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

 

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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.

Standing up for Maria

Last November, Maria’s landlord told her she and her infant son would be evicted over sixty-six dollars’ worth of unpaid rent, which he claimed had accrued over the previous three months. She offered to pay him back, but he refused to accept the money, saying that he was moving forward with eviction proceedings. It wasn’t even worth her time to show up in court and defend herself, her landlord claimed; there was nothing she could do.

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Veena Gursahani of LAF’s Housing practice group

Prior to the eviction proceedings, Maria was already attempting to move. She is a survivor of domestic violence, and her abuser had been showing up at her apartment and harassing her. She wanted to move to get away from him, but she receives a housing subsidy as part of HUD’s Moderate Rehabilitation Program, which limits the locations she is permitted to rent from and makes it difficult to move on short notice. Participants in the program also lose their subsidies automatically if they are evicted from their subsidized rental unit, unlike participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In other words, the stakes for avoiding eviction couldn’t have been much higher.

Fortunately, Maria didn’t take her landlord at his word when he told her not to bother speaking up for herself. She reached out for LAF for help and managed to win her eviction case, preserve her housing subsidy, and move herself and her son away from her abuser. But not without a fight.

Maria had missed her first court appearance thanks to the bogus advice her landlord and his representative offered her, and a default judgement had already been entered against her. This meant that Veena Gursahani of LAF’s Housing Practice group, the attorney assigned to Maria’s case, had only a few short weeks to have that judgement vacated. With only hours to spare, Veena filed a motion to vacate, which was eventually granted.

Veena began work on litigating the eviction while simultaneously advocating for CHA to find a new unit for Maria. When Veena was finally given the landlord’s current ledger, 6 weeks after discovery was served and less than a week before the scheduled trial, Veena learned that the $66 at issue had, in fact, been paid by CHA.

“The landlord’s attorney basically admitted that the landlord didn’t want any more incidents involving Maria’s abuser in the building, and he decided it would be easiest to just evict her for nonpayment of rent,” says Veena. “Little did he know we were going to fight him tooth and nail on it.”

Once she saw the ledger, Veena succeeded in gaining a summary judgement for Maria. She could stay where she was, because a city of Chicago ordinance specifically bars landlords from pursuing evictions after they’ve accepted payment of “rent due”.

Maria’s landlord had been pursuing an action for money it had already recouped, attempting to evict a subsidized tenant who was already trying to move.  Ironically, right before the scheduled trial and summary judgment hearing, Maria was officially given permission to move into her new subsidized unit, so she could put some distance between herself, her abusive ex, and her dishonest landlord.

A case like Maria’s takes of lot of work, but it shows us just how severely disadvantaged we are when we face the legal system without the right help, and just how severe the consequences of that can be. So even if standing up for Maria involved a few late nights, it was well worth it. As Veena herself puts it, “It was a labor of love.”

Fighting for the Poor and Vulnerable: March 2018 eNewsletter

Our core mission at LAF?  We fight for the poor and vulnerable.  Today let me unpack a couple of those seven words.
“We” does not just mean LAF staff, but also includes the volunteers of all kinds who work at our staff’s side.  Those volunteers include folks of all kinds and from all generations.  Lawyers, social workers, technicians, marketing and advertising professionals, community organizers, labor workers, and many more.  Managing this amazing volume of support is a full-time, sophisticated job, done here by our Melissa Picciola.  Read about Melissa here.
“Vulnerable” includes survivors of intimate partner violence, like our client Linda, who is finally free of her abusive husband, after months of needlessly complex legal work.  And our colleagues Myka and Alyse, a volunteer from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, made that happen.  Read about it, and a lot more, in this month’s eNewsletter here.
And join us in the good fight.
Sincerely,
John N. Gallo
LAF CEO and Executive Director

 

A fresh start for Linda

When Linda came to the Jose De Diego Legal Clinic in the fall of last year and spoke with the volunteers there from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, she was seeking assistance with obtaining a divorce from her abusive husband.

Since the pension was the only piece of property at issue, it should have been a straightforward process that didn’t require the resources of an attorney. For that reason, LAF initially planned to refer Linda to the CARPLS divorce help desk for help filling out the appropriate paperwork.

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Jose De Diego Community Academy, the site of LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP’s monthly legal clinic in Wicker Park, where we first met Linda

“We would have closed the case if it wasn’t for Alyse,” says Myka Held, an attorney with LAF’s Family Law Practice group who served as co-counsel with Alyse Sagalchik in representing Linda. “In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t.”

Alyse is an attorney at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP who regularly volunteers at the clinic, which, she notes, is her “favorite pro bono commitment—not just since I have been at Katten but since I began practicing law.” Alyse had been looking to contribute even more, and, she says, “Linda happened to reach out to LAF at exactly the right time.” So Alyse took Linda’s case pro bono and moved forward with the divorce, hoping to resolve the issue as quickly as possible by obtaining a default judgment. Since Carl was in jail and unlikely to appear in court, this should have been easy.

Before they could obtain that judgment though, Alyse and LAF received a letter from Carl in jail. It was a rambling, 4-page long document that accused Linda of abuse toward him, demanded money before he would agree to a divorce, and ranted about the attorneys representing Linda. Carl also sent correspondence to the presiding judge, which delayed the case further. On top of all that, based upon a technical issue in the criminal case against him for assaulting Linda, Carl successfully appealed his conviction in the criminal case and was granted a new trial.

“Linda desperately wanted to be rid of him,” says Myka. “She was worried that he would come after her if he got out of jail.” What’s more, Carl planned to represent himself in his second criminal trial, which means he would be the one questioning Linda about his own violence toward her.

Thanks to Alyse and Myka’s hard work, the divorce was at last finalized in early March—five months after the petition for dissolution of marriage was filed. Linda also put the prosecutor assigned to Carl’s domestic violence case in contact with LAF so they could share information that will hopefully prevent Linda from being subjected to the trauma of being questioned by her abuser in court.

Linda’s story reminds us of the difference legal aid can make in the lives of our clients, and demonstrates how vital our volunteer partners are as we work to increase access to justice. As Alyse puts it, “It is amazing to me the difference between the results for those who have legal representation and those who do not…that is not part of my understanding of how justice ought to work. I am trying, in this tiny way, to fix that for as many individuals as I can.” Her help, combined with contributions from LAF staff and her fellow clinic volunteers, enabled Linda to make a break with her abuser and start a new chapter in her life.