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PRESS RELEASE: Court Approves Final Relief for Individuals Denied Public Assistance Because of the Value of their Vehicle

NCLEJ October 10, 2023

 

For Immediate Release: October 10, 2023

Empire Justice Center Contact: Susan Antos, Managing Attorney, Santos@empirejustice.org 

NCLEJ Contact: Saima Akhtar, Senior Attorney, Akhtar@nclej.org

Legal Services of Central New York Contact: Julie Morse, Staff Attorney, JMorse@Lscny.org 

 

Court Approves Final Relief for Individuals Denied Public Assistance Because of the Value of their Vehicle

 

Albany, NY – The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Empire Justice Center, and Legal Services of Central New York are pleased to announce Court approval of a settlement that will benefit thousands of low-income New Yorkers who have been or would be denied critically needed cash assistance because of vehicle ownership.

 

Read the notice to class members in English.

Read the notice to class members in Spanish.

 

Read the Re-Noticing Stipulation here, and read the Standardized Restored Benefits Stipulation here.

 

The Stewart v. Roberts settlement will benefit low-income New Yorkers in multiple ways: applicants for public assistance will no longer be denied benefits when they have little to no equity in a car valued at more than $12,000; applicants who were wrongfully denied due to a car with little to no equity value will be issued a notice, and some wrongfully denied applicants will be eligible for a standardized payment.

 

New York State law provides that vehicles below a certain value ($12,000 in 2023) cannot be counted as a disqualifying resource when applying for public assistance. However, in 2015, Tricia Stewart’s application for public assistance was denied because the fair market value of her car was over the legal resource limit. At the time of the public assistance denial, Ms. Stewart also owed more than $13,000 on the car, which meant her equity interest in the vehicle was negative. Lawyers for Ms. Stewart argued that because of the outstanding loan on the vehicle, it had no countable value as a resource and that Ms. Stewart should be eligible for public assistance. The Albany County Supreme Court agreed that using the equity value of Ms. Stewart’s vehicle, rather than the fair market value, was the proper assessment of the vehicle’s value. The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision, stating that the policy was “irrational and unreasonable.”

 

“When I lost my job, I needed help.  DSS denied my application for public assistance because they said my car was too valuable.  That didn’t make any sense to me because I owed more on my car loan than the car was worth. ” said client Tricia Stewart. “I’m happy that people who were affected by New York State’s outdated resource rule may be compensated.”

 

Following the Appellate Division’s decision, concerns arose about identifying and notifying potential class members about the case. This prompted lawyers for Ms. Stewart and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (“OTDA”) to negotiate a simplified process for issuing notice to possible class members and providing relief to class members.

 

To resolve this long-standing litigation, the Court ordered the following:

  • OTDA will send a notice to potential class members informing them about the lawsuit and possible relief.
  • Potential class members will have the opportunity to contact their local Social Services District and have their class membership individually determined.
  • Social Services Districts will receive substantial additional training and guidance on determining class membership to ensure the greatest number of eligible people may become class members.
  • Individuals who are determined to be class members may be eligible for financial relief through a simplified process if they are currently receiving public assistance or begin receiving assistance again in the future.

 

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The National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) is a legal services nonprofit organization that 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 fights to protect access to critical benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, and childcare, protect low-wage workers’ rights and safety, advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and fights unlawful debt collection.

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.

For more than 50 years, Legal Services of Central New York has fought to help people overcome obstacles, achieve goals, and pursue justice.  Our team of 45 attorneys offers expertise in confronting community-wide problems and representing individuals with low-income.  In 2017 we helped more than 15,000 people in 5,600 cases. We serve a 13-county region of Central New York (Broome, Cayuga, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Otsego, and Oswego), fighting for justice and opportunity for all.  For free legal assistance apply online at www.lscny.org or call (877) 777-6152.