LSC Updates - November 21, 2008
Former LSC board member LaVeeda Morgan Battle and national legal aid leader Alan W. Houseman have been selected to advise President-elect Barack Obama's transition team on issues relating to the Legal Services Corporation.
Battle, who served on LSC's board from 1995 to 2004, says she was approached months ago to provide information on LSC, according to a Nov. 12 article in Alabama's Birmingham News. "I am certain that this, as well as all issues the administration is going to have to address, will be carefully considered," said Battle, who is currently the principal attorney of the Battle Law Firm in Birmingham. She is a former administrative law judge for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a former chair of the American Bar Association's Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice.
Houseman, who served as a senior member of LSC's staff from 1976 to 1981, is the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group whose mission includes securing equal justice for all. He has a long history of involvement in poverty law advocacy and the delivery of legal services to the poor. In 1968 he was a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow with Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services in Michigan. In 1969 he founded the statewide Michigan Legal Services. Since then he has written extensively on legal aid and poverty law issues, and is considered a national expert on the subject.
LSC's Technology Initiative Grants Program Awarded
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett delivered the keynote address at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County's 50th Anniversary celebration in Anaheim, Calif., on Nov. 6. LSC board member Tom Fuentes attended the event as an honored guest.
In her address, Barnett reflected on the organization's decades of distinguished service to the area's poor and recognized the program for its statewide and national leadership in expanding access to justice. "Since it was established, the Legal Aid Society has closed at least 400,000 civil cases on behalf of low-income individuals," said Barnett. "That is a terrific record of accomplishment, and a reflection of the dedication and commitment by the board of directors and its President, and the program's inspired leadership and wonderful long-serving staff."
She also commended the program for consistently and creatively responding to the ever-evolving needs of its clients, exemplified by the recent launch of a foreclosure prevention project, a new partnership with a family health center to tackle legal issues affecting childrens' health, and the program's pioneering use of technology to better serve their clients.
The celebration included an awards ceremony, where LSC's Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program was honored for its role in supporting the Legal Aid Society's I-CAN! software programs, which help clients fill out and print properly formatted court forms, and easily and electronically file their state and federal tax returns, in addition to applying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. LSC's TIG program played an integral role in the development of the software and has supported its expansion to other states around the country.
The Role of Executive Directors in Promoting Quality
LSC has compiled a compendium of comments from the Executive Directors of LSC-funded programs on the subject of their role in promoting quality-ensuring that their clients receive the highest quality legal services possible. The document, Quality and Equal Justice: The Role of Executive Directors, is primarily a synthesis of experiences and insights gleaned from an inspiring discussion of the topic, led by LSC Board Member David Hall, at LSC's 2008 Executive Directors Conference in June. During the discussion, the directors addressed issues like: passion-how legal aid leaders should be passionate about their mission to serve the poor and should surround themselves with similar people; mentoring-why legal aid leaders must serve as role models and provide training and support to younger attorneys; and listening-to their attorneys, their non-legal staff, and their clients. The report is an element of LSC's multi-pronged Quality Initiative, which has been the centerpiece of LSC President Helaine M. Barnett's tenure at LSC.
LSC has released its final report on the technological capacities that a modern legal aid program should have in place or have available to them. The updated report, Technologies That Should Be in Place in a Legal Aid Office Today, reflects comments received from a survey of grantees and an advisory group of leaders from legal aid programs. The report covers technologies related to topics such as management of client and case data, intake and telephone advice, support for private attorneys, security, and training. LSC will rely on the report when reviewing the technology plans that grantees will be required to submit along with their 2010 grant applications and renewals. LSC President Helaine M. Barnett recently sent a memo to the executive directors of all LSC-funded programs detailing the ways in which LSC can help programs enhance their capacities.
The Wisconsin Law Journal reports that Legal Action of Wisconsin is cutting staff positions to forestall a looming $1 million budget deficit caused by the precipitous decline in IOLTA revenue resulting from falling interest rates and declining investment stocks. "Since we cannot run at a deficit we have to cut expenses," said John F. Ebbot, executive director of the program. "We've already started on that and probably about 12 or 13 staff positions all told will have to be essentially laid off." Legal Action received about $750,000 in IOLTA funding this year, collected when interest rates were around 1 percent, but could receive as little as $371,000 in 2009, based on the current rate of 0.2 percent. Legal aid programs in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Texas have all recently reported similar crises, as the nationwide economic meltdown threatens this vital funding source throughout the nation.
Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer joined leaders from state and local bar associations to proclaim that November 12 will now be celebrated as "Legal Aid Day" in Ohio. The designation was made in honor of all those who provide legal services to the state's low-income residents. Chief Justice Moyer singled out the state's new foreclosure prevention project as one of the best examples of how legal aid programs can help society address major social problems. The project, known as the Save the Dream Initiative, brings together legal aid programs, housing counseling agencies, the state bar, the governor's office, the supreme court, and others to help keep families in their homes. "Efforts like the Save the Dream initiative prove the value of legal aid," said Chief Justice Moyer. "Because of the help of many dedicated, selfless lawyers who have provided legal assistance, many Ohio homeowners have been able to remain in their homes through these tough economic times." LSC provides grants to six legal aid programs in the state, all of which are participants in the Save the Dream Initiative.
Hawaii Legal Aid Deputy Director Honored by State Bar
The Hawaii State Bar Association has awarded M. Nalani Fujimori, deputy director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, with its C. Frederick Schutte Award, which is given to attorneys for outstanding and meritorious service to the legal community and the profession. Fujimori is being recognized for working to improve access to justice for Hawaii's people and for raising public awareness of the need for equal access to justice. She was nominated for the award by Hawaii's Access to Justice Hui, a group of representatives from the state bar association, courts, legal aid programs, and law schools. Fujimori served on the group's advisory board, and was instrumental in the creation of the statewide legal needs assessment that was released last year. "I am honored to receive this award," said Fujimori. "Access to justice is critically important to the people of Hawaii and is fundamental to what makes our country great. I am excited about the future work of the access to justice commission, and am proud to know that I played a role in helping the people of Hawaii."
By Karla Gray, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice
The U.S. Constitution requires that all people receive the equal protection of the laws. "Equal Justice Under Law" appears over the main entry to the U.S. Supreme Court in our nation's capital. If folks cannot reasonably access their courts, equal protection of the laws and equal justice under law will remain empty promises.
Sadly, many Montanans have, as a practical matter, little or no realistic hope of obtaining equal justice. I speak of our friends and neighbors who are on the edge financially and simply cannot afford to hire an attorney. I think most often of the mother or father trying to manage a divorce or a parenting issue with no knowledge of the law or court proceedings. I think of the single parent threatened with eviction who has no idea what her or his rights are, or where to turn next. While courts exist to resolve disputes, ways must be found to provide adequate access to those courts - and to justice - for low-income Montanans. We can't get there overnight, but we must get there. And the only way to get there is for every person who believes that equal justice means equal justice for all, not just for the wealthy, to work together in providing a variety of resources to low-income Montanans with legal problems.
Note: The Montana State Bar has created a new award to be given annually to a judge for efforts to expand access to justice. The new award is named in honor of Judge Gray, who is its first recipient. This is the bar's first award for judicial efforts.
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.
Jury Awards Worker $84,520 for Unpaid Overtime and Retaliation
Press Release, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid – October 21, 2008
A local jury has awarded Rio Grande Valley resident Jose Lopez $84,520 in a lawsuit against Danny's Mexican Restaurant for unpaid overtime and retaliation.
Represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), Jose Lopez was a cook at Danny's Mexican Restaurants for ten years. In July 2007 he filed a lawsuit against the Mission chain of the restaurant, owned by Daniel and Graciela Ramirez, for failing to pay him overtime and firing him after he demanded that he be paid the correct wages. During his employment, Lopez worked between fifty-eight and seventy-four hours per week but was only paid seven dollars per hour.
According to the lawsuit, the restaurant had workers use multiple time cards to avoid recording overtime and then paid workers in cash for their extra hours and at their regular hourly wage. They also destroyed wage and hour records.
According to TRLA attorney Kathryn Youker, "Employers who fail to pay overtime are taking advantage of their employees and businesses that comply with the law. It has never been good for business or for the economy to exploit workers."
A jury found that the restaurant willfully failed to pay overtime wages and fired Lopez as a result of his wage demands. As a result, they awarded him $84,520 for unpaid overtime, lost income, and damages.
In response to the award, Lopez stated, "Workers in this country have rights. Sometimes we just accept what employers give us, but we need to open our eyes and demand that companies don't take advantage of us. In this case, justice was done."