Proposed Settlement Will Benefit 250,000 New Yorkers Impacted by “Workfare” Sanctions

The Legal Aid Society and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel announced the preliminary approval by New York State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings of a proposed settlement in Smith v. Berlin, a lawsuit challenging the legality of employment sanctions imposed on public assistance recipients who were alleged to have violated welfare work rules.

The proposed settlement, if approved, will cover over 250,000 “workfare” sanctions that had been imposed on public assistance recipients in New York City from 2007-2015. The class members were sanctioned for allegedly missing an appointment or assigned work activity, and lost all or some of the monthly benefits they had been receiving to pay rent or purchase basic necessities.

Under the terms of the settlement, any sanction that had been imposed during the covered time period will be removed from the recipients’ sanction history. In addition, public assistance recipients who were sanctioned between 2007 and 2015 and who are current public assistance recipients, or who will become public assistance recipients again over the next two years, will receive retroactive payments.

This case, initially brought by Legal Aid and Kramer Levin in 2010, argued that the Human Resources Administration (HRA) failed in its legal obligation to provide specific information to recipients on how to avoid the imposition of sanctions because their non-compliance was not intentional or was due to a reason beyond their control.

“Workfare” sanctions can dramatically impact a recipient’s livelihood. For example, a single parent with two children would have a maximum public assistance grant of $789 per month, but when sanctioned, the family’s benefits would be reduced by one-third, to only $526, for as long as six months.

“The benefit levels were not enough to pay rent and meet basic needs to begin with, but when families were sanctioned they were pushed into even deeper poverty and frequently made homeless,” said Lester Helfman, Senior Attorney with Legal Aid’s Brooklyn Neighborhood Office and lead counsel in this case. “Once this settlement is final thousands will receive relief from the punitive sanctions that threatened their livelihoods.”

“Often times families were sanctioned and punished unnecessarily and unfairly because the notices they had been sent were confusing and incomplete,” said Susan Jacquemot of Kramer Levin, co-counsel on the case since it was brought in 2010. “This settlement, if finally approved, will result in compensation to thousands of class members for benefits lost as a result of the unlawful sanctions.”

Judge Billings scheduled a fairness hearing for March 26, 2019, the last step before the settlement can become final.