Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission Announces Seven New Members

The Supreme Judicial Court announced the appointments of seven new members to the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, on December 23.

First established by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2005, the Access to Justice Commission seeks to improve access to justice for people who are unable to afford an attorney for essential civil legal needs, such as cases involving housing, consumer debt, and family law.

“We are delighted to welcome these new members to the Commission,” said Susan Finegan, who co-chairs the Commission. “These new members were nominated during the tenure of the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, my long-time co-chair at the Commission, and they are already engaged and contributing to the important work of the Commission. They include judges from the District Court and Housing Court, key administrators managing access to justice initiatives within the courts, an associate general counsel for an internationally renowned hospital, a partner at a leading law firm, and an attorney with a statewide legal advocacy organization. Each of these new members lends an important and unique perspective to the Commission’s ongoing efforts to ensure equal access to justice.”

The new Access to Justice Commission members are:

  • Hon. Julie Bernard, first appointed to the bench in 2002, currently serves as an Associate Justice of the District Court. She previously served as First Justice of the Brockton District Court. She is the Co-Chair of the Trial Court Race and Implicit Bias Advisory Committee, Chair of the District Court Working Group on Alternative Dispute Resolution, a Judicial Mentor and a member of the District Court Race and Ethnic Fairness Committee. She previously served as a member of the District Court Appellate Division and a member of the District Court Committee on Continuing Education. Prior to her appointment to the bench, Judge Bernard held positions with Keyspan Energy, Inc.; Verizon, Inc.; Segal & Feinberg; the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
  • Hon. Robert Fields, Associate Justice of the Western Division Housing Court.  Before his appointment in 2009, Judge Fields was the Clerk Magistrate of that Court. Prior to joining the Housing Court in 2001, Judge Fields was a founding partner at the Springfield based law firm of Heisler, Fields & Feldman and before that was a Staff Attorney in the Housing Unit of Neighborhood Legal Services in Lynn.
  • Krietta Bowens Jones, Associate General Counsel at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she advises on corporate, regulatory and risk management matters, as well as patient care matters and privacy and data security, including HIPAA and state medical privacy laws. Prior to working at Dana-Farber, Attorney Bowens Jones was an associate in the Health Law Department at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. She currently serves as a Council member of the Boston Bar Association and as a Trustee for the Boston Bar Foundation. She is also a member of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts and the American Health Lawyers Association.
  • Elizabeth Cerda, Senior Manager for Access to Justice for the Trial Court. Attorney Cerda is serving as the Trial Court’s ex officio access to justice representative. Attorney Cerda served as a law clerk in the Superior Court and a corporate associate with LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene and MacRae, LLP before returning to the trial court, first as Coordinator of Intergovernmental Relations and then with the Administrative Office of the District Court.
  • Lisa C. Goodheart, a partner at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, where she co-chairs the firm’s Environmental and Energy Law and Real Estate Litigation Practice Groups. She is a past president of the Boston Bar Association and past president of the Boston Bar Foundation. She has also served as chair of the Court Management Advisory Board and the Judicial Nominating Commission.
  • Rochelle Hahn, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute is co-director of the Massachusetts Legal Aid Websites Project, which seeks to improve access to justice for low-income and disadvantaged persons in Massachusetts through innovative use of technology. Attorney Hahn is also the co-manager of the Massachusetts Civil Legal Aid for Victims of Crime Initiative. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Legal Advocacy & Resource Center, a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, and a litigation associate at WilmerHale.
  • Sheriece M. Perry, Acting Co-Director of Support Services for the Massachusetts Trial Court Office of Court Management, where she oversees the Court Service Centers, Law Libraries, and Judicial Response System.  She is a past president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association and previously worked as a family law attorney in private practice and as a staff attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

Among other activities, the Access to Justice Commission coordinates with civil legal aid organizations to support their activities and develop new initiatives to address unmet needs. The Commission also works to increase the number of attorneys able to provide pro bono or limited assistance civil legal services and coordinates with the court system on initiatives that assist individuals to better understand and navigate civil legal proceedings. The Commission’s members include representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service organizations, bar associations, law schools, businesses, and other stakeholders in the access to justice community.

Online training for attorneys to help domestic violence survivors launches at crucial moment

By Jamie Sabino, Rochelle Hahn and Brian Reichart, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

The COVID-19 crisis has caused another crisis for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. While many of us are “safer at home,” for those who live with their abusive partners, staying at home may pose physical danger.

Accessing the courts to obtain restraining orders is more complicated now that many proceedings are being held virtually and concerns about COVID make it challenging to travel to a physical courthouse. Survivors face significant technological barriers on top of the longstanding difficulties they have confronted in trying to navigate a maze of unfamiliar court procedures and rules, during a time of great physical and emotional distress.

Although courts and advocates have undertaken efforts to ensure that survivors can indeed seek 209A restraining orders, now, more than ever, lawyers are needed to help survivors navigate these challenges. …Read more at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (subscription required).

The courses are available for free at www.masslegalservices.org/dvtraining, along with links to attorney volunteer opportunities.

Civil Legal Aid for Veterans in a Time of COVID

Veterans Legal Services, located in Boston, recently hosted a virtual discussion with Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow about the civil justice gap in Massachusetts, specifically in connection to low-income military veterans.

VLS Chief Counsel and co-Executive Director Anna Richardson and Minow covered a wide range of issues, most notably how the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the inequalities embedded throughout society — from housing instability and access to quality health care, to the growing need for emergency financial assistance. Civil legal aid, particularly for low-income military veterans, will play an increasingly important role in the nation’s recovery.

“The pandemic, in many ways, is like a big spotlight exposing all of the holes in our social safety net and the failures to deliver on our promises to society,” said Minow, who recently co-chaired a project report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences titled Civil Justice for All.

“VLS exemplifies two of the key recommendations from our report, which is partnerships — notably medical-legal partnerships…really just meeting people where they are — and connections with advocates who are not lawyers,” she added. “It’s to help people access the benefits they are entitled and the protections to which the law is devoted.”

You can watch the full conversation from the Dec. 9 event online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAglYgC7fdU&feature=youtu.be

Evictions are hitting hard in parts of Mass. where people are most vulnerable

Tanya DiStefano gave birth to a baby boy on Halloween. She returned home from the hospital to find an eviction notice on her doorstep.

“Rent in arrears,” it read in part. “Total $800.”

It’s been a tough year for DiStefano. She has a state subsidy to help pay the $1,250 monthly rent on a three-bedroom apartment in the Worcester County town of Spencer, but still has to come up with about $400 out of her own pocket. A roommate who shared the load lost two restaurant jobs in the spring and moved out. DiStefano said she can’t work because her older son, a kindergartner, is home from school. Now this.

“It was very terrifying,” she said. “You have a newborn baby. I don’t have the money for November. It caught up with me.”

On Monday, DiStefano’s landlord filed an eviction case against her in Central Housing Court in Worcester.

It’s one of several places around Massachusetts where new cases have piled up quickly since the state ended its eviction moratorium in October. Like the counties that are home to Springfield and Fall River, Worcester County has seen far more filings, per capita, than Suffolk County — dominated by Boston — or suburban locales such as Middlesex and Norfolk Counties.

It’s a trend that appears to highlight yet another way the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting hardest in places that were struggling before the health crisis, and could further exacerbate longtime divisions in the state’s economy and housing market.

“This is not a coincidence,” said Andrea Park, a housing attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “These are places with a lot of vulnerable people. They work service jobs. Maybe they don’t speak English. They’re dealing with a lot.” …Read more in The Boston Globe.

State instructs Boston, Worcester, and Springfield to open classrooms for special education students

Massachusetts education officials are intervening in an increasingly tense debate between parents of students with disabilities and school leaders in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, ordering officials in those cities to reopen classrooms as quickly as possible.

State officials instructed local leaders to provide comprehensive information on whether students with disabilities are accessing education in their homes on a daily basis. If the responses are unsatisfactory, the state will audit the district’s learning plans to determine whether officials are doing enough to meet their legal obligations to serve those students.

“For these particularly vulnerable groups of students, it is vital to have a plan for providing in-person instruction as soon as possible,” Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wrote last Monday in letters to the districts, giving them 10 days to respond. The state publicly released the letters on Friday.

Students with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by the school closures that began nearly nine months ago at the start of the pandemic. Parents have shared heart-wrenching stories of children suffering devastating regressions that could take a year or longer to recover from because school officials have refused to provide required services. Growing research is identifying similar losses.

Boston, Worcester, and Springfield — the state’s three largest school systems — collectively serve about 22,000 students with disabilities, but it’s doubtful that all those students would return. Some students with special needs are finding success with remote learning, while others are worried about potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Boston currently is providing in-person learning for fewer than 200 students at four schools, representing less than 1 percent of its more than 51,000 students. Springfield and Worcester are not educating any students in person, according to the state. Boston school officials, however, would not make any commitments Friday on when they will open more schools….

…Boston is already facing pressure from Greater Boston Legal Services to reopen classrooms. The organization sent a letter to school officials last month on behalf of a dozen clients detailing enormous learning losses and deteriorating mental health affecting students over the past nine months.

Elizabeth McIntyre, a senior attorney with the organization, said she appreciated Riley’s desire to help students, but said his efforts fell short, particularly in providing districts with the support and resources they need to open schools. Ultimately, both the state and districts are failing to meet their legal obligations to students with disabilities and are needlessly creating long-lasting harm. Her group is now contemplating next steps.

“There is a group of kids with complex disabilities who just can’t access school through a computer, and they are not getting” a free and appropriate public education, she said. “It’s disgraceful.” …Read more in The Boston Globe.

Evicted Families Face Long Waits, Emergency Placements Far From Home

…As COVID-19 drives up the need for emergency housing, advocates fear many more families will have to be placed farther away from the lifelines of their home communities. The state has to piece together priority placements and available housing, so it’s a bit like a “jigsaw puzzle,” said Andrea Park, attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

“Homelessness and eviction can spiral a family in a way that has really long-lasting repercussions on the children, [and] the family itself. It’s a really destabilizing force,” said Stephanie Herron Rice, a housing benefits attorney with the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts. “Once a family has been destabilized in that way, it’s very hard to get them rehoused in a stable way in a state like ours with such high rent and such little affordable housing.”

Read more at WGBH.org

State budget raises welfare grants for poor families

By Shira Schoenberg

Poor families and older adults getting cash assistance from the state are likely to see a boost in their payments this January – a boon to struggling families from a program that has not increased payments in decades.

The budget deal that emerged from a conference committee Thursday and sailed through both branches on Thursday includes a 10 percent increase in welfare grants for the rest of the fiscal year.

Deborah Harris, senior staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which has been lobbying for an increase, called it a major victory for those in need. “It is a dramatic and historic recognition by the Legislature and legislative leaders that cash assistance grants are far too low, that families, elders and people with disabilities suffer, and that this is contrary to the values of our Commonwealth,” she said.

Despite rising costs for everything from food to housing, state welfare grants have remained unchanged for decades. Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TANF) last increased the size of its grants in 2000, and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children (EAEDC), which primarily helps older and disabled adults, has not increased its grant size since 1988.

The budget bill will be voted on by the House and Senate Friday. If Gov. Charlie Baker signs the provision into law, beginning January 1, the maximum grant for a family of three on TANF would increase from $593 a month to $652. The maximum grant for a single person on EAEDC would increase from $303 to $333.

The budget allocates an additional $3.6 million in state money for EAEDC and $9.42 million for TAFDC to cover the increases.

A coalition of advocacy groups that work with low-income individuals had been campaigning for a bill, sponsored by Cambridge Democratic Rep. Marjorie Decker and Everett Democratic Sen. Sal DiDomenico, that would have raised the size of grants by 10 percent a year over five years until they reached half the federal poverty level – currently $905 a month for a family of three. The budget is silent on future increases, but advocates say they hope the new benefit level will be a floor for future years as they continue advocating for the rate to climb higher.

“This increase is an incredibly important first step and really historic because there has been no inflation adjustment to these grant amounts for a generation,” said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services.… Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

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.

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