Elizabeth Saylor ’01 wins benefits for victims of domestic violence

More than a thousand domestic violence victims who were wrongly denied welfare benefits can thank Elizabeth S. Saylor ’01 for fixing the system.

Saylor was lead counsel in a class-action lawsuit filed in New York City in December 2005 on behalf of legal noncitizens who were victims of domestic violence. They were eligible for aid, including food stamps and Medicaid, because they were fleeing abuse, but they were repeatedly turned away.

In some instances, caseworkers incorrectly told the women their circumstances did not qualify them for aid. In other cases, the city’s software barred the caseworkers from granting benefits because the system lacked a classification for “battered qualified alien.”

Some of Saylor’s clients at the Legal Aid office in Brooklyn spent as long as three years battling for benefits. After being approved, they’d briefly collect food stamps or Medicaid and then find their aid abruptly cut off.

“I definitely thought it was a viable claim and we had a strong case,” Saylor says. “The main thing was to get the city’s attention so they would fix the problem.”

Her clients’ cases were quickly resolved after the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, but Saylor knew a systemic overhaul was essential to prevent recurring denials.

She handled oral arguments during the preliminary injunction hearing before U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff ’69. In August, the judge ordered the city to fix its computer glitches and train caseworkers about legal immigrants’ eligibility for benefits if they suffer from abuse.

Saylor left Legal Aid last summer to join Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, a New York firm that specializes in civil rights work. Her caseload includes litigation on behalf of pretrial detainees held at New York City jails who were allegedly strip-searched without reasonable suspicion and female detainees who claim they were subjected to forced gynecological exams.