Landmark Settlement Reached in Lawsuit on DC Department of Human Services’ Violations of Language Access Requirements

WASHINGTON, DC - The District of Columbia and language access advocates announced today an important settlement of a lawsuit filed last October challenging the serious and repeated failure of the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) to provide language access services to DC residents as required by law. The suit was filed by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (“the Committee”) and the law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP, in cooperation with Bread for the City, all of whom joined in praising the settlement and the positive effort by DHS to comply with its obligations.

As the lawsuit explained, the result of DHS’ prior failures had seriously harmed low-income DC residents who are limited or non-English proficient and access DHS services for important medical care, food, and other temporary benefits. For example, as explained in the complaint, plaintiff Maria Amaya Torres had her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (food stamps) benefits erroneously slashed by two-thirds after DHS refused her request for an interpreter at a recertification appointment. Plaintiff Minerva Nolasco was denied critical medical care when she was seven months pregnant because her health insurance benefits were canceled due to failure to provide language access services. Reports from DC’s Office of Human Rights further documented the widespread and serious nature of DHS’ violations of language access requirements. The lawsuit sought injunctive relief requiring DHS to provide language access services in compliance with its obligations under the DC Language Access Act, the DC Human Rights Act, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under the settlement agreement, in addition to pledging to comply with its legal obligations and conduct training for employees, DHS has agreed to make several important structural changes to ensure that language access is provided. First, it has agreed to designate an ombudsman at each of its service centers to assist anyone experiencing language access problems. The ombudsmen will be experienced, multilingual employees who will serve as advocates for any customer having language access problems. The ombudsmen’s responsibilities include resolving language access issues on the spot so that limited and non-English proficient individuals receive satisfactory service during their visits without having to wait unnecessarily long or return another day.  If necessary, the ombudsmen will assist customers in elevating language access issues to higher levels of review, ensuring interpretation and translation are provided at all points of review. In addition, DHS will establish a Language Access Customer Advisory Group (LACAG) which will monitor DHS’s compliance with the settlement and advise DHS on any needed improvements. A majority of LACAG members will be current or former DHS customers requiring language assistance or members of the DC Language Access Coalition, an alliance of community and civil rights groups in DC that advocate for language access rights.

“District residents should not be denied access to important government services based on their inability to speak English”, said Jonathan Smith, the Committee’s Executive Director.  “The ombudsman requirement of this agreement will ensure that all residents are on equal footing in interacting with the Department of Human Services. We appreciate the tremendous work that Hogan Lovells and Bread for the City have done with us on this case.” 

“This is a very positive outcome for our clients and those situated like them,” said Ryan Strasser, a Senior Associate at Hogan Lovells.  “We hope and expect that through structural and compliance improvements at DHS, expecting mothers dependent on subsidized prenatal care and parents feeding their families through government vouchers no longer will face the risk of catastrophic benefits denials resulting from errors in interpretive services.”

"We thank Ms. Nolasco and Ms. Amaya Torres for their courage in fighting for their rights and the rights of others," said Allison Miles-Lee, Senior Supervising Attorney at Bread for the City.  "We are hopeful that once the settlement measures are put into place there will be real change and an end to the cycle of unnecessary termination and denial of benefits that has impacted too many DC residents who are limited and non-English proficient."

The ombudsmen are to be designated within 30 days, and the LACAG is to be established within 90 days.

The settlement agreement is available here.

El acuerdo esta disponible aquí.

This release is also available in the following languages:

Amharic (አማርኛ)
Chinese (中文)
French (Français)
Korean (한국어)
Spanish (Español)
Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt)

Media Contact:

Dennis Corkery, dennis_corkery@washlaw.org
(202) 319-1000


ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE:
 For more than 45 years, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs has handled thousands of cases representing individuals and groups seeking to vindicate their civil rights in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations and other aspects of urban life. It represents people with claims of discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, disability, age, religion, sexual orientation, and military service and status. For more information, visit www.washlaw.org; or phone (202) 319-1000. 

ABOUT HOGAN LOVELLS: Hogan Lovells is a leading global legal practice providing business-oriented legal advice and high-quality service across its exceptional breadth of practices to clients around the world.

ABOUT BREAD FOR THE CITY: Bread for the City is a local non-profit organization that provides free services including food, clothing, medical care, legal assistance, and social services for over 30,000 DC residents each year. For more information, please visit breadforthecity.org. 

 

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