"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 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.
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
by Margaret Reuter
AIDS and the City's Legal Obligation
(March '01) Two cases recently decided in federal court give a
disheartening view into the world of indigent AIDS/HIV
patients. The City's Division of AIDS Services and Income Support
(DASIS) was created to ease and smooth access to social services for
these patients, some of our most vulnerable fellow New Yorkers. This is
a story about how the city sought to provide extra help to these
individuals and a story about the City's failure. According to the
evidence in these two cases, the Division of AIDS Services falls far short of
promise. But what is the city's obligation? The answer turns on the
interpretation of the federal disability laws. They require the government
to provide reasonable accommodations for a person's disabilities in
order to provide meaningful access to government benefits or programs.
AIDS/HIV patients suffer chronic, aggressive infections and
conditions which require medications so potent that the side effects are
terribly debilitating themselves. Thus the prospect of travelling to
distant boroughs to an overcrowded welfare office to stand on
interminably long lines to apply for and receive welfare benefits is all but
impossible. Recognizing that, New York City created the Division of AIDS
Services in 1985 to make it easier for patients with AIDS or HIV to navigate
through the social services bureaucracy.
According to US District Judge Sterling Johnson, the agency has been
Listen to one man's story. Mr. Bradley is 51 and has had AIDS
since 1983. As a client of the agency eligible for rent, food, and medical
benefits, he has had his benefits cancelled six times, each time without
notice, each time without explanation. Each time he challenged the lost
benefits. Each time he won reinstatement. Each time he won, he had to
plead and plead for the agency to comply with the hearing officer's order.
one point he went without Medicaid, food stamps, and rental assistance
for nearly two years. He coped by going from church to church for help.
AIDS advocates brought two law suits in federal court. One
charged that the AIDS agency as a whole fails to recognize and address the
limitations of its clientele sufficiently for them to have true access to the
same welfare benefits available to everyone else in need. The second
charged that the agency's emergency housing program for homeless AIDS
patients was particularly ineffective in responding to their needs, such as
providing shelter without access to refrigeration for their perishable
Judge Sterling Johnson held a five-day trial in the first case and
concluded that testimony from agency clients, experts, and New York City's
own performance tracking reports unequivocally established that the AIDS
chronically and systematically failed to provide its clients with
meaningful access to critical subsistence benefits and services with
devastating consequences. Judge Johnson refused to consider how
the treatment of agency clients fared against the treatment afforded able-
bodied indigent folks accessing the standard welfare bureaucracy. He
instructed that the AIDS patients did not need to show that they
suffered poorer treatment than their able bodied counterparts, just that
they did not have meaningful access to benefits to which the were
Judge William Pauley III considered the second case. Even
granting that the AIDS agency shelter program suffers serious deficiencies,
Judge Pauley found that he could not judge whether the program was a
legal failure unless he knew enough about the city's shelter system for
non-AIDS individuals. He insisted on a trial, and the Second Circuit just
agreed that a trial was appropriate.
Meg Sounds Off:
What to make of all this? The stakes are big. Can AIDS
advocates legally prod New York City into providing effective social services
for AIDS/HIV patients? Can they get relief whether or not the main
welfare bureaucracy can provide decent care? That is Judge Johnson's
view. Or can they get relief only if the main welfare bureaucracy cares for
able-bodied folks better than the Division of AIDS Services provides, as
articulated? The difference is more than semantic. It is a difference in
the minimum that AIDS/HIV patients can hope for. It might be the
difference between life and death.
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
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 nylj.com"
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.
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
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."