Protecting Clients’ Rights After Judgment: SLU’s Monitoring and Enforcement Work
NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit (SLU) develops and litigates class action and other impact lawsuits on behalf of low-income New Yorkers. Most of SLU’s cases – often referred to as institutional reform litigation – seek to ensure that government agencies comply with statutory and constitutional mandates. SLU’s work does not end after winning a lawsuit or reaching a settlement agreement with defendants. In fact, a crucial portion of SLU’s work comes after the resolution of a case, in a phase typically referred to as “monitoring.”
“There is no reason to believe that the defendant agencies will comply with the terms of a court order or settlement agreement when they have already shown a willingness to disobey the law. We need to watch, over time, to see whether they change their practices to comply with the law,” explains Jane Greengold Stevens, NYLAG’s Director of Litigation. “Monitoring is most important in what we call ”˜practice cases,’ in which we are challenging not policies, but system-wide practices of failures to comply with legal requirements such as time limits or standards of eligibility for benefit programs.”
When SLU achieves a victory in a class action, the resulting order typically requires defendants to provide data about their compliance with the terms of the order or stipulation. Monitoring periods often last several years during which the court usually retains jurisdiction over the case. The defendants’ obligation to provide data about compliance ensures that the defendants themselves pay attention to their continuing obligations and also allows SLU attorneys to track defendants’ compliance post-victory. SLU then uses this information to seek further assistance from the court if defendants fail to comply with the terms of the court order or settlement agreement, and the court may issue further orders, or hold the defendants in contempt of a court order. No defendant wants to be found in contempt of a court order, so this threat gives SLU a potentially powerful tool.
As a result of diligent monitoring, for example, SLU and NYLAG’s General Legal Services Unit recently filed a contempt motion in Acevedo v. Turner. Through this case, plaintiffs challenged New York City’s failure to inform applicants and recipients of family assistance cash grants about procedures for lifting sanctions. Acevedo was successfully settled in March 2004 when defendants agreed to use a new notice and begin properly lifting sanctions. However, over the past two years, monitoring reports have shown that defendants have consistently failed to comply with the settlement, and in September 2009, NYLAG had to return to court. “NYLAG’s goal is to hold the City defendant to its obligations under the stipulation of settlement to provide adequate notice to all individuals prior to imposing sanctions and to restore such individuals to the place in which they would have been had the defendant complied with the settlement agreement,” stated Sabrina Tavi, staff attorney with SLU.
Acevedo v. Turner is only one example of many in which SLU has used the monitoring process to achieve compliance from defendants. SLU attorney Caryn Lederer elaborates, “Our goal is to ensure that our cases end only when the defendants fully comply with the law.”