Settlement Reached in NYC Shelter Internet Access Lawsuit

On Tuesday, Judge Alison J. Nathan of the Southern District of New York issued a stipulation and order of settlement between the plaintiffs and various New York City entities regarding internet broadband access in New York City shelters for school-aged children to participate in virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, the plaintiffs – shelter residents and their children – filed a class-action complaint in November over the defendants’ alleged failure to provide adequate internet access for virtual learning. In December, the court denied the defendants’ opposition to a preliminary injunction that had asked the court to require the defendants to provide adequate Wi-Fi in shelters to allow virtual learning for students during the pandemic. New York City and six of its agencies, as well as individuals associated with those agencies, moved to dismiss the lawsuit in January.

Pursuant to the order, the settlement period is defined as: “The period of time from the Effective Date (April 6, 2021) until the termination of the Court’s jurisdiction over this action upon either: the completion of in-unit WiFi installation at all Shelters listed on Exhibit A; or the date on which DOE schools return to full-time in-person, non-blended instruction without any threshold that would trigger the return to blended or remote learning, whichever is earlier.”

The class is defined as: “3-K to 12th grade students, and custodial parents or guardians of such students, who are enrolled in any school, whether public or non-public, who currently reside in or resided in DHS Shelters for Families with Children and/or HRA Domestic Violence Shelters operated by or on behalf of the City of New York and/or any of its agencies at any time from March 26, 2020 through the end of the Settlement Period, and who lack or lacked reliable internet access inside said shelters (the ‘Class’) at any time from March 26, 2020 through the end of the Settlement Period.”

The settlement provides that the defendants must substantially comply with the “no later than August 31, 2021,” and the New York City Department of Social Services (DSS) must instruct shelters to place prominent signs alerting residents in all Local Law 30 languages about the availability of New York City Department of Education (DOE) Helpdesk and technical support, as well as providing shelter residents with fact sheets. Shelter providers are also required to “discuss the status of residents’ internet connectivity during regularly scheduled meetings with Shelter case managers.”

The settlement also provides steps for the DOE for families that reach out to the Helpdesk with DOE-issued iPad-related issues. Additionally, the settlement provides steps for shelters where in-unit Wi-Fi installation is not complete by April 1, 2021, such as that the defendants must identify said shelters; within 10 school days of a finalized list of these shelters, the defendants must identify shelters where there are eight or more families with these connectivity issues. Moreover, the settlement provides tiered responses after the plaintiffs report connectivity issues. For example, within one day of receiving a report, the defendants must assess the need for on-site technical support and make existing hotspots available, or if it is necessary to relocate the family in order to provide internet connectivity, among other steps that the defendants can take. The settlement also notes what the defendants must do for shelters with fewer than eight affected families. Also, the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ counsel must meet twice a month to discuss the status of Wi-Fi installation.

The plaintiffs are represented by The Legal Aid Society and Milbank LLP. The defendants are represented by the New York City Law Department.