Mass. seeks to claw back at least $2.7 billion in jobless benefits it says were incorrectly paid

Attorney Rory MacAneney of Community Legal Aid and attorney Hannah Tanabe of Greater Boston Legal Services were quoted in a Jan. 17 article in The Boston Globe about their efforts to protect individuals who received overpayments in unemployment insurance during the pandemic due to errors by the Department of Unemployment Assistance.

At least $2.7 billion in benefits went to claimants who, the DUA later determined, received too much money or weren’t eligible for unemployment in the first place. That’s according to a tally of state filings with the US Labor Department by attorney Rory MacAneney of CLA, which provides free legal help in Western Massachusetts.

Many people facing overpayments have already spent the money on necessities like food, rent, and transportation, or made purchases assuming they could afford it, said Hannah Tanabe, a staff attorney in the employment unit of GBLS. And since a majority of the overpaid benefits were funded by the feds, recoveries effectively drain money from the Massachusetts economy.

“We shouldn’t be driving workers who are getting back on their feet into more precarious financial situations when the overpayment resulted through no fault of their own,” she said.

Read more in The Boston Globe.

‘Rubber stamp’ justice? In Mass., prison officials almost always deny prisoners’ claims of abuse behind bars

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, was quoted in a Dec. 29 Boston Globe article that investigated the prison grievance system in Massachusetts.

Every year, Massachusetts prisoners file hundreds of grievances alleging all manner of mistreatment behind bars, from excessive force to racism to harassment — all at the hands of prison employees.

And year after year, state records show, prison officials reject almost all of them.

Elizabeth Matos, executive director at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, called the state’s grievance system a “rubber stamp process” offering little chance of justice for the incarcerated men.

Read more in the Boston Globe.

Racial inequity crisis in the legal profession

There’s a racial inequity crisis in the Massachusetts legal profession, and despite years of studying the problems, Massachusetts lawyers have made little progress in creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces. That’s according to Sheriece M. Perry, co-director of the Department of Support Services in the Office of Court Management of the Massachusetts Trial Court, who wrote about the challenges attorneys of color face in Massachusetts legal organizations and courtrooms.

“It is 2021, and it is baffling to me that so little has changed since I was a teenager on the mock trial team in the 1990s, thinking about becoming a lawyer,” wrote Perry, who is a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. “Although I am grateful for the many steps forward, twenty-one years since I embarked on a journey to be the change I wished to see, I still have feelings of hopelessness when I think about equity and the legal profession.”

Her article, “’Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ – Catchy Slogans and Buzzwords with Little Proof that they Matter to the Legal Profession in Massachusetts!”, was part of a special issue of the Boston College Law Review in honor of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, who died in 2020, and had worked for many years to combat inequity in the courts and the legal profession.

A February 2021 report by the SJC’s Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being details how attorneys from underrepresented groups still have strikingly different experiences than their white heterosexual colleagues. “I believe the Town Hall Report also provides experiential documentation that the Massachusetts legal profession is still light years away from creating equity in this profession,” Perry said. “It also raises the question of how much diversity, equity, and inclusion really matters to the Massachusetts legal community.”

She writes that to create equity in the legal profession, organizations “have to care and be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion as a culture change.” To begin to address inequities, Perry says, employers have to take inventory of practices that inhibit diversity. They also have to take active steps to address implicit bias in the workforce.

Perry concludes, “As members of the bar, who have been trained to call one another ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ [we] must think hard about what our responsibilities are to this profession, to one another, and to the legal system as a whole. We must be a people of action and we must forge ahead in the very way that Chief Justice Gants blazed the trail for us to follow in his footsteps.”

Read more of Perry’s essay in the Boston College Law Review.

Read all the Essays in Honor of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.

CLA pilot program aims to prevent child welfare removals

Commonwealth Magazine in a December 27 article reported on a new Community Legal Aid pilot program to prevent child welfare removals, which is the first of its kind in Massachusetts.

The goal is to provide families in Hampden County with legal support at the start of their involvement with the Department of Children and Families, so the agency never gets to the point of removing a child. If the year-long pilot is successful, attorneys hope money will become available to expand it statewide. 

“The vast majority of the cases with DCF are neglect cases, and many of those are just manifestations of poverty,” CLA child welfare attorney Madeline Weaver Blanchette said. “The wonderful thing about this pilot is we can basically harness the existing units that are already within Community Legal Aid…and work with clients to fix those substantive areas, and then hopefully have the result of being able to close their case with DCF.” 

Dorothy Storrow, a child welfare attorney and board member of Community Legal Aid, said the idea for the program came out of a series of meetings that attorneys, social workers, former judges, and professors had in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year considering how to address the longstanding problem of racial disparities in child welfare.  

Read more in Commonwealth Magazine.

Uplifting children’s voices in the Child Advocacy Clinic

The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM) welcomed an extern this semester, Harvard Law School J.D. candidate Austin Riddick, who was profiled in Harvard Law Today along with two other students participating in the Child Advocacy Clinic. Riddick is focusing on special education law, serving as an advocate for students and parents in conversations with their school districts about how to ensure the child has an adequate education plan.

In his work, Riddick performs legal research and writing in addition to a variety of direct client services tasks, such as interviewing and negotiation. Aside from technical lawyering skills, Riddick has found relationship building to be an especially important tool for effective advocacy. “Having a positive working relationship with the school district is really important for CLCM, because it makes it easier for the negotiations to happen. It’s a collaborative process. We go to meetings with school districts and teachers regularly where they give progress reports on the various children that CLCM serves as an advocate for, and we work together to figure out what the child needs and what will put them in the best place.”

Read more in Harvard Law Today.

GBLS represents residents seeking to buy and preserve Fenway roominghouse

Longtime residents of a Boston roominghouse in the Fenway neighborhood are seeking to acquire the property to maintain its historical use as affordable housing for women and prevent a potential sale to a for-profit developer.

Seven residents of Our Lady’s Guild House submitted a bid on the 20 Charlesgate West property this month. Greater Boston Legal Services is representing the group and will ask the attorney general’s office to block any sale that would convert the building into market-rate apartments, attorney Margaret Turner said.

“The charitable purpose of OLGH Inc. is to provide permanent [single-room occupancy] housing for low and moderate-income women,” Turner said. “The proposed sale to the highest bidder will undermine this purpose.”

Read more in Banker & Tradesman.

Letter: State measure goes too far in its provisions for de facto parents

Laura W. Gal, managing attorney for family law, Greater Boston Legal Services; Heather Gamache, president, Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts; Anna S. Richardson, co-executive director, Veterans Legal Services and Jamie A. Sabino, staff attorney, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, responded on Monday in a letter to The Boston Globe regarding the paper’s editorial, “For LGBTQ parents, unfinished business in the fight for equality.” They write:

“As organizations representing a diverse range of individuals and families, we support enactment of all elements of the proposed Massachusetts Parentage Act that enable families to begin a child’s life with the security of fully recognized legal parents, whether through genetics, marriage, adoption, surrogacy, or reproductive technology. Equity under the law is essential.

The bill’s de facto parent section, however, goes well beyond this necessary goal. It would allow stepparents, grandparents, and other caretakers to use litigation to become third (or fourth, and so on) parents to a child, over the objections of one or both of the child’s fit parents. The Globe’s endorsement of the legislation, seemingly without consideration of the consequences of this section, is disappointing.

The overbroad de facto parent provisions would allow a wide range of court battles that could drag on and destabilize children’s lives for years. Divorced parents would find themselves in court with ex-partners of their ex-spouses. Domestic violence survivors would face harassing litigation from their former abusers. Members of the armed services would be forced to defend cases filed while deployed. These are just a few examples of the implications.

Current Massachusetts law allows de facto parents to request visitation. This serves children well. Expanding de facto parentage would not.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

New rule allows debt collectors to contact you on social media

April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, was quoted in a December 2 NBC Boston article about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new Debt Collection Rule, which gives debt collectors more ways to contact borrowers about unpaid debts.

The Debt Collection Rule allows third-party debt collectors to message people on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in an attempt to collect a debt.

Consumer advocacy groups argue the guidelines may not be enough to protect vulnerable families from harassing debt collection practices.

For one, the call limits are “per account,” meaning collectors could call a person with eight delinquent accounts up to 56 times per week. Debt collectors also don’t need a consumer’s permission to reach out via social media, and the rule doesn’t limit the number of messages they can send unless they opt out.

“The CFPB indicated that it can still revisit the rules in the future, and we urge them to do so,” said April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “In the meantime, we call on states to enact additional protections to prevent vulnerable families still recovering from the pandemic from harassing and abusive debt collection practices.”  

Read more at NBC Boston.

Eviction filings down from pre-pandemic years in region, but need for services still great

Eviction services are the largest area of practice for Community Legal Aid in Worcester’s casework and the organization’s eviction team said the additional funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will help them carry out eviction protection services when funding from a state program ends at the start of the new year.

Housing and Urban Development announced last week that Community Legal Aid in Worcester would be one of five state legal aids to receive $2.4 million for eviction protection services. The funding will be given out over two years starting in 2022.

Faye B. Rachlin, deputy director of Community Legal Aid said the pandemic has made housing situations more difficult for the organizations client’s.

“While evictions are always a terrible reality for many in our client communities, the pandemic has made people’s ability to sustain their tenancies even harder, and it is more important than ever that tenants get the help they need to prevent the devastating impact of housing insecurity and homelessness,” Rachlin said. “During the pandemic a lot of our eviction defense work has involved helping tenants access rental assistance programs so that landlords can get paid and tenants can remain housed – a win-win for everyone.”

Read more at CLA.

In win for residents with disabilities, Boston must upgrade curb ramps

Tom Murphy, a supervising attorney at the Disability Law Center, was quoted in a Nov. 24 WBUR article.

A long-running civil rights movement has won a huge but quiet victory in Boston. It’ll mean millions of dollars in spending, and construction projects across the city — including in Jamaica Plain, where Michael Muehe has lived for 20 years.

“Many of the curb ramps along here, many of the intersections have curb ramps that are insufficient or are nonexistent,” said Muehe, while guiding his wheelchair down Jamaicaway.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 lays out how curb ramps should be built. Yet, a 2018 survey by the Disability Law Center in Northampton showed that less than half of the city’s 23,000 curb ramps met ADA specifications.

“There’s no ADA police,” said Tom Murphy, a supervising attorney at the law center, an independent nonprofit. He said the Justice Department has the authority to enforce the ADA, but for the most part, improvements have been driven by residents. In recent years, many across the country have successfully won suits over curb ramps.

Murphy represented a group including Flanagan and Muehe when they approached the city of Boston in 2018.

Read more at WBUR.