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Welfare Law Center and Other Legal Advocates File OCR Complaint Against New York City Welfare Agency for Discriminating Against Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities

This article appeared in the April 2002 Welfare News.

The Welfare Law Center, Urban Justice Center, MFY Legal Services and Brooklyn Legal Services recently filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services against the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the New York City welfare agency, on behalf of all applicants and recipients for public assistance benefits with psychiatric disabilities. The complaint was filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The complaint alleges that HRA’s policies and practices have a discriminatory effect on people with psychiatric disabilities, making it difficult or impossible for these individuals to obtain and retain public assistance benefits. The complaint has no individual complainants but discusses the experiences of a number of applicants and recipients for public benefits in New York City with psychiatric disabilities.

The complaint alleges that numerous aspects of the benefits application process have a discriminatory effect on people with disabilities, including: the length of the application, the large number of appointments applicants must attend and the location of those appointments, inflexible appointment policies, failure to provide home visits to those who need them and the failure to provide help with the application to those who need it. In addition, the complaint alleges HRA appointment policies for all appointments discriminate against people with psychiatric disabilities by denying applications and discontinuing benefits of individuals who miss any appointments as a result of a psychiatric disability when no accommodations have been provided to them.

The complaint includes several claims related to HRA’s disability screening and assessment process. The complaint alleges that HRA does not screen for psychiatric disabilities, and even when people with psychiatric disabilities are referred for disability assessments, numerous aspects of the assessment process have a discriminatory effect on people with psychiatric disabilities, including: appointment policies, the failure to provide reasonable modifications, the practice of disregarding documentation from individuals=own doctors,  and the practice of conducting assessments in a manner that creates mistrust and therefore compromises accuracy.  The complaint also alleges that the document summarizing assessment results lacks the detail necessary to make appropriate placements and reasonable modifications for people with psychiatric disabilities, and that many individuals, including those with active hallucinations and psychosis that has not been stabilized, are found employable and then lose their benefits when they are unable to comply with work requirements. The complaint also alleges that HRA and the private company fail to give many individuals copies of their assessment results, making it difficult to request reasonable modifications, and that HRA’s payment scheme for assessments creates a disincentive to conduct thorough assessments of individuals with multiple or severe disabilities, such as serious psychiatric disabilities or both physical and psychiatric disabilities. The complaint alleges that individuals with psychiatric disabilities are not provided with reasonable modifications once they are placed in work activities, and that even the programs designed for those found too disabled to work have requirements that many people with psychiatric disabilities are unable to satisfy, and fail to make reasonable modifications.

The complaint also alleges that HRA has failed to take a number of steps necessary to ensure that its public assistance programs comply with the ADA. Specifically, the complaint alleges that HRA lacks an adequate reasonable modification policy for the services it provides directly and under contract, lacks an adequate ADA grievance procedure, that it provides inadequate notice to applicants and recipients of their rights under the ADA; that it has no ADA coordinator, that it does not monitor its own compliance or that of private agencies under contract to provide services; and that it has not adequately trained staff on disabilities, how the ADA applies to its programs and services, and other related topics. The complaint contains a number of additional claims.

The complaint seek a wide range of remedies to address the specific claims in the complaint, as well as other systemic relief.  The complaint asks OCR to require HRA to conduct a diagnostic review of its policies and practices to identify other policies and practices that have a discriminatory effect on people with psychiatric disabilities and modify all policies that have such an effect; create a work group comprised of the attorneys filing the complaint, HRA staff and OCR to draft a reasonable modification policy and a protocol for disability screening and assessment; and review case files of individuals whose applications were denied or benefits were discontinued as a result of non-compliance with program requirements to determine whether any had psychiatric disabilities that were not assessed and accommodated, and restore all benefits improperly withheld.

Copies of the complaint and related documents are available on the Welfare Law Center.

The complaint was filed by: Cary LaCheen, Welfare Law Center, 275 Seventh Avenue, Suite 1205, New York, NY 10001-6708 (212) 633-6967; Bill Leinhard and Craig Acorn, Urban Justice Center, 666 Broadway, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10012 (646) 602-5600; Judy Lakoff, MFY Legal Services, 299 Broadway, New York, NY (212) 417-3700; Terry Herman, Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A, 80 Jamaica Avenue, Brooklyn, New York (718) 487-1300.

Cary LaCheen