The Legal Aid Society

News In Brief

Making the Case for Humanity

The Legal Aid Society is an indispensable component of the legal, social and economic fabric of New York City - passionately
advocating for individuals across a variety of civil, criminal and juvenile rights matters, while also pursuing a broad legal reform agenda.

January 8, 2009

Welcome to the first issue of The Legal Aid Society Newsletter for the Board of Directors.  The newsletter, which will contain news items about the work of The Legal Aid Society and various events, will be emailed to you on a regular basis.  We will also share updates on funding matters that are sent to staff by Theodore Levine and Steven Banks through our LASnet, the internal website.  This first issue covers items of interest from December 1, 2008, and includes the year-end message to all Legal Aid employees from Ted and Steve.

Legal Aid In The News

Legal Aid Saves the Home of Domestic Violence Survivor 

Gretchen Gonzalez, a staff attorney in the Harlem Community Law Office, was successful in saving the home of a domestic violence survivor by arguing that the Violence Against Women Act precluded Metro North from terminating the Section 8 tenancy of her client. The decision, which addressed an issue of first impression, was the subject of a story in  the January 2 editon of the  New York Law Journal. Gretchen called the decision a wonderful result for domestic violence survivors . . . Read more

Legal Aid Chief Points to Major Decisions During Chief Judge Kaye's Tenure 

Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief, was quoted in  a December 28th  New York Times article on Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye. Banks discussed the major legal decisions during Judge Kaye's tenure . . . Read more 

Steve Banks Calls for Restoration of State Budgets Cuts for Legal Services 

Calling for the restoration of cuts in critical legal services for low-income New Yorkers, Steven Banks, Legal Aid's Attorney-in-Chief, said that amendments in the proposed State budget will be necesssary to provide the crucial assistance. Banks was quoted in the New York Law Journal  on December 19.  Read more

What Do You Do When Your Home Has Been Foreclosed? 

 April Newbauer, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice's Queens Neighborhood Office, discussed the plight of low-income New Yorkers during a National Public Radio segment on December 23 on "What You Do You Do When Your Home Has Been Foreclosed?" . . . Read more

Criminal Practice Extern Program Featured in New York Law Journal

The Legal Aid Society's Criminal Practice Extern Program in the Manhattan office was featured in  a  New York Law Journal article on December 19.  The program was started to help lawyers handle their cases, help demonstrate to government that even making the same use of pro bono assistance as the District Attorneys do there is still an urgent need for more criminal defense funding, and enhance our relationship with the firms that support the Civil Practice. As Steve Banks said in this article, this program is no substitute for Legal Aid staff . . . Read more

Children Enjoy Holiday Party Sponsored by The Legal Aid Society

The laughter of more than 450 children filled Synod Hall December 19 during The Legal Aid Society's Holiday Party for Children, who are homeless, in foster care, and all from low-income families. The party was sponsored by the staff of The Legal Aid Society and the following law firms and corporations including: American International Group; Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP; Citigroup Inc. ; Con Edison; Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Hughes, Hubbard & Reed LLP; JPMorgan Chase & Co.; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP; Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer P.C.; Once Upon a Treetop, Inc.; Sidley Austin, LLP; Sullivan & Cromwell LLP; and Wachtel, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. There were mountains of toys, music, face painting, crafts and a great Santa Claus a.k.a Robert Pietrzak, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP.

Legal Aid's Chief Lawyer Reacts To  Budget Cuts For Criminal and Civil Work   

Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, released the following statement on the impact of proposed State budget cuts. He  was  quoted in  a  New York Law Journal article  on December 17. Read more

From The Desks of Ted and Steve: December  17, 2008,  Budget Update 

Yesterday, the Governor issued the proposed budget for the April 1, 2009 - March 31, 2010 State fiscal year and began the budget negotiation process with the Assembly and Senate that will result in the adoption of a State budget for the new fiscal year on April 1st. At the end of next month, the Mayor will propose mid-year budget cuts for the current July 1, 2008 - June 30, 2009 City fiscal year as well as funding levels for the City fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2009. As you know, as a result of the national, State, and local economic downturn and resulting government budget cuts, The Legal Aid Society has already absorbed the loss of nearly $6 million in City and State funding reductions for our July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009 fiscal year funding -- approximately $3 million for the Civil Practice and $2.7 million for the Criminal Practice. We have managed this significant reduction by reducing planned staffing and other expenses for the current fiscal year .   

The new proposed State budget contains a cut in our Aid to Defense funding of approximately $1 million and seeks to reduce our Criminal and Civil practice legislative funding for the remaining months of the State fiscal year that ends on March 31. As in prior years, for the coming State fiscal year that begins on April 1, the Governor's proposed budget eliminates all legislative program funding, including $1.6 million for our Criminal Practice and $1.3 million for our Civil Practice.

As everyone knows, the extraordinary State and City budget deficits this year present significant challenges to our annual budget advocacy efforts. However, together with ALAA and 1199, the Society will continue to oppose any additional cuts and focus on how harmful the proposed additional State cuts will be at a time when our clients need our services more than ever. We have been in constant contact with the Governor's office and the leadership in the Assembly and the Senate to make it clear that these cuts are unacceptable. We will keep you advised as the City and State budget processes continue and as we evaluate how best to move forward over the coming weeks.

Below is a statement that we issued yesterday in response to the proposed budget cuts.

Statement of the Legal Aid Society

Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief said: "The proposed State cuts for criminal defense and civil legal services will hurt New Yorkers accused of crimes and families and individuals who need legal help in the midst of this severe economic downturn. In the criminal defense area, we cannot keep taking on new cases, provide the constitutionally mandated defense for New Yorkers, and absorb new State cuts on top of $3 million in cuts that we have already sustained in the State and City budgets this year. On the civil side, we have also already suffered $3 million in cuts in the State and City budgets and we are forced to turn away six out of every seven New Yorkers who seek our help, and now with the new State cuts we'll have to turn away more families and individuals who need legal aid to get unemployment and disability benefits, flee from domestic violence, and prevent evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness which is at record levels in New York City."

Court Approves Landmark Settlement in Homeless Families Case 

Deputy Chief Administrative Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann, during a fairness hearing in New York County State Supreme Court on December 15, approved the landmark settlement in the McCain litigation between The Legal Aid Society and the City of New York, which includes a permanent, enforceable legal framework to alleviate the problems in the family shelter system that children and families have experienced . . . Read more

Dechert Expands Pro Bono Commitment to Legal Aid Clients 

Dechert LLP has initiated two new pro bono partnerships with The Legal Aid Society that have expanded our capacity to provide legal services to clients. The firm recently created a pilot externship with the Community Development Project at the Harlem Community Law Office. Andrew Weprin, a fourth year real estate associate, is working at HCLO for up to six months helping low income co-ops, small businesses, and nonprofits with commercial leasing and real estate related legal matters. Dechert attorneys under the leadership of Thomas Munno, Managing Partner of the law firm's New York office, also will be representing 19 clients whose landlords have refused to accept their Section 8 vouchers. Many of these tenants are elderly or single mothers who would be compelled to pay 60 - 80 % of their income towards rent.

Innovative Partnership with Goodwin Procter and PricewaterhouseCoopers  

The private bar plays an instrumental role in The Legal Aid Society’s Community Development Project, which provides business legal services for low-income clients, with attorneys from New York’s leading law firms providing pro bono assistance on 75 % of the matters. Until recently, however, the Community Development Project lacked the financial and accounting expertise to advise community based nonprofits and low-income micro entrepreneurs on sound accounting practices. PricewaterhouseCooper has made a commitment to fill this void and ensure clients operate with appropriate internal financial controls and transparency. . . . Read more

Low-Income Tenants' Challenge to New York City Rent Guidelines For Imposing "A Poor Tax"

New York County Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman heard arguments December 11  during a hearing on the low-income tenants' challenge to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board for imposing a poor tax against tenants who have lived in an apartment for more than six years and pay less than $1,000 a month. The case was argued by Afua Atta-Mensah, a staff attorney in the Civil Practice's Law Reform Unit. . . . Read more

Good News About Our Social Worker Heroes

The dedication of our social workers was exemplified in the quick and effective response to the Civil Practice's Health Law Unit provided by Roseanne Tzitzouris, social worker for the Brooklyn Office for the Aging, and Lisa Orloff, Director of Social Workers for the Criminal Practice. Lisa Sbrana, Attorney-in-Charge of the Health Law Unit, shared the following with all of us. During the last few weeks, especially around Thanksgiving, the Health Law Unit's hotline has received some very difficult and desperate calls from low-income New Yorkers who were unable to obtain public health insurance or gain access to health care services. Roseanne quickly provided very detailed advice to help the clients and Lisa prepared two training session on suicide prevention and boundaries. Both trainings were given this past Monday. In the meantime, Roseanne was given a full scholarship by AARP and the ABA Commission on the Elderly to attend a National Aging and Law Conference in Washington. Thanks to Roseanne and Lisa.

Terrific Habeas Win by Criminal Appeals

The Second Circuit unanimously affirmed the Federal District Court's decision granting the writ to Tyrone Harris, who was represented by CAB attorney Bob Budner. Tyrone Harris faced charges of third-degree criminal sale and possession of a controlled substance in Supreme Court, New York County. Beth Unger of Manhattan office of the Criminal Practice represented him. The prosecution's case included the testimony of an undercover officer who, from an observation post, purportedly observed Harris sell crack to another individual, who was also apprehended. When the police arrested Harris, they found 17 bags of crack and some money on his person. These narcotics formed the basis of the possession with intent to sell charge . 

Before the grand jury, Harris admitted that he possessed the crack that police recovered from him. He claimed that earlier in the evening of his arrest, he had encountered a prostitute with whom he had had a previous relationship and with whom he had previously shared drugs. She provided him with some money and suggested that he purchase crack, which they would use together later that night. According to Harris, he made the purchase and was waiting for the appointment at the time of his arrest. He had not sold drugs to the apprehended buyer or anyone else that night.

At the close of the evidence, Beth requested an agency charge on the possession with intent count, reasoning that the jury could reject the officer's purported observations regarding the sale on the strength of the grand jury testimony. An agency charge was necessary to ensure that the jurors did not convict of possession with intent to sell if they credited his claim that he planned to share the crack with the prostitute. The court declined to charge agency and permitted the prosecutor to argue that, even under Harris's version of events, he was guilty of possession with intent. Beth argued that this violated his federal due process rights. The jury, apparently crediting Harris, acquitted of the sale charges, but without an agency instruction, convicted of possession with intent.

Bob took the case to federal court after the First Department affirmed the conviction and the Court of Appeals denied leave. Justice Shira Scheindlin granted the writ. She held that, under New York law, for the reasons that Beth and Bob had argued, Harris was clearly entitled to an agency defense under NY law. More, she found that the court's error in refusing to deliver the requested instruction was "catastrophic" and amounted to a directed verdict on the possession with intent charge. Because the absence of the agency charge thus infected the fairness of the entire trial, the state law error rose to the level of a due process violation. Finally, the state trial and appellate courts unreasonably applied Supreme Court law in making and then refusing to rectify the error.

The Second Circuit agreed that as a matter of New York law, Harris was entitled to a charge on the agency defense; that the trial court's refusal to so instruct the jury "so infected the entire trial that [Harris's] resulting conviction violate[d] due process" [quoting from Cupp v. Naughten, 414 US 141, 147}; and that the Appellate Division's affirmance rejecting this argument "constituted an objectively unreasonable application" of Supreme Court precedent.

Great Work at Queens JRP Results in Acquittal After One and a Half Years

A team spearheaded by Melanie Shapiro, a staff attorney at Queens JRP, and Deb McGee, a JRP social worker, collaborated with investigators at Queens CDP to secure a victory on behalf of a young man who was erroneously charged with causing a friend’s death. In the early spring of 2007, 13- year-old Steven C. went with a group of boys to “slap box” in a Queens park, an activity they had engaged in before. Later that evening, one of the kids fell ill and was taken to the hospital, where he passed away. Because Steven had been the one who had slap boxed with the decedent , he was arrested and charged .  

The Corporation Counsel’s office was so determined to lay blame, that despite a lack of evidence – the highest charge they could file against Steven was Assault in the Third Degree – Steven was prosecuted vigorously. After more than a year of hearings and a trial, Judge Bogacz found on December 3, 2008, that the charges had not been proven and dismissed the case. For many reasons, the lives of Steven and his family will never be the same, but due to the tireless advocacy of Melanie and her team, they can at least try to move past what was truly a tragedy on so many levels. 

Mother's Sting Faces Legal Obstacles
Steven Wasserman, a lawyer in the Criminal Practice Special Litigation Unit, was one of the legal experts quoted in a New York Times story on December 11  about a woman who devised an elaborate undercover sting operation in an attempt to overturn her son's conviction . . .
Read more


Attorney Interviewed for World AIDS Day 

Diane Spicer, staff attorney in the Civil Practice's Health Law Unit, was interviewed  December 1 on WBAI Radio for World AIDS Day, regarding the work she and Rebecca Novick, also a staff attorney in the HLU, have been doing around the state's plan to mandatorily enroll Medicaid recipients with HIV/AIDS into Medicaid managed care plans . . . Read more

Year-End Message from Theodore Levine and Steven Banks : Legal Aid Staff Praised for Outstanding Work During Difficult Times In Year-End Message

As 2008 comes to a close and 2009 begins, we want to thank you for your extraordinarywork on behalf of our clients over the past year. In the face of the severe national, State,and local economic downturn, the needs of our clients are increasing exponentially. However, under these extremely difficult circumstances that confront our client communities and our organization, your work has enabled the Legal Aid Society to continue to provide outstanding legal assistance for clients. We are very grateful for your efforts to maintain our client services despite nearly $6 million in State and City funding cuts that we have suffered during this fiscal year which have resulted in various cost containment measures.

As we look forward to 2009, even with the historic change that is occurring in Washington, we know that we face significant challenges from proposed additional funding cuts and the impending City bidding process for our Criminal Defense and Parole Revocation work. At the same time, we will have to redouble our efforts to address the continuing impact of the economic meltdown on clients. But looking back on 2008, there have been a number of significant achievements for our clients that are a tribute to the efforts, dedication, and commitment of Legal Aid Society managers, lawyers, social workers, investigators, paralegals, interpreters, and support and administrative staff.

In the Criminal Practice, for example, literally hundreds of clients have been freed from unlawfully imposed post-release supervision as a result of groundbreaking litigation by Society staff in the Parole Revocation Unit, the Criminal Appeals Bureau, and the Special Litigation Unit. Every day and every night, Criminal Practice staff members have provided zealous representation in State or federal trial and appellate courts or in proceedings on Rikers Island. All of this excellent work has been a carried out against a background of increased arrests, limited Society resources as a result of budget cuts, and the everyday challenges of the criminal justice system. Recently, however, joint management and staff advocacy efforts have culminated in the introduction of a bill in the City Council to limit the number of client cases for criminal defense lawyers in accordance with the First Department standards. Meanwhile, throughout the year, Criminal Practice staff has been on the frontlines of addressing mounting numbers of "quality of life" arrests which do not belong in the criminal justice system and can have a permanent impact on clients in terms of future employment, obtaining and maintaining housing, immigration status, and receipt of public benefits. As we meet periodically with the administrative judges in each borough as part of our effort to reinforce the importance of the work of Criminal Practice, the administrative judges consistently praise the quality of representation provided by the Criminal Practice staff.

In a dramatic breakthrough during this past year in the Juvenile Rights Practice, tenacious advocacy resulted in the Office of Court Administration's promulgation of a client case cap of 150 clients per attorney after enactment of a State law requiring the implementation of a cap to address caseloads that were averaging 250 children per Juvenile Rights lawyer. Of equal importance, under threat of litigation by the Society, the City and State implemented weekend and holiday arraignments in order to arraign clients charged with juvenile delinquency within 24 hours. After years of leaving children to languish in detention during weekends and holidays, the majority of children who Juvenile Rights staff has been representing during weekend and holiday arraignments now have their status adjusted or end up being released. In a major step to enhance client services, the Practice also issued guidelines and published an article in the New York Law Journal setting forth our role as attorneys for children who have all the legal and ethical obligations that any attorney has for any client. These terrific systemic changes are occurring as staff represents children every day in Family Court and Juvenile Rights appellate and law reform staff members are addressing systemic problems.

For the Civil Practice, the severe economic downturn has significantly increased the need for our client services. In each office, more and more clients are seeking assistance. Although at least six out of every seven clients who seek assistance cannot be helped because of lack of resources, every day staff provides high quality representation, assistance, and "know your rights" training for clients. In Housing Court, in Family Court, and in other trial and appellate courts or administrative forums, Civil staff members are helping clients fight against the ravages of the economic collapse which has resulted in: increased evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness; increased unemployment and a greater need for legal assistance to obtain and maintain low wage income, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, food stamps, public assistance and access to medical care; and an increased need for family law, elderlaw, consumer law, and immigration help as well as small business assistance for low income clients. Meanwhile, law reform efforts by Civil staff have resulted in major legal victories for elderly and disabled immigrants, Housing Authority tenants, homeless families with children, and clients in City jails and State prisons.

During 2008, our overall services were also enhanced by the introduction of the LASnet intranet site which provides ready access to client advocacy materials, administrative information, pro bono resources for client assistance, and updates on legal and media advocacy. At the Harlem Community Law Office, 111 Livingston Street, and the Queens Juvenile Rights office, significant facilities improvements were made, but much remains to be done at other locations.

As all of these accomplishments over the past year highlight, your advocacy for clients is part of the fabric that holds this City together in these extreme times and you make a profound difference in the lives of New Yorkers who need our help. Thank you again for all that you do for the Legal Aid Society's clients. For 2009, we wish each of you and your families a happy and healthy new year.

The Legal Aid Society Newsletter is written and edited by Pat Bath, Director of Communications, with technical assistance from Jason Smallwood, Web Developer.

© 2009 The Legal Aid Society • 199 Water Street, New York, NY 10038 •