LSC Updates - February 4, 2010
The Legal Services Corporation submitted the details of its Fiscal Year 2011 budget request to Congress on January 29. The amount of the request, $516.5 million, was approved by LSC's Board of Directors on October 31, 2009.
LSC would distribute more than 95 percent of the amount requested to 136 independent, nonprofit organizations across the country that provide civil legal aid to the nation's poor. Many legal aid programs are struggling to meet an increased demand for their services while coping with decreased funding from key non-federal sources because of the 2008 recession and rise in unemployment in 2009.
The Corporation's 2009 Justice Gap Report showed that LSC-funded programs are able to serve only half of those seeking help with pressing civil legal problems, and in one category-foreclosures-programs are turning away two people for every client served.
To help provide low-income Americans with increased access to justice, LSC's budget request seeks $484.9 million to support the core functions of legal aid programs, $6.8 million for technology projects that improve access to legal assistance and self-help guides for the poor and $1 million for student loan repayment assistance to legal aid lawyers. The request also includes $19.5 million for LSC management and grants oversight and $4.35 million for the Corporation's Office of Inspector General.
On February 1, President Obama released his budget proposal for FY 2011, which includes $435 million for LSC-$15 million more than the $420 LSC received from Congress for FY 2010. The proposal also seeks to lift statutory restrictions that prohibit LSC grantees from participating in class-action law suits and from using non-LSC funds for certain activities. Visit the website of the Office of Management and Budget, www.omb.gov, to learn more about the President's request.
LSC's Board of Directors took action at its January 30 meeting in Washington, D.C., to repeal the Corporation's regulation prohibiting LSC grantees from claiming, collecting and retaining attorneys' fees.
The Board asked LSC staff to draft and issue an interim final rule that would eliminate the regulation while maintaining its sections dealing with accounting for and use of fees, and acceptance of reimbursement of costs from clients.
The interim final rule would become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. LSC will soon issue interim guidance to grantees regarding its enforcement policy pending the effective date of the interim final rule.
See the following story for more information about the Board of Directors meeting.
The Board of the Directors of the Legal Services Corporation met at LSC's offices in Washington, D.C., on January 29 and 30. The event included meetings of the full Board and five of its committees.
The Audit Committee heard presentations on LSC's Fiscal Year 2009 financial audit, the Corporation's IRS Form 990 for FY 2009, classification of LSC consultants and the performance of the Corporation's 403(b) plan for employees. The committee also received a briefing from LSC's inspector general.
The Governance and Performance Review Committee discussed self-assessment documents for individual Board members and the entire Board, and heard a presentation on the Corporation's Board training plan for 2010.
The Provision for the Delivery of Legal Services Committee heard presentations on LSC's private attorney involvement action plan, the Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program, Native American and migrant legal services, board governance at LSC grantees, LSC training initiatives and other legal services delivery issues. The committee recommended that the full Board ask LSC staff to provide Board members with talking points for use in public appearances twice a year. The committee also recommended that the full Board change the committee's name to the Promotion and Provision for the Delivery of Legal Services Committee.
The Finance Committee reviewed and recommended that the Board approve LSC's consolidated operating budget for FY 2010 and heard presentations on the Corporation's financial reports for the first quarter of FY 2010, LSC's budget request to Congress for FY 2011 and classification of LSC consultants.
The Operations and Regulations Committee discussed rulemaking regarding LSC's regulation prohibiting grantees from claiming, collecting and retaining attorneys' fees. The committee also considered, but ultimately decided not to initiate a rulemaking to require grantee boards of directors to have audit committees, but stressed the importance of ensuring that grantee boards have an audit function. The committee tabled a discussion regarding Sunshine Act requirements for the Governance and Performance Review Committee. The committee also discussed the Board's role in collective bargaining with the labor union representing some LSC employees and heard a report on the status of the ongoing review of LSC operations by the Government Accountability Office.
The full Board approved the Provision Committee's recommendations regarding talking points and the committee's name, and the Finance Committee's recommendation to approve LSC's consolidated operating budget for FY 2010. The Board also took action regarding LSC's attorneys' fees regulation (see above) and adopted a resolution recognizing Helaine M. Barnett for six years of dedicated service as president of LSC.
The American Bar Association has announced that it will honor Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) with an award for his support of the Legal Services Corporation. Cohen is chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, which conducts oversight of LSC.
In October 2009, Chairman Cohen held a hearing on the Corporation at which he noted that LSC grantees help the most vulnerable Americans and that grantees are playing an even more significant role during the economic downturn. Cohen is co-sponsoring a bill that would raise LSC's authorized funding level to $750 million.
The award is scheduled to be presented to Cohen on April 20 in Washington, D.C., during the American Bar Association's annual "ABA Day" event.
Click here for more information (see third item).
LSC Interim President Victor M. Fortuno was profiled in an article published on January 23 by El Vocero, one of the largest newspapers in Puerto Rico.
The article, written by Melissa Correa Velazquez, reports that Vic, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, was born and raised in the "Hell's Kitchen" neighborhood of New York City. Raised by his grandparents in an almost entirely Spanish-speaking household, he went on to graduate from Columbia Law School and spent his first year out of law school as a staff attorney with Community Legal Services (then an LSC grantee) in Philadelphia. In 1983, after spending five years as an assistant district attorney for the City of Philadelphia, he moved to Washington, D.C., to join the Legal Services Corporation, where he has been ever since.
The article reports that Vic stressed the importance of lawyers and expressed the view that increased funding is critical to adequately support desperately needed legal assistance to the poor. It quotes him as saying that "my interest in becoming a lawyer was not motivated by money" and that, while the private practice of law can pay well, he finds his work on behalf of the poor and most vulnerable to be much more rewarding. His grandparents were poor and suffered but he's now able to help others like them and finds it "very satisfying."
The article concluded with some references to Vic's family and his ties to Puerto Rico. The entire interview was conducted and the article itself is in Spanish.
LSC is seeking comments on proposed revisions to its Accounting Guide for LSC Recipients
( 469k). The guide-last revised in 1997-sets forth accounting, financial management and reporting guidelines for recipients of LSC funds.
The intent of the revisions is to reflect more current accounting and financial oversight practices and to address grantee financial issues mentioned in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The proposed revisions were drafted by LSC's Fiscal Advisory Group, which is comprised of chief financial officers from eight LSC grantees and LSC staff.
All comments should be submitted by March 19 to the attention of Chuck Greenfield, LSC Program Counsel, by e-mail to AccountingGuide@lsc.gov, by fax to (202) 337-6813, or by mail to 3333 K St., NW, Washington, D.C., 20007.
For more information, download LSC's notice in the Federal Register ( 67k).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a notice ( 62k) stating that its 2009 poverty guidelines will remain in effect until updated 2010 guidelines are published, which shall not take place before March 1.
Accordingly, the Legal Services Corporation's 2009 Income Levels for Individuals Eligible for Assistance ( 54k), which are based on the HHS guidelines, will remain in effect until new guidelines are published.
The HHS action is pursuant to a provision in a Fiscal Year 2010 appropriations bill from Congress that freezes the poverty guidelines at 2009 levels in order to avoid a reduction in eligibility for certain means-tested programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced on February 1 that his office is partnering with the state's legal aid programs on a new initiative aimed at stopping illegal foreclosure-related evictions.
According to the announcement, Blumenthal's office has sent cease-and-desist letters to at least 30 companies-bank and mortgage servicers, law firms and real estate companies-who have engaged in eviction practices that violate the Protecting Tenants At Foreclosure Act of 2009, a federal law that protects tenants of foreclosed properties.
In many cases, rent-paying tenants have been hastily and illegally forced out of their homes when their landlords entered into foreclosure, despite a provision of the law that allows tenants to stay in their homes for 90 days or until the end of their lease, whichever is later.
Janice Chiaretto, executive director of the LSC-funded Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, says that legal aid programs were instrumental in bringing the problem to the attention of the attorney general.
"This was really a team effort," says Chiaretto, whose program runs a statewide hotline that is the first point of contact for most legal aid clients. "Once other legal aid programs got the sense that this was a widespread problem, they asked us to flag these cases for special referrals, allowing us to collect the data to convince the attorney general's office that this was a systemic problem."
"Mindless and needless automatic evictions benefit no one," Blumenthal said in his announcement. "Tenants should remain in homes as long as possible-potentially providing extra income to the new property owner, and benefiting everyone."
Kevin Schwaller, OzarksFirst.com – January 17, 2010
More people are asking a local organization for a free lawyer.
Many applicants simply don't have the money to pay for an attorney to help them through bankruptcy, housing disputes or domestic violence cases, so they turn to Legal Services of Southern Missouri.
"Probably as bad or worse than I've seen it," said Doug Kays, the group's executive director. He started working for the group nearly 30 years ago.
"We're seeing people who have not always been low income people," he said.
The organization takes civil cases for people who don't make enough money to pay for a lawyer, cases many private attorneys won't take for free.
And Kays says the economy is forcing more people to look for the aid. The group sorted through about 20 percent more applications last year than the year before.
"Because of our funding we can't help everyone," Kays said. "We're turning away a lot of people who are income eligible, but even worse, there's people who are over our income guideline who need help."
The Tennessee Bar Association has honored Diana Comes, a second-year student at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, with its Volunteer of the Year Award for donating 280 hours of pro bono work to Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS).
Comes was attracted to the organization by the opportunity to conduct research and interact with clients. "After a year of legal theory, it was wonderful to put what I had learned into practice, and to feel that my legal degree had the potential to make a difference."
"MALS treats its student interns as true attorneys-in-training, with real responsibilities, and it was extremely gratifying to work hard for results that helped people in need."
Comes learned about the organization from Linda Warren Seely, director of private attorney involvement for MALS, who she met while volunteering with another legal group in Memphis and who she credits with making her pro bono experience a success. "Her dedication, energy and passion are such an inspiration to students just embarking on their careers," said Comes.
Click here for more information (see third item).
Press Release, Boston Bar Association – January 4, 2010
The Volunteer Lawyers Project board of directors has unanimously chosen Sheila Hubbard to become VLP's next executive director, effective Feb.1.
Ms. Hubbard takes over from long-term executive director, Meg Connolly, who is retiring after 24 years. The Volunteer Lawyers Project, created by the Boston Bar Association and funded by the federal Legal Services Corp., supports and trains private practice lawyers who provide free advice to low-income people facing civil legal problems, such as eviction, unemployment and foreclosure.
A graduate of Yale and a resident of Boston since she graduated from Harvard Law School, Ms. Hubbard began her professional career with the state Department of Social Services as a homeless specialist. From there she went to work as a policy analyst for Mayor Raymond Flynn, and later served as Boston's director of the Minority and Women Business Enterprise Office. She quickly built the infrastructure to carry out the mandate that 15 percent of city contracts be awarded to minority-owned businesses and 5 percent to women-owned businesses.
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.
New-Found Independence for Disabled Teen
Carol Marbin Miller, Miami Herald – January 30, 2010
Severely disabled, Sharett Smith, 17, needed one thing in order to leave behind her green-and-white plush doggie and her brown teddy bear and go out with her family to church or the park: diapers.
At a price tag of $200 to $300 per month, her widowed father could not afford them. And the state's Medicaid program, which pays for Sharett's care, refused to help.
This week, a federal judge ruled that, for Florida children like Sharett, diapers are a medical necessity-not a "convenience"-and ordered the state Agency for Health Care Administration to pay for them. The ruling could affect thousands of sick or disabled children throughout the state.
In the 28-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold said he understood the state's plight in an unforgiving budget year. "Florida has limited resources, particularly in an economic downturn, and must make tough choices about where to invest those limited resources."
But he added: "While I doubt neither the gravity nor the difficulty of funding Medicaid obligations, such concerns do not excuse a violation of federal law.'"
"I am very happy with the decision," said Floyd Smith, 53, Sharett's father. "When I approached Legal Services with this problem, I said it was not only for Sharett, but for other less-fortunate children-children in the same situation, or maybe even worse."
Court records say about 12,000 Florida children could be affected by Gold's ruling, at a potential cost of $19 million a year, about two-thirds of which would come from federal grants.
In a statement e-mailed to The Miami Herald, the state agency said it is examining its legal options.
"In the last legislative session [before this lawsuit was filed], the Agency asked for funding for diapers for children between 3 and 21 who suffered from medical conditions that lead to incontinence. The Governor's current proposed budget also asks for this funding. Legislators have been receptive to these requests, but severe budgetary constraints have made it difficult to fund them," the statement said.
Smith, of Miami, is raising Sharett and two other young children on about $1,000 a month in Social Security disability and survivor's benefits. His wife of 26 years died of a brain tumor. The $200 to $300 he spent each month for diapers for Sharett represented 20 percent or more of his budget.
The money, he said, can be used for school supplies, clothes and other items for Sharett's 5- and 9-year-old sisters.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation, Sharett cannot talk, and cannot even watch television, which she does not understand.
Sharett's world already is painfully small. Smith takes her to church, but trips to the park or elsewhere draw unwelcome attention.
"Other kids in the area where I live look at her in a funny way," Smith said. "Her sisters say, `Daddy, let's go. Look at how they're looking at Sharett.'
"We don't go out a lot."
Smith testified at trial that he had tried a number of times to toilet-train his daughter, but to no avail. The girl's longtime pediatrician testified that with Sharett's cognitive abilities, toilet training is not really possible.
Without diapers, Smith would have been forced to consign his daughter to life inside his very modest home. She cannot attend school without diapers because of sanitary concerns, and she could not attend church or other activities in the community either, said attorney Monica Vigues-Pitan with Legal Services of Greater Miami.