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Tulane Law Students Win Protections for Disabled

February 15, 2018 5:16 AM

People with disabilities receiving assistance through the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) will have an easier time keeping those benefits thanks to the help of two Tulane Law students. Alexis Tringas and Jay Jensen, both third-year law students in the Civil Rights and Federal Practice Clinic, fought on behalf of two clients with disabilities who were forced to move or pay higher rents following sudden changes in agency policy that cut their benefits. While helping their clients meet the sometimes arbitrary HANO demands, the students also prepared for a possible federal lawsuit.Among the issues was that the agency did not provide any notice of the changes, or offer a hearing, before the reduction of assistance, the students said.“We felt this practice was discriminatory at its core, but others before us had filed complaints on behalf of clients and got nowhere,” Jensen said. “We weren’t sure how this would all play out.”Their clients for years had documented permanent disabilities that required them to have two-bedroom apartments, with the second bedroom housing either caretakers or medical equipment. HANO had accepted their need for additional housing assistance in the past, the students said.But, in 2015, HANO began requiring periodic resubmission of documents the clients had provided in the past, sometimes annually or at shorter, arbitrary intervals, the students said. Left with little time or ability to make their case to HANO, the two clients had to pay higher rent or move at their expense, the students said. One client with limited mobility took an apartment at a higher rent only to discover the elevator didn’t work. She had to pay neighbors to help her get around.“We strongly believed the practice to be illegal, and began to understand how the policy needed to change,” Tringas said “We worked with our clients’ medical providers on a nearly daily basis, working to re-certify their disabilities. At the same time, we pressed forward with the administrative complaints, working to amend them in light of ongoing discrimination and preparing for a possible federal lawsuit.”By Thanksgiving, Tringas and Jensen had been in contact with a HUD investigator to work through the complaints, adjust policy and attempt to avoid litigation, Tringas said. The students, with the help of clinical faculty, had outlined a list of policy changes that would fix ongoing issues of program participants with disabilities.On Dec. 6, Tringas and Jensen met HANO and HUD officials and negotiated an agreement that would not only compensate their clients for their expenses but also change policy.“HANO’s general counsel agreed to all our policy changes,” Tringas said. Among those suggestions: Clients can self-certify their disability, no more arbitrary downsizing and explicit guarantees of due process for participants. They also sought and received guarantees that HANO staff would receive ongoing training on the new policy. “Advocating for our clients in the conciliation meeting was an invaluable experience,” Tringas and Jensen wrote in an email. “The meeting gave us an opportunity to negotiate with opposing counsel and fight for improvements to a vital public program that affects thousands of people in our community.”