Massachusetts SJC rules employees at Chang & Sons farm in Whately are entitled to overtime

The state’s highest court on Friday reversed a lower-court ruling and decided that employees at a Franklin County farm are entitled to be paid overtime because the work they performed at the farm was not the same as farming. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Friday ruled in favor of the 15 plaintiffs in the case of Ana Arias-Villano and others vs. Chang & Sons Enterprises of South Deerfield…The Central West Justice Center, which represented the 15 plaintiffs, hailed the ruling as an important victory for worker’s rights. Leticia Medina-Richman, managing attorney for the center, said the decision “brings clarity about what constitutes fair compensation for the many hours worked by those performing the kinds of tasks that the plaintiffs performed.” Read more in The Springfield Republican

Suit alleges bias in civil commitments for addiction

Ten men who have been ordered into treatment for addiction filed suit Thursday against several state agencies, alleging that they are unlawfully being held in a prison instead of a treatment facility. The men are represented by Prisoners’ Legal Services. Read more…

More families, elders have no place to call home

Rising rents and stagnant wages have families and older residents struggling to remain in their homes. Of the state’s 20,068 homeless individuals, 13,257 were people in families with children. Read more…

Medford musician fights eviction from home of 70 years

The trouble began after Joe Lentino took a reverse mortgage in 2007 to get out from under his debt. Then he lost some gigs playing in jazz bands. And he started missing tax payments on the modest white house where he’s lived for about 70 years. Read more…

As rents soar in Boston, low-income tenants try to stave off eviction

The Thursday vibe at the sprawling Edward W. Brooke Courthouse on New Chardon Street in downtown Boston has a jittery, jagged edge to it. Thursday is trial day for eviction cases at Eastern Housing Court, where landlords and tenants from Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and eight other cities and towns square off. The busy hallway outside Courtroom 10 looks like an anxiety fair, with attorneys from legal aid clinics at tables surrounded by tenants with the desperate air of people who know that they might soon find themselves homeless…If Stanley had worked from the beginning with an attorney, he likely would have been able to find a way to stay, or at least gained more time to move, says Zoe Cronin, managing attorney of the housing unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, which offers free legal help to low-income tenants.

Read more in The Boston Globe.

New MLAC Leader Talks the Legal Aid ‘Walk’ – Podcast

For attorney Lynne Parker, the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on Jan. 24 at the Massachusetts State House will be her first as the new executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). But Parker is no stranger to the world of legal aid, having worked more than three decades advocating on behalf of low-income residents, most recently in New Hampshire. In this episode, Parker talks with host Jordan Rich about MLAC’s role as one of the primary funders of civil legal aid organizations in Massachusetts and why funding for legal aid — the drive behind the Walk to the Hill event — is so vital to low-income Massachusetts residents facing life-changing legal challenges. Listen to the podcast here…

Hundreds of Lawyers Rally for Increased Civil Legal Aid Funding at Walk to the Hill

Hundreds of Lawyers Rally for Increased Civil Legal Aid Funding at Walk to the Hill

Equal Justice Coalition chair Louis Tompros addresses the Walk to the Hill participants.

By Gray Christie
Attorneys, law students, and bar association leaders packed the Massachusetts State House Hall of Flags January 24 for the 20th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Led by Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, more than 650 people assembled at the Equal Justice Coalition’s annual lobby day to advocate for a state budget increase of $5 million for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts.

“Civil legal aid is not only a moral obligation; it is a sound investment,” said Chief Justice Gants, noting the money invested in legal aid yields savings for the Commonwealth by preventing homelessness, saving medical costs, and recouping federal benefits.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants

Ralph Gants, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, delivers his remarks at Walk to the Hill

Fred Connelly, a teacher and construction worker from Quincy, told the story of how lawyers with Greater Boston Legal Services helped his family avoid homelessness when they were facing eviction from the home they have lived in for nearly 40 years. Injured and out of work, he couldn’t afford a lawyer to help him keep the house he built himself. Without the help of GBLS, “I know for a fact I would not have my house back today,” he said.

In his budget filed the day before the walk, Gov. Charlie Baker included level funding for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts – an appropriation of $21 million dollars. While appreciative of the governor’s continued support, Walk to the Hill speakers stressed that more funds are needed to ensure that the civil justice system is accessible to all. Last year, two thirds of eligible applicants for legal aid were turned away.

Fred Connelly

Fred Connelly explains how Greater Boston Legal Services helped him keep his house

Lawyers from nearly 40 law firms and in house-legal departments and more than 30 bar associations gathered for the event, in addition to lawyers and staff from legal aid organizations, and students and faculty from New England Law, Boston University School of Law, Northeastern University School of Law, and two busloads of students from the University of Massachusetts School of Law. Chief Justice Gants urged them: “Ask your legislators if they believe that we as a Commonwealth can succeed when so many are struggling and being left behind … Discuss the families who will need legal help in the coming fiscal year because their lives have been upended by opiate addiction, by the threat of deportation, by eviction, by elder abuse, by wage theft, or by domestic violence.”

Louis Tompros, chair of the Equal Justice Coalition, invoked the Massachusetts justice system’s rich history: “It was here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that we developed the rule of law, it was here that we recognized its incredible power, and it was here that we recognized that equal access to the legal system—regardless of ability to pay—is a necessary condition to a free and just society … If we are serious about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ it is up to us to make it a reality.”

Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, noted that while the economy is improving for some, there is still a serious need for legal assistance: “Increases in housing costs often drive struggling tenants farther from their jobs. A job layoff, a medical emergency, the denial of hard-earned benefits, or the loss of health insurance can often be catastrophic to individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet. Access to civil legal aid can make all the difference.”

Lynne Parker

Lynne Parker, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, speaks at Walk to the Hill

Jonathan Albano, president of the Boston Bar Association (BBA), stressed both the proven economic benefits of investing in legal aid and the current inability to meet the state’s full need. He cited a BBA report which showed that civil legal aid “produces a positive return on investment—in housing cases, in taking on intimate-partner violence, and in securing rightful federal benefits, to name just a few vital areas.” He also stressed that “roughly 45,000 eligible Massachusetts residents are turned away each year. Plus, given recent developments at the federal level, including changes to immigration policies and cuts to antipoverty programs, the need for state legal aid will likely continue to grow.”

President of the Massachusetts Bar Association Christopher Kenney argued that the shortfall in legal aid funding amounts to a crisis: “More than 66 percent of eligible people in Massachusetts are forced to face life-changing legal matters alone, making it less likely they’ll succeed and more likely that they’ll require other state resources and add to the state’s fiscal burden.”

Created in 1999 in a collaboration between the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Boston Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Equal Justice Coalition leads an annual campaign to increase appropriations for legal aid in Massachusetts.

Northeast Legal Aid Finds New Ways to Serve Low-Income Clients

By John Carroll

In the early days of President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, lawyers in the Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw much of the initiative, funded programs that filed lawsuits seeking to address systemic economic problems. For example, a 1970 class action lawsuit (Goldberg v. Kelly) made the practice of terminating public assistance benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing illegal.

These early anti-poverty advocates realized that that the legal problems of lower-income citizens were symptoms of poverty rather than its cause. In 1974, Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act and the following year, the Legal Services Corporation took over management of anti-poverty measures rooted in legal services. In 1996, Congress amended federal law to prohibit any organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation from engaging in class action lawsuits. As a result, the focus of civil legal aid programs shifted from system change to assisting individuals in crisis.

Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) has programs rooted in both approaches to reducing poverty through legal advocacy. By the usual metrics employed to measure today’s civil legal aid programs, NLA looks typical. It serves 56 cities and towns in Essex and north Middlesex counties. Several of the areas have a disproportionate number of persons eligible for free legal services(annual income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, or $31,375 for a family of four). NLA’s areas of practice are also typical of a legal aid program: housing, family law, foreclosure prevention, elder and veterans issues, consumer debt, and public benefits.

A closer look, however, reveals that NLA hews to the original legal aid philosophy of attempting to address systemic economic problems that result in legal problems. One such effort, the Community Development and Entrepreneurship Practice, was launched in the fall of 2014 by NLA attorney Jared Nicholson. The idea is to help low-income entrepreneurs and small business owners in Lynn and Lawrence with free legal advice before legal problems arise, thus avoiding common legal pitfalls and business-related problems. As NLA Executive Director George Weber described it: “This program is forward looking—it is about how to avoid legal problems, not just how to get out of them.”

Nicholson, the creator, worked three years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York and Mexico City. There, he noticed how important legal aid was for businesses. As a Harvard law student, Nicholson applied for a grant from the Skadden Foundation, the charitable arm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, which provides funding for graduating students who want to devote part of their professional lives to helping the poor, elderly, people with disabilities and others who usually do not have access to quality legal services. NLA agreed to host the grant. The Community Development and Entrepreneurship Practice quickly became known as one of the few in the region exclusively dedicated to providing free legal advice to lower-income entrepreneurs and small business owners, helping them to address issues common to launching a business: incorporation, regulatory compliance, licensing, permits, leases and employment law.

Nicholson helped many who would have failed not because they were unwilling to work hard of getting a business off the ground, but because they do not understand the complex rules and regulations related to starting and running a business. Exhibit A is Anthony Seaforth, a Lynn resident who ran into difficulty navigating the regulatory system when seeking to obtain nonprofit status for his fledgling No Ceilings Youth Group, an organization dedicated to helping local student athletes succeed academically. The nonprofit designation better positioned No Ceilings to seek funding and work directly in Lynn schools.

Thanks to Nicholson’s help, Seaforth’s organization is thriving—and high school students in Lynn are benefiting. A Daily Item article about the program noted that No Ceilings is “truly touching the students who need it most.” The article reports:

“There really isn’t anyone in the city who can do what [Seaforth] does,” said Keoni Gaskin, a rising senior at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute “Our coaches are great role models for example, but there is something about Tony that makes him relatable in all situations.”

Nicholson has since moved on to other work, but two lawyers in the program—Sumbul Siddiqui and Carson Wheet—have picked up where he left off, expanding the program to more cities and towns in an effort to assist more aspiring entrepreneurs. NLA’s Community Development Practice continues to be a great program that can make a difference, providing impartial legal advice to those willing to open businesses, create jobs and thereby strengthen their community.

NLA came into being in 2014 with the merger of Neighborhood Legal Services and Merrimack Valley Legal Services, two organizations with histories that stretch back to 1967, when a small group of socially conscious lawyers and paralegals gathered to provide civil legal aid to low-income and elderly people in the Northeastern Massachusetts. Given the increased client demand and the growing scarcity of resources since those early days, NLA should be commended for effectively adapting to meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve.

John Carroll is a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Ministering To Puerto Rico’s Pain: Civil Legal Aid Lawyers Assisting Those Seeking Mass. Refuge

This post first appeared on WGBH News.

By Jacquelynne Bowman and Lonnie Powers

Five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the situation on the island remains dire, and states throughout the nation have welcomed Puerto Rican refugees—who are U.S. citizens—to the mainland. Here in Massachusetts, several thousand Puerto Ricans have sought refuge with friends and relatives, mostly in SpringfieldNew BedfordWorcester, and Boston. Massachusetts public schools have already enrolled approximately 2,000 students from the hurricane-ravaged island. In his state of the Commonwealth address this week, Governor Charlie Baker said that state agencies are working to streamline services for thousands of Puerto Rican residents as they settle in Massachusetts. And he has previously said that Puerto Rican refugees would be in need of “financial assistance, housing, health care, jobs or reunification services.”

These new residents will also require civil legal assistance. Civil legal aid attorneys have long played a critical role in helping people recover from natural disasters. They accelerate the recovery process for people with limited financial resources by helping them resolve housing issues, replace important legal identification papers, make insurance claims, apply for FEMA benefits, combat contractor scams that often proliferate in the aftermath of widespread property destruction, and deal with other unforeseen legal matters that surface in chaotic times. Even child custody issues can arise if a parent is forced to seek safety far from their storm-damaged residence.

That’s why the Louisiana Civil Justice Center (LCJC), an organization founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to provide disaster legal aid to its victims, sprang into action last September after Hurricane Irma lashed the Virgin Islands, followed shortly thereafter by Hurricane Maria’s wrath. In partnership with FEMA and the American Bar Association, LCJC deployed its disaster legal hotline as a central intake point for hurricane victims to receive legal information and referrals to appropriate agencies and legal advocates.

“The devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is likely to be a Katrina-level event,” said LCJC Executive Director Jonathan Rhodes in announcing the plan. “Of the many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, we know the value of legal assistance as survivors rebuild homes and communities.”

This burgeoning need was very much on the minds of attorneys lobbying the state legislature a few weeks ago for increased investment in civil legal aid. Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court addressed over 650 attorneys at the State House before they fanned out to meet with lawmakers, and reminded them of the increased burden on civil legal aid programs that will be assisting numerous Hurricane Maria refugees.

As civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts rise to meet the needs of Hurricane Maria refugees, they do so on top of existing needs among some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents. Civil legal aid programs help people avoid homelessness and unemployment, gain access to health care and veterans’ services, receive a quality education, and escape domestic violence. Currently, lack of funding forces civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts to turn away approximately 65 percent of eligible residents who seek services—nearly 45,000 people each year. To be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have incomes at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is $31,375 a year for a family of four.

The work of legal aid programs does not just benefit clients. The return on the state’s investment in civil legal assistance is high. In fiscal year 2016, new revenue for legal aid clients and cost savings to the Commonwealth from legal aid work totaled an estimated $49.2 million, of which $15.9 million was in the form of new federal revenue.

But that’s not why we should invest more in civil legal aid. As Gants also reminded us on Thursday, the best way to judge a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Those who are eligible for civil legal aid, among them Hurricane Maria refugees, are among our most vulnerable neighbors and we should be giving them all the help they need.

Lonnie Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Jacquelynne Bowman is the Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services.