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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: NCLEJ, Empire Justice Center Sue New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance

Amanda Agallipeau July 08, 2024

For Immediate Release: June 21, 2024

 

Contact:

Patrick Fowler, Communications Strategist, NCLEJ | fowler@nclej.org

Saima Akhtar, Senior Attorney, NCLEJ | akhtar@nclej.org

Susan Antos, Managing Attorney, Empire Justice Center | SAntos@empirejustice.org

 

New York, NY – The National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) and Empire Justice Center (Empire Justice) have filed a class-action lawsuit against Barbara Guinn, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), over the agency’s failure to provide timely fair hearings to people receiving adverse decisions regarding their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance (TA) benefits. SNAP benefits can be used to buy food. TA benefits provide money that can be used for shelter and basic necessities. Many low-income individuals waiting for their hearing decisions struggle to pay for the necessities of life while they wait many months, even years, for hearing decisions that would fix problems with their SNAP or TA benefits which should have been decided in 60-90 days.

 

Read the Salem v. Guinn petition.

 

People who are applying for or receiving SNAP or TA may request a fair hearing to appeal a reduction, termination, or other adverse change to their benefits. A fair hearing provides an opportunity to explain to a neutral administrative law judge why the decision of a local social services agency was wrong or harmful. Regulations require that a decision be rendered within 60 days of a hearing request concerning SNAP, and within 90 days of a hearing request concerning TA.

 

The lawsuit claims that OTDA is failing to hold and render decisions on fair hearings within mandatory time frames, resulting in eligible individuals being deprived of essential SNAP and TA benefits. As of May 31, 2024, there were more than 53,000 unresolved hearings regarding SNAP or TA benefits that were overdue for a decision, including 15,797 hearings pending for more than a year, 6,511 pending for more

 

than two years, and 2,084 pending for three years or longer. Throughout 2023 and early 2024, only 14.2% of fair hearings found the initial decision to deny or reduce benefits to be correct, meaning most individuals being deprived of benefits because of fair hearing delays would otherwise be legally eligible to receive them. Additionally, many individuals have incurred large debts from overpayments of benefits that would not have resulted if OTDA held their fair hearings within legally required timelines.

 

While waiting for their long-delayed hearings, the Salem v. Guinn plaintiffs have skipped meals so their young children could eat while they wait for the hearing needed to challenge wrongful denial of their application for SNAP. Some plaintiffs have juggled paying different bills, risking utility shut-off so they could pay for food that could otherwise be bought with SNAP. Some plaintiffs have borrowed money from family members to meet their basic expenses during periods of unemployment or underemployment. For other plaintiffs, the long hearing delays will saddle them with unexpected debt. One plaintiff waited over 16 months for a hearing and, as a result, owes nearly $8,000 that she cannot fathom how to pay back. These individuals turned to public benefits when facing dire personal circumstances like little or no income, unemployment, disability, and domestic violence. They counted on the fair hearings to correct errors made by the local departments of social services that jeopardized their access to desperately-needed benefits. OTDA’s failure to decide hearings timely has cut them off from an essential safety net.

 

The lawsuit seeks to enforce the fair hearing timeline, to prevent OTDA from collecting overpayments of benefits that accrued while individuals waited for long overdue hearings, and to require the agency to improve notice of aid continuing rights in the fair hearing process.

 

“We’re holding OTDA accountable for their failure to provide due process to vulnerable people,” said Saima Akhtar, Senior Attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “When state agencies fail in their administration of public benefits like SNAP and TA, families go hungry. You cannot eat retroactively—our clients are in urgent need of their benefits, and we’re putting the pressure on OTDA to rectify these delays immediately.”

 

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and OTDA’s massive fair hearing backlogs have unlawfully deprived thousands of low-income people of their SNAP and TA benefits, undermining their ability to pay rent and put food on the table,” said Susan Antos, Managing Attorney at Empire Justice Center. “We’re taking the State to court so that our clients can receive the public benefits they need and are entitled to by law.”

 

If you are experiencing a delayed fair hearing or an overpayment caused by a fair hearing delay, please contact NCLEJ and Empire Justice at hearingdelays@empirejustice.org for further information.

 

The National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) advances racial and economic justice for low-income families, individuals, and communities across the country through ground-breaking impact litigation, policy advocacy, and support for grassroots organizing. Founded in 1965, NCLEJ protects access to critical benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and childcare; empowers low-wage workers, advocates for people with disabilities; and fights unlawful debt collection.

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Empire Justice Center is a statewide nonprofit law firm whose mission is to make the law work for all New Yorkers, particularly for those who need its protection most. We take a 360-degree, comprehensive approach to changing systems by engaging in three major and interconnected areas of service. We teach the law by providing training, support and technical assistance to legal services and other community-based organizations; we practice the law by providing direct, civil legal assistance to low-income people with a particular focus on those from marginalized communities; and we change the law by engaging in policy analysis, research and advocacy and undertaking impact litigation to get at the root of systemic issues.