August 27, 2015
MAKING THE CASE FOR HUMANITY
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
In The Interest of Justice: A Legal Aid Success Story
The New York Law Journal carried a success story of Manhattan Staff Attorney Victor Castelli's outstanding representation of a young man with severe mental health and drug problems who, two years later, has completed his therapeutic programs, enrolled in college, is employed full time, remains drug free and is coping with his mental illness.
Settlement Agreement Calls For Widespread Reform at Rikers
The Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project (PRP) achieved a major victory in its quest for systemic reform of brutality in the City jails with the settlement of Nunez v. New York. Together with co-counsel Ropes & Gray and Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady, and the United States Department of Justice an agreement was signed with the City of New York to reform the widespread abuse of prisoners by correction staff in the New York City jails. "This agreement requires the City to make deeply important changes to the supervision of staff on Rikers Island, and reflects our view of the best path to reform," said Jonathan Chasan, a Supervising Attorney in the PRP, who handled the case with Mary Lynne Werlwas, a PRP Staff Attorney. The Ropes & Gray legal team has been led by Bill Sussman, partner; Chris Conniff, partner and Legal Aid Director; and Anna Friedberg, an associate. For the past 44 years, PRP has carried out groundbreaking work to protect the legal rights of prisoners through law reform, class action litigation, and advice and representation in individual matters. The Project's landmark victories to prevent unconstitutional conditions of confinement have had a national impact, and the Project continues to be a national leader in prison reform advocacy.
New York City Council Announces Funding for Legal Aid's Prisoners' Rights Project
New York Council Members Vanessa L. Gibson and Andy King held a press conference in June to announce $750,000 in direct funding for The Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project for legal services at Rikers Island. "We cannot fool ourselves into thinking the battle is won, because it is not," Gibson said. "These reforms will fix the damage that's been done to many detainees, who have been witnesses and victims of brutality and sexual violence; those who have been denied access to health care, to mental health and social services, and all the critical areas that we know that they need." Seymour James, Attorney-in-Chief, said the funds will allow Legal Aid to support the work of the Prisoners' Rights Project, whose staff was cut in half over the last two decades. Attending the press conference were Seymour W. James, Attorney-in-Chief; Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice; Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice; Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit; and John Boston, Director of PRP; Jonathan Chasan, Supervising Attorney in PRP; and Mary Lynn Werlwas, Staff Attorney.
Rally To Protest Treatment of Homeless People
Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice, and Sandeep Kandhari, Director of the Community Justice Unit, participated in the ChangetheNYPD rally at City Hall to protest the treatment of Homeless People by the Sergeants Benevolent Association. "The fact that the SBA thinks we should shame and neglect instead of serve and protect is outrageous," Holder told the crowd during the rally. Holder's comments were aired on New York 1's The Call. The Legal Aid Society issued the following statement: "The recent campaign launched by the SBA is distasteful and inhumane. Instead of being publicly shamed by having their pictures taken, homeless New Yorkers deserve affordable housing and services. The SBA's behavior not only fails to help people in need, it incites unnecessary fear mongering in a tempestuous political environment. In New York we treat people better than this. The Legal Aid Society is the oldest and largest legal services organization for low-income individuals and families, and we are committed to helping our neighbors find permanent and affordable housing. The campaign by the SBA only serves to embarrass us and does nothing to reduce crime. We hope that during this time of incredible growth and success for many in our city, we use our efforts to help those who are less fortunate and continue to make this a great city for all New Yorkers."
Federal Judge Ends 10 Years of Litigation; Improves Access to Services for 30,000 New Yorkers with Disabilities
The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP announced that Federal District Court Judge Katherine B. Forrest granted final approval to what she described as a "landmark" class action settlement in a civil rights lawsuit that will result in greater access to government services for over 30,000 low-income New Yorkers with disabilities and help to avert hunger and homelessness for many vulnerable families and individuals. The case has already resulted in the payment of millions of dollars of retroactive benefits to over 14,000 class members under a partial settlement finalized in October 2014. The case, Lovely H. v. Eggleston, 05 CV 6920, was filed in 2005 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against the City's Human Resources Administration (HRA) alleging that the welfare agency's programs and systems did not comply with federal, state and local laws protecting individuals with disabilities. The lawsuit claimed that without needed accommodations, disabled clients were losing benefits when they could not comply with HRA rules. The prior City administration agreed to proceed with settlement discussions on the eve of trial on the case in December 2013. Kathleen Kelleher, a Staff Attorney in the Civil Law Reform Unit, and Sean Murphy of Milbank were lead attorneys on the case. The plaintiffs are also represented by a Civil Law Reform team consisting of Kenneth Stephens, Supervising Attorney; Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge ; and Susan Welber. In addition to Mr. Murphy, Pro Bono counsel from Milbank Tweed includes Sarah Rothenberg and Andrea Hood.
No Child in New York City Is Facing Immigration Court Alone; Successful Program Began A Year Ago
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito praised the success of New York City's program for unaccompanied immigrant children of which The Legal Aid Society was a major party. All unaccompanied immigrant minors who reached New York City illegally now have access to free legal representation, according to the City Council. Jojo Annobil, Attorney-in-Charge of the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society, said the case of every child arriving in the United States was different-but dismissed the idea from some that they were arriving simply because of President Barack Obama's executive order on immigration (on hold in the courts at the moment) or other U.S. policies. He told NBC that when someone is willing to jump onto a moving train and risk death to get here, it's for a good reason. "We are dealing with a very vulnerable population. The children have experienced traumatic, heartbreaking situations, including domestic and sexual abuse. They have not just legal issues, but also social, mental health, and educational needs."
Four Legal Aiders Appointed to The Bench
Four members of the Legal Aid staff have been appointed judges in recent months-two from the Civil Practice and two from the Juvenile Rights Practice. Emily Ruben, who had served as the Attorney-in-Charge of the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office, and Jacqueline B. Deane, the Director of Delinquency Training and Practice in the Juvenile Rights Practice, were appointed to the Family Court. Judith Waksberg, Director of the Juvenile Right Practice Appeals Bureau, was appointed to the Civil Court. Olivia Cassin, a Staff Attorney in the Immigration Law Unit, was appointed to the Immigration Court.
The Legal Aid Society Announces Community Justice Unit
Since 2012, a group of dedicated attorneys and paralegals have been working in communities through the five boroughs of New York City assisting our community partners stem gun violence through the LAS Anti-Gun Violence Unit. However, that title simply failed to capture the richness of the work the team performed and unfairly limited the unit to a single purpose. The Legal Aid Society is happy to announce that this unit will now be called the Community Justice Unit (CJU), a name that better describes the work that the unit does throughout the City and our mission to connect with people where the problems exist and not simply wait to meet our clients in offices and courthouses. This unit will be working to improve public policy by garnering information from the ground level and coordinating with each of the special litigation units within LAS to bring lawsuits that work to correct the most pressing problems facing our clients. We believe that working in the community alongside our community partners, tenants' associations and school and youth organizations gives us a better understanding of the everyday issues that we, as lawyers for New Yorkers, must address and fight to change. CJU conducts Know-Your-Rights presentations in schools and at Cure Violence sites to ensure that people are well informed when confronted by police.
The Legal Aid Society participated in Begin Again, a special amnesty program launched by Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson to help more than 200,000 Brooklyn residents with outstanding warrants for low level citations resolve the matters. The program was a collaborative effort with local churches, the NYPD, OCA, and The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn Criminal Defense Office. Special thanks to LAS supervisors, ALAA, and 1199 for an outstanding job.
Tenants Sue Landlord Over Illegal Rent Increases and Attempts to Deregulate Apartments While Receiving Tax Breaks From the State
Eighteen tenants from a Bronx apartment building sued their landlord in New York State Supreme Court, challenging the owner's unlawful attempts to raise their rent above legal limits while receiving millions of dollars in tax breaks from the State and to deregulate the building. The Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC are representing the tenants who are challenging their landlord's illegal rents and plan to deregulate their building. 1111 Gerard Avenue, a 122-unit rental building located in an area of the Bronx slated for re-zoning under the Mayor's proposed Housing New York Plan, was built in 1991 using a 421-a tax abatement which reduces developers' taxes in exchange for providing affordable, rent-stabilized apartments. The lawsuit argues that the apartments should remain rent stabilized because the landlord, while receiving massive tax breaks, failed to follow the most basic rules of the 421-a program while raising rents as much as 40% above legally allowed limits in an attempt to force low-income residents from their homes. The tenants are asking the Court to affirm that all apartments in the building are rent stabilized and are seeking damages to address their landlord's rent overcharges. The Legal Aid litigation team consists of Jessica Belinder, Supervising Attorney, and Edmund Witter, Staff Attorney, Bronx Neighborhood Office.
Judge Dwyer Issues Written Decision in Landmark DNA case Won by Legal Aid's DNA Unit
After two and a half years of litigation, including live testimony from 11 scientists, Acting Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Mark Dwyer decided not to admit so-called "lower copy number" or "high-sensitivity" analysis. Dwyer said that the New York Medical Examiner is the only public laboratory in the United States that employs the technique in criminal cases. Lawyers in Legal Aid's DNA Unit litigated the admissibility of LCN and FST evidence in a Frye hearing. Some of the world's most famous forensic scientists testified for the defense. The DNA litigation team consisted of Jessica Goldthwaite, Clinton Hughes, Susan Friedman, and Daniel Ades.
Legal Aid Calls City's New Bail Initiative "a Strong Step Toward True Bail Reform and True Fairness"
Appearing on New York 1 and quoted in the New York Times, Tina Luongo, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice, called the City's new bail initiative "a strong step toward true bail reform and true fairness in the justice system." Ms. Luongo said that "the Mayor's initiative to expand the opportunity for people to go home to their families, go home to their jobs, go home to their children while their case is pending during this supervised release program is really crucial." Ms. Luongo said we will be assessing the initiative's performance by how many of the defendants avoid the hardships of extended stints in jail. "That's the success, the true success-diverting as many people off Rikers Island as possible."
Seniors at the Prospect Park Residence Will Have Their Day in Court
Thanks to the efforts of The Legal Aid Society; Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto; and MFY Legal Services challenging the improper closure, seniors at the Prospect Park Residence will have their day in court. The Honorable Wayne Saitta denied the motion of the NYS Department of Health and the landlord of the PPR to dismiss the case. "With this decision, the residents can finally move forward to prove that the DOH and PPR acted completely illegally in closing the residence," said Judith Goldiner, Attorney in Charge, of the Civil Law Reform Unit of The Legal Aid Society. "This was a wise and fair decision by Judge Saitta, and will allow the courageous seniors of the Prospect Park Residence to have their case heard at trial, despite the request of the despicable owner Haysha Deitsch and the Cuomo Administration's NYS Department of Health to dismiss the case," said City Councilman Brad Lander in an announcement about the ruling. The landlord is forcing seniors out of the assisted living facility so the building can be converted into luxury condos.
We Will Continue To Fight
The Legal Aid Society issued the following statement re: the 2d Department's decision affirming Judge Garnett's decision denying disclosure of the Garner grand jury minutes: "We are disappointed with the Court's decision and will continue to fight for the release of this proceeding. Transparency and accountability are the only way this City can begin to heal from the tragedy of Eric Garner's death."
NY Times Editorial on Pantaleo Decision
The New York Times carried an editorial on Justice Alice Schlesinger's ruling to release the summary of substantiated misconduct findings against Police Officer Pantaleo, the officer who held Eric Garner in a chokehold that led to his death. The Legal Aid Society successfully brought the case.
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