April 7, 2014

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 26 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 and its 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. 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.


Legal Aid in the News


Steven Banks Leaves The Legal Aid Society After 33 Years To Head The City's Human Resources Administration Under Mayor de Blasio

After a 33-year legal career devoted to fighting for low-income New Yorkers, Steven Banks left The Legal Aid Society to become the Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration. Mayor de Blasio announced the appointment saying that Steve "has been a voice for the voiceless in this city." Banks has served as the Society's Attorney-in-Chief since 2004, after rising through the ranks of the organization from a law student intern and a staff attorney to a series of major leadership positions.

Over the course of more than three decades, Banks challenged four Mayoral Administrations to meet the needs of the Society's low-income clients and comply with legal requirements through landmark law reform litigation, advocacy, and individual client services.

During his tenure as the Attorney-in-Chief, The Legal Aid Society reached new heights with a national reputation for excellence in providing comprehensive client services for families and individuals with criminal, civil and juvenile rights problems, developing innovative new programs to address client problems and emerging new legal needs, and conducting extensive "know your rights' programs to prevent legal problems from becoming legal crisis. Of equal importance, during the Banks years, the Society has been known for operating within its financial means with a balanced budget each year.

The extensive media coverage following the announcement of the Banks appointment included comments from the leadership of the Board of Directors, members of the Society's management and staff, and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys as well as descriptions of his many accomplishments, including a landmark settlement with the City in 2008 that established an enforceable right to shelter for homeless families.

As reported in the New York Law Journal, Banks is generally credited with helping The Legal Aid Society regain financial footing after a near bankruptcy in 2004. "He brought stability to the organization," said Seymour James Jr., the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Criminal Practice. "It's in a strong position financially. Prior to him taking charge we had a large deficit, and once that was resolved we had a balanced budget every year. He was very careful about making sure we didn't overspend."

Richard J. Davis, the Chairman of the Society's Board and a solo practitioner since leaving Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, told the Law Journal that Banks has been a "superb chief executive of the Legal Aid Society and I think he'll do a terrific job at whatever he does. He will be missed, no question ." Davis also pointed out that the Society has "a strong bench behind him." Blaine (Fin) Fogg, Legal Aid's President who is of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, said he would look for the group's next Attorney-in-Chief to be "someone who is a good leader, good lawyer, good with dealing with elected and appointed officials both in the city and state," and working with labor unions. "It's a big job," he added. Alan Levine, a Cooley LLP partner and a former Chairman of the Legal Aid Board, said "Steven Banks is one of the most capable public lawyers in the city right now. It's not a surprise that a new progressive administration would look to find a role for him." He added that Banks "took control" at a financially perilous time for Society and "[h]e re-energized the board, and I think he established superb relations with the political constituencies." Banks also developed a great working relationship with the administrators of the State court system and with City officials, Levine said.

Deborah Wright, the President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, whose membership includes approximately 1,000 Legal Aid lawyers, said she spoke for members when saying Banks would be missed. "This appointment really speaks to who he is and what he has devoted his entire career to." Wright said Banks remained accessible to Legal Aid attorneys, despite the immense law office he headed.

The Board of Directors unanimously adopted a resolution honoring Banks.




Lorraine McEvilley Appointed Director of Parole Revocation Defense Unit

Seymour James, Jr., Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice, announced the appointment of Lorraine McEvilley as the Director of The Legal Aid Society's Parole Revocation Defense Unit. A graduate of SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo School of Law, Lorraine first joined the Society as a staff attorney in our Queens criminal defense office in 1989. After distinguishing herself in Queens, Lorraine relocated to Arizona where she represented community members in civil claims and criminal tribal court proceedings with Four Rivers Indian Legal Services, and than represented clients facing felony charges with the Office of the Public Defender in Maricopa County. Lorraine returned to the Society in 1999 as a staff attorney in our Manhattan criminal defense office and subsequently transferred to the Parole Revocation Defense Unit in 2005. In 2008, she became a supervising attorney in PRDU and has been a critical member of the team which further raised the level of parole revocation advocacy at Legal Aid. The Unit continues to serve as a model for clients charged with violations of the terms of their release to community supervision. In 2011, Lorraine was awarded the Orison S. Marden Award for excellence and dedication to the work and clients of The Legal Aid Society.




Queens Neighborhood Office Honored By Assemblymember Kim

State Assemblymember Ron Kim honored The Legal Aid Society for its work in Queens, providing free legal services and workshops for the community. The lawmaker presented a New York State Citation to Sateesh Nori, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Queens Neighborhood Office. Assemblymember Kim said that he and Legal Aid "worked together to host workshops and bi-weekly legal counseling services" at the lawmaker's office "for those who cannot afford legal help in Flushing. Through this partnership, The Legal Aid Society provided pro bono legal services to underserved working families on issues such as housing, consumer protection and tenantlandlord disputes."




Legal Aid's Favorable Settlement For Domino's Workers Continues To Receive Media Coverage; New York Law Journal Publishes Essay On Joint Employer Liability For Franchisors Written By Legal Aid Staff Attorneys

The New York Law Journal has published an essay entitled "Domino's Challenges Joint Employer Liability for Franchisors" by Hollis Pfitsch and Richard Blum, who are Staff Attorneys in The Legal Aid Society's Civil Practice Employment Law Unit. The essay focuses on a recent major federal court settlement in which delivery workers in four Domino's pizza restaurants in Manhattan are receiving payments totaling nearly $1.3 million for unpaid wages. Ms. Pfitsch and Mr. Blum were members of the Legal Aid litigation team in Cano v. DPNY in which Shearman & Sterling LLP served as pro bono counsel. As described in their Law Journal essay, "while the original lawsuit was against a franchise and individual franchise owners and managers, Domino's Pizza Inc., the international corporation, was successfully added to the lawsuit in a motion to amend seeking liability of Domino's as a joint employer. While rare, the case applied well-settled principles of joint employment under wage and hour law to bring in the franchisor."

Following New York Times and MSNBC coverage, the settlement has also received coverage in Law360 and Bloomberg News. In a Law360 article, Ms. Pfitsch indicated that the settlement will give plaintiffs in similar fair labor standards cases more negotiation power. According to Mr. Blum, the case establishes that "[i]f you violate your workers' rights, you will be confronted and will pay for it."




Seymour James Honored By Boston University School Of Law

Seymour James, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society, was honored for contributions to the legal community by Boston University School of Law. The alumni award was presented to James at a special reception by Maureen A. O'Rourke, Dean of Boston University School of Law. James, former President of the New York State Bar Association, is a graduate of BU Law and has been at the Society for the past 40 years.




Drawing Upon Its Extensive Experience In Litigating False And Involuntary Confession Cases, Legal Aid's Criminal Appeals Bureau Submitted Amicus Brief In Landmark Thomas Case

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, writing for a unanimous New York Court of Appeals, concluded that the confession that the police had elicited from Adrian Thomas after a 9 and a half-hour interrogation was involuntary and had to be suppressed. In 2009, Thomas had been convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the death of his four-month old son and had been sentenced to a prison term of 25-years to life. His conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division, Third Department. Because the case presented critical issues regarding the kinds of tactics that may be permissibly employed by the police in interrogating suspects, the Criminal Appeals Bureau of The Legal Aid Society, drawing upon its extensive experience in litigating false and involuntary confession cases, submitted a comprehensive amicus brief on Thomas's behalf. From the outset, the medical evidence in the case was highly equivocal. The prosecution contended that the child had died from intracranial injuries. Defense experts, in contrast, in line with the original emergency room diagnosis, testified that the child, who had been born prematurely, had died of sepsis. In the absence of any other significant witnesses, Thomas's confession was the centerpiece of the prosecution's case.

Much of Thomas's interrogation was videotaped, enabling the Court to examine the police tactics first hand. The Court identified three such tactics that, in combination, served to render Thomas's statements involuntary and to create a significant danger that Thomas had confessed falsely. First, the Court condemned the police for threatening Thomas that they would arrest his wife if Thomas did not take responsibility for his actions. It was in response to these threats that Thomas initially agreed to "take the fall." Next, the Court deemed improper police statements to Thomas that his full account was necessary to provide information critical to physicians who were struggling to save his child's life. In fact, the police were well aware that, by this time, the child had already died. Finally, the Court took issue with the detectives' repeated false assurances that they understood that the child's injuries had been inflicted accidentally and that, if Thomas revealed how it had happened, he would not be arrested. These tactics, the Court concluded, rendered the ensuing statements constitutionally involuntary and, because they also created the danger of a false confession violated Criminal Procedure Law Section 60.45. The Thomas case is the subject of a full-length documentary feature, "Scenes of a Crime."




In Article 78 Proceeding Judge Finds in Favor of Legal Aid Juvenile Rights Practice Client, Ordering ACS to Pay for Transgender Surgery

New York County Supreme Court Judge Peter H. Moulton agreed with The Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice in an Article 78 proceeding regarding a transgendered client and ordered the City's Administration for Children to pay for all the client's gender affirming surgeries. In October 2013, ACS determined that JRP's client was not eligible for medical procedures which would address her diagnosis of gender dysphoria and allow her to conform her appearance to her female gender identity. While ACS did not contest her gender dysphoria, despite much evidence supporting the medical procedures including a positive recommendation by ACS' own Health Review Committee, ACS denied the procedures based partly on the report of one independent doctor who, without meeting with the client, stated that the client would not comply with the post-operative procedures.

Judge Moulton, in granting JRP's application requesting a determination that ACS' decision was arbitrary and capricious (the Article 78 standard), noted that ACS did not follow it's own procedures for Non-Medicaid Reimbursement and, in fact, the failure to follow these procedures along with the ACS Deputy Commissioner's complete discretion to approve or disapprove gender affirming surgeries and procedures, was a fundamental flaw. In addition, the court found that ACS' failure to consider in its decision-making process the client's complete inability to pay for these surgeries and procedures once she ages out of foster care in less than a year rendered the decision arbitrary and capricious.

Tamara Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice, praised the decision, saying the judge showed a "complete understanding of the issues" that clients such as D.F. had to confront. She noted medical requests like D.F.'s had arisen before and had been granted "occasionally." Steckler told the Law Journal that "this area is not well fleshed out" and the city had a "unique opportunity" to review the process of agreeing to the sort of procedures at issue "and better support our clients aging out of foster care." This decision also rejected ACS' common assertion that lack of compliance with some of ACS' rules necessarily means that a client will not comply with necessary post-operative care. The Legal Aid trial office team included Courtney Camp and Vanessa Paugh, working alongside Judy Stern and Judy Waksberg from our Appeals Unit.



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