Springfield Officials Stress Help Is Available For People To Avoid Eviction

Government funds have helped people in western Massachusetts stay in their homes as jobs were lost and income shrank during the pandemic.

Last June, the city of Springfield announced a $2 million emergency housing fund to help people pay rent, mortgage, and utility bills. All but $140,000 has now been claimed.

The state has put millions into housing assistance. Additionally, Springfield last year awarded $5 million to four social service agencies to assist the homeless. Most of that money has not yet been spent, according to Gerry McCafferty, the city’s Director of Housing….

Eviction proceedings are put on hold once someone makes an application for assistance, said Jane Edmonstone of Community Legal Aid.

“There have been many times that Way Finders and legal defense have come rushing in as the moving trucks were pulling up and able to walk that back,” she said…. Read more from WAMC.

Boston advocacy groups will argue to keep policy in lawsuit challenging new exam school admissions process

A coalition of Black, Asian and Latino advocacy groups will intervene in a lawsuit brought on by Boston parents that challenges a new admissions process for entry into the city’s elite exam schools, a policy the coalition wants to keep in place….

The lawsuit filed Friday by the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence against the school committee and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius argues that a new exam school admissions process that suspends for one year the use of an entry exam and instead weighs student performance, zip code and GPA or MCAS results is unfair and disfavors white and Asian students….

Bethany Li, director of Greater Boston Legal Services’ Asian Outreach Project said, “The Asian American community wants to make clear that it won’t be a wedge between other people of color and white people in this fight for racial justice.” …Read more in The Boston Herald.

As bills pile up for many jobless workers, state’s ‘dinosaur’ benefits system provides only frustration

For many Massachusetts workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, the stress of being laid off has been magnified by the Sisyphean effort to navigate a balky unemployment system that has been hammered by more than 2.7 million new claims filed since mid-March of last year….

“They weren’t prepared to address unemployment in regular times,” said Rory MacAneney, an employment attorney at Community Legal Aid in Worcester, which has opened more than 500 unemployment cases since March 17 of last year. “When the system became strained, it was straining an already ineffective and inefficient system.”

…“They can correct a problem with accuracy later,” Leigh Woodruff, litigation director at Community Legal Aid, said of the state. “They cannot correct a problem with promptness later because after months and months without benefits, those families will already be financially devastated in ways that will potentially harm them for the rest of their lives.” Read more in The Boston Globe.

Why are Latinos so overrepresented in the state child welfare system?

Raquel, who did not want her last name used, is one of thousands of Latino families struggling to navigate a state child welfare system that is disproportionately ensnaring members of their community – and that is not always well-positioned to serve them. Latino children are more likely than white children to have an open DCF case and more likely to be removed from their homes. In fact, according to the national research organization Child Trends, Latinos were more overrepresented in foster care in Massachusetts than in any other state…

Susan Elsen, a staff attorney in the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s family and child justice unit, said the statistics show that the racial disparity in DCF starts at the front of the system, when families are first flagged for attention, usually by mandated reporters. The fact that the disparity persists and leads to Latino children being removed from their homes suggests that DCF also needs more interventions to help families once they enter the system. “We have to affirmatively do something to reduce the racial disproportionality as kids go through the system,” Elsen said….

Elsen said cultural factors could also play a role in how DCF evaluates families. For example, the agency might impose space and room requirements, which would consider having a child sleeping on a living room couch unacceptable, even if the child is comfortable. Latino families may be more willing to rely on extended family or community to supervise a child, while DCF wants more supervision in the immediate household.

“Often, if you evaluate a family from a perspective of a white middle-class person and you haven’t been trained to understand the way another culture might operate, what their strengths are and how they do parenting, then you may just see differences as deficits, and you may not even perceive the strengths,” Elsen said… Read more in Commonwealth Magazine.

When Does COVID-19 Become A Disability? ‘Long-Haulers’ Push For Answers And Benefits

When COVID-19 first arrived in the U.S., Jodee Pineau-Chaisson was working as the director of social services for a nursing home in western Massachusetts. By the middle of April, residents at the Center for Extended Care in Amherst were getting sick.

Pineau-Chaisson is a so-called long-hauler. These are people who survive COVID-19 but have symptoms — sometimes debilitating symptoms — many months later. As scientists scramble to explain what is going on and figure out how to help, disability advocates are also scrambling: They are trying to figure out whether long-haulers will qualify for disability benefits.

COVID-19 survivors are the newest group to approach the federal government for disability coverage, and it’s unclear whether they will be considered eligible….

“I do think it’s still an open question. It’s still a little iffy about whether [long-haulers] will be able to qualify,” says Linda Landry, an attorney at the Disability Law Center in Massachusetts.

She says it seems clear that long-haulers qualify for protections under the Americans with Disability Act, which would afford them accommodations for things like housing and accessing government services. But the question of whether long-haulers will be eligible for federal disability benefits is still being debated…

The requirement is that “you have to have had or are likely to have a condition that affects your ability to work for 12 consecutive months,” Landry says… Read more from WBUR.

Hundreds of actions taken related to December evictions, state report shows

Legal representation for tenants lags behind representation for landlords, a problem that drew a $12.3 million state investment in legal aid.

Community Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to low-income or elderly residents of Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin, Hampshire and Worcester counties, was one recipient of that money. The group brought on 30 temporary staff members, including attorneys who help with court appearances and paralegals who assist with rental assistance applications, said Managing Attorney Jennifer Dieringer.

“There’s always a much higher percentage of landlords being represented than tenants, but I do think this funding is going a long way,” Dieringer said….

…Of the more than 4,000 nonpayment eviction cases filed in Massachusetts since the state moratorium expired, about 150 have come in Berkshire County. The proportion of tenants with representation is not quite as low as the 0.9 percent suggested by the trial court report, Dieringer said. Legal representation was recorded for just 38 of 4,418 tenants in December eviction cases, according to the report. Read more in The Berkshire Eagle.

AG, Chief Justice, hundreds of attorneys call for increased funding at Talk to the Hill

Advocates urge legislature to fund civil legal aid at $35M in FY22

With demand for civil legal aid surging amid the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of attorneys and law students gathered online to make the case for increased state funding for civil legal aid.

The 22nd annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid was reinvented this year as the Talk to the Hill, an online meeting headlined by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberley Budd, and Michael Curry, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

“We need civil legal aid to be stronger than it has ever been before,” said Healey, supporting the $35 million in funding that the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation is seeking in FY22 – a $6 million increase over FY21. Though she refers to the Attorney General’s office as “The People’s Law Firm,” Healey said, “Legal services attorneys are the people’s lawyers.”

Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition and partner at WilmerHale, chaired the online meeting, and opened with a moving video tribute to the late SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who died unexpectedly in September. A longtime champion of civil legal aid, Chief Justice Gants spoke annually at the Walk to the Hill. “We deeply miss his leadership, and we deeply miss his inspiration,” Tompros said.

Chief Justice Kimberly Budd continued the tradition of the Court’s support of increased civil legal aid funding. “The tragic events of the past year have focused our attention on the many inequities in our society. The pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions in employment, education, childcare, and everyday life. And the resulting hardships have fallen most heavily on those who can least afford them,” said Chief Justice Budd. “If we are truly committed to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society, one of the simplest steps that we can take toward that goal is to make it possible for more people to receive legal aid.”

The annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid is hosted by the Equal Justice Coaltion, a partnership of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. MLAC Executive Director Lynne Parker said that, “As we look to FY22, we are increasingly concerned that the number of those who qualify for civil legal aid will continue to rise as a result of the pandemic.” She noted that civil legal aid is an essential service, and “a significant and critical part of the Commonwealth’s social safety network.”

Michael Curry, of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, stressed the importance of having lawyers on the front line of public health issues to confront the “social determinants of health.” He asked lawyers to “lean in at this moment,” and urged the legislature to increase critical funding for civil legal aid.

Client testimony
Two clients shared their stories of how legal aid lawyers kept them and their families safely housed and financially stable during the pandemic.

Raymond Malo

Raymond Malo

Raymond Malo, a U.S. Army veteran, received help from Veteran’s Legal Services after his landlord sought to evict him and his family after he complained about hazardous conditions in his home. His lawyer not only prevented the eviction, but also is helping him try to purchase the property from the new owners of his duplex. Thanks to VLS, Mello said, “we were able to keep from being thrown out on the streets, and now we have the opportunity to purchase the home.”

Malensky Oscar was wrongly terminated from her job after she took time off to care for her young daughter, whose school closed due to the pandemic. Her job was pressuring her to return, but said she could take unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act. When she tried to return after a three-month leave, Oscar was fired. She applied for back pay and unemployment compensation, but was denied. Her doctor suggested she contact Greater Boston Legal Services, which helped her appeal the denials. “Within a matter of weeks, they were able to have the decision overturned and my funds released to me,” Oscar said. “I do believe that if I didn’t reach out and have GBLS with me to help with the appeal…that I would not have been able to get my family out of that financial burden.”

Malensky Oscar

Malensky Oscar

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that civil legal aid is an essential resource for vulnerable individuals and families,” said Denise Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “The number of civil cases involving critical legal issues has risen dramatically, as has the number of people who qualify for assistance.”

Boston Bar President Martin Murphy also made the case for increased funding. “At the core of the rule of law is a vision of equality, a belief that the law should protect us all – not just the rich, or the powerful, or the privileged,” he said. “But we know the rule of law can’t defend itself. Without funding for civil legal aid lawyers – the lawyers who are truly essential frontline workers in the fight for economic and racial justice – the vision of equal access to justice that breathes life into the rule of law is really nothing more than an illusion.”

At the conclusion of the speaking program, lawyers, advocates, and law students broke into 40 Zoom meetings with members of the state legislature to advocate for the funding increase. Jacquelynne Bowman, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services urged them to tell their legislators, “People are hurting, and many of our most vulnerable neighbors, who struggled before the pandemic, are at even greater risk today.”

Tompros added, “Tell them civil legal aid is an essential service, and everyone who needs a lawyer should have one.”


Cover photo: Attorney General Maura Healey and Chief Justice Kimberly Budd

Watch the speaking program on YouTube.

More news coverage of Talk to the Hill:
The Boston Globe: SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd calls for increased civil legal aid funding for low-income residents
The Salem News: Budd pushes for civil legal aid funding
Mass. Bar Association eJournal: Legal Aid Advocacy Goes Virtual At Talk To The Hill
Boston Bar Association: Hundreds Gathered to Advocate for Civil Legal Aid Funding at Virtual Talk to the Hill
UMass Law – Feature Stories: UMass Law honored for highest participation in 2020 Walk to the Hill event that raises funds for civil legal aid

MLAC’s response to Governor’s Budget

Urges legislature to provide $35M for civil legal aid in FY22

BOSTON, January 27, 2021 – Today, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker released his FY22 budget with a recommendation to fund civil legal aid at $29 million, the same amount of funding it received in the FY21 budget.

“I am grateful to Gov. Baker for his commitment to funding civil legal aid and his recognition. of civil legal aid lawyers as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. “The public health and economic crisis has had a disproportionate impact on low-income people, who continue to face unprecedented challenges and threats to their safety, financial stability, and wellbeing.

“Even before the pandemic struck, legal aid organizations turned away more people than they could serve, due to lack of financial resources. With the increase in both the amount of demand and the severity of the crises individuals and families are facing, MLAC is seeking an additional $6 million in funding so more people can have equal access to justice. We will work with Senators and Representatives in the Legislature to improve upon the level funding recommendation included in the Governor’s Budget today.

“Civil legal aid is a significant and crucial part of the Commonwealth’s social safety network, especially as we seek to respond to a devastating pandemic year. Funding civil legal is not only necessary and just, it is also a wise investment. Last year, civil legal aid organizations provided an economic benefit to the Commonwealth and its residents of $115 million.

“With the urgent unmet need and the strong return on the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid, we will strongly urge the legislature to increase civil legal aid funding to $35 million for FY22.”

SJC Chief Justice Budd Speaks of Need for Increased Civil Legal Aid at Talk to the Hill

In remarks delivered today at Talk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd spoke of the need for increased state funding for organizations that provide civil legal aid to vulnerable low income Massachusetts residents, a need made more urgent during the pandemic. Walk to the Hill, an annual event in its 22nd year, was renamed Talk to the Hill this year and held virtually due to the pandemic.

“The tragic events of the past year have focused our attention on the many inequities in our society. The pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions in employment, education, childcare, and everyday life. And the resulting hardships have fallen most heavily on those who can least afford them,” said Chief Justice Budd.

Organized by the Equal Justice Coalition, the event called for increased funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the largest funding source for civil legal aid organizations in the state, by $6 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget, for a total appropriation of $35 million.

According to MLAC, legal aid organizations in Massachusetts turn away 56% of eligible residents seeking help. Residents whose income is at or below 125% of the federal poverty level ($32,750/year for a family of four) are eligible for civil legal aid.

Chief Justice Budd said that data from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) shows that over half of the clients served by state legal services organizations receiving LSC grants are people of color.

“If we are truly committed to eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our society, one of the simplest steps that we can take toward that goal is to make it possible for more people to receive legal aid,” she said.

“We are very fortunate to live in a state where the Governor and the Legislature understand these issues,” Chief Justice Budd said. “In recent years, the Legislature has provided steady increases in funding for legal services. As a result, we have seen significant improvements in the percentages of people receiving assistance.”

Still, Chief Justice Budd noted, legal services organizations must turn away over half of those who ask for help. “They do not have the resources to meet everyone’s needs,” she said. “And as you all know, those needs are especially great right now, with all of the problems caused by the pandemic. Employment, housing, family law, domestic violence, consumer debt, and immigration are all areas of particular concern.”

“For every dollar spent on civil legal aid, MLAC tells us, we reap roughly two dollars in economic benefits for the Commonwealth and its residents. But more importantly, the additional legal assistance that dollar provides may be the difference for someone between having a home and losing it, making ends meet or going without heat, staying safe or living in fear,” said Chief Justice Budd.

The program began with a tribute to the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who championed civil legal aid funding.

In addition to SJC Chief Justice Budd, speakers included: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey; Michael Curry, Esq., President & CEO of Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers; Massachusetts Bar Association President Denise Murphy; Boston Bar Association President Martin Murphy; Lynne M. Parker, Executive Director of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation; Jacquelynne Bowman, Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services; and civil legal aid clients who received assistance during the pandemic. Louis Tompros, Chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, hosted the event.

Following the speaking portion of the event, lawyers, law students, and advocates in attendance moved into virtual breakout rooms to speak directly to state legislators to encourage them to increase funding in the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

The Equal Justice Coalition is a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low income residents with critical, non-criminal legal matters would have access to legal information, advice and representation. Civil legal aid organizations provide support to individuals in cases related to housing, employment, family law, domestic violence, health care, education, immigration, and protection of seniors, among other civil matters.

Four law firms and UMass Law win awards for legal aid advocacy

EJC recognizes exceptional participation at Walk to the Hill

The Equal Justice coalition has recognized four law firms and UMass Law School for their outstanding participation in the 2020 Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.
The award winners are:

Morgan Lewis: Highest Participation Award
Liberty Mutual: Exceptional Support
Fitch Law Partners: Nancy King Award
Wilmer Hale: Team Advocacy Award
UMass Law: Highest Participation for a Law School Award

UMass Law

UMass Law students

The Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid is an annual lobby day for increased funding for civil legal aid organizations through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation line item. Last January, nearly 700 attorneys and law students convened at the Massachusetts State House to ask legislators to increase the state appropriation for civil legal aid. The commonwealth ultimately included an increase of $5 million, appropriating $29 million for civil legal aid in FY21.

This year’s lobby day will be held online January 27, 2021, at 11 a.m. Participants can register online. The speaking program includes Attorney General Maura Healey, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, and Michael Curry, president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. Lawyers, advocates, and law students will have the opportunity to speak with the legislators online to lobby for $35 million in civil legal aid in FY22.

“We are so grateful to members of the private bar for their longstanding support for civil legal aid,” said Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. “Their advocacy is needed more than ever this year, given the devastating effect COVID-19 has had on low-income people. Civil legal aid is essential to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice to secure their health, safety, and financial stability during the pandemic.”
About the Award Winners:

Morgan Lewis won the Highest Participation Award, with 40 lawyers from the firm attending the 2020 Walk to the Hill.


Liberty Mutual received the Exceptional Support Award in recognition of having the second largest group of lawyers attend, with a total of 26 participants.


Fitch Law Partners received the Nancy King for bringing the largest percentage of law firm employees to the Walk. The award is named for Nancy King, a longtime legal aid attorney in Boston who passed away in 2007.


WilmerHale earned the Team Advocacy Award, which is given to the law firm that visits the most legislative offices during the Walk to the Hill.


UMass Law received the Highest Participation for a Law School Award. 87 students at the Dartmouth-based school traveled to Boston for the 2020 Walk to the Hill.

About the EJC

The Equal Justice Coalition is a collaboration of the Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation working to increase state funding for civil legal aid.

www.equaljusticecoalition.org

@equaljusticema

#IWalkforJustice