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New York City discriminated against HIV-positive patients and AIDS sufferers in the distribution of a wide range of benefits, Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled Tuesday. Issuing findings following a trial held this summer, Johnson found that the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in its management of the Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS). Ruling in Nidia v. Giuliani, 95 CV 0641, Johnson said the evidence at trial showed that the city is “chronically and systematically failing to provide plaintiffs with meaningful access to critical subsistence benefits and services, with devastating consequences.” DASIS is the result of the consolidation of the Human Resources Administration’s (HRA) Division of AIDS Services and HRA’s Income Support/AIDS Services Program. Johnson said that under Local Law 49, passed by the New York City Council in 1997, DASIS is required to provide a range of services to Medicaid-eligible New York City residents who have been diagnosed with AIDS or clinical/symptomatic HIV illness. In addition to helping people obtain benefits, the City Council mandated that DASIS provide “intensive case management” by case workers, and set specific time requirements during which clients are to be provided meaningful and equal access to public benefits and services. The plaintiffs, a class of 25,000 New York City residents who have AIDS or are HIV-positive, filed suit under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 12131, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and their implementing regulations. Testimony during the trial indicated that DASIS has not been fully compliant with Local Law 49 since its inception. Johnson detailed the circumstances of five plaintiffs who had their benefits — from housing to food stamps to medication — terminated with inadequate notice or no notice at all. But despite the problems with the program, the city denied that the plaintiffs had been discriminated against under the statutes and the regulations. Johnson noted that courts have said that the government is required to do more than open the door to provide equal access to the disabled — it must provide a ramp to make that access meaningful. “At this time, the court finds that plaintiffs demonstrated at trial that the ramp that DASIS purports to be is broken, i.e., that defendants are failing to make the reasonable accommodations necessary to ensure plaintiffs meaningful access to, and an equal opportunity to benefit from, the social welfare benefits and services that defendants provide to eligible New York City residents,” he said. LOST IN A ‘MAZE’ There has been “an alarming failure” to provide AIDS patients with the case workers they need to negotiate the “maze” of procedures required to obtain such things as medical benefits, apartments, and transportation allowances. The statistics offered at trial showed that the city failed to meet the 30-day deadline for responding to requests for services in more than one of out of three cases, he said. “Even more disturbing,” he said, was that at some DASIS centers, that number rose to almost half the cases. “In practical terms, this means that thousands of indigent New Yorkers living with AIDS stand an almost 50-50 chance of having their rights violated by this agency,” he said. He also found that the city has violated the federal law governing Medicaid and Food Stamps, New York State’s Social Services Law, and regulations that implement the federal programs, “through consistent disregard of statutes protecting welfare benefits.” Moreover, he said, New York State, also a named defendant, has failed to properly oversee the distribution of benefits by the city, adding that the fair hearing mechanism “has been wholly ineffective in assuring meaningful access to benefits.” Johnson ordered DASIS to process all applications within 30 days and appointed Federal Magistrate Cheryl L. Pollak to monitor the agency for the next three years to ensure it provides the reasonable accommodations required under the ADA. This means, he said, that DASIS must provide the intensive case management and low case manager-to-client ratios needed to ensure access to benefits and services. Susan J. Kohlmann, Karen B. Dine, and David W. Oakland of New York-based Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts and Armen H. Merjian and Virginia G. Shubert of Housing Works Inc., represented the plaintiffs. Assistant Corporation Counsels K. Lesli Logorner, Lisa Brauner, Ruby Bradley and Paul Marks represented New York City. Assistant Attorneys General Vincent Leong and Anne H. Bomser represented New York State.

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