MLAC Statement on Confirmation of Kimberly Budd as SJC Chief Justice

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation applauds the confirmation of Kimberly S. Budd as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Justice Budd brings extraordinary credentials, judicial experience, and legal intellect to the position. In her four years on the SJC and seven years on the Superior Court before that, she has shown herself to be a talented, thoughtful, and creative legal thinker with a deep commitment to fairness and justice for all. A former member of the board of directors of Greater Boston Legal Services, she also brings a keen understanding of the essential need for civil legal aid.

Upon accepting Gov. Baker’s nomination to be chief of the state’s highest court, Justice Budd called the occasion “bittersweet,” as she and the legal community mourned the passing of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, whom she called a “mentor and a friend.”

Justice Budd filled the Superior Court seat of Justice Gants when he was elevated to the SJC, and she will now fill his role as chief. The legal aid community keenly felt the loss of Justice Gants, who was a longtime champion of civil legal aid and access to justice. We are confident that she will recognize legal aid’s vital role in safeguarding the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable people.

We celebrate this historic nomination and that Massachusetts will have its first Black woman chief justice.

We applaud Gov. Baker for this exceptional nomination and the Governor’s Council for its unanimous confirmation. We look forward to working with Chief Justice Budd to advance justice for all.

Lynne Parker, Executive Director

MLAC praises Senate Ways and Means for recommending $29M for Civil Legal Aid

In wake of COVID, demand for legal aid surges

Today the Senate Ways and Means Committee presented its Fiscal Year 2021 budget, including $29 million to fund civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation 0321-1600 – a $5 million increase over FY 20.

“This funding increase is vital, and we thank Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues for their leadership in providing it,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on low-income people in the Commonwealth. This funding increase will help legal aid lawyers across the state provide essential services to protect people at risk of losing their housing, access to benefits, and other protections.”

Parker also extended her gratitude to the many Senators who support this increased funding and recognize the extraordinary work that legal aid lawyers have been doing in their communities during the pandemic.

She also thanked the Equal Justice Coalition that has championed the crucial work of civil legal aid during the COVID-19 crisis, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association, managing partners of many of the state’s largest law firms, and advocates with social services organizations in every corner of the Commonwealth.

“Civil legal aid is an essential service that has been helping vulnerable people in every part of the Commonwealth resolve serious legal issues that threaten people’s health, safety, and financial stability. This budget recognizes that the surge of need is ongoing and that front-line legal aid lawyers and advocates are a vital part of the state’s response to and recovery from this crisis,” Parker said.

Warning: Debt collection tsunami coming

By Jacquelynne Bowman and Richard Dubois in CommonWealth Magazine

There’s a second COVID-related wave about to hit families in the Commonwealth: a tsunami of debt collection activity that threatens our economic recovery. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, 20 percent of folks in Massachusetts had a debt in collection–rising to an eye popping 39 percent in communities of color, according to the Urban Institute. These numbers will only worsen as we face uncertainty around future COVID shutdowns and whether additional federal aid will be offered to people who have lost and are still losing work during this pandemic. The inevitable eviction tidal wave resulting from the end of the eviction moratorium will also increase debt collection activity by landlords for back rent.

But Massachusetts legislators can help our struggling families right now by passing the Debt Collection Fairness Act. Our representatives in the State House must ensure that the COVID-19 crisis does not result in Bay Staters, particularly those in communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, entering a never-ending cycle of debt.

Right now, large out-of-state debt buyers who purchase portfolios of old credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar can sue individuals in court for these alleged debts. If the court issues a judgment , the collector can hound a struggling consumer for 20 years to collect that judgment. The entire time, 12 percent interest accrues on it. In the entire nation, only Vermont and Rhode Island also charge interest on judgments that high. Folks end up paying these debts for decades because they can’t afford to make payments large enough to reduce the principal.

After a judgment is issued, judges can require consumers to appear in court for payment review hearings. If the consumer fails to attend (even if they never received the notice), the court can issue a civil arrest warrant. In 2016, four randomly selected Massachusetts small claims courts issued a total of 1,325 civil arrest warrants in a single year. Abusive creditors use these civil arrest warrants to frighten consumers into making payments they can ill afford or might not even be legally obligated to make. No one in the Commonwealth should be imprisoned, or threatened with imprisonment, for failure to pay a consumer debt… Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

MLAC to oversee statewide COVID Eviction Legal Help Project

Legal services network to aid eligible low-income tenants and landlords

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation will manage a new COVID Eviction Legal Help Project to provide urgently needed legal assistance in pandemic-related eviction cases.

The CELH Project will expand the capacity of existing legal aid organizations to provide essential help to income-eligible tenants facing eviction due to COVID-19 and to landlords who are income-eligible owner-occupants of two- and three-family homes.

MLAC will oversee the delivery of services through contracts with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and six regional legal aid organizations across the state: Community Legal Aid, De Novo, Greater Boston Legal Services, Northeast Legal Aid, and South Coastal Counties Legal Services.

The program is part of the Baker-Polito Administration’s Eviction Diversion Initiative, to support tenants and landlords facing financial challenges caused by the pandemic. The goal of this initiative is to keep tenants safely in their homes and to support the ongoing expenses of landlords after the Commonwealth’s pause of evictions and foreclosures expired on October 17.

“The adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income Massachusetts residents cannot be overstated,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC. “It’s my great hope that the assistance made available through this project will really make a difference in the lives of the thousands of tenants facing eviction and keep families in safe housing.”

The CELH project will provide referrals, legal information, assistance, and legal representation in all sittings of the Massachusetts Housing Court, including the lawyer for the day program, to preserve or achieve housing stability. When possible, it will also provide legal assistance in District Courts with high-volume summary process caseloads and to prevent the termination of subsidies prior to court to avert eviction.

MLAC will partner with Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Volunteer Lawyers Project to develop two initiatives:
– Rapid recruitment and training of lawyers and paralegals for temporary, fulltime paid positions with regional legal aid organizations across the Commonwealth to provide support and legal representation at all stages of the eviction process, including assistance prior to a court filing, and
– Rapid expansion of the pool of pro bono attorneys who are available to provide support and legal representation to income eligible landlords and tenants, at all stages of the eviction process, with support, training, and supervision from attorneys experienced in landlord-tenant law.

END

About MLAC

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth established MLAC in 1983 to ensure that low-income people facing critical non-criminal legal issues would have access to legal information, advice, and representation.

For more info, please visit mlac.org

On Twitter @CivilLegalAid

MLAC applauds $29M for Civil Legal Aid in House Ways and Means Budget

In COVID’s wake, grateful for funding needed more than ever, says Lynne Parker

BOSTON, November 5, 2020 — Today the House Ways and Means Committee presented its Fiscal Year 2021 budget, including $29 million to fund civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation 0321-1600 – a $5 million increase over FY 20.

Lynne Parker, executive director of MLAC applauded the funding increase, calling it an important recognition of the devastating impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on low-income people. “We thank House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz for their leadership in providing additional funding for civil legal aid, an essential service that is needed now more than ever,” she said. “They recognize the need for this additional funding to aid vulnerable people at risk of losing their income, benefits, housing, and other necessary protections to keep them safe and healthy during the pandemic.”

Parker also thanks many members of the House for their support of this increased funding, noting how many legislators appreciate the work done for their communities through local civil legal aid offices. She also praises the Equal Justice Coalition that has championed the essential work of civil legal aid during the pandemic, including the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association, managing partners of many of the state’s largest law firms, and advocates with social services organizations in every corner of the Commonwealth.

“This budget recognizes the surge of need for civil legal aid and will help MLAC fund front-line lawyers and advocates to assist thousands more people who otherwise would not receive assistance in resolving serious legal issues that threaten their health, safety, and financial stability,” Parker said.

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About MLAC The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth established MLAC in 1983 to ensure that low-income people facing critical non-criminal legal issues would have access to legal information, advice, and representation. For more info, please visit mlac.org

On Twitter @CivilLegalAid

Single mom, others kicked off unemployment and told to repay money prompts lawsuit against Mass. Department of Unemployment Assistance

Community Legal Aid has sued the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance after the department halted weekly benefits for five workers and demanded repayment, officials said.

The lawsuit alleges that the department’s conduct violates state and federal laws, including the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, as workers who claim benefits have the right to receive notice, and an opportunity to be heard, before DUA stops paying benefits. Director of DUA Richard Jeffers is named in the suit.

DUA initially approved claims for the workers, a nurse, nursing assistant, machinist, payroll professional, and plant manager for a local food manufacturer, according to the statement. But weeks later, the payments allegedly stopped with no notice to the plaintiffs or opportunity for a hearing.

“At its core, due process requires our government to inform a person why her freedom or property might be taken away, and to give the person a meaningful chance to oppose the government’s position. Unemployment benefits are ‘property’ under the law. That’s why DUA’s own regulations require notice and hearings,” said CLA Litigation Director Leigh Woodruff.

“These Massachusetts workers did not choose to lose their paychecks in a global pandemic,” Woodruff continued. “But DUA’s actions are forcing them to accumulate credit card debt and even cash out their 401Ks just to buy food and pay bills, and stress is making workers sick.”

One of the defendants, a single mother of an 8-year-old daughter who is severely disabled and nonverbal, stopped receiving payments in August and UI Online lists the status of her benefits as on “hold.” Without the benefits, the woman has suffered financially in addition to non-economic harms, including “slippage in her daughter’s developmental progress due to inability to afford disability-assistive devices; extreme stress, worry, anxiety, and insomnia; adverse effects on her relationships; and a stress-induced outbreak of the painful disease called ‘Shingles,’” the lawsuit reads.

Community Legal Aid last week served a motion for a preliminary injunction that would order the department to immediately stop depriving workers of benefits without due process, according to the statement.

The injunction is needed to protect workers from debt, stress-induced health problems and being evicted, as Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium was lifted in October, Community Legal Aid contends.

“These are exactly the kinds of harm that unemployment benefits are supposed to prevent,” Woodruff said.

Community Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties, said it expects a decision on the motion by December.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that DUA’s practices in these cases violate the following federal and state laws: the Social Security Act, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Massachusetts’ Unemployment Insurance Law, and DUA’s own regulations, among other relief.

The state GDP contracted by 43.8% and unemployment reached 17.7% in Massachusetts in June. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment across the country has reached its highest level since the Great Depression.

“These numbers have not been seen since the 1930s, and DUA has a duty to provide the benefits that Congress created to help working families in this situation. It is no excuse for DUA to say: ‘We are too busy to get this right,’” Woodruff said.

Read more in MassLive

Tenants and landlord in Mattapan reach a long-term contract on rents

This summer, when Lester White heard the Mattapan apartment building he has called home for 20 years was going up for sale, he figured, well, that was that.

“I thought, ‘I”ve got to get ready to move. The neighborhood’s changing over,’” he said. “I was ready to go to Home Depot and pick up some boxes.”

But instead, White went to a meeting with some of his fellow tenants at the Morton Village Apartments, an aging 207-unit complex off Gallivan Boulevard. Then he went to another, and another. Last week, the tenants group and the building’s new owners announced a deal that will keep the current residents of Morton Village in place, with modest rent hikes, for at least five years, with a little help from City Hall.

It’s the sort of deal supporters say can help stabilize Boston’s tumultuous housing market, especially for working-class renters at risk of being pushed from their neighborhoods as deep-pocketed investors move in. Not unlike a union contract, the private agreement reached between tenants and the landlord lays out modest rent increases so everyone knows what the next few years will look like, and can plan accordingly.

With housing advocates fearing a wave of evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and landlords anxious about a growing effort to reinstate formal rent control in Boston, this kind of voluntary agreement can be a model that makes sense for all involved, said Maggie Gribben, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services who helped the tenants group negotiate.

“This is something that’s possible for other landlords to do,” she said. “And it creates a mutual respect from the very beginning.”… Read more in the Boston Globe.

SJC Rules Unidentified IOLTA Funds Must Be Transferred to IOLTA Committee

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that unidentified IOLTA funds do not fall under the state’s abandoned property statute and must be transferred to the IOLTA Committee for disposition. The decision, in the Matter of Gregory M. Olchowski, clarifies for attorneys what had been a disputed area: whether to remit unidentified funds to the IOLTA Committee or to the State Treasurer as abandoned property under G.L.C. 200A.

The decision, which was authored by the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants in one of his final acts, will benefit programs providing civil legal services to low-income and elderly Massachusetts residents. IOLTA funds are distributed to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Massachusetts and Boston Bar Foundations to support civil legal services and access to justice initiatives.

“In a year filled with loss and injustice, this decision is a ray of hope,” said MA IOLTA Committee Chair, Hannah Kilson. “In finding that the principal in an IOLTA account is not subject to the abandoned property statute, the SJC is rightly exercising its superintendence authority over the practice of law. The decision provides lawyers with the necessary guidance on how to address the issue of unidentifiable IOLTA funds while providing underfunded legal services programs with a small but badly needed source of additional funding.”

Jayne Tyrrell, Executive Director of the IOLTA Committee, added, “The IOLTA Committee is pleased with the court’s decision and looks forward to working with the Rules Committee to amend Rule 1.15 as ordered by the Court.”

Massachusetts Bar Association applauds IOLTA funds decision – read more in Mass Bar eJournal.

BBA Hails Olchowski Decision, on Unidentified IOLTA Funds, as a Win for Access to Justice – read more from the Boston Bar Association.

MAC Attorney Liza Hirsch pens Op-Ed in CommonWealth Magazine

CommonWealth Magazine published an op-ed by Massachusetts Advocates for Children attorney Liza Hirsch. Hirsch underscores the disproportionate rate that police arrest students of color and urges schools in Massachusetts to “institute bold and dramatic changes to counter practices built upon and perpetuating racism”…Read more.