming a lower-court decision appealed by the Bloomberg Administration, the Court said that the 31,000 clients of the City’s Division of AIDS Services Income Support (DASIS) must receive "meaningful access" to public benefits and services as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that the City has a legal responsibility to make significant improvements in DASIS services and staffing.

"This is a tremendous victory for 31,000 indigent New Yorkers living with AIDS and for all Americans living with disabilities" said Armen Merjian, Senior Staff Attorney at Housing Works, one of the attorneys for plaintiffs in the case. "The ruling requires cities and states to provide reasonable accommodations when serving people with disabilities, and the court has made it clear that any failure to provide these accommodations is flat-out discrimination."

"It is particularly rewarding to gain such a clear and important victory for people with AIDS and other disabilities after having litigated this case for so long," said Susan Kohlmann, partner with Pillsbury Winthrop’s New York office, who argued the appeal and has been involved with the case since it was filed almost nine years ago. "It is our hope that our clients may now gain meaningful access to the benefits and services they so desperately need."

Under the ruling, City welfare officials must provide benefits in a timely fashion to DASIS clients and properly staff local welfare centers where cases are handled. Timeframes and standards for benefits and staffing have not been met under previous court orders, and Mayor Bloomberg has sought to cut staffing and eliminate services in his City budget proposals this year.

One of the most important legal aspects of the ruling was also one of the most disturbing: Bloomberg Administration officials had sought to defend themselves against the case by essentially claiming that everyone in the welfare system gets bad service and that people with AIDS weren’t getting any worse service than other poor New Yorkers.

In today’s ruling, the Court said disabled plaintiffs don’t have to prove "disparate impact" to make a claim and addressed the City’s argument directly: "The mere fact that plaintiffs, in the current apparently broken overall social services system, might not be doing worse that persons without disabilities does not render the dysfunctional DASIS ‘reasonable.’"

The case at issue today, Henrietta D. v. Bloomberg, was brought by Housing Works, Inc., Pillsbury Winthrop LLP, and the HIV Law Project on behalf of a class of over 31,000 indigent New York City residents with AIDS or HIV related illness.

Housing Works Inc. counsel included Armen Merjian, Jennifer Sinton and Virginia Shubert; the Pillsbury Winthrop LLP team included Susan Kohlmann, Karen Dine, Carolina Fornos and Heather Conoboy; and HIV Law Project counsel included Victoria Nielson.

Housing Works provides housing, services and advocacy to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS and HIV and is the nation’s largest community-based AIDS organization. For more information, visit www.housingworks.org.

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