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Judge Orders City To Provide AIDS Services In Timely Manner

AIDS advocates are applauding a federal judge's ruling that orders the New York City Division of AIDS Services and Income Support to provide benefits and services in a timely manner to thousands of New Yorkers living with AIDS.

In the ruling, dated Dec. 11, Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of the Eastern District Court of New York ordered the city to comply with existing legal mandates requiring the city to provide the benefits and services in a timely manner. The ruling also requires DASIS to issue dated receipts indicating the time of requests for assistance made by DASIS clients.

In September 2000, Johnson issued a 97-page ruling that said the city's "widespread and systemic failure" to provide services to people living with HIV and AIDS violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state law.

That scathing ruling appointed a federal magistrate judge to monitor DASIS for three years to ensure things improve, giving the magistrate the power to recommend penalties and sanctions if she found DASIS did not improve its service to people with AIDS. Johnson also wrote that DASIS consistently closed cases for no reason, leaving clients without needed benefits, and that DASIS, by its own admission, retaliated against clients who sought remedies by closing their cases again, even after being ordered by courts to reopen them.

The city appealed Johnson's ruling, which stemmed from a class-action lawsuit against the city, first brought in 1995 by Housing Works, the HIV Law Project, and the firm Pillsbury Winthrop LLP.

The suit charged that the city was violating federal and state law by failing to house people with AIDS on a timely basis or process benefits for them. The case was brought on behalf of thousands of clients of DASIS, an arm of the city Human Resources Administration, that has been a sore point between AIDS activists and the Giuliani administration almost since he took office. In 1994, Giuliani sought to dismantle the agency entirely.

Armen Merjian, a staff lawyer for Housing Works, is applauding Johnson's latest ruling.

"It's a wonderful decision -- and long overdue," Merjian said Wednesday.

In addition to having to comply with existing legal mandates, the city must, for three years, operate a troubleshooter system whereby DASIS clients can call in complaints that they're having with DASIS.

"The troubleshooter will exist to expedite resolution of those complaints," explained Merjian.

The troubleshooter will report to Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak, who has been empowered to monitor the city's compliance with the law. The city must also provide monthly reports to the judge regarding its performance -- in particular its timeliness -- in providing benefits and service for which clients are eligible.

A spokesperson from the city's corporation counsel's office did not respond to the Blade's inquiry by presstime.

By Inga Sorensen , NYBlade, December 21