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Questions the Democratic Presidential Candidates Haven’t Been Asked

By: Alexis Farmer

Democratic Presidential Debate in Detroit, MI. July 30, 2019. Credit: Alexis Farmer

Affordable housing has yet to be addressed in a presidential debate, even though a national public opinion poll revealed that 85% of Americans believe ensuring everyone has an affordable place to live should be a “top national priority.” Housing is an issue that rarely surfaces in a presidential election, but there is growing national concern about the shortage of affordable housing. Nearly half of all renters spend a third of their income on housing, leaving little room to pay for other necessities such as food, healthcare, childcare, and transportation. Some argue that those data points understate the housing problem, particularly for low-income individuals living in high cost cities.  A national plan on housing affordability is critical to addressing growing inequality.

In June, President Trump signed an executive order establishing the White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development. The council, chaired by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson, seeks to reduce the regulatory barriers at all levels of government that hinder the development of affordable housing. Housing advocates are concerned that the council won’t make significant progress to address the problem and may in fact exacerbate it. The administration has already suggested cutting HUD’s 2020 budget and denying federal housing aid to families with mixed-citizenship status.

A number of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have announced plans addressing the policy challenges involved in preserving and expanding affordable housing, but have yet to discuss them in a debate. Some of the proposals call for reforming the Section 8 housing subsidy program and providing tax credits to people who spend a large fraction of their income on rent. At Harvard Law School, four clinics and students practice organizations – Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP), Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), Housing Law Clinic, and Project No One Leaves (PNOL) – that work with low-income households to retain and secure housing want to hear the candidates expand upon their ideas in the next debate. Here’s what students from TAP and HLAB have to say about the new housing plans.

Anna Carlsson, JD/MUP 21 and Sam Gilman, JD/MPP 22

The Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) serves public and subsidized housing tenants and applicants in administrative matters involving housing authorities throughout the Greater Boston Area. TAP represents clients in a range of case types, including evictions and subsidy terminations, application and transfer denials, and reasonable accommodation requests. Because TAP’s work deals largely with HUD-funded, HUD-regulated housing authorities, federal housing policy deeply affects our clients’ ability to access and retain quality housing.

In our casework, we frequently see housing authorities violate federally mandated due process requirements, suggesting that reform could start with more robust enforcement of existing rules and regulations at the local level. Many of TAP’s clients who receive Section 8 or Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) vouchers also face the threat of voucher termination because they are unable to “lease up” (find housing on the private market) in time, due to well-documented landlord discrimination against subsidized tenants–a threat that could be alleviated by Section 8 regulatory reform and/or expansion of FHA protections to include source of income discrimination.

In the next debate, we’d like to see the presidential candidates answer the following:

  • Since the early 1990s, few new public housing developments have been created, and many have been demolished, with federal policy favoring vouchers over public housing. What is your position on public housing and its role in the landscape of affordable housing? What is your plan to fund it?

 

  • We are currently seeing a wave of expiring rental affordability restrictions, resulting in loss of affordable units. With continuing Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) conversion of public housing to project-based assistance, and the continuing use of temporary affordability restrictions for publicly assisted private housing developments, won’t this problem recur indefinitely? How can we invest more sustainably and effectively in long-term affordability?

 

  •  How does your housing plan recognize and attempt to remedy the disproportionate effect of rising housing costs and displacement on communities of color, particularly low-income communities of color?

 

  •  We’ve witnessed TAP clients being taken advantage of by public housing authorities that ignore existing policy, and deny their tenants and voucher recipients due process as required by state and federal law (e.g., violation of reasonable lookback periods, warranty of habitability standards, notice and hearing requirements, etc.). This results in arbitrary and unjust terminations, evictions, and application denials. How do you plan to ensure that existing protections for public and subsidized housing tenants are more robustly enforced?

Kiah Duggins, JD 21 at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB)

I am a Black American student in HLAB. My opinions about the 2020 presidential candidates’ housing policies center around one thing: my unshakeable belief that housing policies must expressly provide reparations for all of the ways that the United States has systemically and intentionally prevented marginalized communities from obtaining housing and – consequently – generational wealth. I have ranked each presidential candidate’s housing policies with my reparations framework in mind.

  1. Elizabeth Warren – Warren directly addresses the historical housing inequalities that marginalized people have faced, and her plan directly implements reparations through her down-payment assistance program. She specifically intends to close the White-Black racial wealth gap by providing qualifying Black families with a grant that they can use for a down-payment towards a home. She also plans to strengthen the Fair Housing Act and remove barriers to affordable housing.
  2. Cory Booker – Booker’s housing plan directly implements reparations through his “Baby Bonds” initiative, which literally gives money to low income children. Booker indirectly implements reparations through his promises to fully fund the Housing Trust Fund and invest in affordable housing for Native communities. His promises to combat housing discrimination, expand right to counsel for tenants facing eviction and reform restrictive zoning laws will also help marginalized communities obtain housing.
  3. Bernie Sanders – Sanders directly addresses how discrimination and the 2008 financial crisis disproportionately affected Black people, and attempts to right historical wrongs through ending redlining, investing in housing funds and strengthening the Fair Housing Act.
  4. Kamala Harris – Harris’ housing plan attempts to right historical wrongs with policies that include investing billions of dollars in down-payment and closing-cost assistance to people living in red-lined communities and strengthening anti-discrimination lending laws. However, citizens who apply to receive the increased funding have to meet several convoluted and strict criteria. These criteria may create a barrier to entry that restricts her plan from having wide-spread effects.
  5. Pete Buttigieg – Buttigieg’s housing plan, entitled the 21st Century Homestead Act, explicitly focuses on reparations for Black Americans. However, the mechanism through which these reparations are distributed is convoluted and partial. Cities would have to apply for funding, and then residents in the pre-selected cities would have to apply for land ownership after meeting several strict criteria. Although this plan drastically improves the lives of residents who make it through the process and receive absolute ownership of land, it is unlikely that this plan would have the wide-spread effects that reparations requires.
  6. Julian Castro – Castro has several detailed plans that would help marginalized communities by increasing rental and homeownership affordability, ending homelessness, implementing the Fair Housing Rule and combatting gentrification. Although some of these programs may have similar effects as reparations programs would, Castro does not mention an obligation to right historical wrongs in his proposal.
  7. Joe Biden – Biden plans to expand rural Americans’ access to housing. This plan does not go far enough. There are people outside of rural areas who also need increased access to housing

Hopefully the moderators will ask the candidates to address these issues tonight as they take the stage at Otterbein University. The debate, hosted by CNN and the New York Times begins at 8pm.

Harvard Law School’s ‘outstanding’ housing rights advocacy work honored by Boston Bar Association

Lisa Owens (City Life/Vida Urbana), Zoe Kronin (Greater Boston Legal Services), Maureen McDonagh (Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School), and Eloise Lawrence (Harvard Legal Aid Bureau) accept the 2019 John G. Brooks Legal Services Award on behalf of their organizations. Photo courtesy of the Boston Bar Association.

By Grace Yuh

In September, two Harvard Law School clinics and their community partner organizations were recognized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA) for their collaborative efforts to fight housing displacement in greater Boston.

WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), and City Life/Vida Urbana, received the BBA’s John G. Brooks Legal Services Award for a “creative, combined strategy of community organizing and legal defense to advocate with and for tenants and homeowners across the city.” The award, presented annually by the BBA, recognizes “professional legal services attorneys for their outstanding work on behalf of indigent clients in greater Boston.” This was the first time since its establishment that the award was received by a collective of four groups.

“These four organizations represent the very best in collaboration and commitment to finding solutions for Boston’s housing crisis,” said incoming BBA President Christine Netski, managing partner at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen. “Their innovative partnership is an excellent model for others looking to bring lawyers and community organizers together to create positive change.”

The cost of housing in greater Boston has increased significantly over the past 10 years. As more and more properties are becoming increasingly expensive, middle- and low- income individuals and families have fewer options to secure housing.

Eloise Lawrence, a community lawyering Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law at HLAB, provided insight into how the evolution of the Boston Housing crisis makes it a persistent legal issue, noting how widespread gentrification and foreclosure in the greater Boston area continues to displace community members.

“The real crisis in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis was when a lot of speculators and investors came into communities that had been devastated. They took advantage of the fact that the prices of the homes had decreased dramatically and they started buying them up, which set off yet another speculative frenzy.” she said.

Maureen McDonagh, LSC Managing Attorney and Lecturer on Law at the Housing Law Clinic, also elaborated on why this issue is more relevant than ever to the legal community.

“Over the years we’ve seen cuts to legal services. That means there are even fewer attorneys representing folks in housing courts.” said McDonagh. “For unrepresented people, finding representation is virtually impossible. To find an apartment that is affordable, safe, clean is near impossible. People who are being evicted are finding themselves more and more homeless and this includes families. That’s why I think the BBA has concentrated more on [this issue].”

Lawrence noted that the collaborative nature between the four organizations developed in part through the work of the late David Grossman, Clinical Professor, who worked at LSC before becoming the Faculty Director at HLAB. Grossman brought students from LSC and HLAB into the anti-foreclosure movement that GBLS and City Life/Vida Urbana were already participating in. Since then, the partnership between all four organizations has expanded and grown. A hallmark of the partnership between these four organizations, the Sword and Shield method relies on the concerted and joint effort of local and legal communities; and focuses on empowering and encouraging individuals to stand up for their rights.

“The Shield is legal defense and the Sword is public protest and public pressure.” explained Steve Meacham, Organizing Coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana. “There are procedures of the law that we can take advantage of and … legal proceedings allow the public pressure to then really work.”

City Life/Vida Urbana, whose primary mission is fighting against forced displacement, represents the “sword” through work such as organizing tenant associations and doing eviction blockades. HLS students and attorneys from LSC and GBLS complete the “shield” of the Sword and Shield method by providing legal services and advice. This can range from partial to full representation in court, with the City Life/Vida Urbana meetings in both Jamaica Plain and East Boston providing a space in which law students and attorneys can meet with individuals or client unions looking for legal aid. Additionally, GBLS, LSC, and HLAB participate in the “Lawyer for the Day” program, in conjunction with the BBA and Volunteer Lawyers Project.

“We go to housing court to help people who are being evicted that day, who don’t have a lawyer. We pick up cases right there.” said McDonagh on the program, which has assisted more than 18,000 individuals since 1999.

Outside of the direct services that the four organizations provide, they also convene for monthly Sword and Shield meetings that provide a space for lawyers and organizers to discuss and reflect on issues regarding partnership and individual work. Lawrence explained how these meetings are a good opportunity for organizers and lawyers to connect beyond shared clients.

“I think there’s huge synergy that happens when organizers and lawyers work together. I view it as part of my job to teach law students, especially those that have never worked with organizers before, to understand where the role of lawyer and organizer overlap and where they are distinct. I think that [to be] a good lawyer or an organizer, you need to be an empathetic human, you need to listen and learn. It sounds simple but it often gets overlooked in legal education.” she said.

Additionally, Meacham emphasized the strengths of community lawyering in a movement like the anti-foreclosure movement, where it is important to empower the collective of those in need of help.

“It’s been a privilege to work with all of them.” Meacham said, “In addition to being on the right side of cases about tenants, they are very skilled community lawyers, which is why they’re here taking short consultations. They understand that they’re representing collectively the movement … in terms of their practice outside of the client-attorney relationship, they’re practicing community lawyering so they’re looking at cases that will help a movement.” he said.

McDonagh also emphasized the nature of the collaboration between the four organizations and their relationship with the greater Boston community. “We are honored to be recognized for our efforts but the people who are the real heroes are the ordinary individuals standing up for their rights.” she said.

GBLS Executive Director Jacquelynne J. Bowman says receiving the Brooks Legal Services Award is a wonderful recognition of what impactful, collaborative advocacy can really look like.

“Greater Boston Legal Services is greatly honored to have been chosen by the Boston Bar Association as a co-recipient of the 2019 John G. Brooks Legal Services Award”, she said.  “This is a testament to the impactful advocacy efforts of our Housing Unit advocates and partners at the Harvard Legal Assistance Bureau, WilmerHale Legal Services Center, and City Life/Vida Urbana to help low-income families avoid or delay their displacement from increasingly unaffordable neighborhoods.”

Lawrence echoed this sentiment, noting the implications for how the legal community might best approach large-scale socio-economic issues in the future.

“It’s a recognition … that effective advocacy happens when people work together, especially when lawyers and non-lawyers work together.” Lawrence said. “When you’re dealing with complex problems like lack of affordable housing and the displacement of people from their homes, lawyers are never going to do this alone. The recognition from the legal community, which the BBA [represents], shows a more complex understanding of how problems are going to be addressed and that’s wonderful.”

 

 

Tenants Pushed Out as Developers Buy Single-Room-Occupancy Properties

Via WGBH Radio

Source: John Tlumacki

DAVID GREENE, HOST: In many American cities, the cheapest rental housing is single room occupancy, or SRO units or rooming houses. These are tiny rooms with no kitchens and shared bathrooms out in the hallway. As investors buy up SRO properties in urban neighborhoods, several cities have seen low-income tenants pushed out. Chris Burrell from WGBH’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting found such renters are struggling to hold on.

RICHARD: Don’t be shy (ph). Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go. Good girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

CHRIS BURRELL, BYLINE: That’s Richard, a 62-year-old tenant in an SRO north of Boston. As he opens the door to his room, he makes sure his cat doesn’t dash into the hallway. NPR’s not using his full name because he is fearful of reprisals from his landlord for talking to the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

RICHARD: Her prior owner was a heroin addict who had OD’d. And if I have to move out, who’s going to take care of her?

BURRELL: He’s worried because the 72-unit SRO, where he lives in a windowless room, was sold last year for $2.2 million. Since then, the owner has sent eviction notices to 20 tenants; in April came notice of rent hikes. For tenants like Richard, it’s a 27% increase, from $550 to $700 a month.

Nationally, housing advocates say SROs are vital unsubsidized shelter for the poor, low-wage workers, the elderly and people with mental illness or drug addiction. SROs don’t have a great reputation. Considered substandard housing, cities in the last 50 years eliminated hundreds of thousands of rooms in the name of urban renewal.

NAN ROMAN: There’s no question that the loss of a lot of these units is a major contributor to homelessness in places where they existed.

BURRELL: That’s Nan Roman, the head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She says SROs, once seen as blight, are now viewed as one solution to homelessness. Several cities – Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. – are trying to preserve SROs before owners convert them to higher-end housing.

Back in Massachusetts, Richard has lived in this tiny SRO room for three years, surviving on a $700-a-month disability check. His hands tremble as he shows me the ceiling fan dangling from thin wires. He and three other tenants share a bathroom with cracked floor tiles and decayed caulking around the tub. As bad as it is here, Richard wants to stay put.

RICHARD: One of the big problems for most people in the building is, where are we going to go? We can’t afford the rent anymore, and you’re talking about elderly, disabled people.

BURRELL: He’s not alone. In San Diego, city officials last spring were helping nearly 200 people relocate after a large SRO closed. In Boston, housing advocates see a similar pattern. Eloise Lawrence is an attorney at Harvard Law School’s legal clinic, defending SRO tenants against eviction.

ELOISE LAWRENCE: People are being thrown out. That’s happening across the city because these properties now are so valued. What was considered sort of housing at the last resort is now seen as desirable and profitable.

BURRELL: But developers say running rooming houses is hard, and when the economy is booming like it is now, there may be easier options, like converting to condos. Alan Hope ran two rooming houses north of Boston.

ALAN HOPE: It’s very difficult, I think, if you’re not a professional, in maintaining a rooming house to the standard that’s required. Real estate, in general, is becoming more higher-priced, valuable. So investors are trying to get the most they can out of it. Maybe having other form of more stable type of tenants, tenants that are probably living – earning a living, and they’re not depending on subsidies.

BURRELL: Housing experts say demand for such SRO-type housing is increasing as the number of single households in America who are renters has grown to 16 million in the last decade, and many of them are facing rent levels that eat up at least a third or half their income. Building new SRO housing is one response. Places like New York and Portland, Maine, are looking at proposals to do just that.

For NPR News, I’m Chris Burrell.

Harvard Law School clinicians testify on legislation supporting tenants in eviction cases

Via Harvard Law Today 

By: Alexis Farmer

Credit: Lorin Granger
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh speaks in front of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Four Harvard Law School clinicians—Esme Caramello, Patricia Whiting and Nicole Summers from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) and Shelley Barron from the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP)—presented testimony before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary on a series of housing bills aimed at tenants facing eviction.

On July 16, the clinicians provided remarks in support of bills requiring tenants facing eviction to have a right to counsel and sealing eviction records. HLAB testified against four rent escrow bills. Nearly 100 people, including community organizers, legal aid lawyers, legislators, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh attended the hearing.

Right to Counsel

In 2018, more than 92% of tenants who faced eviction were unrepresented according to the Massachusetts Right to Counsel Coalition. Unable to afford an attorney, most tenants represent themselves, even though they are often unfamiliar with the legalese and processes of the court. Legal services organizations like HLAB, TAP and the Housing Law Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) fill in the gap by providing pro bono representation to tenants, but they say their limited capacity constrains them from taking on the number of clients that request their services.

Credit: Lorin Granger
Clinical Instructor Shelley Barron testifies in front of the Joint Committee of the Judiciary. Seated to her right is Annette Duke, Staff Attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Rep. David M. Rogers (D-Middlesex), Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Suffolk),and Sen. Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) are sponsoring bills that would ensure the right to counsel in eviction proceedings. If a tenant cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them, similar to defendants in criminal cases. Studies in Massachusetts and other stateshave shown that tenants with representation have a better chance of reaching agreements with landlords to stay in their homes and avoid having an eviction on their record.

Also in favor of the resolution was TAP Clinical Instructor Shelley Barron. She told the committee, “low-income tenants should have a fair and meaningful chance at preserving their affordable housing. The right to a legal advocate will go a long way to ensuring access to justice for low-income tenants in the Commonwealth.” She also stated lawyers can help tenants before problems escalate to the point of court intervention.

Credit: Lorin Granger
Nicole Summers (right) testifying in front of the Joint Committee of the Judiciary. Seated to the left is Andrea Nickerson, a tenant in Boston public housing.

Challengers questioned whether the state should be funding legal representation for one side of the case. Supporters argued that the bill includes provisions for low-income landlords to have a right to counsel. Barron says, “A right to counsel is not the only policy option to help keep families housed, but studies have indicated it is a concrete way to reduce homelessness. It’s also a matter of dignity, of ensuring that vulnerable tenants have a voice in an overwhelming and imbalanced system.”

Mayor Walsh urged the committee to look seriously into the legislation, stating that, “this is not about stacking the deck in favor of a tenant, it’s about ensuring equal justice under the law.” HLAB Clinical Instructor Nicole Summers suggested a plan of implementation to ensure courts and legal service providers have time to adjust.

Other bills that ensure a right to counsel include H. 1537 and S. 913.

The HOMES Act—An Act Promoting Housing Opportunity and Mobility Through Eviction Sealing

The HOMES Act (H.3566/S.824) sponsored by Rep. Michael J. Moran (D-Suffolk) and Sen. Joseph Boncore, (D-Suffolk and Middlesex) would seal eviction proceedings. In a study by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) at least 1 million eviction cases have been filed in Massachusetts since 1988. The records of those eviction cases remain online forever, regardless of the outcome.

Credit: Lorin Granger
Clinical Faculty Director and Clinical Professor of Law Esme Caramello testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

Credit: Lorin Granger
Andrea Park, Staff Attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

The “Scarlet E,” as it’s known, is said to create barriers to housing, allowing prospective landlords to reject potential tenants. Records of an eviction can also impact tenants’ credit scores, their ability to secure loans, and employment opportunities. The HOMES Act would seal eviction cases once they are filed and would only be unsealed when a judge makes a ruling and finds fault, such as if a tenant has failed to pay rent or violated a condition of their lease. Eviction case records would be publicly available for three years then sealed. Sealed records could be released for governmental, journalistic, or research purposes. The bill would also make it illegal to name minors or others not responsible for rent as a defendant in an eviction case.

Mayor Walsh, Boston City Council Representative Lydia Edwards, the ACLU of Massachusetts, community organizations like the Chelsea Collaborative and even a few landlords supported the bill. Tenants and lawyers shared experiences about the damaging consequences an eviction record can have on finding new housing for veterans, domestic violence survivors, individuals with disabilities, college-bound students, and low-income women of color. Esme Caramello, Clinical Professor and Faculty Director of HLAB, pushed the urgency of the issue, calling it an “an invisible crisis.”

Opponents say that eviction records hold important information for landlords about the past behavior of potential tenants. Landlords in favor of the bill listed alternative ways of getting the same information to check the credibility of potential clients, such as a credit checks. Caramello says the act would protect tenants from being unfairly branded with an eviction record for the rest of their lives. “The idea is that even if we made a mistake or fall on hard times, we can move on with our lives at some point,” she told the committee.

Rent Escrow

Clinical Instructor Pattie Whiting spoke out against four rent escrow bills being considered by the committee, including one sponsored by Nicolas Boldyga (R-Hampden). Massachusetts law allows tenants to withhold rent when the landlord fails to make necessary repairs or address sanitary code violations. The statute that the mandatory rent escrow bills seek to amend, is a crucial tool for ensuring that residential rental properties are kept in habitable condition, Whiting said. As currently written, the statute provides both a mechanism for tenants to enforce the State Sanitary Code and a disincentive for landlords to let properties fall into disrepair.

Whiting argued that the proposed legislation imposes additional and unnecessary procedural prerequisites on tenants seeking to withhold rent and/or raise their poor living conditions as a defense to an eviction action. For example, requiring a board of health inspection report prior to withholding, requiring a second written notice to the landlord after the board of health inspection, and escrowing all of the rent claimed to be due by the landlord. “The vast majority of tenants would not be able to comply with these procedural requirements,” Whiting said, “particularly those who are disabled, illiterate or who do not speak English.” If a tenant failed to comply with the law as proposed, they would be denied the right to present their case in court, which advocates say undermines the statutory intent of ensuring that residential dwellings are maintained in habitable condition.

A Large Base of Support

Barron left the hearing hopeful. “Often for housing legislation, we’re playing defensively…but today we were pushing for exciting innovations and trying to improve access to justice for low-income tenants,” she said. Barron and Caramello were both encouraged by the large turnout of tenants, community groups, and government officials. Caramello noted, “The packed hearing highlighted the urgency of the work of building fairness into our lopsided eviction system.”

The committee will decide which bills will be reported out of the committee and advance to the floor for a vote. The last day for the formal session of the legislature is November 20.

Real Estate Boom Threatens Rooming Houses At The Bottom Of The Housing Market

Via WGHB

By: Chris Burrell

Source: iStock

A hot real estate market in Boston and surrounding cities is fueling rent hikes and evictions in what has long been one of the cheapest housing options in poor neighborhoods — rooming houses.

Housing advocates say rooming houses — also known as SROs, meaning ‘single room occupancy’ — are a vital source of affordable shelter for minimum-wage workers, the elderly and people with disabilities or mental illness. But as urban real estate values surge, some investors and property owners are raising rents, evicting tenants and trying to shift away from low-income residents.

“People are being thrown out, and that’s happening across the city, because these properties are now so valued,” said Eloise Lawrence, an attorney at Harvard Law School’s Legal Aid Bureau who has defended tenants. “What was once considered housing at the last resort is now seen as desired and profitable.”

It’s not clear whether the number of rooming houses in the Boston area has declined over time, because city agencies don’t keep accurate historical records of such properties, but the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found many cases of rooming houses being sold and tenants displaced or under threat of eviction.

Read the full story here.

All in a Day’s Work

By: Alexis Farmer

The numerous clinics at Harvard Law School (HLS) are frequently successful in their pursuit of advancing justice. We often read of victories in court cases, positive reactions to dynamic presentations, and the formation of powerhouse partnerships, but how do the clinics get there? On any given day, HLS students, clinical instructors and clinical faculty are actively working on issues – preparing a brief, arguing a motion in court, giving a presentation to community leaders or clinical professionals, or collaborating with community partners on launching a policy initiative. On one particular day in early May, three clinics were in three different courts while others were fortifying partnerships on each of the coasts. The Office of Clinical Programs (OCP) got an inside scoop on what a day in a few of the clinics might look like, and they were just as busy as we suspected.

Tuesday, May 7th

Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts
Source: Flickr

9:00am The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard oral argument in Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, a case about whether the public has a right of access to records from show-cause hearings in which the clerk magistrate, who presides over the hearing, finds probable cause, but decides not to issue a criminal complaint. The Boston Globe sued the heads of the trial courts last fall, arguing that public access to the records allows for transparency and accountability and is useful in determining whether there is an uneven application of justice in this part of the court system. The action came after The Globe reported that Massachusetts was the only state to have these proceedings out of the public eye and keep many of the documents confidential.

In amicus briefs, the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) argued that the hearings provide privacy for subjects of criminal complaints prior to arraignment. The amici also expressed concern that opening records where no criminal complaint is issued could harm individuals’ ability to obtain housing or jobs. HLAB’s brief was written on behalf of Harvard Defenders, the only legal services organization in the state dedicated to pro bono representation of indigent defendants in criminal show cause hearings, and City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots community organization dedicated to fighting for racial, economic, social justice and gender equality. Executive Director of Harvard Defenders Dara Jackson-Garrett, who co-authored the brief, told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, “Those who take out applications for criminal complaints often do not want to see the accused go to jail. Instead, they may just want to have the person apologize or get treatment for substance abuse.” A decision in the case is expected sometime late summer/early fall.

9:30am The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) at GBLS co-managing directors and HLS lecturers on law Nancy Kelly and John Willshire Carrera, HIRC assistant director and clinical professor Sabi Ardalan, and HIRC teaching fellow Zack Albun attended oral arguments in De Pena-Paniagua v. Barr, currently pending at the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The court held the hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston. Ms. De Pena-Paniagua is challenging a Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision that denied her asylum application by construing Matter of A-B-, a 2018 decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to categorically foreclose asylum to applicants who argue they have a well-founded fear of persecution in the form of domestic violence perpetrated on account of their membership in a “particular social group.” Along with co-counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and HIRC director Prof. Deborah Anker, the HIRC attorneys submitted an amicus brief arguing Ms. De Pena-Paniagua qualified for asylum as a victim of persecution on account of her membership in a particular social group defined by female gender. HIRC alumnus Eunice Lee (Albert M. Sacks Clinical Teaching & Advocacy Fellow 2009–11) appeared on behalf of fellow amicus the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, arguing that Matter of A-B- itself conflicts with the applicable federal statutes and international treaties and should be overturned.

The three-judge panel expressed significant interest in the position advanced in HIRC’s briefing, asking attorneys for both Ms. De Pena-Paniagua and the Department of Justice several questions about her eligibility for relief on the basis advocated. The First Circuit has yet to issue an opinion squarely addressing the legal sufficiency of defining a particular social group by gender.

10:00am Clinical Professor of Law Dehlia Umunna of the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) and CJI student Jillian Tancil J.D. ’19 spent the morning at Roxbury District Court representing a woman that allegedly violated a protection order. The case was scheduled for a jury trial, but was resolved with pre-trial probation.

10:30am HIRC Clinical Instructor Cindy Zapata spoke on a panel about family detention at the AALS Clinical Conference in San Francisco, CA. The panel, entitled “Learning in Baby Jail: Lessons from Law Student Engagement in Immigration Detention Centers,” was a forum for reflection and learning best practices for preparing students to engage in work within family detention centers. The other panelists included Lindsay Harris, University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law; Erica B. Schommer, St. Mary’s University School of Law; Sara Sherman-Stokes, Boston University School of Law.

11:20am The Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic (EL&PC) submitted comments on behalf of a group of leading scientists on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Assessment Plan for methylmercury. Methylmercury is a common pollutant of air and water and highly toxic. The EL&PC’s comments provided recommendations, guidance, and support for the EPA’s reassessments and proposed studies.

Source: iStock

1:15pm The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation’s (CHLPI) Health Law & Policy Clinic held a strategic planning call with the Transgender Law Center, as part of an initiative against the rollback of anti-discrimination protections for transgender and gender non-conforming people. The partnership, formalized in the summer of 2018, has led to conversations among legal experts about how to address and challenge reinterpretations of the Affordable Care Act and other civil rights protections. On May 24th, the Trump Administration released proposed changes to gender identity protections in health programs and activities. You can find CHLPI’s on-going analysis of the law here.

2:30pm The Legal Services Center’s Safety Net Project (LSC) and HLAB are representing a client as she appeals the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) decision to deny her disability benefits – the first joint representation between the programs. Despite extensive evidence of her inability to continue working due to symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression stemming from abuse both in childhood and during her marriage, the client’s claims have been denied at each stage of the appeals process and are now before the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. On May 7th, the LSC-HLAB team filed the client’s response memorandum and asked that the case be set for oral argument. The arguments center around the Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) decision, without explanation, to give lesser weight to important evidence from the doctors treating the client, his mischaracterization of the record, various conclusory determinations that render judicial review impossible, and a series of findings that should have been entrusted to experts. HLAB/LSC clinical instructors Stephanie Goldenhersh and Julie McCormack and students Jeremy Ravinsky, JD ’20 and Bryan Sohn, JD ’20 are working on the case. The team is looking forward to their day in court in the fall, when Jeremy and Bryan will present the client’s argument before Judge Casper.

The John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse in Boston, MA.  Source: iStock

All day Sarah Downer and Katie Garfield, from the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, attended the Root Cause Coalition’s Annual Hill Day in Washington, DC. They used the event as an opportunity to educate legislators from both parties about the implications of laws like the Anti-Kickback Statute – a criminal statute that prohibits transactions to induce or reward services or items reimbursed by federal health care programs. Downer and Garfield were also invited to meet with staff from several legislative offices to discuss pathways to integrating critical food and nutrition services into the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Securing coverage of these new benefits within our public insurance programs would expand access to life-saving nutrition for vulnerable individuals living with chronic illness.

Emanuel Powell wins Gary Bellow Public Service Award

Credit: Lorin Granger

By: Alexis Farmer

Harvard Law School (HLS) student Emanuel Powell J.D. ’19 is the winner of this year’s Gary Bellow Public Service Award, established in 2001 to honor Professor Gary Bellow ’60, his commitment to public service, and his innovative approach to the analysis and practice of law. Professor Bellow was a pioneering public interest lawyer who founded and directed Harvard Law School’s clinical programs.

Each year, the Gary Bellow Public Service Award recognizes a student who exemplifies how lawyers can litigate, educate, advocate, and organize to promote social justice. The HLS student body nominates and selects the winner. This year, the finalists were celebrated at an award ceremony and reception on April 23. At the ceremony, Emanuel encouraged his classmates to be mindful of the ways lawyers can either help or hinder social movements. While at HLS, Emanuel worked in a variety of practice areas that focused on movement lawyering.

Emanuel Powell J.D. ’19

Hailing from Liberty, MS, a town of a little over 700 people, Emanuel has always felt called to work in spaces that fight for racial equity. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC), Emanuel was a part of the governing board of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. Concerned by the lack of diversity of the undergraduate and graduate student population, two USC undergraduates started the Student Aid Fund, financed by a student tax that helps support low-income students from communities surrounding USC. Next to singing in the gospel choir, he considers his experience on the board “the most fun thing I’ve done at USC.”

After graduating from the Marshall School of Business at USC in 2012, Emanuel spent a summer in Rwanda helping rural farmers start co-ops, using his undergraduate training to help develop social enterprises. He then moved to New York and worked for two consulting organizations. At one, he helped a philanthropic organization focus on investing in racial equity, which culminated in designing a fellowship program for individuals in South Africa and the U.S. fighting to dismantle anti-black racism. That led him to be an active voice in the organization, helping other nonprofits think about funding racial justice work. It was through his experiences that he noticed that lawyers were always in the room. He began to see the law as a path to achieving black liberation and decided to go to law school.

Since starting at HLS, Emanuel has been a member and a leader of the Mississippi Delta Project (MDP) and Harvard Defenders. Additionally, he spent two years at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. In MDP, he worked on the Child and Youth team, and in Defenders, he represented clients at show-cause hearings. “The classroom setting is valuable for getting the foundational understanding [of the law] . . . but the way I learn best is through experiential learning.” He chose these organizations because, he says, they each orient students to be of service to the community, whether it be individual clients or movement organizers in a specific geographic area. It’s a principle of his to engage with the community in an authentic way. “I have a belief that you should work in community and with movements.”

Emanuel served as the managing editor of the Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, which uses legal scholarship to support Black communities, and is a member of the political action committee of the Black Law Student Association.

Referencing Audre Lorde’s quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and Emanuel said that “law school helped me realize I didn’t even want the master’s house dismantled, I want our own house or our own safe communities. That’s what I’m most excited about.” He lights up when he speaks about supporting movements creating alternative systems for economic, legal, and social prosperity that truly support disadvantaged communities. He wants to use the law to support these alternative structures. He says there is a lot of opportunity to support those leading movements for social change, “but,” he cautions, “if we’re not careful, we [as lawyers] have the power to stop them from accessing a better future.” He looks to Fannie Lou Hamer as an example, a “regular” person who saw there could a different way of life for Black people in Mississippi. She advocated creating a new structure for jobs and political parties. “As lawyers we can help people like Fannie Lou Hamer or stop people like Fannie Lou Hamer.”

Reflecting on the award and his three years at HLS, Emanuel said, “I was surprised to be nominated. One thing I’ve learned is that there are many students at HLS involved in public interest work across many different issue areas. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to accept this award, especially given the legacy of Gary Bellow and the opportunity to share the great work of some of the community-based organizations I have had the opportunity to work with. I hope I can live up to that legacy as I begin my career as an attorney.”

Upon graduation, Emanuel will be clerking for a judge in Jackson, MS and hopes to work in the South as a movement lawyer.

Richard Barbecho wins the Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Service Award

Via Harvard Law Today 

Credit: Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

By: Alexis Farmer

Richard Barbecho ’19 is this year’s winner of the Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Service Award. He was chosen for exemplifying a pro bono public spirit and demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to improving and delivering high quality volunteer legal services in low-income communities. The awards are granted each year in honor of Professor Andrew Kaufman, who spearheaded the pro bono requirement at Harvard Law School.

Barbecho has integrated criminal defense, immigration, and housing law into his 2,000+ hours of community lawyering and pro bono service during his time at HLS.

Throughout law school, Barbecho has been a devoted canvasser with Project No One Leaves, spending most Saturdays in Boston’s low-income neighborhoods knocking on the doors of people facing displacement. This year, he is PNOL’s co-president and he is additionally responsible for organizing the canvasses and training new canvassers who show up each week.

As a volunteer member of Harvard Defenders for the past three years, he has had an active caseload representing low-income individuals accused in criminal show-cause hearings before clerk magistrates and, recently, in an appeal in district court. He has also been a prolific Harvard Legal Aid Bureau student-attorney.

“Richard is an extraordinary student, advocate, and person,” said HLS Clinical Instructor Eloise Lawrence. “He is always working on behalf of his clients whether it be in social security, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, employment or housing cases. His results are unbelievable — he saved a family’s home from foreclosure taking it all the way to a jury trial. He secured benefits for a family with a severely disabled child who had been denied for years. Using his fluency in Spanish and his cultural competency along with his legal acumen, Richard secured a three-year lease for an 8 unit building in Dorchester, and built critical trust with his clients.”

Lawrence also praised Barbecho’s willingness to take on additional work and commit additional hours to help the underserved during his time at HLS. She said, “He is committed to his core to using the law to make our society more just.”

Liz Soltan, using law as a means to help people who need it most

Via Harvard Law Today  

Credit: Lorin Granger

By: Lewis Rice

Liz Soltan ’19 is not like some Harvard Law School students who have known for a long time that they wanted to be a lawyer. After college at Cornell University, she taught English in Malaysia and then worked at a nonprofit that connected clients to pro bono lawyers in her native Philadelphia. She interacted with public interest lawyers at the nonprofit, as well as lawyers practicing in big firms, small firms, and solo — all of whom wanted to serve their community. And she realized that the law could be a means to do exactly what she wants to do — help people who need it the most.

Now she is on the cusp on being a public interest lawyer herself, slated to begin a two-year Skadden Fellowship at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. But she has already gained experience as a legal practitioner through extensive work with the Tenant Advocacy Project during her 1L year and thereafter with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), including arguing one case before the highest court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

That case involved a practice area that Soltan immersed herself in — wage theft, a problem that particularly affects immigrant workers in low-paying jobs, she said. HLAB students worked on the case for several years, previously helping to secure a settlement for two workers at a dry cleaner whose employer did not compensate them for all the hours they worked, including overtime. But the employer refused to pay attorneys’ fees, arguing that it only was required to do so if it had lost the case in court. HLAB filed an application for Supreme Judicial Court review, which was granted. Soltan wrote the brief with Kenneth Parreno ’19, and she appeared before the Court in December 2018, ultimately winning the decision that gave the workers “prevailing party” status that entitled them to attorneys’ fees.

“The reason we thought this was important is that it will help more workers get competent representation and be able to pursue their rights,” she said. Hopefully it will also have a deterrent effect on employers.”

In other cases she worked on, she represented people threatened with eviction and facing possible homelessness. One woman was in subsidized housing that failed inspection and, according to Soltan, the landlord maneuvered to evict the tenant rather than improve conditions. Another client was a survivor of domestic abuse whose path to apply for public housing was impeded by poor references from previous landlords based on the actions of her abuser.

Of course, it’s important to know the law in these cases, and Soltan credits HLS Clinical Instructor Patricio Rossi for guiding her through the process. But she also emphasizes the importance of knowing her clients as people with other concerns besides their case, who have histories and hardships. She makes it a point not only to talk to them about the facts of the case but about their lives.

“You’re coming to people at a really tough moment in their life and asking them about really sensitive personal subjects. And you’re a total stranger,” said Soltan. “I think a lot of it has been trying to be humble and listen to people and not assume that I know anything.”

She developed her focus on social justice growing up in Philadelphia, a place she loves but which also exposed her to problems in the city with injustice, racism, and educational inequities, she said. Her parents, devout churchgoers who still help prepare free meals for people in the community, influenced her as well. “My parents have always had the sense of there’s a lot of things that are wrong in the world, and it’s not good to do nothing about it,” Soltan said.

She hopes to improve conditions for people in her city on her fellowship, where she’ll be working with parents of newborns to ensure that they have needed resources during their child’s first year of life, including legal aid and access to benefits. HLS’s Office of Public Interest Advising helped her secure the fellowship and the law school has provided resources to help her fulfill her goal to pursue public interest work, she said.

Looking back at her HLS experience, Soltan said: “It’s been really hard but it’s also made it possible for me to develop the skills to do important work and get to interact with a lot of amazing people who’ve been my clients or have been organizers or lawyers doing work that is not evil. So it has expanded my view of what legal work can mean and hopefully given me the tools to keep expanding that view.”

Employees entitled to fees under Wage Act settlement

Via Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly  

Liz Soltan J.D. ’19

Employees who obtained a favorable settlement of their Wage Act claim were considered “prevailing parties” entitled to attorneys’ fees under the statute’s fee-shifting provisions, the Supreme Judicial Court has determined.

The defendant employers argued that the plaintiff employees were not eligible for a fee award because they were not prevailing parties under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dep’t of Health & Human Resources. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court found that under federal fee-shifting statutes, a litigant must obtain judicial approval or “imprimatur” of a private settlement to be deemed a prevailing party.

But the SJC disagreed, emphasizing that it had previously found Buckhannoninapplicable to Massachusetts state law fee-shifting statutes and determining that the “catalyst test” was the applicable standard. The catalyst test requires only that the plaintiff’s suit be a “necessary and important” factor behind the favorable settlement result.

“We hold that the catalyst test applies to Wage Act claims and that the trial judge correctly found that the plaintiffs satisfied that test in the instant case, and we therefore affirm the award of attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs under the fee-shifting provisions of the Wage Act,” Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote for the court.

The 16-page decision is Ferman, et al. v. Sturgis Cleaners, Inc., et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 10-036-19. The full text of the ruling can be found here.

Small dollars, big impact?

Harvard Law School student Elizabeth Soltan, who argued on the plaintiffs’ behalf, said she hopes the decision enables more attorneys to take on Wage Act cases.

“The real impact will be on cases involving small dollar amounts which are more likely to involve workers who make a lower wage to begin with,” said Soltan, who became involved in the case through the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau clinical program (see sidebar).

HLAB clinical instructor Patricio S. Rossi, plaintiffs’ counsel of record, noted that it is difficult for low-wage workers to get representation for Wage Act claims because such cases typically do not involve enough money to be worthwhile for lawyers to take on contingency.

“A decision like this makes attorneys more confident they can get their fees without having to take the case all the way to trial,” he said.

Liliana Ibara, managing director of the Center for Public Interest Advocacy and Collaboration at Northeastern University School of Law, co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative. She called Ferman “a great decision.”

“Because of the way treble damages awards are structured, the idea is that if the worker has more income, it’s a bigger case with higher damages,” she said. “For a minimum wage worker, even if they’ve worked a lot of hours, it’s still a really low amount of money [at issue] overall. So those attorneys’ fees become incredibly important.”

Meanwhile, Ibara said, parties can still agree on counsel fees as part of the settlement as opposed to having a judge issue a fee award. That creates more options going forward, she said.

Ibara’s co-author, Joseph J. Michalakes of Greater Boston Legal Services, said the decision will have a particularly important impact on immigrant workers.

“They’re the most powerless workers in society, but this gives them power to enforce their rights under wage and hour law,” he said.

Swampscott trial attorney Andrew F. Caplan called the decision a “big deal,” commenting that it could have broad applicability beyond the Wage Act.

“The SJC’s expansive approach to awarding attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs under the Wage Act might be applied in future cases to other statutes that award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing or successful party, such as employment discrimination statutes,” he said.

Margaret E. Monsell of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute also submitted an amicus brief and said her organization was gratified that the SJC continues to recognize the importance of ensuring access to the courts for all.

“The court’s ruling affirms that the long-standing catalyst test for measuring the success of litigation is the best way to advance that goal,” Monsell said.

The defendants’ attorney, John J. McGlone III of Quincy, could not be reached for comment prior to deadline, but Daniel S. Field of Boston, who represents employers, said the ruling would have limited ramifications from a management perspective.

“It’s really unusual to settle a case — whether it’s a single plaintiff case, a multi-plaintiff case like this one, or a collective or class-action — without accounting for attorneys’ fees in the settlement agreement,” he said.

“A decision like this makes attorneys more confident they can get their fees without having to take the case all the way to trial.”

— Patricio S. Rossi, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

Wage Act claim

Plaintiffs Belky Ferman and Veronica Guillen worked for defendant Sturgis Cleaners, a dry cleaning business in Boston.

The plaintiffs sued the defendant and its owner, defendant Peter Triantos, in Suffolk Superior Court in November 2014, alleging non-payment of $28,000 in regular and overtime wages in violation of the Wage Act. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claimed treble damages, costs and attorneys’ fees.

After a nearly two-year period that included entry and lifting of a default judgment against the defendants as well as discovery and the filing of several pre-trial motions, the case was scheduled for a November 2016 trial.

Several weeks before trial, the case went to mediation, where the parties agreed to settle the case for $20,500 while reserving the issue of attorneys’ fees for resolution by the court.

The settlement also included language stating that it was the result of a compromise and did not constitute an admission of liability or wrongdoing. The parties then filed a stipulation with the court stating that the case would be dismissed with prejudice and waiver of all rights of appeal once the court made a fee determination.

In their motion for attorneys’ fees, the plaintiffs claimed roughly $40,000 in fees and $1,000 in costs.

Judge Karen F. Green, in rejecting the defendants’ argument that Buckhannongoverned the case, found the plaintiffs to be “prevailing parties” according to the catalyst test, reasoning that they obtained 70 percent of their initial demand, resulting in a “practical benefit” from their attorneys’ efforts.

After Green entered a fee award of $16,153 and the entire amount of costs, the defendants appealed and the SJC granted their motion for direct review.

Catalyst test

The SJC found that the catalyst test was indeed applicable to the fee dispute in the case.

“Although we have never expressly applied the catalyst test to determine prevailing party status under a State fee-shifting statute, we have, as previously stated, expressly rejected the alternative,” Kafker wrote, referring to Buckhannon. “In this case, we take the logical next step and conclude that the catalyst test applies in the context of determining prevailing parties under the Wage Act.”

The court also stated that that finding was rooted in the two major purposes behind fee-shifting provisions: to deter unlawful conduct and to incentivize attorneys to accept cases that otherwise would not be financially prudent to take, leaving clients that lacked either resources or a high-value case without access to justice.

Kafker further stated that the catalyst test would promote the prompt settlement of meritorious cases, avoiding the need for protracted litigation or unnecessary court involvement solely to “prevail” in a formalistic sense to ensure a fee award.

Accordingly, the SJC concluded, Judge Green’s award should be affirmed.

Ferman, et al. v. Sturgis Cleaners, Inc., et al.

THE ISSUE: Were employees who obtained a favorable settlement of their Wage Act claim considered a “prevailing party” entitled to an attorneys’ fee award under the statute’s fee-shifting provisions?

DECISION: Yes (Supreme Judicial Court)

LAWYERS: Elizabeth Soltan and Patricio S. Rossi, of Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Cambridge (plaintiffs)

John J. McGlone III of Giarrusso, Norton, Cooley & McGlone, Quincy; David T. Norton of Quincy (defense)

‘They’re representing individuals who are in need’

Via The Harvard Gazette

Kenneth Parreno, J.D. ’19, (l to r), Senior Clinical Instructor Patricio Rossi, center, Liz Soltan, J.D.’19, and Allena Martin, J.D.’19 confer at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. They represent immigrant children who crossed the border and want to remain in the country. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

In a crowded hallway outside the chambers of the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court in Cambridge, third-year law student Kenneth Parreno, J.D. ’19, chatted quietly with his client, a 20-year-old Salvadoran woman who had crossed the border a year earlier.

It was a crisp fall morning, and they were about to face a momentous hearing that could clear the young woman’s path to a green card.

Under the law, certain foreign-born children in the U.S. can qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which may lead to legal residency. But first, a judge must grant a special findings order that establishes that the child is dependent upon the court; was abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent; and that it is in his or her best interest not to be returned to the child’s country of origin.

After a brief period of questioning, Judge Maureen Monks announced she would sign the order. Parreno, his client, and his supervising attorney, Stephanie Goldenhersh, the clinical instructor and assistant director of Family Practice at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, were elated.

“Muchas gracias,” said the young woman in her native Spanish, a big smile on her face, as she hugged both Parreno and Goldenhersh.

“I’m very happy,” said Parreno after the judge’s decision. “Now my client can carry on with her life.”

This was Parreno’s third time representing a young immigrant as a member of the Legal Aid Bureau, a student-run legal services organization at Harvard Law School. The bureau gives students real-world practice representing low-income clients in areas such as family law, housing law, government benefits, employment law, and SIJS cases.

Of all the practice areas the bureau has offered since its founding in 1913, immigration relief is the newest. The first cases were taken on in 2015, in the wake of a humanitarian crisis triggered by tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Working under the guidance of clinical instructors, students interview clients, prepare affidavits, and gather documentation showing that the children meet the requirements for SIJS immigration relief: They must be younger than 21, single, and already in the U.S. If a judge grants the order, clients are referred to local immigration attorneys or legal services organizations, which assist them with their petition for special status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Since 2015, the bureau has obtained special findings in 17 SIJS cases. It has now about a dozen active cases, according to Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr., clinical instructor at the bureau and the supervising attorney for the SIJS practice. Students relish working with young immigrants, he said.

“They’re representing individuals who are in need and giving them an opportunity to start over, in some cases,” Jean-Pierre said, “or maintain the life they’re used to.”

Law students at the bureau learn counseling and litigation skills and become familiar with the discovery process and courtroom procedure as they represent tenants facing eviction, divorcing, or involved in wage and hour disputes. And once in a while, they have the chance to present oral appeals at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, a rare opportunity for law students.

Such was the case with Elizabeth Soltan, J.D. ’19, who has worked in housing and wage and hour cases. In the fall, she argued an appeal before the SJC prepared by her, Joey Herman, J.D. ’20, and Parreno, defending a lower court judge’s decision to award attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiffs. Soltan was thrilled.

The case has the potential to be meaningful for workers in Massachusetts,” she said. “Even though it might seem sort of boring or nerdy because it’s just about attorney’s fees, when lawyers know that they can get their fees, they can feel comfortable taking on cases with clients who might have no income or fewer resources.”

For Allena Martin, J.D. ’19, a Cape Cod native with an interest in immigration and refugee law, human rights, and Latin America, SIJS cases bring big rewards for the dramatic impact they have on people’s lives.

Martin represented a 6-year-old girl from Central America and her young mother, securing court orders for both. The challenge in many of these cases, said Martin, is to ask clients to relive the traumatic events that led them to leave their homes behind.

“Part of the process is that they need to tell their stories to the judge to be granted the status, but often it’s very painful,” she said. “As part of my job as a student attorney, being forced to elicit the details of those stories can be daunting.”

Another challenge is the age limit to apply for special immigrant status. More than once, students have worked under pressure so their clients don’t age out of the system. 

As part of her role as the SIJS Task Force Leader, Martin facilitates referrals from immigration partner organizations, meets with the lead clinical instructor to discuss cases and trends, and runs meetings with the students currently working on SIJS cases.

This semester, 46 students are members of the bureau. They manage their own caseloads and tackle cases from start to finish during their two-year commitment.

The need for legal representation is acute. According to Kids in Need of Defense, a partner organization of HLAB that finds pro bono representation for young immigrants, only one in 10 unaccompanied children have legal counsel. Unaccompanied minors without legal representation have a greater chance of being deported.

“There is so much at stake when it comes to making sure young immigrants do not stand in court alone,” said Dianisbeth Acquie ’16,  J.D. ’20, who applied to HLS and to the Legal Aid Bureau because of her passion for community service. “It’s troubling to see how much need there is for legal services, and how vulnerable communities can become even more vulnerable when they bear the brunt of the legal system.”

Acquie, who was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, is representing a 19-year-old Brazilian girl and a 3-year-old boy from Honduras.

“When I look at these cases,” she said, “I’m reminded of how the legal system has so much to do with the course of an individual’s life, and how so much can change as a result of one order and one judgment. These are youth who will one day go on to live great lives and hopefully fulfill all their aspirations.”

Back at Middlesex Court, Parreno echoed this sentiment. The son of Ecuadorean immigrants who grew up in Houston, he has long been interested in Latinx civil rights and immigrant matters. After graduating from Harvard in 2011, he went back home to teach science to middle school kids. For him, working with young immigrants is part of a commitment to help improve their lives.

“We’re working with kids who have gone through so much, more than I have ever gone through or will ever go through in my life,” said Parreno. “When you hear everything that they went through, it makes you want to work that much harder to make sure they can have a better life.”

Harvard Law Student Gets Landmark Win At Mass. Top Court

Via Law360 

By: Chris Villani

HLAB students Kenneth Parreno ’19 and Elizabeth Soltan ’19 with Clinical Instructor Patricio Rossi after oral argument at the Massachusetts Superior Court on December 4, 2018.

While many attorneys go their entire careers without arguing a case before a top state appellate court, Liz Soltan managed the feat before even graduating from Harvard Law School, and without missing a single class.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Rule 3:03 allows senior law students to appear before the court on behalf of an indigent plaintiff. Soltan, a third-year law student working for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a student-run legal service, handled the oral argument on behalf of a pair of Boston dry cleaner employees who said they were cheated out of $28,000 in wages and overtime pay and sought attorneys’ fees stemming from the litigation.

“It was a great experience. A lot of prep went into it,” Soltan told Law360. “I was so nervous that a lot of it is a blur. But I felt that it went well and I was optimistic. It was kind of fun to be up there, having a conversation with the justices.”

Soltan is not the first law student to argue before the SJC, but it is rare to have a student present a case to the top court. Soltan said students from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau may appear before the court every few years, trying to use their resources on cases that could have a far-reaching impact.

Soltan argued the case in December for roughly 17 minutes. She cited numerous SJC and federal cases to back her argument that using the “catalyst test” — whether a lawsuit is the primary factor leading to a settlement — when assessing whether to shift attorneys’ fees to an employer will promote access to justice for low-income plaintiffs and encourage private attorneys to take cases.

Midway through her presentation, the questions she started getting from the justices gave her the impression the case could be turning in her clients’ favor.

“There was a certain point where I sensed they were trying to flush out how it would work and how settled the body of precedent was,” Soltan said. “That was a moment where I felt like, ‘OK, maybe they are figuring out how to write a favorable opinion.’ I was cautiously optimistic and really excited.”

Her optimism proved well-founded when the SJC released a unanimous opinion in her clients’ favor on Tuesday. The SJC established the catalyst test as the governing rule guiding judges in assigning attorneys’ fees, a ruling has been seen as a potential path to get more private lawyers to take on Wage Act cases for low-income defendants and a means to speedier settlements of wage-related litigation.

To get an employer to pick up the tab, a worker has to show the lawsuit led to a favorable settlement. The employees in Soltan’s case settled for more than 70 percent of the $28,000 they sought before the court battle ensued over the attorneys’ fees.

Preparing for the oral argument was an extensive process, Soltan said. Her clinical instructor Patricio Rossi, and fellow law students Kenneth Parreno and Joey Herman were instrumental in the process.

Founded in 1913, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau says it handles more than 300 cases annually, representing low-income people in the Greater Boston area. The bureau has about 50 second- and third-year law students who make a two-year commitment and are expected to devote at least 20 hours per week to their clinical practice.

“It is a lot, but I think a large way we get through it is working closely with our clinical instructor. They are great role models for us,” Soltan said. “We support each other and work together.”

Oral arguments in the dry cleaner case took place in early December during Harvard’s reading week before exams, Soltan said, so she did not have to miss class to appear in the downtown Boston courthouse. Chuckling, she agreed it would have been a rock-solid excuse if arguing before the top court in the state pulled her out of a class.

Soltan is set to graduate this spring and plans to continue pursuing civil legal services work.

“I just hope I continue to get good outcomes for my clients,” she said, “whatever court it happens to be in.”

Listen to oral argument in the case Ferman v. Sturgis Cleaners Inc., docket number SJC-12602, can be found here under “Recent Arguments, Dec. 2018.”

Mass. Top Court Sets Standard For Atty Fees In Wage Suits

Via Law360 

Source: Pexels

By: Chris Villani

An employee suing an employer for unpaid wages can recover attorneys’ fees when winning a “favorable settlement,” even when a court does not sign off on the deal, according to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling Tuesday with potentially wide-ranging implications.

The appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling and sided with a pair of former employees of a Boston dry cleaner who claimed they were denied about $28,000 owed to them in wages and overtime and ultimately settled for more than 70 percent of that figure. The top court said the so-called catalyst test should apply when assessing whether to tack on attorneys’ fees.

Under this standard, fee-shifting can occur if a lawsuit is a “necessary and important factor” in causing a defendant to fork over a “material portion” of relief requested by a plaintiff through a settlement agreement, even if there is no judicial involvement in the accord. The bar, which is lower than federal fee-shifting standard, is necessary to avoid needlessly long and costly litigation, the top court said.

“The catalyst test best promotes the purposes of fee-shifting statutes by encouraging attorneys to take cases under such statutes to correct unlawful conduct and rewarding them accordingly when they do so,” Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote in the unanimous opinion. “The catalyst test also promotes the prompt settlement of meritorious cases, avoiding the need for protracted litigation, superfluous process, or unnecessary court involvement solely to ‘prevail’ in a formalistic sense to ensure an award of attorney’s fees and costs.”

The dry cleaner, Sturgis Cleaners Inc., had sought to enforce the federal standard set in 2001 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckhannon Board and Care Home v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, which said a party is required to win an enforceable judgment or a consent decree before being eligible to be the “prevailing party” and having the chance to collect attorneys’ fees.

But the Massachusetts high court disagreed, seeing the catalyst test as a better method because it provides two crucial incentives related to all wage litigation: giving attorneys a reason to take cases where individual employees claim to have been denied wages, and adding, the opinion said, “a powerful disincentive for employers to withhold the wages in the first place.”

“If such settlements did not result in the obligation to pay attorney’s fees, there would be a disincentive to bring such cases in the first place, thereby leaving other unlawful conduct unaddressed and uncorrected,” Justice Kafker wrote.

The former employees, Belky Ferman and Veronica Guillen, filed suit in 2014. After two years of litigation, including the entry and lifting of a default judgment against the dry cleaner, the case settled through mediation for $20,500. The attorney fee issue was left to the court, and a Suffolk County Superior Court judge, applying the catalyst test, ruled in favor of the employees.

“The catalyst test thus recognizes that successful litigation may be reflected in settlements as well as court rulings,” Justice Kafker wrote, “as settlements are often ‘the products of pressure exerted by [a] lawsuit.'”

The employees’ case was presented to the high court by Liz Soltan, a Harvard Law School student arguing as a student practitioner with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. She told Law360 Tuesday the court’s decision might help combat wage theft, which studies have suggested may be problem costing workers in the Commonwealth $700 million annually.

“Wage theft is such an epidemic in Massachusetts, especially among low income and immigrant workers, this is the kind of ruling we needed for access to justice,” Soltan said. “I am hoping it’ll mean more lawyers are going to feel secure in taking these cases.”

Counsel for the dry cleaner did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The employees are represented by Liz Soltan and Patricio Rossi of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

The dry cleaner is represented by John J. McGlone III and David T. Norton of Giarrusso Norton Cooley & McGlone PC.

The case is Belky Ferman & another vs. Sturgis Cleaners Inc. & another, case number 12602, in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Shortchanged Workers Demand Attorneys’ Fees and a Fair Test for Determining Prevailing Party Status

By: Elizabeth Soltan ’19 and Patricio Rossi, Clinical Instructor of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

HLAB students Kenneth Parreno ’19 and Elizabeth Soltan ’19 with Clinical Instructor Patricio Rossi after oral argument at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on December 4, 2018.

The average American worker earns $7,500 less than they should according to a 2017 analysis from Glassdoor. Low-wage immigrant workers, particularly immigrant women, are disproportionately susceptible to workplace violations such as underpayment. Litigation to combat illegal practices such as wage theft costs more than these workers can afford. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), a student-led civil legal aid organization at Harvard Law School, provides free legal representation to low-income and disenfranchised communities in the Greater Boston area, advocating for rights that may not otherwise be enforced for marginalized populations. Under the supervision of Clinical Instructor Patricio Rossi, nearly 10 HLAB students have played a critical role in helping two immigrant women of color obtain relief for wage theft from their employer. Two current students have been fighting to ensure low-wage workers like the women in this case have access to attorney’s fees. The suit, Ferman, et. al. v. Sturgis Cleaners, Inc., was brought by two former employees of the South Boston dry cleaners who claimed they were underpaid for their labor, a violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act and Overtime Pay Act.

Kellie MacDonald ’15 originally filed the case in 2014 in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of the two former employees of Sturgis Dry Cleaners and Tailors. The suit alleged that the employer failed to pay the workers for all of their hours worked, including overtime hours, totaling approximately $28,000 in unpaid wages. The case settled in 2016 for approximately $20,000. The parties could not, however, agree to terms on attorney’s fees, and agreed to let the court decide the issue.

Khyrstyn McGarry ’17 and Michele Hall ’17 filed a petition for attorney’s fees, arguing that, pursuant to the “Catalyst Theory”, the workers were the prevailing party. The catalyst theory involves a two-part test. For a plaintiff to prevail, his/her lawsuit must be “a necessary and important factor in achieving the [sought-after] relief” and cannot be “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” The plaintiffs argued they met both of the requirements of the catalyst theory.  The employers argued that a party could not be a prevailing party without clear court intervention. In the spring of 2017, the Superior Court awarded HLAB approximately $16,000 in attorney’s fees. The employers appealed the decision and HLAB students Jag Singh ’18 and Lark Turner ’18 filed an application with the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) for Direct Appellate Review, which was eventually granted.

Immediately after returning from summer break, Elizabeth Soltan ’19, Kenneth Parreno ’19, and Josephine Herman ’20 began work on the workers’ appeal brief. Under a tight timeline, they crafted a persuasive argument that the “Catalyst Theory” is the proper test in Massachusetts to determine prevailing party status. Nearly ten groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative, filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiff-appellees. On December 4, 2018, Soltan argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. She spent an intense few weeks preparing and mooting her argument. All of the practice paid off as Soltan delivered an incredibly poised argument to the SJC justices. The argument centered on how to determine “prevailing party” status, for the purpose of awarding attorney’s fees, under the Massachusetts Wage Act.

The decision could have a major impact on how Massachusetts courts determine prevailing party status. It is currently unclear how the courts determine the prevailing party status, and there are 66 fee shifting statues in Massachusetts. Should the SJC accept the catalyst theory, it will provide a liberal framework of fee-shifting provisions to help those without the means to pay lawyers out-of-pocket to obtain representation. Working-class people can be discouraged from accessing the courts because of their inability to pay a lawyer. However, a fair test for fee-shifting provisions can help close the gap between the civil legal needs of working-class people and the resources available to them.

A decision in the case is expected in late winter/early spring.

Clinical Professor Esme Caramello Honored as one the 2018 Top Women of Law

Clinical Professor Esme Caramello ’99 is among the 2018 Top Women of Law honored by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. The award ceremony, held on October 18, honors “legal educators, trailblazers, and role models who have demonstrated outstanding accomplishments in social justice advocacy and business.”

Professor Caramello joined the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) in 2009 as deputy director and clinical instructor after having worked in the Housing Unit at HLS’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center and at Suffolk University Law School’s Housing Clinic. As a clinical instructor at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, she worked with students to help protect the rights of low-income tenants and homeowners. She was appointed to clinical professor of law in 2014 by Dean Martha Minow and shortly thereafter became the faculty director at HLAB.

“Esme’s experience in tenants’ rights is second to none,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. “Under her guidance, students connect practice and theory to solve important legal and policy issues affecting low-income individuals. Passionate and compassionate, her strategic approach ensures that the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau will continue to lead in vital work.”

Professor Caramello currently serves on several boards, including the Boston Bar Foundation, and the Cambridge City Manager’s Advisory Committee, and the Access to Justice Commission, where she serves on the Access to Attorneys Committee and co-chairs the Justice for All Housing Working Group. Professor Caramello also helped found the Developing Justice project at HLS, an initiative that uses technology to close the justice gap.

Professor Caramello is an inspiration to many students, faculty, and staff. In 2014, she was honored by HLS, the Women’s Law Association, and the Law and International Development Society in their photo exhibition for International Women’s Day, entitled Inspiring Change, Inspiring Us. HLAB alum Annie Lee who nominated Esme at the time wrote:

I’m inspired by Esme Caramello who works tirelessly to help low-income tenants facing eviction…When she’s not in court, Esme’s in the Bureau teaching and mentoring HLAB student attorneys. She’s generous with her time and dedicated to making us astute, ethical, and compassionate lawyers. I feel so lucky to have gotten to work with Esme on an eviction case last year. She let me take the reins in the case and strategize how to keep an elderly African-American woman in her home. She’s an excellent clinical instructor and has mentored me, as well as multiple classes of HLS men and women.

Caramello is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

An Unusual Coalition in Boston Helps Save Homes from Foreclosure

Via Next City

By: Zoe Sullivan

Source: Pixbay

One day in early Summer 2012, a man yelled up to Alma Chislom from the front porch of her triple-decker apartment building, the style so common in the Boston area.

“The man on the porch asked if he bought the house, if we would want to stay,” says Chislom. She had moved just a few months earlier to the Park Street apartment after dealing with a landlord who didn’t pay the water or heating bills. “So here I am again thinking we’re going to be homeless,” she says.

Chislom wasn’t alone in this situation. As the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession dragged on, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, buildings languished in various phases of foreclosure, leaving homeowners as well as tenants in limbo — easy picking for investors looking to flip entire blocks or neighborhoods into luxury housing. Tenant organizers in Boston began to see the foreclosure crisis as a new front.

Lisa Owens was one of the people at City Life/Vida Urbana who eventually helped Chislom stay in her home.

“We had a pretty major campaign that started with the big banks but ultimately ended with a demand directly to FHFA [the Federal Housing Finance Association], and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which ultimately were the largest mortgage holders, to say ‘stop displacing people and do principal reduction for all of these homes that were under water,’” Owens says.

The situation brought together an unusual group of allies. The Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, or COHIF as it’s known, includes members such as City Life/Vida Urbana, Boston Community Capital, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, the Archdiocese of Boston’s affordable housing development arm, the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, and others.

“It is probably the only place that I know of where radical housing advocates and more mainstream policy advocacy folks in the housing world, non-profit developers, for-profit developers, financiers, and city agencies all come together to deal with this [foreclosure] crisis and what has turned into now a displacement crisis for renters and owners,” says Owens.

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Welcome Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr.

Lyonel Jean-Pierre Jr. recently joined the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as a clinical instructor.  He started his law career as a Massachusetts Legal Services Corporation Bart Gordon Fellow with Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.  When the fellowship ended, Lyonel became a full-time staff attorney with the Worcester Community Legal Aid office (formerly known as Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts) where he litigated various domestic relations and restraining order matters.  After nine years with Community Legal Aid, he joined the Law Office of Murphy and Rudolf LLP where he continued to practice in the Probate and Family Court but also represented parents and children in Care and Protection matters in the Juvenile Court as a member of the Children and Family Law Division Panel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

During his career, Lyonel has served as Co-Chair of the Family Law Section for the Worcester County Bar Association and worked with various community partners in the Worcester to address the effect that domestic violence has on families.  In 2012, he was honored with the YWCA Great Guy Award & Official State Citation.

Lyonel received a bachelors degree from Brandeis University where, in addition to completing his studies, he mentored “at risk” youth and was a track and field athlete for four years.  After college he obtained his J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.

Stacking the Docket for Boston Workers

Via On Labor

By Catherine Ordoñez

A coalition of legal organizations in Boston, including Greater Boston Legal Services(“GBLS”), Justice at Work, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (“HLAB”), and Volunteer Lawyers Project, in collaboration with community groups in Boston, is bringing justice to victims of wage theft in Boston Municipal Court (“BMC”) Central’s small claims court. The coalition has engineered an approximation of a specialized court for wage theft there by strategically stacking the court’s docket with wage theft cases on second and fourth Fridays of the month. The goal is to quickly vindicate workers’ rights to wages owed, to increase the literacy of small claims court clerk magistrates in Massachusetts wage law, and ultimately to make the court a better-tapped resource for victims of wage theft. Staff attorneys Joey Michalakes of GBLS and Maggie Gribben of Justice at Work shared some insight on the project.

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Cassie Chambers’ (JD ’15) work led to the passage of Jeanette’s Law in Kentucky

While in law school Cassie Chambers devoted herself to clinical work at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.  In 2016, after a clerkship year, she received a Skadden Fellowship to work on domestic violence issues in Kentucky.  There she discovered that her divorce client, who was a survivor of domestic violence, was required to pay for a divorce attorney for her incarcerated spouse.   Cassie worked to change that.

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Native leader, legal beacon

Via Harvard Gazette

Julian SpearChief-Morris is the first indigenous student to head Harvard Law School’s venerable Legal Aid Bureau

Portrait photo of Julian SpearChief-Morris

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Julian SpearChief-Morris is the first indigenous president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the country’s oldest student-run organization providing free legal services, in its 104 years.

Growing up in the mostly white city of Lethbridge in southern Alberta, Canada, Julian SpearChief-Morris often felt out of place.

With an African-American father from Los Angeles and a Canadian mother from the Blood reserve, one of the four indigenous nations that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy, SpearChief-Morris found it hard to feel completely at home either at the reserve or in the city where he was raised.

“It was pretty difficult, especially in high school, because there weren’t many people who looked like me, or came from a background like mine,” he recalled. “I often felt I didn’t fit in.”

But after graduating from a local college and coming to Harvard Law School(HLS), with its diverse student body, SpearChief-Morris felt right at home. And when he was admitted to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, one of the three honor societies at the School, he found a family. It’s a place that SpearChief-Morris has made his own.

In his last year at the School, SpearChief-Morris has left a mark in the storied history of the organization, which was founded in 1913 to provide legal services to low-income clients in the Boston area.

He is the first indigenous student to lead the bureau.

Like the Harvard Law Review and the Bureau of Student Advisers, the bureau is a highly selective organization that has featured among its members former first lady Michelle Obama, J.D. ’88, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick ’78, J.D. ’82, and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch ’81, J.D. ’84, all of whom represented low-income clients before the courts.

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The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau: Fight Trump’s Threat to Defund the Legal Services Corporation

Via Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

Weeks into office, Donald Trump took aim at the 40-year-old Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the single largest funder of civil legal aid, serving two million low-income people nationwide who can’t afford legal representation. His proposal? Destroy LSC’s entire budget —$503 million—every penny of which currently goes toward providing access to justice in our country’s courts. This decision affects us directly: Massachusetts receives $5.1 million in LSC funding and more than 757,235 of the Commonwealth’s residents are eligible for civil legal aid support.

While neither Appropriations Committee has adopted such a drastic measure, the House bill cuts the LSC’s budget by about 25%, and the Senate bill maintains the current funding level. Our message? No cuts; not now, not ever. Civil legal aid is already overburdened and underfunded. Without lawyers to help low-income people enforce their rights, those rights become meaningless, empty promises. These funding threats attack our justice system. We won’t stand for it; you shouldn’t either.

Photo of the building of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau located on Everett Street

Credit: Brooks Kraft
Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

We, the student attorneys, staff, and faculty of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), know that if the White House demolishes LSC, it takes our nation’s prized promise down with it: equal justice under law. If Congress slashes the agency’s funding, it’ll destroy a legal aid lifeline millions of low-income Americans rely on, and exacerbate longstanding inequities that low-income communities of color face in our judicial system. The dignity of low-income people—children, veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and domestic violence victims—is at stake in courtrooms across our country, and right here in the Commonwealth.

Though HLAB itself doesn’t receive LSC funding, as the second largest provider of civil legal aid in the Greater Boston Area, we know the LSC’s value, and how critical civil legal aid is to providing people with tools to protect their families, homes, health, and livelihoods. Every day we are forced to turn away potential clients, many of whom we refer to LSC-funded organizations, such as the Volunteer Lawyers Project, because we lack the capacity to serve them. But even with the LSC, we can’t meet the current overwhelming need for legal services in our community, from Dorchester to East Boston to Jamaica Plain. There’s already not enough LSC funding to go around—even small cuts would devastate access to justice.

If acted upon, Trump’s proposed cuts to LSC’s full budget will hit all 50 states, hard, and its aftershocks will leave many of our neighbors without the representation they so desperately need and deserve. Defunding LSC means that more domestic violence victims will face their abusers in court alone. It means more tenants who face hefty, arbitrary rent hikes from Boston gentrification projects will be evicted from their homes or continue to endure dangerously sub-standard housing conditions, especially when facing well-resourced landlord attorneys. And that’s only a handful of the consequences we stand to face.

Money shouldn’t determine one’s right to have parenting time, to be free from an abuser, or to stay in one’s home or in this country. The LSC and civil legal aid organizations like ours help level the playing field by providing legal assistance and representation, clinics, pro bono and court-based services, and access to information, language resources, and forms. It fulfills our nation’s bedrock promise of justice for all, not just for the few who can afford it.

When legal services are under attack, what will we do? Stand up and fight back. What can you do? Call your representative. Attend town halls, marches, meetings at City Life Vida Urbana, a tenant rights organization fighting evictions in Boston. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor in your local paper. Donate to a legal services organization. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau will stand with you, alongside the millions of Americans who deserve the right to counsel. Access to justice is worth fighting for.

Erika Johnson ’17 wins David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Award

Via Harvard Law Today

Credit: Lorin Granger/HLS Staff Photographer Erika Johnson ’17

Credit: Lorin Granger/HLS Staff Photographer
Erika Johnson ’17

Erika Johnson is this year’s winner of the David A. Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Award. The award is named in honor of the late Clinical Professor of Law David Grossman ’88, a public interest lawyer dedicated to providing high-quality legal services to low income communities. The award recognizes students who have demonstrated excellence in representing individual clients and undertaking advocacy or policy reform projects.

Having contributed more than 2,000 hours of pro bono services to clients through the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), and Project No One Leaves, Johnson is the embodiment of Grossman’s tireless pro bono spirit. She was chosen for her compassion in legal practice and for her contributions to HLS’s clinical community.

Her clinical supervisors at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau recall one elderly client Johnson protected from homelessness. The client had been living in supportive housing for homeless elders for almost ten years, but after the facility went smoke-free he had trouble quitting and faced eviction. Over the next six months, Johnson attended more twelve court hearings, fighting tirelessly to stave off the eviction, but the client’s disabilities made it impossible for him to stop smoking. Realizing that her client had nowhere else to go, Johnson built a relationship with a social worker and found him an apartment with medical support services. Johnson even made sure to find him a bed and then physically moved it and most of the client’s other belongings into his new home on a cold winter’s day.

In another eviction case, Johnson followed her client’s lead in pursuing greater racial and economic justice. The client felt strongly that he had been wronged by his landlord, arguing the language used against him was racially biased. “Erika listened, at length,” said Clinical Professor Esme Caramello, who teaches in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Johnson convinced the HLAB Board to take the case and then fully devoted herself to researching and drafting legal documents, achieving not only the dismissal of the eviction but also moving to recover damages for her client.

“Erika’s approach [was] creative, but it [was] her persistence in following the client’s lead despite the ‘typical’ trajectory of such a case, and the steadiness of her hard work, that have impressed us the most,” her clinical supervisors said.

“I am grateful to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau for its support and its embodiment of the values David Grossman modeled as a teacher and lawyer,” said Johnson. “Dave’s compassion, dedication, and commitment to community and to our clients are inspiring to every member of HLAB. I feel honored to have been part of this community, and I will rely on this experience and these values in all of my future work.”

On campus, Johnson has also collaborated with the Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project, a student practice organization that hosted a competition in which students created technology solutions to access to justice problems in the local housing courts. She met with the student leaders of the project, taught them about the court system and the challenges unrepresented tenants face, trained them in basic eviction law and procedure, and then judged the final projects. Her clinical supervisors noted that she did this expertly and almost entirely on her own — all as a second-year law student with a full course load and a substantial docket of housing cases.

After graduation, Erika will pursue a career in public interest law, a choice that she says was shaped by her HLAB clients and colleagues.

With a path to law school shaped by hardship and doubt, Nguyên hopes to empower the powerless

Via Harvard Law Today

This is the first in a series of profiles of students from the Harvard Law School Class of 2017.

Mario H. Nguyên ’17

Credit: Lorin Granger
Mario H. Nguyên ’17

In his work for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Mario Nguyên ’17 often represented survivors of domestic violence. While meeting with him, one woman, crying, confided that she worried her children would be damaged forever by the violence they had seen.

Nguyên reassured her that he thought her kids would turn out just fine. It wasn’t an empty platitude. He understood very well that kids who experienced domestic violence could become successful. And his client understood that too when he told her he was living proof.

As he prepares to graduate, Nguyên can stand as an example as someone who has overcome hardship and doubt, who has achieved more than he ever thought possible and plans to achieve much more. He will soon begin a job at a firm in his native Texas, with a goal of using his legal skills to bring about systemic change to benefit disadvantaged and marginalized people.

In addition to his work in the Legal Aid Bureau, where he also handled juvenile immigration cases, Nguyên founded the Supero Law Students Association at HLS, which supports low-income and first-generation college students like him. He participated in national moot court competitions on immigration and LGBT issues, and in HLS Lambda. His activities reflected life experiences that have given him a different perspective than most students at HLS, he says.

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How Two Harvard Legal Aid Bureau Student Attorneys Won an Unpaid Wages Case

By Diane Ramirez, J.D. ’17

My client, a student at a local university in her senior year of school, was thrilled when she received a summer job offer from a financial firm in New York City. Like many of her classmates, she had struggled to find paid summer employment that she could use to gain experience, enhance her resume, and catapult herself into a career. This opportunity was a dream come true for her, a Chinese national, who came to the United States with a student visa to pursue her goal of obtaining an American degree in economics.

In an offer letter, the CEO and founder of the financial firm promised to pay my client $2,500 per month, vacation time, and “10,000 shares of the company.” The letter also confirmed my client was able to work from home in Massachusetts for up to 35 hours per week the entire summer. Her work included research, financial modeling and analysis, and technical programming.

The first month on the job passed and she awaited her first paycheck. It never arrived.  She checked in with the nine other college-age summer employees, at least four of whom were also working for the New York City employer from their homes in Massachusetts. None of them had been paid.

At the end of the summer, my client expected to be paid the total amount she was owed for her work: $6,875.00. She and most of the other interns received $0. She contacted the CEO of the company, who promised to send payment “soon.” (The CEO is also the Founder and CEO of a second, larger entrepreneurship consulting firm and is an adjunct professor at a college in New York).

Three months later, my client contacted the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau to help her fight for the wages she was owed. I, along with my colleage Martin Njoroge ’17, took her case and wrote to the employer, demanding our client’s payment and informing her that she and the company were in violation of Massachusetts wage and overtime laws. We informed her that she could be on the hook for treble damages under Massachusetts law, which amount to at total of $20,625.00, if a court so ordered.

The employer responded to the letter, yet did not pay my client or most of the other summer employees for another two months.  On February 10, Martin and I filed a complaint on behalf of our client in the Waltham District Court.

Finally, after a total of seven months since the day our client should have been paid, we successfully helped our client recover $6,562.50 that she was rightfully owed for her full-time work during the entire summer. The employer sent the check after we filed the complaint in order to avoid protracted litigation that would have had an adverse affect on the finances of her company.

I have been practicing wage and hour law for about a year and a half at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and have seen first hand the power a student attorney can have in helping victims of wage theft recover wages under Massachusetts’ influential labor laws. The desire to help victims of wage theft was one of the factors that initially motivated me to go to law school. My father, uncles, and cousins who are all in the construction business in the state of Georgia have been victims of wage theft on multiple occasions and have been unable to recover what was owed to them due to Georgia’s state labor laws that are simply much more employer friendly. In Georgia, finding civil legal representation is also very difficult if you are low-income, and the state Attorney General does not have a robust worker’s rights division to assist victims. Here, in Massachusetts, the Attorney General hosts wage and hour clinics once a month at Suffolk Law School.

As a member of HLAB, I have volunteered at the clinics to provide legal advice and assist victims in drafting demand letters. I feel proud and grateful to have had the opportunity as a law student to practice wage and hour law, to inform workers of their rights, and to fight for victims using negotiation and litigation.

HLAB Victory in Hague Convention & Divorce Cases

Via Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

The Hague Convention is an international treaty which provides a method for resolving the return of abducted children between member nations. Because it is an international treaty, all Hague Convention cases must be decided in federal court. Additionally, Hague Convention cases can require divorce and/or custody to be obtained in state courts, making them complicated matters for the most experienced attorneys, much less HLAB student attorneys.

In September 2015, Diane Ramirez ’17 and Katie Renzler ’16 met their client, who had a Hague Convention dispute with the father of her children. The father is an Irish national, and wanted the children returned to him. After months of pre-trial motions and negotiations with opposing counsel from major law firms, the case culminated in a three-day trial in federal court in February 2016. Diane and Katie directed witnesses, cross-examined witnesses for the father, and presented evidence to support their argument that the federal judge should reject the father’s petition asking for the return of the children to Ireland.

In the summer of 2016, the judge issued the final ruling: the father’s petition was denied. The advocacy did not stop after this federal court victory. Diane continued to represent the mother in her divorce matter in state court, and obtained a judgement in October 2016 of divorce and an order granting her primary physical custody of her children and child support. Diane also negotiated a parenting time schedule that allowed the children to periodically visit their father in Ireland. Once again, HLAB student attorneys obtained a successful outcome for their client in the face of complicated litigation.

HLAB Student Wins Victory in Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court

Via Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

Last spring, an HLAB student attorney was able to win a victory for both his client and all tenants in Massachusetts. Louis Fisher ’16 argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the case of Meikle v. Nurse on November 5, 2015. The appeal arose from a case where a housing court judge ruled that a counterclaim for a violation of Massachusetts’s security deposit law does not qualify as a defense against eviction under what is known as the “8A trigger.” In no-fault or nonpayment eviction cases, counterclaims against the landlord can usually be used as a defense to an eviction under Massachusetts G.L.c. 239 § 8A. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau appealed the ruling, with Deena Greenberg, ’15, as the original lead student attorney and Louis taking over in the 2015-16 school year. In an atypical move, the Supreme Judicial Court picked up the appeal directly from Boston Housing Court, bypassing the Court of Appeals.

On April 27, 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Ms. Nurse, overturning the Boston Housing Court ruling. The S.J.C. held that landlord violations of the security deposit law are a defense to eviction, stating that “it would be contrary to legislative intent to interpret [the 8A trigger] in a manner that would undermine a tenant’s right to assert the range of protections available under the summary process statute.” Thanks to the work of Louis, Deena, their clinical instructor Pattie Whiting, and the many other people who helped moot and prepare for the appellate argument, tenants have a firm foundation to defend themselves against an eviction if their landlord violates the security deposit laws.

Harvard Legal Aid Bureau takes foreclosure fight to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Via Harvard Law Today

Dayne Lee '17, at the Massachusetts State House with Eloise Lawrence (far right), clinical instructor in community lawyering and lecturer on law at HLS; and Elvitria Marroquin and one of her two sons. Lee argued on behalf of Marroquin, who has been fighting foreclosure on her home since 2008.

Credit: Photo provided by Nadia Farjood
Dayne Lee ’17, at the Massachusetts State House with Eloise Lawrence (far right), clinical instructor in community lawyering and lecturer on law at HLS; and Elvitria Marroquin and one of her two sons. Lee argued on behalf of Marroquin, who has been fighting foreclosure on her home since 2008.

Team of students, clinical instructors, and community partners shape state housing law

On the morning of January 9, 2017, Harvard Law School student Dayne Lee ’17 slipped into a suit after three sleepless nights, punctured with dreams about his major oral argument. Later that day, he would argue before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in a case pitting federally controlled mortgage giant Fannie Mae against Lynn, Massachusetts homeowner Elvitria Marroquin, who has been fighting foreclosure on her home since 2008.

The question before the court was whether Fannie Mae and large financial institutions should be immunized from their failure to send a proper notice of default because the foreclosure took place within a grace period purportedly set in a prior SJC decision.

The decision, expected in a few months’ time, will set a precedent potentially impacting scores of foreclosed homeowners.

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Going global

Via Harvard Law Today

Highlighting the international experiences of five of the 2016 Chayes Fellows

In the summer of 2016, 87 Harvard Law School students worked in 30 countries on a diverse array of projects; 19 of those students traveled to 13 countries through the Chayes International Public Service Fellowship Program. Chayes Fellows spend eight weeks working within the governments of developing nations, or with the inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations that support them. Their projects take many forms (see a related gallery), this year addressing topics ranging from violence against children in Thailand to transitional justice processes in Colombia to freedom of expression in Poland. The profiles below highlight the experiences of five of the 2016 Chayes Fellows.

Edith Sangüeza ’18
Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, Mexico City, Mexico

Edith Sangüeza ’18

Credit: Lorin Granger

Edith Sangüeza’s interest in immigration issues goes back to her undergraduate degree in ethnicity, race, and migration. But it wasn’t until she was faced with the reality of immigration issues as a teacher in California and Mexico that she considered immigration law as a career path. Working with a large Latino population, Sangüeza heard first-hand from her students and their families of the vulnerability and day-to-day difficulties they faced. “I realized I couldn’t doanything. I could listen and be aware, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it, and I saw law school as a way to actually learn more about immigration policy and learn about the laws we have and about how to be an advocate.”

As a 1L, Sangüeza joined the Harvard Immigration Project’s Removal Defense Project, and took Professor Gerald Neuman’s Immigration Law class. For the summer, she knew she wanted to return to Mexico, work on direct client representation, and learn more about policy from the Mexican perspective.

With the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI), an organization dedicated to advocating for migrant women and children, Sangüeza worked with Emily Norman ‘15, an IMUMI immigration lawyer and 2013 Chayes Fellow. Sangüeza interviewed and drafted declarations for clients seeking humanitarian visas in categories designated for victims of criminal activity and violence against women, and wrote a paper on the challenges faced by transnational families, who are often unable to access social services if they do not have specific, and difficult to obtain, identification documents.

“It was fascinating to see what immigration looks like from outside the U.S., seeing what the challenges are, the different processes, and getting a chance to compare it to the Mexican immigration system,” says Sangüeza, “it was important to see that there is life in Mexico after deportation–that one can build a productive and happy life. But it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is–they shouldn’t have so many legal obstacles on top of all the practical obstacles that they face.”

Sangüeza’s experience has reaffirmed her desire to work in the immigration field. She is again working with the Removal Defense Team, as well as with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau’s family practice, and is hoping to spend her next summer working on issues at the intersection of criminal law and immigration.

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In lives of others, a compass for his own

Via Harvard Gazette

HLS students helps East Boston residents fight evictions

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez, J.D. ’17, is entering his second semester as president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

Leadership role in legal aid sharpens student’s sense of purpose

It took Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez several years and nearly 10,000 miles, on a journey that included several cities around the world, to find his calling in his hometown.

The son of political refugees from the former Soviet Union and Spain, Spivakovsky-Gonzalez, J.D. ’17, was born in Boston but grew up in Spain and Canada. He studied economics at the University of California at Berkeley, completed a master’s in development studies at the University of Cambridge in England, and went to work as a research economist in Washington, D.C.

It was after his stints in Cambridge and Washington that he experienced “the dissonance” of studying poverty and inequality in wealthy institutions, and the limits to making a direct impact on people’s lives as a researcher.

Yearning for a career that resolved that discord, he applied to Harvard Law School. When he was accepted, it felt like a homecoming of sorts. The first house he lived in was three blocks from the Law School.

But the real epiphany came while working at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, one of the School’s clinical programs and the oldest student-run organization in the United States. The bureau provides free civil legal services to people who cannot afford an attorney. It was there that he found his passion.

“We help people who are often forgotten and live different lives from what we often see either in Washington, D.C., or the Law School,” said Spivakovsky-Gonzalez on a recent morning near Harvard Yard.

Entering his second semester as the bureau’s president, he plans to become a public-interest lawyer. As a student attorney with the bureau, he has represented East Boston residents facing eviction in Boston Housing Court, and helped veterans apply for benefits at the Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain. Both experiences left deep marks on him.

“Before, I felt a little bit removed from a lot of the populations that are most affected by the decisions and policies that are made in Washington,” he said. “Here, I can help people more directly.”

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A Warm Welcome to New Clinicians

The Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs extends a warm welcome to Toiya Taylor (Clinical Instructor) and Lisa Fitzgerald (Clinical Fellow) of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Rachel Krol (Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law) of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Program, and Michelle Kweder (Administrative Director) of the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project.

Rachel Krol
Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law

Before joining the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Program, Rachel taught negotiation at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and led interactive negotiation and leadership workshops designed specifically for young women through her company, Connect More Consulting.

Rachel has also served as a teaching team member for executive education seminars offered by the Harvard Negotiation Institute and courses at Penn Law School and Vienna University of Economics and Business. In addition, Rachel has worked on negotiation and conflict resolution projects with nonprofit, educational, and governmental institutions including Seeds of Peace, GenHERation, the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at SCH Academy, and the National Institutes of Health. She practiced law with the firms Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP and Ahmad Zaffarese LLC in Philadelphia, in the areas of finance, securities, and civil litigation.

Rachel received her J.D. from Harvard Law School and her B.A. from Columbia University. Prior to attending law school, she taught at the International Montessori School of Prague in the Czech Republic. Rachel is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and a Clinical Instructor at HNMCP.

Toiya Taylor
Clinical Instructor

Toiya Taylor began her legal career as a Law Clerk for the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court in 2000, and opened her own law practice in 2002.  She practiced extensively in both the Massachusetts Juvenile and Probate and Family Courts as both an attorney and a Guardian Ad Litem.  She represented parents and/or children in care and protection, guardianship, child support, child custody, DYS revocation and delinquency matters. She also served as an ARC attorney in the Norfolk and Suffolk County Probate and Family Courts where she represented children pro bono in high conflict matters to assist with resolution.

Taylor was also a mentor for new panel members of the Children and Family Law Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services and a bar advocate with Suffolk Lawyers for Justice, Inc. in both the Dorchester Juvenile and West Roxbury District Courts.

She received her J.D. from Boston College Law School and is the 2014 recipient of the Mary Fitzpatrick Award for Outstanding and Zealous Advocacy to the Poor.

Lisa Fitzgerald
Clinical Fellow

Lisa Fitzgerald joins the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau after graduating from Harvard Law School this year. As a student, she participated in a number of Student Practice Organizations including the Harvard Mediation Program and the Harvard Immigration Project. She is also an alumna of HLAB, having been a student attorney in the clinic for 2 years.

Michelle Kweder
Administrative Director

Michelle joins the Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) with recent experience as a Lecturer at Simmons College where she taught undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences and MBA students at the School of Management. She has a diverse background, having served in former Boston Mayor Menino’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, and as the executive director of a domestic violence agency, a consultant to mission-driven organizations, and a volunteer instructor teaching entrepreneurship at NECC-Concord prison. She recently completed her Ph.D. at UMass Boston in Business Administration – Organizations and Social Change. Michelle is replacing Sarah Morton who will return to PLAP next year.

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