LSC Updates - October 23, 2009
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions approved the nominations of five Presidential appointees to LSC's Board of Directors on Oct. 21. The committee is led by Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.).
In a prepared statement ( 40k), Sen. Harkin said, "Our promise of 'equal justice under law' rings hollow if those who are most vulnerable are denied access to quality legal representation. LSC and LSC-funded attorneys provide invaluable assistance to our most vulnerable citizens who need legal help to keep their homes, obtain needed benefits, or protect themselves and their children from abusive relationships. As a former legal aid attorney, I am particularly pleased at the outstanding qualifications of these nominees. I am confident that they will improve LSC's corporate governance and help LSC fulfill its mission to provide equal access to our system of justice."
The nominees are Robert J. Grey, Jr., of Virginia, a former American Bar Association President and a partner in the law firm of Hunton & Williams; John G. Levi of Illinois, a partner in the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP; Martha L. Minow of Illinois, dean of Harvard Law School; Julie A. Reiskin of Colorado, executive director of a statewide disability-rights organization; and Gloria Valencia-Weber of New Mexico, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law specializing in Native American law.
President Obama submitted the nominations in August. They will now go to the full Senate for consideration.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and six other members of Congress introduced a bill on Oct. 8 to reauthorize the Legal Services Corporation. The bill, the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 (H.R. 3764), is the companion to the reauthorization bill (S. 718) Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced in March.
According to a statement on Rep. Scott's website, the bill would set LSC's authorized funding level to $750 million annually, would lift some restrictions on the activities of LSC-funded programs and would provide for more effective administration of LSC.
"I am particularly pleased that we are introducing this bill, not only because it helps those in need, but because of my personal experiences with the program," said Rep. Scott in a statement for the Congressional Record. "Over 30 years ago, I was the founding Chairman of the Board of Peninsula Legal Aid Center, Inc., so I am aware of the need for resources to make a legal services program fully operational. In this bill, we are seeking to ensure that the Corporation has the resources required to help those in need."
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, which is responsible for conducting oversight of LSC, is a co-sponsor of the bill. In a statement for the Congressional Record, Cohen said, "The current economic downturn will likely lead to more families and individuals needing legal assistance." He stated that the funding authorization in the bill "will help close the justice gap and provide civil legal assistance to all potential eligible clients."
The five other co-sponsors of the bill are John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), Henry C. Johnson, Jr. (D-Ga.), Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.), all of whom are members of the Commercial and Administrative Law subcommittee.
LSC Vice-Chairman Michael D. McKay and LSC President Helaine M. Barnett will testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law at a hearing on the Legal Services Corporation on Oct. 27.
The subcommittee is led by Chairman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Trent Franks (R-Ariz.). Chairman Cohen was elected in 2006 to represent Tennessee's ninth congressional district, which includes the city of Memphis. He previously served as a state senator for 24 years. Ranking Member Franks was elected to Congress in 2002. He previously served as the Director of the Arizona Governor's Office for Children, a cabinet-level post that put him in charge of all the state's programs for children.
The National Institute of Trial Advocacy provided 75 attorneys at LSC-funded programs with a week's training in October that offered insights into courtroom procedures and sharpened the skills of the lawyers, which will directly impact the services LSC-funded programs provide their clients.
LSC President Barnett helped launch the training sessions, which began Oct. 5, at the NITA campus in Colorado. NITA, the NITA Foundation and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP sponsored the training, which was provided tuition free and included travel stipends.
"Your training program serves as a superb example here at LSC on the importance of partnerships that support high-quality representation and help us fulfill the nation's pledge of equal justice for all," said President Barnett in thanks to Laurence M. Rose, the NITA president.
She also thanked H. Rodgin Cohen, chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell, and the entire firm for making the training possible, noting that such training "underscores the importance of ensuring that legal aid attorneys have the same opportunities as lawyers at large law firms to obtain trial advocacy skills training that will make them more effective advocates on behalf of their clients."
NITA is one of the nation's leading providers of legal advocacy skills training. A nonprofit organization based in Louisville, Colo., NITA has an all-volunteer faculty drawn from a cadre of judges, law professors and practicing attorneys. NITA provides professional development sessions to nearly 6,000 attorneys each year.
The 75 LSC-funded attorneys who participated were from every section of the nation, including urban, rural, Native American and statewide programs. By registering for the five days of training, President Barnett, in her remarks helping launch the sessions, told the attendees "you are affirmatively declaring that you want to excel, to be among the best in the legal profession. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your dedication to providing high-quality legal services to our clients."
In helping launch the training program, President Barnett discussed the findings of the 2009 Justice Gap Report, released by the Corporation on September 30, and noted that the number of unrepresented litigants, particularly in family and housing courts, is increasing-a critical issue for the courts and for LSC as they seek to ensure equal access to justice.
Learn more about NITA at www.nita.org.
The Boards of Directors of four more LSC-funded programs have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 107 the total number of programs who have adopted such resolutions. The four programs are:
- Bay Area Legal Aid of California
- Inland Counties Legal Services of California
- Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County
- Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services of New Jersey
LSC is encouraging all program Boards of Directors to adopt pro bono resolutions modeled after one adopted by LSC's Board in April 2007. Urging programs to adopt local resolutions is a key element of LSC's private attorney involvement action plan, entitled "Help Close the Justice Gap, Unleash the Power of Pro Bono."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which interprets and applies laws affecting the men and women who served in the nation's armed forces, marked its 20th anniversary on October 16.
Since 1992, LSC has administered a veterans' pro bono program, funded, with congressional approval, through the Veterans Claims appeals court. LSC awards an annual grant to the Veterans' Consortium Pro Bono Program, which offers services to veterans who do not have an attorney, assesses whether appellants' cases have merit, and then assigns cases with merit to pro bono attorneys it has recruited and trained.
Before the court was created, veterans who were dissatisfied with decisions by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had no forum in which to lodge legal challenges to VA administrative rulings.
Learn more about the court at www.uscourts.cavc.gov.
Steve Barr, media relations director for LSC, has been elected as a Fellow to the National Academy of Public Administration, chartered by Congress as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization to provide advice on issues of governance and public management.
The Academy conducts research, publishes studies and holds forums and conferences. Academy reports are focused on helping clients solve governance and administrative problems.
Fellows are elected by their peers, and the 2009 Fellows will be inducted on November 19 during the Academy's annual fall meeting. Barr joined LSC in July 2008 after 29 years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post, where he wrote on federal management issues.
Learn more about the National Academy of Public Administration at www.napawash.org.
Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times – October 17, 2009
California is embarking on an unprecedented civil court experiment to pay for attorneys to represent poor litigants who find themselves battling powerful adversaries in vital matters affecting their livelihoods and families.
The program is the first in the nation to recognize a right to representation in key civil cases and provide it for people fighting eviction, loss of child custody, domestic abuse or neglect of the elderly or disabled.
Advocates for the poor say the law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed [Oct. 11], levels the legal playing field and gives underprivileged litigants a better shot at attaining justice against unscrupulous landlords, abusive spouses, predatory lenders and other foes.
Although some analysts worry that it could swell state court dockets or eat up resources better spent on other needs of the poor, the pilot project that won bipartisan endorsement in the state Assembly will be financed by a $10 increase in court fees for prevailing parties.
Press Release, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles – October 13, 2009
On October 9, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP (MTO), and the National Housing Law Project (NHLP), with the help of amicus briefs filed by the City of Los Angeles, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the AARP Foundation, scored a major victory for the rights of tenants when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Barrientos v. 1801-1825 Morton LLC. The ruling states that protections against no-cause evictions provided by the rent control laws for recipients of the Section 8 Voucher Rental Program in the City of Los Angeles are not pre-empted by federal laws or regulations. The decision, which has a national impact, provides 22 Section 8 tenants living at Morton Gardens, an apartment complex in the Los Angeles Echo Park community, protection against their landlord's attempt to evict them.
"We are pleased that the Court upheld the ruling to protect low-income tenants in the City of Los Angeles. This decision will protect the homes of thousands of Section 8 voucher recipients in the nation," said Christian Abasto, Managing Attorney for LAFLA Eviction and Defense Units. "We could not have succeeded without the assistance of our colleagues Michael Soloff, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP (MTO), who argued the case on March 2, 2009 and did an outstanding job; and Jim Grow, Deputy Director and nationally acclaimed subsidized housing expert with the Oakland-based National Housing Law Project (NHLP). "
Press Release, Atlanta Legal Aid Society – October 1, 2009
Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP and Atlanta Legal Aid Society are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), a landmark decision holding that unjustified isolation of mentally disabled individuals in institutions is a form of disability discrimination prohibited by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
"This decision is considered by some to be the disability law parallel to Brown v. Board of Education," said Atlanta Legal Aid Executive Director Steve Gottlieb. "It is a defining moment in the Americans With Disabilities Act, in that it allowed individuals with mental or physical disabilities access to disability services in a community-based setting rather than an institutional setting."
The case began in 1995, when Atlanta Legal Aid filed a suit in federal court on behalf of Elaine Wilson and Lois Curtis, who sought to transfer from Georgia Regional Hospital in DeKalb County, Georgia, to a group home where they would continue to receive state-funded treatment. U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit both ruled in their favor. The State of Georgia appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, arguing that states had the right to continue denying community-based services to people with disabilities because it historically had been in their best interest to receive treatment in nursing homes and mental health institutions.
Press Release, Iowa Supreme Court – October 19, 2009
The Iowa Supreme Court issued a resolution [on Oct. 19] urging all lawyers to devote at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services each year. Lawyers who provide pro bono legal service donate their time and expertise to assist individuals who cannot afford legal counsel. The court also encourages judges to encourage pro bono service by lawyers. The court's resolution coincides with and recognizes the American Bar Association's first National Pro Bono Week Celebration October 25-31.
The resolution notes that "Many Iowans of limited means are unable to afford legal services to address their civil legal problems. Legal service organizations and volunteer lawyers do much to help address these needs for civil legal services."
"Despite the valiant efforts of Iowa's legal service organizations and thousands of volunteer lawyers, there is a substantial gap between the civil legal needs of those who cannot afford legal services and the resources available to meet those needs," said Chief Justice Marsha Ternus. "Iowa Legal Aid Services estimates that more than 17,000 people who went to ILS for help were turned away or underserved. Many of those people needed legal assistance to help them secure or maintain basic needs such as housing, health care and safety."
Kelsey Snell, Medill Reports – October 7, 2009
Thousands of poor people in Illinois are being turned away from legal aid services as non-profit organizations struggle to meet the needs of the newly poor, according to a new report from the national Legal Services Corporation.
The study was released on September 30, just one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released statistics showing that more than 40,000 Illinoisans fell below the poverty line in 2008.
"There is no question that there still remains a substantial justice gap in the country," said Helaine Barnett, president of the Legal Services Corporation. "We are turning away on average one person for every one person we help."
Legal Services Corporation funds a network of legal aid organizations that accounts for the majority of legal services to the poor, Barnett said. The corporation was assigned by Congress to administer the federally-funded civil legal assistance program based on the census, which is taken every 10 years.
Though federal funding to Illinois legal aid organizations increased 10 percent last year, the legal issues facing the newly poor are overwhelming many local organizations.
"There are 1.5 million poor people in Chicago and suburban Cook County," said Diana White, executive director of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. "We know we're not even getting the tip of the iceberg when we're getting between 27,000 and 30,000 calls each year."
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland's Community Advocacy Program will be honored by the Ohio State Bar Foundation at its 2009 Annual Meeting and Awards Dinner in Dublin, Ohio, on Nov. 6.
The Community Advocacy Program is a medical-legal partnership between the legal aid organization and the MetroHealth Medical Center of Cleveland. The goal of the program is to eliminate the legal barriers that contribute to long-term health problems of children. An attorney for the program works at the medical center two days a week working directly with pediatricians on health issues and legal approaches that will positively affect health outcomes for children. The attorney conducts intake onsite at the hospital and either handles the case herself or refers the case to the appropriate unit at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
The Boston Bar Association presented Mary "Meg" M. Connolly, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, with the John G. Brooks Legal Services Award at the BBA's annual meeting on Oct. 7.
The award is named after a former BBA president who served as the first chairman of the Boston Legal Assistance Project, a president of Greater Boston Legal Services, and president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
A press release from the BBA notes that Connolly has led the Volunteer Lawyer's Project since 1984, during which time "she has built a model structure for facilitating private bar participation in civil pro bono work."
Said BBA President Jack Regan, "Meg has been unique in her ability to articulate both the civil legal needs of low income families and individuals and the importance of lawyers and law firms stepping up to the plate to perform essential pro bono services. She is a both a leader and a team player in providing access to justice and her legacy will be lasting."
Connolly has announced that she will retire from the program at the end of this year.
Henry W. McLaughlin, executive director of the Richmond-based Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, has announced his intentions to retire after more than three decades of service to the program.
In a letter to the program's board of directors and staff, McLaughlin said, "It's been a wonderful privilege to work at CVLAS for over 30 years. Past and present board members have been terrific in their support and governance. Past and present staff members have done tremendous work for legal aid clients. The CVLAS staff is the best in the country."
"I'll leave with wonderful memories of CVLAS and with great confidence in its future," he concluded. According to the letter, McLaughlin plans to start a solo law practice with members of his family.
Learn more about the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society at www.cvlas.org.
The Management Information Exchange (MIE) will sponsor a training session for new directors of LSC-funded and other legal aid programs in Denver on November 17 and 18, immediately preceding the National Legal Aid and Defender Association's annual conference there.
According to MIE, the session will help new directors gain deeper insight into their work, will stress the importance of knowing what needs to be done to lead an effective program and will provide an opportunity for directors to actually complete certain tasks that legal aid leaders are commonly confronted with. Some specific topics to be covered include the difference between leadership and management, how to determine the impact of a program's work and how to work effectively with a board of directors.
The session will be conducted by MIE consultant John Arango and Klaus Sitte, executive director of the Montana Legal Services Association.
The National Association of Pro Bono Professionals and the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono are asking pro bono coordinators at legal aid programs to provide their input into the development of training sessions to be held as part of the "Beyond the Basics" pro bono pre-conference at the Equal Justice Conference in Phoenix from May 13-15, 2010. The groups wish to make the sessions responsive to the needs of pro bono coordinators and have developed a short survey to collect their input. The survey will close on Monday, November 2, so act now to be heard.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
Attorneys Tackle Foreclosure Cases
The central San Joaquin Valley suffers some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. However, there are limited legal resources to respond to this continuing crisis. Among those most affected are non-English speakers who became targets of predatory lending and fraudulent business practices.
CCLS is overwhelmed with a number of homeowners facing foreclosure who need an attorney. Consumer Team attorney Ofra Pleban and pro bono attorneys play a critical role in finding legal solutions. The following cases illustrate the need:
After the death of her mother, the daughter struggled to meet the high mortgage payments. As is common these days, the value of the house was less than what was owed. She tried to negotiate a loan modification with her lender but they refused. They issued a notice of default and also served her with an eviction notice. She negotiated a payment agreement with the bank, who brought the property and agreed not to foreclose on the home.
Although she sent her payment, on that same day the agreement was executed, the bank recorded a notice of trustee's sale and proceeded with the foreclosure. The bank failed to give her a new notice of default. Subsequently, the house was sold to a third party.
Attorney Ofra Pleban filed and obtained an injunction against the lender, the trustee, the loan servicer and the buyer seeking to set aside the sale. The complaint alleged fraud, negligence, unfair business practices and breach of contract and sought to stop the eviction action. The client's application for preliminary injunction was granted. Pro Bono attorney Melvin Richtel is co-counsel on the case.
In another case, Pro Bono Attorney Sara Hedgpeth-Harris stopped the sale of the homeowner's house at auction. The homeowner and her husband were induced to refinance their home of over 40 years. The refinanced loan came with excessive costs, high interest rates and a balloon payment of $78,000 after five years. At the time of the refinance, the house was almost paid off.
After attempts to negotiate with the lender failed and with just a day before the scheduled auction, Attorney Hedgpeth-Harris filed a complaint against the lender and broker, seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the sale of the home. On the morning of the auction, the Court granted the order. The client and Ofra arrived at the steps of the courthouse, with the order in hand, to find the auctioneer on the ladder selling off properties. The sale of her home was stopped just minutes before it could have been auctioned.
Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Central California Legal Services' newsletter, the "People's Advocate." Learn more about CCLS at www.centralcallegal.org.