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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

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 its 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 astoundingly useless.

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. At 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 health 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 medications.

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 agency 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 entitled.

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 Judge Pauley 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 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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