April 25, 2012

MAKING THE CASE FOR HUMANITY

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The Legal Aid Society, the nation's oldest and largest not-for-profit legal services organization, is more than a law firm for low-income clients. It is an indispensable component of the legal, social, and economic fabric of New York City - passionately advocating for low-income individuals and families across a variety of civil, criminal and juvenile rights matters, while also fighting for legal reform. Through a network of borough, neighborhood, and courthouse offices in 25 locations in New York City, the Society provides comprehensive legal services in all five boroughs of New York City for clients who cannot afford to pay for private counsel.

Annually, the Society handles some 300,000 cases and legal matters for clients. The Legal Aid Society takes on more cases for more clients than any other legal services organization in the United States. And it brings a depth and breadth of perspective that is unmatched in the legal profession. The Legal Aid Society's unique value is an ability to go beyond any one case to create more equitable outcomes for individuals and broader, more powerful systemic change for society as a whole. In addition to the annual caseload of 300,000 individual cases and legal matters, the Society's law reform work benefits some two million low-income families and individuals in New York City and the landmark rulings in many of these cases have a State-wide and national impact.


Legal Aid in the News

Man Wins Freedom After 20 Years, Thanks to The Legal Aid Society and Shearman & Sterling; Reunited With Son Whom He Met Only Once As An Infant

The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story in its Greater New York section over the April 8th weekend about the work of The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP in obtaining the freedom of Carlos Morillo in a 20-year-old murder case.

During his years in prison, Mr. Morillo had lost contact with a son he had seen only once as an infant. Now Mr. Morillo has been reacquainted with his son, Carlos Jr., 20, and his two-year-old grandson. Lawyers from Legal Aid and Shearman & Sterling tracked down the mother of Carlos Jr. and the reunion took place.

Elizabeth Felber, a supervisor in the Bronx Criminal Office, and Michael Haidas, who began his legal career as an associate at Shearman & Sterling and took a job at Legal Aid in the middle of the Morillo case, comprise the Legal Aid team. Brian Polovoy, a partner at Shearman & Sterling, and Melissa Godwin, an associate, are part of the Shearman legal team on the case.

The Wall Street Journal (April 6, 2012)



Six Nail Salon Workers from China Win Federal Law Suit Over Wage Disputes

The Chinese Staff and Workers Association and the organization Justice Will Be Served announced a jury award on April 9 in a successful lawsuit in which six Chinese nail salon workers sued a chain of high-end nail salons for failing to pay a minimum wage and overtime compensation.The nail salon workers were represented by The Legal Aid Society. Aaron Halegua, a staff attorney in the Employment Law Unit, who worked on the case for more than two years, was the lead trial attorney.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2009 in the federal court for the Eastern District of New York and alleged that the nail salons failed to pay them in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Labor Law, which require, among other things, that employees be paid a minimum wage and be paid overtime compensation. Four of the employees, who were still working at the salons when they filed this lawsuit, were then fired nearly one month later in retaliation for filing the lawsuit.

The case was tried before Judge Leonard D. Wexler at the federal courthouse in Central Islip on Long Island and lasted approximately one week. The jury found that the nail salon failed to compensate the plaintiffs as required by the minimum wage and overtime laws, and awarded the plaintiffs over $160,000 for these violations. The jury also found that the nail salon illegally fired four of the plaintiffs in retaliation for filing the lawsuit and awarded these plaintiffs over $80,000 in backpay.

The New York Times (April 10, 2012)



Operation Safe Surrender Offers Second Chances; Legal Aid's Brooklyn Criminal Lawyers Provide Representation

The Legal Aid Society's Criminal stafff in Brooklyn turned out in full force on April 6 and 7 to offer hundreds of New Yorkers a second chance by getting summonses and warrants dismissed as part of Operation Safe Surrender, a community project involving the Kings County District Attorney's Office, The Legal Aid Society, the New York State Office of Court Administration, Mount Pisgah Baptist Church and other churches in Bedford–Stuyvesant

Lawyers, paralegals, investigators, administrative and support staff and technical support staff from the Brooklyn Criminal Office worked at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church where a courtroom was set up.

Appearing on the Road to City Hall on NY 1, April 5, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said that "the goal, eventually, is to get folks to understand you can go down to court and get the same kind of quick resolution of these summonses as you can by going to Mount Pisgah. But it's important to know all of the people who are involved: the Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti; Barry Kamins is the Administrative Judge for Brooklyn; my chief assistant meets with Reverend Youngblood on a regular basis - Amy Feinstein; Dawn Ryan from the Legal Aid Society. So, we have so many people who are involved to try and get this thing up to a successful level. And we're very, very optimistic; as Reverend Youngblood mentions, each time we do it, it gets better and better."

Road to City Hall, NY1 (IND) New York (April 5th, 2012)




The Legal Aid Society's Immigrant Defense Externship Program At Columbia Law School Is Recognized By The New York City Council

The New York City Council honored The Legal Aid Society's Immigration Defense Externship Program at Columbia Law School on April 18 to coincide with Immigration Heritage Week. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Council Member Daniel Dromm, Chair of the Council's Committee on Immigration, presented proclamations to representatives of the Law School and Legal Aid.

The externship program places students with seasoned attorneys from The Legal Aid Society's Immigration Law Unit on projects providing direct representation and counseling of immigrants facing deportation from the United States. Students interview clients, participate in trial preparation and litigation strategy meetings, and assist the attorneys in researching complex legal issues and drafting memoranda of law. They also observe proceedings in Immigration Court and may have the opportunity to represent a client before the court.

Maria Navarro, a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, and Olivia Cassin, a staff attorney, teach the externship in the Fall, and Amy Meselson and Shannon McKinnon, staff attorneys, run the spring externship.



Homeless Children Left To Sleep in Penn Station

NBC Reporter Melissa Russo documented the plight March 26 of April Gayles, a homeless woman, and her two children, 6 and 10 years old, who were relegated to sleep in Penn Station after being denied shelter for the third time by the New York City Department of Homeless Services. "In this case, it's particularly of concern because these children and their family were, on two occasions at least, at Penn Station, and but for the intervention of the MTA police and a representative of the Department of Homeless Services and WNBC, these children and their family would have spent the night in the transit center, and that's simply not a way to treat children," Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief, told NBC. "The court order does not permit the city to tell children and their families that they can stay someplace where they actually can't.

April and her children were eventually granted access to shelter only after intervention by NBC's investigative team. But hundreds of families end up returning to dangerous living situations, abusive spouses, or - like the Gayles family - are forced into the streets or transit system. "As much mud as the city would like to throw on this family, what mother in her right mind would spend the night in Penn Station with her children if they had any place else to go?" Banks asked.

WNBC New York (March 26th, 2012)



Eviction Rates And Unemployment Are Highest In The Bronx; Legal Aid Lawyers Predict The Problem Will Grow Worse

Eviction rates in The Bronx hit an all-time high with 10,140 evictions in 2011, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. Howard Baum, a Supervising Attorney in The Bronx Neighborhood Office, said that there has been a dramatic increase in unemployment as well. "They were some of the most vulnerable people in the jobs they did have," Baum told WNYC, "and now that so many of them have lost their employment, it's just not possible for them to keep their homes."

Lauren Donnelly, a Supervising Attorney in The Bronx Neighborhood Office, predicted that the eviction problem is only going to grow worse. About 40 percent of the families who were receiving the Advantage housing subsidy lived in The Bronx. Now that the program is over, "a lot of those people will go back to shelters," Donnelly said.

WNYC News Blog (April 16, 2012)



Judge Approves Legal Aid Lawsuit Requiring City to Assist Young People Aging Out of Foster Care with Housing

New York State Supreme Court Judge Geoffrey Wright approved the settlement of a class action lawsuit against the New York City Agency for Children's Services (ACS) on behalf of young people who are aging out of foster care and have been denied assistance in finding appropriate housing. The settlement requires that ACS establish a specialized unit to ensure these young people receive this essential housing assistance, and also requires that ACS provide supervision to young people who are not yet 21, but who have already been discharged from foster care. The settlement further provides for four years of monitoring by plaintiffs' counsel. The lawsuit, D.B. et al. v. Richter, was filed by The Legal Aid Society, Lawyers For Children and the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, against ACS in October, 2011.

"Through this settlement, the City has agreed to put in place essential services to prevent these vulnerable young people from being discharged from foster care into homelessness," said Tamara A. Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice at the Legal Aid Society. "This settlement will benefit the more than 800 young people ages 18 to 21 who are discharged from foster care in New York City each year. We will closely monitor the City's compliance with this important settlement."

A number of attorneys worked on this case. The attorneys from The Legal Aid Society include Lisa Freeman, Karen Fisher Gutheil, and Kimberly Forte. The attorneys from Lawyers For Children include Karen J. Freedman, Betsy Kramer, and Priti Kataria. The attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP include James W.B. Benkard, Sharon Katz, Scott B. Luftglass, and David C. Pitluck.



Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Calls for Discovery Reform In Light of US Supreme Court Decisions Affirming Right to Effective Counsel in Pre-Trial Negotiations

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decisions March 21st affirming a defendant's right to effective assistance of counsel during pre-trial negotiations, Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told The New York Times that "now that the Supreme Court has said that you are entitled to effective assistance at the plea-bargaining stage of the case, it's hard to imagine how prosecutors in states like New York, with antiquated discovery statutes, can continue to withhold critical information."

He noted that in 15 States, including New York, prosecutors are not required to turn over evidence or witness information to the defense until the time of trial, making it very difficult for persons accused of crimes, often wrongfully, and their defense lawyers to properly assess the merits of a plea offer.

The New York Times (March 22, 2012)



Legal Aid Staff Played Critical Role in Passage of Matrimonial Reform Laws; Emily Ruben Was One of the Authors

An in depth article and sidebar in the Wall Street Journal examining the matrimonial reform laws enacted in 2010, highlighted the role played by advocates for low-income women and survivors of domestic violence in drafting the maintenance guidelines and quoted Emily Ruben, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice's Brooklyn Neighborhood Office and co-supervisor of Legal Aid's Family Law and Domestic Violence Practice. Emily explained why she and others worked so hard for the passage of the maintenance guidelines law: "[w]e just said we have a finite amount of time, and we're going to spend it on something that really makes a difference" for our clients.

To help combat the problem of our clients and their children falling into poverty after divorce, staff in our Family Law and Domestic Violence Practice played a critical role in the passage of the matrimonial reform laws, including interim maintenance guidelines which are aimed at making the process of obtaining maintenance fairer and more predictable and consistent.



The Wall Street Journal (March 12, 2012) - How Divorce Law Changed at Last Minute
The Wall Street Journal (March 12, 2012) - Divorce Law's New Cut



Protecting Homeless Women and Men Seeking Shelter; City's New Homeless Policy Blocked By Court Ruling

Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Judith J. Gische ruled on February 21 that the Department of Homeless Services cannot implement a controversial new policy that would have permitted the denial of shelter from the elements for homeless single women and men. On behalf of homeless women and men and the Coalition for the Homeless, The Legal Aid Society argued that the new policy was in violation of a 1981 consent decree that requires the City to provide shelter to women and men in need of shelter by reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction or who meet the need standard for public assistance. In addition, The Legal Aid Society and pro bono counsel Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP argued that the Department of Homeless Services failed to comply with the City Administrative Procedure Act because the Department did not provide public notice and an opportunity for public comment on this sea change in City policy. The New York City Council also challenged the proposed new policy on the grounds that the Department violated the City Administrative Procedure Act.

Steven Banks, the Society's Attorney-in-Chief, told The New York Times that "it should not have required litigation to stop this plan that would have resulted in women and men in need of shelter being turned away." Banks called the Department of Homeless Services' approach "a textbook case in arbitrary government." He said the Department's own projections showed that at least 10 percent of the women and men seeking shelter each year -- some 2,000 New Yorkers -- would be denied help under the proposed plan.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the "Court ruling declaring the Department of Homeless Services' eligibility requirements for single homeless adults unlawful is a tremendous victory and I commend the Court for its action. The Council has long argued that DHS' proposed policy would have needlessly put thousands of homeless New Yorkers on the streets by requiring them to provide proof they have nowhere else to stay. This was a wrong-headed policy that put a burden of proof on people who could least shoulder it."

The New York Times (February 22, 2012)
Wall Street Journal (February 23, 2012)
New York Law Journal (February 22, 2012)



Expertise in Legal Aid's Criminal Trials, Appeals and Parole Representation Produces Landmark Ruling for Legal Aid Criminal Practice Clients

In a landmark decision on February 14th, the Appellate Division, First Department ruled that New York's bifurcated procedure for revoking parole is invalid, holding that a regulation that treats parolees convicted of more serious offenses differently is unconstitutional. Martin LaFalce, staff attorney in the Manhattan Office of the Criminal Practice, told Reuters News Service and the New York Law Journal that the ruling has "ramifications for parolees charged with violating the conditions of their release." He said that this was the first time a case had directly challenged the parole board's authority to have the final say on recommendations by an administrative law judge.

"We see this decision as having serious relevance for parolees going forward, but also parolees who served time assessments not imposed on them by the judge who heard from them at revocation hearings," Mr. LaFalce said.

This case is a good example of the outstanding results produced by The Legal Aid Society's Criminal Practice with its expertise in criminal trials, appeals, and parole representation and other specialized units offering support. Kerry Elgarten, a staff attorney in the Criminal Appeals Bureau, was co-counsel on the case.

The decision by Justice Rolando Acosta is an incredible tribute to the hard work, perseverance, and altogether brilliant lawyering of Marty LaFalce and Kerry Elgarten. Marty's client, Clarence Mayfield, was given an 18-month time assessment as part of a negotiated plea agreement. Because Mr. Mayfield was on parole for manslaughter, the 18-month assessment, pursuant to Division of Parole regulations, was merely a recommendation that had to be approved by the Parole Board. The Board chose instead to increase the time assessment to 36 months in a one-sentence decision issued by a single Board member.

Marty filed an administrative appeal, then an Article 78 petition when the appeal was rejected. He appealed the denial of the Article 78 to the First Department, which adopted virtually all of Marty's arguments. On statutory grounds, the court found that the Legislature had effectively done away with Board review when it promulgated legislation in 1991 that made it clear that the ALJ fixed the time assessment in all cases and that it was not subject to Board review and approval. In effect, the court held that the Division of Parole had usurped the Legislature's authority when it enacted 9 NYCRR 8005.20(c)(6), which brought back the Board review process the legislature had eliminated. On constitutional grounds, the court found that the regulation authorizing board review fell woefully short of providing adequate due process, as Board review of the time assessment was conducted in secret, with no notice to the parolee, no opportunity to appear and be heard, and no guidelines whatsoever on the basis for changing the ALJ's determination.

Read the decision (PDF)

Reuters (February 14, 2012)
The New York Law Journal (February 15, 2012)
WNYC News (February 19, 2012)



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

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