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L.A. County settles with general relief recipients for $7.9 million

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Los Angeles County has agreed to a $7.9-million settlement with thousands of  people who were knocked off the welfare rolls when general relief grants swelled during the Great Recession, county and plaintiffs' spokesmen said Tuesday.

Under the settlement, which must be approved by a judge, the county agreed to stop cutting off recipients' $221 general relief checks for early or unintentional violations of welfare-to-work rules, according to court documents.  At an annual cost to the county of $5.3 million, it also will stop reducing grants if people decide to share housing.

In perhaps the most significant reform, the county is modernizing how it lets homeless people, who make up 60% of the roughly 100,000 people on general relief, know about regulations, deadlines and penalties.

According to the plaintiffs' class-action lawsuit, the county Department of Social Services starting in 2010 essentially was notifying itself, first by mail then electronically, of welfare cutoffs to homeless people.

With welfare numbers up more than 80%, from 59,000 in 2007 to 106,000 three years later, general relief recipients were told to drop by the welfare office randomly to see if they had notices. Plaintiff Anthony Wardlaw said this was often an all-day affair.

"Things were hard enough already," said Wardlaw, a former foster child who ended up sleeping in the streets with his mother after he lost his welfare check.

Aleah Guillory missed a welfare-to-work class and was banned from applying again for a month, which violated a state-mandated grace period, the suit said. She moved back to the streets and panhandled by the freeways.

Guillory reapplied a month later and was told to repeat the orientation class. But the notice of her appointment time arrived after the class was over. Her  address, a homeless youth shelter in Hollywood, had spotty mail delivery. She was cut off another six months, the suit said.

"This was going on in numbers that were unprecedented," said Daniel Grunfeld of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

The county now will post notices on its website and telephone and text or email homeless participants about appointments or proposed penalties. Under the settlement terms, it also will quit having recipients' appeals heard by the same person who issued the sanctions.

Also representing the welfare recipients were Public Counsel, the Inner City Law Center and retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi. More than 106,000 recipients will receive between $21 and $171 in the settlement, lawyers said.

"We feel that we have arrived at a process that conforms to state requirements and improves our service," county spokesman David Sommers said in an email.

The county agreed to begin negotiating with the public interest lawyers in December 2012 after they threatened to sue. Their suit, filed Tuesday, alleged violations of the state welfare code and recipients' due process rights.

The settlement agreement will be entered later this week, for approval by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger. The county did not admit wrongdoing in reaching the settlement, Sommers said.

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gale.holland@latimes.com
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