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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues -- Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example -- the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

by Margaret Reuter

When Lawyers Have Unions: The Case of Legal Aid and Its Fight with the Mayor

(Nov-Dec '00) For the last 30 years New York City has contracted with the Legal Aid Society to defend indigent criminal defendants. Seven times over this period, Legal Aid attorneys have gone on strike. On October 1, 1994 they struck again. This is a story about how the city aggressively intervened in a labor negotiation between one of its contractors, and how Legal Aid and its union fought back.

When the collective bargaining agreement between the Legal Aid Society and its lawyers' union was about to expire, City Hall staff allegedly threatened to cancel its contract with Legal Aid if it considered any wage increase. Legal Aid assured the city that any increased costs would not be passed on to the city. The mayor was unmoved. The city was concerned about the impact of a wage increase on the city's forthcoming negotiations with its own unions. Fearful of the city's threat, Legal Aid refused the union's wage proposal.

On September 30, 1994 the labor contract expired. The next day, the attorneys went on strike. Four days later Legal Aid reached an agreement with the union.

The mayor was so piqued that he forced the Legal Aid Society to modify its city agreement to decree that the city has authority to hire other legal service providers and reduce Legal Aid payments commensurately. For the first time ever, the city invited other law firms to bid on contracts to provide indigent criminal defense. The invitation was issued in the form of three different "requests for proposals," the first two of which expressly forbade Legal Aid from submitting a bid. Legal Aid offered a proposal for the third, but it was rejected.

Legal Aid and its union separately filed lawsuits against the city and the new legal services providers, charging that the city interfered with their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, unconstitutionally retaliated against them for exercising their free speech rights, and violated state contracting rules by excluding Legal Aid, an objectively qualified provider, from competing for the contracts. The city asked US District Judge Sidney H. Stein to throw out the lawsuits, using various procedural and substantive arguments.

Judge Stein, however, ordered the city to go to trial over whether it violated Legal Aid and its union's free speech rights and whether it interfered with federal labor rights before and during the strike. The court found that the city's exclusion from the request for proposals was in retaliation for Legal Aid's labor negotiations with its union, and that the city was not acting merely as a market participant when it allegedly opposed any wage increase even if Legal Aid self-funded it.

Meg Sounds Off:

The city contracts with tens of thousands of companies and organizations every year. It rightfully cares about their labor costs. For the most part, a contractor's labor costs translates directly into the price the city will pay for the services it is contracting for. The city always reviews the cost of the contract bids, and always has the discretion to reject any bid that is just too expensive.

But the City's relationship with Legal Aid is far from the standard contracting relationship. Typically City Council enacts a budget in which each mayoral agency is provided an allotment. The agencies then determine what services they need to hire outside contractors to provide, and solicits potential contractors to "bid" on the project. The agency awards the contract to the organization with the best bid. For service contracts, as opposed to contracts for goods, the agencies consider both price and the quality of the bidders' proposals. Legal Aid's contract with the city, however, was funded directly through the city budget, where it never had to compete against other legal service providers and where the executive branch never had direct and exclusive control over the contract. The relationship is more akin to the funding of an agency, where the mayor approves every agency's budget, the number of employees, and even the salaries of any newly hired employees. But it is not the mayor who approves Legal Aid's budget, it is City Council.

Whatever the historical relationship the city has with the Legal Aid Society, it is wrong for the city to meddle in the labor relations of one of its contractors, especially where that contractor asserts that any increased labor costs will not be passed on to the city. The city's interests stop at reviewing the contractor's bid amount. Competition is one of the best tools to control contracting costs and it is prudent for the city to introduce competition into its provision of indigent legal services. But the city refused to let Legal Aid even compete and demonstrate how its labor costs were still a bargain for the city.

Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.

Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."

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