Urban Justice Urban Justice Center individual rights - social change


Impact and class action litigation are among the most powerful tools available for challenging social injustice. Through litigation, we have addressed systemic problems relating to foster care, conditions in homeless shelters, minimum wage violations, services for the mentally ill, and a host of other issues that relate to the poorest and most marginalized among us.

While we litigate to effect broad social change, we rely on the firsthand insights we gain from our legal clinics and community outreach to ensure that our law reform efforts are pragmatic and responsive to the needs of the communities we serve.

The social progress and groundbreaking reforms we have achieved in this manner would not have been possible without the assistance of outside pro bono counsel, including Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton; Debevoise & Plimpton; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler; and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

For more information on litigation we are currently pursuing, click on the name of the project in which you are interested, and select "Litigation" from the menu.

Recent Highlights

Martinez v. Astrue

On October 15, 2008, the Mental Health Project (MHP) teamed up with groups across the country to file Martinez v. Astrue, a national class action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) for suspending and denying the retirement and disability benefits of hundreds of thousands of poor, elderly and disabled Americans under an arbitrary and unlawful policy. The effort is led by the National Senior Citizens Law Center and the pro bono counsel of Munger, Tolles & Olson, and includes Disability Rights California and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.

Under a 1996 law, SSA must suspend the benefits of people who are "fleeing to avoid prosecution" for a felony. Rather than attempting to determine whether an individual is fleeing, SSA has used a crude computer matching system to suspend or deny benefits based only on an outstanding warrant, resulting in the suspension of benefits of thousands of elderly and disabled Americans who are not "wanted," and indeed, who may have been completely misidentified.

For example, Rosa Martinez, a 52-year-old former nurse from Redwood City, CA, received a notice from the SSA last December that she was losing her only source of income – her disability benefits – because of a 1980 arrest warrant for a drug offense in Miami, Florida. Ms. Martinez, however, had never been to Miami, never been arrested and had never used illegal drugs. Nevertheless, Ms. Martinez' $870 monthly benefit was suspended under this policy.

SSA's so-called "Fugitive Felon Program" has been held illegal in many federal cases. Indeed, due to Fowlkes v. Adamec, a case decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, SSA had to suspend much of the program in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The SSA has already made changes to its policies, as detailed in an emergency message dated April 1, 2009. See EM-09025 (Apr. 1, 2009), available at the SSA website. Changes have also been made to the processing of representative payee applications. See EM-09025 (Mar. 31, 2009), available at the SSA website.

UPDATE: On August 11, 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken granted preliminary approval of a settlement agreement and scheduled a fairness hearing to occur September 24, 2009. Pursuant to the proposed settlement, SSA will only suspend or deny benefits based on warrants that are issued for flight or escape. This policy change already went into effect April 1, 2009. The settlement also provides for the reinstatement of benefits to hundreds of thousands of Social Security beneficiaries whose benefits have been suspended or denied in the past. Approximately 80,000 individuals suspended or denied after January 1, 2007 will be reinstated and paid back benefits worth a total of at least $500 million. Those suspended or denied between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2006 will receive notice and the opportunity to be reinstated as of April 1, 2009. The proposed settlement also provides for relief of the repayment of "overpayment" of benefits assessed by SSA under this policy. For more information, see the links below.

Taylor v. State of New York, et al.

On December 8, 2008, UJC filed a class action lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the State of New York alleging that the State has violated Article XVII of the New York State Constitution by not providing a basic grant level for public assistance that meets the most basic needs of poor New Yorkers. Under the New York State Constitution, the State must provide for the "aid, care and support" of the needy and define the standard of need for its citizens. One of the ways the State purports to meet its obligation to care for the needy is by providing monthly basic grants of public assistance. However, the Legislature last adjusted the amount of New York's basic public assistance grant in 1989, nearly 20 years ago. In the years since, the cost of living in New York has dramatically increased and thus the grant is grossly inadequate. Indeed, NYC's Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) recently developed a measure to more accurately determine poverty in the City. Using the CEO's poverty measure, the basic public assistance grant amounts to approximately one half of the "bare minimum" it has determined it costs to live just above the poverty line.
PDF Read the Complaint
Pro bono co-counsel: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
Co-counsel: Economic Justice Project and Main Street Legal Services of the City University of New York School of Law

Williston v. Eggleston

In 2004, the Urban Justice Center filed this federal lawsuit against both New York City's Human Resources Administration (HRA) and New York State's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) alleging a failure to timely provide food stamps, including expedited food stamps to eligible applicants at HRA's Non-Cash Assistance (NCA, formerly NPA) Food Stamp Centers. On April 17, 2008, the Court approved the settlement that had been negotiated by the parties. Under the terms of the settlement, HRA will: (1) screen all Food Stamp applications submitted to NCA Food Stamp Centers for eligibility for expedited processing; and (2) provide Food Stamps to eligible households within five days if eligible for expedited food stamp processing, and within thirty days if otherwise eligible, unless the delay was caused by the household. OTDA must supervise HRA's implementation of the federal timeliness requirements. Additionally, as part of the settlement, an individual relief process has been established. The Court will retain jurisdiction over the case for four years.

Co-counsel: New York Legal Assistance Group and National Center for Law and Economic Justice Project

PDF Individual Relief Form
PDF Individual Relief Summary
PDF Settlement Notice
PDF Complaint

Sierra v. City of New York, et al.

On July 27, 2007, HOPP filed a lawsuit, Sierra v. City of New York, et al., alleging that a provision of the City's Housing Maintenance Code, which prohibits children between the ages of one and sixteen from residing in single residence occupancy (SRO) units, violates the Fair Housing Act because it discriminates on the basis of familial status. The complaint also alleges that the landlord discriminated against the plaintiff in violation of both the Fair Housing Act and the New York State Human Rights Law, by using the discriminatory provision of the Housing Maintenance Code to try to evict the plaintiff. With the decline in affordable housing throughout New York City, SROs have become one of the few remaining housing options for low-income individuals and families. This lawsuit seeks to have the Housing Maintenance Code provision at issue declared discriminatory on its face, and therefore invalid and unenforceable, in order to ensure that landlords are not able to evict low-income families from affordable housing based on discriminatory reasons.

Co-counsel: West Side SRO Law Project

PDF Read the Complaint
PDF Court Decision Denying City's Motion to Dismiss

Harris v. Eggleston

In 2002, Mental Health Project ("MHP") lawyers discovered that the New York City Human Resources Administration ("HRA") was illegally terminating food stamps of people in desperate need, and filed this federal class action to address the problem. Despite years of warnings from the United States Department of Agriculture, HRA and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance employed a computer program that automatically terminated the food stamps of welfare recipients who were approved for SSI (the federal benefit for people who are poor and severely disabled), despite their eligibility under the Food Stamps Act.

In 2007, working together with pro bono co-counsel at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP and lawyers from the Urban Justice Center's Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project, MHP won a very favorable settlement. In 2008, under the settlement, the City and State began repaying over $12 million in food stamps to tens of thousands of disabled New Yorkers just before Thanksgiving. The benefits of this class action are not merely retroactive, however. Due to Harris, roughly 6,000 additional people each year will now continue to receive food stamps when they switch from welfare to SSI.

Pro bono co-counsel: Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP

PDFRead the Complaint
PDFRead the Stipulation

Brad H. v. Giuliani

The Urban Justice Center filed this class action lawsuit in 1999 in New York State Supreme Court, challenging New York City's practice of discharging inmates with psychiatric disabilities from the Rikers Island jail in the middle of the night with only a $3 Metrocard and $1.50 in cash, and without any psychiatric medications or referral to services. A preliminary injunction was granted in 2000, ordering the City to arrange for the continuing mental health care of the more than 30,000 class members discharged each year from City jails. The City lost two attempts to appeal this ruling, and since March 2001 has been required to provide discharge planning, pending a final ruling by the state court.

Click here for the Brad H. vs. Giuliani special section.

Hai Ming Lu, et al., v. Jing Fong Restaurant, et al.

A suit against a Chinatown restaurant brought on behalf of a group of waiters who allege that the restaurant has been retaining part of their tips, failing to pay the minimum wage, and failing to pay legally-mandated overtime.

PDFRead the Complaint

Fowlkes v. Adamec

On December 6, 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down the Social Security Administration's practice of assuming that anyone with an outstanding warrant is a fugitive felon, and stated that SSA must first determine whether the person intended to flee prosecution.

PDFRead the Decision

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