Broadening our impact

At LAF, we serve people in poverty mostly one at a time. The majority of our cases are interventions into crises facing just one individual or family, but often those crises are symptomatic of disadvantages that people with low incomes confront every day. So when we get the chance not only to make a difference for an individual client, but also to change some policy or set some precedent that will give the populations a better chance to be treated fairly in the first place, we’re especially proud. Recently, LAF attorneys Michelle Gilbert and Jackie Zarack-Koriath did just that when they completed cases that protected access to affordable housing for their clients and that spurred administrative changes that will extend that protection to countless others as well.

Michelle Gilbert Public Interest Award

Michelle Gilbert and her colleagues after receiving the Excellence in Pro Bono Service award

Jackie’s client Dawn participates in the housing choice voucher program, where she and CHA both pay a portion of her monthly rent. After a medical condition caused Dawn to lose her job at a childcare facility and before she could find another source of income, her rent was due, and she simply couldn’t afford her share.  The voucher program’s guidelines provide for short-term exemptions from minimum payments, called hardship exemptions, that are designed to help tenants in circumstances like just like these. But the process for asking for one is buried deep in a 150-page administrative document, and Dawn wouldn’t have known she was entitled to an exemption if it hadn’t been for a friend of hers who told her she should apply. Even when she did, CHA improperly idenied her request.

Without the extra help, Dawn failed to make her rent payments, was evicted from her home, lost her housing subsidy, and was left homeless. Fortunately she came to LAF, and with Jackie’s help CHA agreed to reinstate Dawn’s housing assistance, pay her damages, and update the forms and notices recipients of vouchers regularly receive to contain a simple explanation of hardship exemptions. CHA is already using the new documents, and we’ve already heard from tenants who received relief thanks to Dawn and Jackie’s hard work.

Michelle’s client Beverly ran into a different administrative hurdle as she attempted to move with her housing voucher, and likewise ended up without assistance. She had requested moving papers and was searching for a new place, but due to a combination of discrimination against her by landlords who wouldn’t accept a voucher and failed HACC inspections at the places that would, her search term expired and she was terminated from the voucher program without a chance to speak up for herself in an administrative hearing.

As Michelle herself points out, this kind of policy not only deprived Beverly of a safe, decent place to live, but it’s antithetical to the stated goal of the program: to allow subsidized tenants to move to higher opportunity areas. So Michelle filed a Federal complaint stating that Beverly was denied due process when she was denied a hearing, and eventually HACC agreed to amend its administrative plan to automatically grant tenants like Beverly hearings before their assistance could be taken away, in addition to re-instating Beverly’s housing voucher.

Michelle was recognized by the U.S. District Court for her work on the case, receiving its annual Excellence in Pro Bono Service Award this month. Though she’s somewhat bashful about being recognized herself, she’s proud of LAF’s work. “At LAF we have a reputation for doing a lot of volume. But seeing so many cases feeds our desire to do big picture litigation and to change policy in a way that benefits our clients.”

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Women rising for justice at work

Last week, LAF’s Immigrants and Worker’s Rights Practice group hosted the 3rd annual Modern Day American Worker Conference. This year’s event was entitled Over, Under, Through: Women Rising for Justice at Work, and centered on issues of discrimination, sexual violence, and financial exploitation in the workplace, all of which disproportionately affect women, low-wage workers, and immigrants.

Attendees, including community organizers and legal advocates from across Chicagoland and around the United States, spent two days learning about the problems that women with low incomes face in their jobs and discussing means to not only effectively advocate on behalf of individual victims, but to ensure that all workers are afforded safety and dignity in the future.

The first day of the conference featured a panel of four women, all of whom had survived discrimination or violence, and all of whom had been motivated by their experiences to speak up for members of their community suffering through similar experiences.

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On day one of the conference, panelists discuss sexual violence and discrimination at work.

One member of the panel, Airsa Pineda, was assaulted by a supervisor at the restaurant where she worked. “It was hell what happened to me,” she says. But when she reported the incident to management, they refused to take it seriously. Airsa filed sexual harassment charges, and the restaurant retaliated by firing her.

 

Eventually, a friend of Airsa’s referred her to LAF, and she won both a U-Visa and payments for wage theft, sexual harassment, and workers compensation. But she wasn’t satisfied with just finding recourse for the wrongs against her. Ever since she was assaulted, Airsa has been speaking up for women who are enduring the same trauma she went through, and who might be justifiably afraid to stand up on their own. She founded the Women Workers Committee with the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, and has organized accountability campaigns to monitor working conditions at factories and temp agencies and prevent abuse. “I found a community. I found strength,” she says. “I am raising my voice, but I can’t do it alone.”

Day two of the conference included discussions focused on the intersection between immigration and worker exploitation, how advocates can utilize U and T-visas to benefit their clients, pending legislation to protect domestic and temporary workers, and pursuing justice for workers employed in the food system.

Author and journalist Bernice Yeung also delivered an inspiring address that drew from her award-winning reporting on workplace harassment and violence suffered by domestic workers, agricultural workers, and nighttime janitorial staff. She emphasized worker-led initiatives around the country that have brought these issues to light and succeeded in changing policy to benefit those who are made so vulnerable system. Near the end of her remarks, Ms. Yeung gave a call to action that seemed to encapsulate this year’s conference. She reminded a room full of lawyers that “…making a rule or filing a claim is not by itself the solution. When we put women at the center of movements and help them become leaders, they will direct us to real change.”

Denim Day 2018: LAF’s work for survivors of sexual violence

In honor of Denim Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2018, we would like to highlight some of LAF’s critical work in serving low-income survivors of sexual violence across Cook County.

Emilia was abducted at age 17. For two years, the man who abducted her physically and sexually assaulted on a regular basis and, eventually, impregnated her. In 2008 she escaped with her daughter, Alyssa. Emilia is now married to Jose, whom Alyssa believes to be her father.

In June 2016, Emilia called LAF because her abuser had filed a parentage case seeking visitation rights with Alyssa, whom he had not seen in 10 years. Alyssa had never known the true story of her birth and, on top of forcing Emilia to relive her trauma, Emilia was worried about the impact the stress could have on Alyssa’s fragile health.Denim

LAF’s Myka Held diligently fought in parentage court to deny Emilia’s abuser’s right to custody or visitation with Alyssa. If her abuser had been criminally charged and found guilty of rape, his custody and visitation rights would have been denied. In this case, however, her abuser had not been criminally charged. Therefore, Myka faced the daunting task of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that Alyssa was conceived by rape 12 years ago. When Myka filed a petition seeking $10,000 in attorneys’ fees, Emilia’s abuser withdrew his parentage case altogether.

Emilia is now planning to return to school for nursing or social work, and her daughter, Alyssa, is a straight A student being raised in a loving home by Emilia and Jose.

The CDC lists poverty and lack of jobs as community risk factors for sexual violence. People with low incomes, who have less access to resources, are more vulnerable to sexual assault. By assisting survivors of sexual assault obtain protective orders, apply for legal immigration status, and enforce their rights in the workplace,  LAF can holistically address the concerns of a sexual assault survivor, and help them achieve a sense of safety, and economic stability.

Denim Day is an annual campaign to raise awareness of issues facing survivors of sexual violence. Click here to learn more about the origin of Denim Day, and here to learn more about survivors.

Katten de Diego Clinic Celebrates Five Years

We’re proud to share that the Katten de Diego Community Legal Clinic celebrated its fifth year serving Chicago’s Humboldt Park and Wicker Park neighborhoods yesterday.

Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP has had a longstanding relationship with the Jose de Diego Community Academy in the form of tutoring, school supply drives, a Lawyers in the Classroom program, and other efforts. In 2013, the firm began providing their legal expertise to the school’s families as well. The first clinic was held in April of that year and has since served over 400 members of the surrounding community with the help of more than 70 volunteers.

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Volunteers from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP at De Diego Community Academy

None of this would be possible without our partnership with Katten. They provide volunteer attorneys and paralegals each month, in addition to administrative support. “[The clinic] provides an incomparably rewarding opportunity for our attorneys to use their skills to make a tangible difference,” says Jonathan Baum, Katten’s Director of Pro Bono Services. “I have never had an attorney who came to the clinic once and didn’t come back again.” Katten also offered invaluable support to de Diego Academy last year by renovating and increasing the space used by the clinic, allowing us to host more attorneys and meet with more clients at once.

The clinic commonly addresses matters in family law, housing, and public benefits. Volunteers from Katten interview clients, then consult with LAF attorneys with experience in the relevant areas of law, and collaborate to offer some combination of advice, referrals, and representation to the client. Clinic volunteers are often able to expand LAF’s capacity by working alongside LAF attorneys on cases, or handling cases that LAF is unable to take for various reasons.

Jonathan calls Katten’s partnership with LAF “indispensable and delightful,” saying, “We simply could not have established and maintained the clinic without the insights of LAF lawyers into its creation, the training provided by LAF lawyers, and the close collaboration and mentoring from LAF lawyers both onsite at the clinic and in long-term representations that come from it.”

Even in the instance where someone does not need full representation, but rather a demand letter written or a simple phone call made, our volunteer lawyers have been willing to go above and beyond to stand up for a client. “That’s a major benefit of the Katten clinic – that the pro bono attorneys independently take things on,” says Dana Harbaugh, LAF’s AmeriCorps VISTA attorney who coordinates the clinics.

LAF is excited to see Katten de Diego and our other clinics continue to grow in their ability to increase access to civil legal services in Chicago. Many thanks to our firm, corporate, and community partners who make it all happen!Katten infographic

 

Holistic help from medical-legal partnerships

Over the course of just a few months beginning last summer, Gary rapidly lost his vision to retinal detachment. At the age of sixty-one, he was without a source of income, unable to work, and as Kaitlyn Quigley, Gary’s attorney with LAF’s Public benefits practice group, notes, lacking some of the skills for living with vision loss.

Gary is insured by CountyCare, a Medicaid managed plan offered by Cook County Health and Hospital System, which collaborates with LAF as part of a medical-legal partnership (MLP). CountyCare care coordinators identify members facing potential legal issues, and then refer them to LAF for help. Gary came to LAF last fall seeking assistance with his application for Social Security disability benefits, after a referral from his care coordinator Camille Haynes.

To get approved for Social Security benefits, Gary needed to attend an evaluation at a doctor’s office, but he had no way to get there because his impairment kept him both from driving and from using public transit. So Kaitlyn, working alongside Camille and Jenelle Pedroza, LAF’s Client Services Coordinator, moved his appointment and helped him apply for paratransit accommodations so that he could make it to his appointment and get around on his own moving forward.

PACE busGary faced similar difficulty in applying for SNAP benefits after he missed a required phone interview because he couldn’t read the letter notifying him when the call was scheduled. His water was shut off because he couldn’t afford the bill while he had no income. Time and again, Jenelle, Kaitlyn, and Camille worked together to resolve issues as they arose and set Gary up for success in the future. They rescheduled his SNAP interview, advocated with the city to turn his water back on immediately, and helped him apply for a Salvation Army grant to pay down his water bill balance. They also connected Gary with resources at Chicago Lighthouse, an organization that specializes in helping visually impaired adults learn to live on their own.

This kind of assistance is what LAF’s medical-legal partnerships are all about. As Kaitlyn puts it, “there are aspects of your health that a doctor can’t fix. There are social determinants of health.” By working closely with Camille as Gary adjusted to living with a disability, LAF was able to help Gary resolve these issues, all of which could have adversely affected his health, as they arose.

LAF was also able to help when Gary was wrongfully billed over $1000 by an eye specialist that he was referred to by his doctor. At the time Gary received treatment, he believed that his care would be covered by Medicaid. Later, the specialist’s office informed him that they don’t accept the specific Medicaid plan that Gary is enrolled in, even though he showed an insurance card at the office that day, and even though, by law, a healthcare provider must verify a patient’s Medicaid coverage before providing treatment. Kaitlyn drafted a cease and desist letter to the specialist’s office, and they agreed to stop seeking payment from Gary.

“For him, this was important, because he isn’t judgment proof,” says Kaitlyn. Gary owns his home, an asset that could be put at risk by a court judgment for unpaid debt. Thanks to Kaitlyn’s early intervention, Gary’s home is safe from this would-be creditor.

But none of Kaitlyn or Jenelle’s work for Gary, on protecting him from wrongful billing for medical services or reinstating his utility service or securing him the benefits he is entitled to, would have been possible had it not been for our partnership with CCHHS. “Clients don’t always know that their problems are legal problems,” Kaitlyn says. “This is someone that never would have come to LAF if it wasn’t for his care coordinator.”

Gary’s case is just one example of how MLPs connect us with people that can use LAF’s help, but the kind of holistic service we were able to provide for him is exactly why those partnerships are so valuable to the communities we serve.

Elephant in the Room: No Money, Mo’ Problems

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

“It’s a text-book example of institutional racism.”

This was University of Chicago Professor Chris Berry’s conclusion when he testified, last summer, before the County Board discussing the disparate impact felt by Cook County residents in their property tax assessments. If you’ve been following the news (or the election cycle), you may be aware that there have been some problems brewing with the Cook County Assessor’s Office. A study conducted by the University of Chicago showed a discrepancy where lower-priced homes were over-valued and higher-priced homes were lower-valued.  If this conclusion is correct, this system shifted the tax-paying burden to lower socio-economic neighborhoods; neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color.

The disparate implementation by the Assessor’s Office poses severe risks to lower-income neighborhoods—many people who often come to LAF seeking help. We see how the inability to keep a home decreases a family’s ability to create wealth; it requires them to make big financial sacrifices to keep their home—maybe their child’s college tuition can’t get paid, or they have to pick between paying the tax bill or medicine and groceries for the month. For those that can’t keep up with payments, they may feel forced to sell quickly, losing out on their investment. In dire cases, the county may sell the taxes to a tax-buyer and if the home owner cannot repay those taxes, the tax-buyer may take ownership of the home through a tax-deed.

This says nothing of the physical and mental stress people experience fighting to save their house, or the damage it inflicts on children who may have to move to new schools, or the depression an elderly parent may fall into when they can no longer afford their home.

Proponents of the current system argue that anyone has the right to appeal their assessment. And that is true, there is an appeals process. But just like so many complicated parts of our legal system, those that need access to this remedy have a more difficult time accessing it. U of C’s study found that wealthier neighborhoods appealed at a much higher rate than lower-value neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods also saw assessment reductions more frequently than poorer neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to be represented by attorneys as well. Attorneys, logically, target higher-income clients in order to reap higher rewards. In 2015, attorneys earned 22 million dollars in attorney’s fees involving assessment appeals. Unfortunately, for those living in lower-income neighborhoods, the return on investment for an attorney to file an appeal for a single-family home won’t match what that attorney could earn representing multi-unit condo associations. A person who is low-income, living in a low-income neighborhood, with a home that is valued high, but can only be sold for a much lower price, will be hard-pressed to find an affordable legal representative.

This is the gap LAF tries to bridge—we field calls from people on the verge of losing their home and our Consumer Practice Group steps in to help.  Some clients are advised on their right to appeal the tax assessment of their home. Other times we guide clients through obtaining the correct tax exemptions as home owners.  In cases where the clients have fallen too far behind in tax payments, we represent them in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows them to catch up on their payments in order to save their home.

The work we do doesn’t solve the disparate impact the assessor’s system has on our client communities, but by helping them fight in a system that is stacked against them, it reminds them that they have rights and tools available to protect their assets. More importantly, we create security and peace of mind for families who can return to their neighborhoods—to their homes–with the same sense of stability as those in richer zip-codes.