LSC Updates - June 5, 2009
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies approved a $440 million, Fiscal Year 2010 budget for the Legal Services Corporation on June 4.
The funding increase was announced by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee, and represents a nearly 13 percent increase in the LSC budget. Chairman Mollohan also announced the bill would continue existing limitations on the use of funds but would lift the restriction on the ability of LSC-funded programs to collect attorneys' fees. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) is the subcommittee's ranking member.
"The Legal Services Corporation is grateful and most appreciative of the strong support shown by Chairman Mollohan, Ranking Member Wolf and all subcommittee members for our mission-to promote equal access to justice and to provide high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families," said LSC President Helaine M. Barnett.
In April, nineteen members of the House sent a letter to Reps. Mollohan and Wolf requesting a substantial increase for the Corporation, arguing that even with recent increases, LSC's funding falls far behind-in real dollars-what it received in the mid-90s. "Further," notes the letter, "the current economic downturn will only exacerbate the lack of resources of legal assistance programs. The result is a potential catastrophe for millions of low-income families and individuals throughout the country."
Rep. Steve Cohen, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, which conducts oversight of LSC, was the lead sponsor of the letter. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who heads the full Judiciary Committee, also signed the letter.
On May 28, the Legal Services Corporation hosted the fourth in its series of conference calls with legal services, national consumer and poverty law organizations to discuss initiatives aimed at addressing the ongoing nationwide foreclosure crisis.
Topics of discussion included online projects to help people facing foreclosure, a new 30-day foreclosure moratorium in Cook County, Illinois, and recent federal legislation designed to address the crisis, including a new law requiring tenants of foreclosed properties to receive 90-days notice before being evicted and a bill working its way through Congress that would provide funding specifically for foreclosure-related legal aid.
Participants on the call were representatives of the American Bar Association, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project, the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the National Consumer Law Center, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the State Bar of Wisconsin and 13 legal services programs in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Ohio.
The Delaware Bar Foundation is bracing itself for a crippling blow to revenue for its Interest on Lawyers' Trust Account program. The News Journal reports that the Foundation, which distributes IOLTA funds to the state's legal services programs, is predicting to collect less than half of the $1.5 million it collected in fiscal 2007.
The culprit behind the shortfall is the same one bedeviling state IOLTA programs throughout the nation: the floundering economy and weakened real-estate market mean fewer legal transactions to generate income for the program. The result will be drastically reduced grants for legal aid programs struggling to meet an increasing demand for their services.
The LSC-funded Legal Services Corporation of Delaware received $350,000 from the Foundation in 2008-2009, about 30 percent of the program's total budget. However, the Foundation was forced to take the rare step of cutting $75,000 from the grant midway through the year. For the upcoming grant cycle, LSCD will only receive $100,000 in IOLTA funding.
Doug Canfield, executive director of LSCD, says he has already had to lay off staff-including attorneys-cut salaries and implement furloughs just to stay above water.
Says Canfield, "It is particularly disheartening, at a time when people are hurting and need our help more than ever, that budget and staff cuts are forcing us to turn away people struggling with issues that are the heart of our practice: foreclosure, bankruptcy, credit problems and unemployment compensation. These are serious and complicated matters and without our help they will have nowhere to go."
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has allayed concerns that his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010 would cut $250,000 in funding for civil legal services to victims of domestic violence. The state currently provides about $700,000 for the services, which helped about 1,000 victims in the last fiscal year, according to Legal Aid of West Virginia. Domestic violence advocates became alarmed when a draft budget proposal surfaced that included the funding cut.
"Without an attorney to assist victims of domestic violence," said a representative from an advocacy group in a May 21 Charleston Gazette article, "[they] could lose custody of their kids, could lose possession of their homes. They could be forced to stay in a violent relationship."
Governor Manchin's office responded with a May 22 press release calling the concerns "premature," as the proposal was a draft and had not received his final approval. The release notes that the governor secured a funding increase for the services in the last fiscal year, and that he would not cut funding in the upcoming one.
"We were proud to be able to increase that funding last year and will continue our commitment to assist victims of domestic violence," said Manchin. "This is an important program and I understand the money has been responsibly spent and is helping the victims who need our assistance."
Adrienne Worthy, executive director of Legal Aid of West Virginia, says, "We were pleased that Governor Manchin, who has been a staunch supporter of legal services to domestic violence victims, quickly resolved the budget problem. By providing attorney assistance with safety and self-sufficiency issues, this program will continue to be a legal lifeline for victims and their children."
The Georgia Legal Services Program and the Montana Legal Services Association were featured in a May 30 Wall Street Journal article on the issue of illegal income garnishments by debt collectors and banks. The article, "Closing the Benefits Loophole," by Ellen E. Schultz, discusses how banks, at the behest of debt collectors, will freeze customer accounts containing funds-including veterans' benefits, Social Security income, stimulus funds, children's survivor benefits-that are supposed to be off-limits to debt collectors. The problem, according to the article, is that federal law does not say how the funds are supposed to be protected.
The article describes how Georgia Legal Services is representing an elderly, disabled couple-living entirely off Social Security-whose bank froze their accounts at the request of a collections agency that was pursuing a debt from the mid-90s. According to the article, the couple learned from a TV news program that their Social Security income was supposed to be exempt and contacted the legal aid program, who sued the bank for violating the law.
In a similar case, the Montana Legal Services Association helped a mother whose bank account was frozen when-having no health insurance-she was unable to pay off her children's medical bills. The family survived almost entirely on the children's Social Security survivor benefits, which are among those exempt from collection, following the death of their father in 2007. The legal aid program was able to unfreeze the account but it was eventually frozen again.
The article notes that a bipartisan group of legislators is working with the Treasury Department to ensure that such funds are protected.
Charles S. Hey-Maestre, executive director of Puerto Rico Legal Services, was quoted in a May 27 Washington Post article concerning the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sotomayor, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican background, would be the first Latina to serve on the nation's highest court.
"It's really important because Puerto Ricans have gotten so much bad press over the years-stereotyped as being on welfare, involved in terrorism," said Hey-Maestre. "They say, 'Puerto Ricans are really talented baseball players, but have you heard of them doing anything else?'...Now we have Sotomayor."
The San Juan-based Puerto Rico Legal Services receives the largest basic field grant from LSC. According to the Census Bureau, nearly half of the island nation's residents live in poverty, far more than the poverty population of any state.
Press Release, Virginia State Bar - May 29, 2009
Freddie L. Goode, senior managing attorney at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, has been selected for the 2009 Legal Aid Award by the Virginia State Bar's Access to Legal Services Committee.
The award recognizes lawyers employed by legal aid societies licensed by the Virginia State Bar. Recipients are chosen for their advocacy, quality of service, and impact beyond their service area.
Since Goode joined CVLAS as a paralegal and law clerk in 1988, he has become successful in challenging denials of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. "He also does a considerable amount of representation of older adults and disabled clients," according to the nomination letter from Henry W. McLaughlin III, CVLAS executive director.
Goode visits his clients in their own homes, hospitals, and adult homes. "A large number of clients have been able to escape lives of quiet desperation to enter lives of dignity with a steady income and Medicare because of success in appeals to administrative law judges," McLaughlin wrote.
The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is hosting a free webinar on June 23 entitled, "Fighting Foreclosure through Legal Aid-Community Organization Partnerships." The session will focus on efforts in Philadelphia and Los Angeles to help homeowners benefit from foreclosure mediation and loan modification negotiation initiatives. Presenters include Irwin Trauss of Philadelphia Legal Assistance and Antonio Hicks of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. The session will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. CDT.
Chicago Legal Aid Lawyer Wins New Yorker Caption Contest for Third Time
Larry Wood of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago has scored a record-breaking hat-trick by winning the New Yorker Magazine's Cartoon Caption Contest for a third time. The four-year-old contest typically generates 5,000 to 6,000 entries per week, according to the Chicago Tribune, and, according to a blog that tracks the results, has never had a three-time winner. Wood's latest winning entry was for a cartoon showing an actress being interviewed by a talk-show host on a set with windows covered by prison bars. Wood's caption: "Both the movie and I will be released this summer." His submission garnered 73 percent of the vote. "I don't want to come across as too excited because nobody else thinks it's that big a deal, but, yeah, I'm thrilled," said Wood.
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.
Food Stamps Saved for Diabetic Woman
Alexander Simpson of the Tupelo office of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS) was honored for his work on food stamp cases at a recent statewide legal services conference. One of his first cases involved a client named "Ezra"-a 39-year-old diabetic woman with other potentially life-threatening medical problems who survived solely on food stamps and disability benefits.
Under doctor's orders to maintain a strict diet to control her diabetes, Ezra contacted NMRLS when she was disqualified from the food stamp program. Simpson investigated and learned that the state's Department of Human Services claimed that Ezra had misused her benefits card, found her guilty of an "intentional program violation" and cancelled her benefits-all without ever saying what she had done wrong.
Simpson and NMRLS appealed the decision to a state court. While the case was in litigation, Ezra suffered from extreme stress, was unable to purchase food at times, and was twice hospitalized with dangerously high blood sugar levels. Finally, after extensive litigation, the court reversed the agency's decision, describing it as arbitrary, capricious and unsupported by the evidence. The court restored Ezra's benefits retroactive to the date of the agency's decision.
Note: The original version of this article appeared in the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services's 2008 Annual Report. Click here to download a copy. ( 1.6 mb)