LSC Updates - January 11, 2006
On December 16, 2005, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and LSC Vice-President for Programs and Compliance Karen Sarjeant visited the Neighborhood Legal Services Program of the District of Columbia (NLSP), which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The purpose of the historic visit - no LSC President has ever visited the D.C. program before - was to share information about the initiatives LSC is undertaking for 2006, and to discuss NLSP's role as the LSC-funded grantee in the nation's capital. Barnett and Sarjeant were very impressed with the leadership of interim director Guy Lescault, and the legal work done by the staff on behalf of clients in the District of Columbia. Of note was NLSP's partnership with the D.C.-based law firm of Covington & Burling, which since 1969 has paid for two young associates, one paralegal, and one secretary to work full-time at NLSP for six-month periods. This collaboration provides Covington & Burling lawyers with opportunities for valuable courtroom experience they would not otherwise get so early in their careers, and it provides NLSP with additional staff that can help serve their clients.
The Times Union (NY) - January 10, 2006
In a given year, some 5,000 people who need a lawyer but can't afford one will get help by turning to the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. The society provides attorneys, or contracts with outside lawyers, to handle an array of civil cases, including family matters, landlord disputes and Social Security appeals.
That's the good news. The bad news is that some 4,000 others who also need help will be turned away -- not because their cases are any less worthy, but because the aid society has neither the money nor the staff to help them.
That should shame everyone who ever recites the Pledge of Allegiance and its promise of "justice for all," and the politicians who support generous tax cuts for the affluent but pinch pennies when it comes to funding legal services for the poor. And it should motivate members of the bar to do more to ensure that the most vulnerable among us -- that is, individuals earning $11,900 or less a year and families of four with $24,180 or less in income -- can have their day in court.
Fortunately, many law firms are responding to the need across the country. Rather than invoke the familiar argument that it is government's responsibility to care for the poor, including their legal needs, they are dipping into their own budgets to bridge the gap between what funds are needed and what are available. In the Capital Region, 12 out of 20 of the top law firms have signed on to a program that will provide annual contributions to the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York based on the number of attorneys on staff. That has helped push the society's "Justice for All" fundraising campaign, which ends Jan. 31, beyond its goal of $100,000 for this year.
But that is no reason for complacency. Like other legal aid offices, the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York has seen a decline in federal and state money. At the same time, its service area has expanded from eight to 16 counties and now serves low-income clients from the Catskills to the Canadian border -- all on a $3 million annual budget. It is estimated that it would take $1.1 million more, and 16 more staff attorneys, to serve the 4,000 or so needy people who are turned away each year.
That's a challenge that all area attorneys can help meet, including medium and small practices. The Pledge's "justice for all" holds out the promise that all citizens are entitled to their day in court, regardless of means.
Burlington Free Press (VT) - January 7, 2006
The article in the Dec. 21 Free Press had every nasty stereotype about tenants there is. Gloating about an impoverished woman becoming homeless a week before Christmas is offensive and embarrassing.
The Free Press made no effort to discover the other side of the story. And there is always another side.
Unfortunately, resources for legal services are scarce and tenants without money often cannot find an attorney to go to court with them in an eviction case. Some landlords take advantage of this. Threatening arrest, withholding repairs, turning off the electricity, entering apartments at all hours to confront and intimidate a tenant are tactics that low-income tenants often face. Most landlords would have nothing to do with such practices but it still happens too often.
Vermont law requires landlords to follow the law, fairly judges issues about payments, and insures that Vermonters are not made homeless without cause. This is done in court, where evidence, not power, money, or threats, wins the case.
The Free Press article only proves that for some people in Vermont it is acceptable to demonize and vilify people who are poor. Vermont Legal Aid and Law Line of Vermont work every day to make sure low-income tenants are treated fairly and are not made homeless illegally. We will continue to do so. The Free Press needs to ask itself if the least fortunate among us deserve more than name calling.
THOMAS F. GARRETT
The writer is executive director of Legal Services Law Line of Vermont Inc.
Tammy Fonce-Olivas, El Paso Times (TX) - January 6, 2006
A settlement has been reached between a local group of displaced workers and the U.S. Department of Labor, which the workers sued three years ago claiming they were denied adequate job training guaranteed by federal law after they lost their jobs to foreign competition.
The settlement approved by U.S. District Court Judge Frank Montalvo of El Paso requires the Labor Department and the Texas Workforce Commission to spend $6.5 million on job training for El Paso workers, mostly Spanish speakers who received inadequate job training. In addition, the settlement requires policy changes nationwide.
"The settlement is a tremendous victory both for limited-English proficiency trade-dislocated workers in El Paso and for any dislocated worker in the future nationwide," said Michael Kirkpatrick, a lawyer for Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Public Citizen along with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in El Paso represented the workers, who are part of the Asociacin de Trabajadores Fronterizos, or Association of Border Workers. In the lawsuit the workers claimed that the Labor Department violated the Trade Act of 1974, which provides job-training benefits to workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.
Officials with the Labor Department did not comment on the settlement. Kirkpatrick said the settlement ends all departmental practices that the workers claimed were illegal.
Greg Land, Fulton County Daily Report (GA) - January 5, 2006
Shivering in snowy Massachusetts, 2005 Harvard Law School graduate Charlotte Sanders said she's eager to begin her two-year assignment as a Skadden Fellow at the Georgia Legal Services Program in the fall.
"One more Boston winter is about enough for me," said Sanders, who currently is clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner. Sanders, 27, is one of 29 recipients of this year's fellowships, funded by New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The fellowships place young attorneys in programs that work for civil and human rights or help the poor, elderly, disabled and homeless.
"I'm originally from southern Virginia, so I wanted to get closer to home," said Sanders, who interned with Georgia Legal Services in 2002 and spent the next summer working with the Atlanta office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Sanders will be working with Georgia Legal Services' Farmworker Division, which helps immigrant workers in need of legal assistance.
"I got interested in the farm-workers' program when I was involved in employment law at the Washington Lawyers Council for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs" before entering law school, she said. Immigrant employment "is becoming more and more important in places like Georgia, in the way they've been in Texas and California for a long time."
"I'll be working on some pretty run-of-the-mill stuff-minimum-wage cases, workman's comp for injuries, discrimination, sexual harassment. ... But I'll also be focusing specifically on retaliation cases-coming up with ways for workers who feel their rights have been violated, but are afraid to come forward."
Beth Bily, Mesabi Daily News (MN) - January 4, 2006
The Blandin Foundation Board of Trustees approved grants totaling $3,741,955 at its December 2005 meeting. [The recipients included:]
* Legal Aid Service of NE Minnesota; Continued operating support $315,000; Project support for Native American programming $65,000.
Mary Kavanaugh-Gahn, The Traverse City Record-Eagle (MI) - December 31, 2005
People living in northern Michigan share a tradition of generosity, especially when it comes to helping fellow northerners. When Legal Services of Northern Michigan Inc. initiated its endowment campaign, "Drive for Twenty-Five," fellow attorneys and community residents responded kindly.
As legal services continues its effort to reach its $25,000 goal, the task of providing free civil legal services to an ever-increasing indigent population is challenging. Legal services is half way to achieving its goal and more financial support is needed.
Access to competent legal counsel is a key service that helps people protect themselves from further abuse, fraud and financial loss.
Legal services cannot depend upon the whim of Congress or the state Legislature for consistent secure funding.
The State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan Bar Foundation and the Access to Justice Fund share legal services' concerns and agree that a permanent endowment fund can be part of a long-term solution to chronic funding pressures.
To that end, all have worked to establish legal services' endowment in order to create a steady stream of funding dedicated to supporting and expanding services to the poverty populations in the northern communities.
Mary Kavanaugh-Gahn is an attorney and deputy director for Legal Services of Northern Michigan, Inc. For more information about the group's "Drive for Twenty-Five," contact Mary Kavanaugh-Gahn at (231) 941-0771 or Kenneth Penokie, executive director, at (906) 786-2303.
Jocelyn Wiener, The Sacramento Bee (CA) - December 29, 2005
A coalition of low-income citizens and affordable-housing advocacy groups filed a motion Wednesday seeking dismissal of a building industry lawsuit that challenges Sacramento County's year-old affordable-housing ordinance.
County supervisors passed the ordinance, which advocates say is one of the most progressive in the nation, last December. The ordinance requires developers of residential housing to set aside 15 percent of units for affordable housing or provide the equivalent in land or fees.
In March, attorneys for the North State Building Industry Association filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court to scrap the ordinance, saying the county had failed to prove the industry bears responsibility for providing housing for the poor.
Attorneys from Legal Services of Northern California filed a motion to have the building industry's lawsuit dismissed.
Valerie Feldman, a staff attorney with Legal Services, said the lawsuit may be preventing other jurisdictions from following Sacramento County's lead.
"It has been acting as kind of a chilling effect on other jurisdictions," Feldman said.
Paul Krza, New Mexico Business Weekly, December 26, 2005
A new requirement that out-of-state lawyers pay a fee to appear in New Mexico courts raised more than $71,000 this year, "a lot more than we expected," says an official with the State Bar of New Mexico.
Money raised from the fees, imposed in January for the first time in the state, will be allocated to agencies that deliver civil legal services to the poor, says Joe Conte, the Bar's executive director.
The State Bar has always had a rule that sets conditions for practice by "non-admitted" lawyers in various state courts, called "pro hac vice." But it wasn't until the beginning of this year that a fee -- $250 for each court appearance -- was added. Most states already routinely charge a fee, Conte says.
In addition to the fee, attorneys from outside of New Mexico who aren't members of the State Bar must meet other requirements, according to the rule. They must associate with an active member of the State Bar when making an appearance, must be admitted to practice in other states and have to file a "registration certificate," the rule indicates.
Conte says the State Bar, which administers the rule, had no idea what to expect from the fees. The amount raised came as a pleasant surprise, he says. A Bar committee will meet in January to decide on how to distribute money for indigent legal services, he says.
Part of the impetus for the new fee came from the State Bar's emphasis on trying to improve legal services for the poor. The Bar's Access to Justice Commission this year conducted statewide hearings to gather suggestions on how to improve access to the legal system and will issue a report on how to make changes. At the same time, requirements for lawyers in the Bar's "pro bono" program have been stiffened.
Conte says the Access for Justice Commission is studying the expansion of the pro hac vice fee, which now only covers appearances in state courts, to the federal courts.
Success Story From Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services (NJ)
(Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories from the field illustrate the day-to-day struggles - and victories - of poor Americans seeking justice under law.)
Court: Jackson Campground Residents Can Stay On Until Friday
Matt Porio, Asbury Park Press - January 10, 2006
Residents of Toby's Hideaway Campground -- who say they are being unfairly evicted after being told to vacate by Jan. 6 -- can remain at the site until at least Friday.
A temporary stay obtained for the residents in Superior Court last week through the weekend was extended until Friday, said Scott R. Conover, a staff attorney for Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services, which is representing at least 10 of the residents.
"We're trying to work out a settlement for each of the clients," he said. "Some of them have stronger cases than others, they have different needs. It's not one-size-fits-all."
Legally, campground residents do not enjoy many rights when it comes to eviction. Campgrounds are meant for temporary living in RVs and campers, and the township forbids any habitation on them for more than 15 days at a time during October through March.
Typically, campground residents do not sign leases, unlike tenants who rent apartments, condominiums, houses and mobile homes.
But Ocean-Monmouth Legal Services attorneys are calling Toby's Hideaway a mobile home park, not a campground.
Several residents, such as 64-year-old Robert Van Note, have said they have lived there uninterrupted for years.
The campground's owner Michael Piteo said recently that only two residents -- who helped him watch over the grounds -- lived there year-round.
He said again Tuesday the property is being sold, but did not want to reveal the name of the buyer until after the closing.
He said residents were told over the summer that the site -- which has about 50 spaces, mostly vacated now -- was up for sale.
"I told them the place is being sold, so don't grow any roots here," he said.
Township officials said they were not aware of any residents living on the property on a permanent basis. Richard McGill, director of planning and zoning and director of code enforcement, said inspectors have been sent to the site in the past, and did not find any evidence of people living there year-round.
Residents recently showed a letter dated Dec. 10 calling for the vacation of the property by Jan. 6. Several said they do not object to leaving, but need more time to find a place to live.
"We have no place to go," said Van Note recently. "I've called every campground from here to South Jersey."