A Simple Online Legal Tool Helps Reduce Poverty for Military Veterans

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) is piloting a new technology tool to help fight poverty among the state’s most financially vulnerable military veterans and their dependents and survivors. The tool is designed to increase access to vital safety net benefits that can help reduce financial insecurity, homelessness, and hunger in the Commonwealth’s veterans community.

If successful, the program could improve the lives of tens of thousands of low-income Massachusetts veterans — and thousands more of their family members — whose incomes are at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or lower.

The innovative project introduces an easy-to-use, web-based tool to determine potential eligibility, similar to an online tax preparation tool like TurboTax or an online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (Food Stamp) Calculator.  The new tool is called the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator, and is being launched through a public-private partnership between LSC and three local veterans’ services offices participating in the pilot.

Marrying legal expertise and tech to address poverty

“The ultimate goal of the project is to help reduce poverty among the Commonwealth’s veterans and military families,” says Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Veterans Legal Clinic and LSC. “We can do so by leveraging our legal expertise and using new technology we’ve developed to more effectively link those in need to an underutilized veterans’ safety net program that already exists.”

“While the core role of LSC and the Veterans Legal Clinic is to represent clients, we also have a role in innovating to fight poverty, addressing gaps for people who may not have access to attorneys, and finding ways in which the marriage of technology and legal expertise can make a difference,” says Nagin. “The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is intended to help pursue these broader goals.”

“Because of the technology’s design, this project has the potential to help us better understand how technology and online self-guided interview formats, informed by legal expertise, might help other vulnerable populations, such as people harmed by consumer fraud, those with family law cases, and immigrants,” he adds.

Low numbers of eligible veterans access Chapter 115 benefits

The Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Benefits Program – known as Chapter 115 for short because of the statute that authorizes the program – can provide monthly financial assistance that, depending on income and circumstances, can range from a few hundred dollars per month to $1,000 per month to eligible low-income veterans and their dependents. It can also provide reimbursements for out-of-pocket medical costs, emergency payments to prevent eviction, foreclosure or utility shutoffs, and funding for home repairs, moving costs, and transportation to medical appointments.

Yet, as state data shows, too few people are aware the program exists, and too few know if they are eligible or how to apply.

A 2017 report by the Massachusetts State Auditor urged that new strategies be undertaken to make the Chapter 115 program more accessible.  The report showed that between 2014-2016, only 14,390 individuals received Chapter 115 benefits, despite state estimates that as many as 70,000 of the 380,000 veterans in Massachusetts live at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below and would likely qualify for the program. Only 1,460 of the 13,679 veterans who received MassHealth over a two-year period simultaneously received Chapter 115 benefits, although the income criteria to qualify for MassHealth and Chapter 115 are similar.

These numbers only reflect the number of actual veterans who could qualify. Many thousands more family members could also benefit – if they applied.

Recognizing the need to expand access for veterans and their families, the Veterans Legal Clinic initially developed an online self-help guide, and then began experimenting with a benefits worksheet that synthesized the complex eligibility criteria of the program into a two-page document.

Why not an online calculator to determine eligibility?

Mass Vet Benefits Calculator screenshot

MassVetBen.org

“We soon realized that easy-to-use online calculators exist for everything from preparing your tax return to applying for a mortgage and applying for SNAP benefits (Food Stamps), and wondered if we could convert our worksheet into an online calculator that anyone could easily access without professional help,” Nagin said.

Drawing on the software development savvy of William Palin at the Developing Justice program at Harvard Law School, Veterans Legal Clinic attorneys converted the worksheet into a series of simple online questions that a veteran or a family member, friend or advocate can answer. Once individuals answer the questions posed by the tool, they receive immediate analysis of whether or not they may be entitled to benefits, how much they might receive, how and where they can apply, and what documents might be needed to establish eligibility.

Addressing all likely scenarios

Working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services and three veterans service officers or VSOs (the VSOs for Boston, Cambridge, and the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District) that were eager to be part of a pilot project, Veterans Legal Clinic Program Manager Julia Schutt and program evaluation colleagues from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a series of focus groups with VSOs, veterans themselves, and with family members and dependents. The goal: to ensure that the tool addresses all the likely scenarios that someone using it might present in an effort to qualify for Chapter 115 services and to make sure the tool was simple to use.

Further fine-tuning of the tool based on focus group feedback has been completed and the pilot study is being rolled out now in the Boston, Cambridge, and the Upper Pioneer Valley (which includes the towns of Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Deerfield , Erving, Gill, Greenfield, Hawley, Heath, Leverett, Leyden, Monroe , Montague, New Salem, Northfield, Plainfield , Rowe, Shelburne, Shutesbury, Sunderland, Warwick, Wendell, and Whately). This pilot will both test the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator and strategies for increasing awareness of the Chapter 115 program.

“The Boston VSO conducts door-to-door outreach in subsidized housing complexes, particularly those for the elderly and disabled, to connect with veterans, dependents and survivors, for example,” says Schutt. “They can use the online tool on tablets to help complete eligibility screenings on the spot, for example.”

A game-changer

“The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is a game-changer and is very handy during events,” notes Pierre Darius of the City of Boston Veterans Services. “Instead of asking the same questions over and over again, I can have the applicants answer the questions electronically in seconds.”

LSC Staff at Stand Down

LSC Staff at Stand Down, where the benefits calculator was tested with veterans. From left: Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, Dan Nagin, Julia Schutt, Keith Fogg, clinical student Steven Kerns, Evan Seamone

“The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is the quickest and easiest way to check on your Chapter 115 eligibility without a VSO,” he adds. “Answer the questions truthfully, and then you’ll get an eligibility determination instantly. Even if a person’s eligibility is Medical Only, it can be hundreds or thousands of dollars in reimbursements every month.”

“My staff and I look forward to the help the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator will provide to our veterans and their dependents,” says Timothy Niejadlik, Director of Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District. “By allowing them to begin the application process online, we hope they will contact us to answer questions and ensure they receive all the benefits they may deserve from the Commonwealth.”

Once the pilot phase is complete and lessons learned are implemented, a more intensive, statewide rollout of the tool will begin.

The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator project is supported by a grant from the Klarman Family Foundation.

Using technology to access legal remedies, social services

“We believe technological innovation to help low-income individuals access social services and legal remedies can have a meaningful impact,” says Nagin. “It is critical that legal services providers continue to expand their toolkit.  Technology tools need to be harnessed to help us pursue our justice mission. We are very grateful to the Klarman Family Foundation for supporting this effort.”

Reform Meets Response: LSC Launches Criminal Record Sealing Initiative in Wake of Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform

The Legal Services Center strives to place the voices of Boston’s communities at the heart of its practice.

While Julie McCormack, Director of the Safety Net Project, facilitated People’s Law School community workshops around the Boston area over the past 5 years, she learned first-hand from clients and community partners of the staggering, unmet demand for criminal record sealing services. Due to LSC’s specialized projects serving domestic violence survivors, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, veterans, and others, Julie recognized that the Legal Services Center had a unique opportunity to leverage its existing resources to respond directly to requests from community partners and clients to expand access to these critical criminal record sealing services.

With criminal record information publicly available to employers, banks, and landlords, a criminal record operates as a de facto sentence for individuals long after their time is served by erecting barriers to financial stability. Indeed, for the estimated one in three American adults with a criminal record, ordinary essentials such as finding a well-paying job, obtaining safe and affordable housing, getting a student loan, and purchasing a decent car are nearly impossible to attain. This reality means that those with criminal records experience poverty, unemployment, and homelessness at far higher rates than their peers without records. In effect, a criminal record is a harsh, life-long obstacle for those striving to lift themselves out of situations of personal and financial hardship. The discrimination experienced by individuals after their encounter with the criminal justice system reverberates throughout their families and communities, exacerbating inequality and hardship.

Fortunately, the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act has accelerated and expanded sealing opportunities. Individuals with old criminal records can now have their Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) sealed so that it cannot be seen or held against them by potential employers, landlords, and banks. For the first time in Massachusetts history, the 2018 law also provided for the expungement of a criminal record for de-criminalized offenses (such as the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana). These reforms provide a path toward a brighter future for individuals fighting against the barriers and stigma that accompany a criminal record.

However, this change in the law did not provide the legal resources necessary to help people exercise their right to criminal record sealing. Organizations such as Greater Boston Legal Services and Rosie’s Place have taken an early lead in identifying the need for sealing services by providing self-help resources and walk-in clinics. We applaud the groundbreaking work of these organizations and seek to expand CORI sealing opportunities – particularly to the veterans, military families, low-income students, disabled individuals, and domestic violence survivors that we already serve – through free workshops every third Tuesday of the month, from 4pm to 6pm.

We believe this is a valuable service with tremendous spillover effects in combatting inequality and injustice. Moreover, we believe that by hosting these CORI Sealing Workshops, LSC is leveraging its connections with the veteran and local communities – as well as its easily accessible location – to respond to an urgent community need.

For more information about our new CORI Sealing Initiative, please visit our information page.

ITT Trustee, CFPB, and States Settle with Private Lender to Eliminate Millions in Debt

Settlements Do More for Cheated ITT Students Than DeVos

As Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education continue to sit idly, indifferent to massive fraud committed by ITT against more than 750,000 former students, the CFPB and a group of 43 states and the District of Columbia filed proposed settlements with one of ITT’s private lenders, a group of credit unions called “the CUSO.” This coincides with a federal bankruptcy court approving a settlement between the ITT bankruptcy trustee and the CUSO. The settlements will provide important relief for former students who took out private CUSO loans. Once the settlements are approved by the court, the CUSO is compelled to:

  • Stop collection of all outstanding CUSO loans;
  • Direct credit reporting agencies to delete consumer trade lines associated with the CUSO loans; and
  • Request that the IRS not require the CUSO to report the cancelled loans as income to borrowers.

The CUSO and ITT are charged with perpetrating a scheme in which interest-free loans made by ITT to students (“temporary credits”) were converted into high-interest, private loans that students were likely to default on. CUSO participated in the scheme, which was designed to help ITT evade federal regulations and write-off bad debt, because the credit unions stood to make a profit—at the expense of the students that ITT swindled.

Yet again, this means that everyone else has done more for the cheated students of ITT Tech than the Department of Education has ever done.

Cancellation of ITT student loan debt makes a real difference for borrowers, but does not begin to address the millions of dollars in unenforceable federal and private student debt that is still outstanding.

While over 14,000 borrower defense applications from former ITT students are pending—thousands submitted over three years ago—the Department continues to move at a glacial pace, having approved only 33 applications to date. This unreasonable, unnecessary, and unfounded refusal to acknowledge students’ claims is an indignity to borrowers who sought an education and better life, but were instead cheated, lied to, and defrauded.

The Department continues to shirk its duty to process borrower defense applications and remains complicit in the ITT-related fraud it oversaw and approved. That needs to change, and we will continue to pressure the Department to eliminate ITT federal student loan debt.

The students in the ITT bankruptcy are represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Jenner & Block.

Related Updates:

A Legal Safety Net at the Library

People's Law School Boston Public Library

Julia Schutt (right) of the Veterans Legal Clinic speaking to a client as interns Arielle Lui (left) and Sana Gupta (center) observe at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair.

Picture this: you make the decision to go to college. To afford it, you take out hefty student loans. You work hard, push through, and complete your degree. With even more hard work, you are able to pay off your student loans. Then, out of nowhere, the government reaches out to tell you that you actually haven’t paid your loans. And that they want to collect. Now. Before you can even use your degree, the government starts to take all of your income. What do you do?

This is what happened to Maria*, whom we met at the Boston Public Library’s first ever Community Health Fair on Friday, May 24th. Maria came to the Fair seeking any help she could find, and she found us. As the only legal team at the event, we were thrilled that we were there to respond to legal needs like Maria’s.

Allyson Dowds, Health & Human Services Research Specialist for the BPL and the event organizer, invited us to attend, recognizing that access to legal resources is an integral part of community health: the Legal Services Center provides legal representation to clients fighting housing insecurity, financial abuse at the hands of for-profit colleges or other predatory organizations, unsafe situations in the home or within families, and facing adverse action by the IRS. In the Safety Net Project, we help veterans, disabled individuals, and low-income folks secure the income, food access, and health care they need to protect their material well-being. In short, we work to address a multitude of interrelated community health problems through legal advocacy.

Legal Services Center Table at Boston Public Library

Safety Net Project interns Sana Gupta (top left), Brittney Reed (top right), Arielle Lui (bottom left), and Ellie Schelleng (center) with Julia Schutt, project manager for the Veterans’ Legal Clinic, at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair. Taking the picture is Julie McCormack, director of the Safety Net Project and coordinator of the People’s Law School.

As a law school clinical program, our mission to “Advocate. Educate. Innovate.” compels us to provide education not just to the law students and interns who join us throughout the year, but also to our community on their rights within the legal system, through our program The People’s Law School. We used our time at the Community Health Fair to do exactly that.

The Fair brought together several key players in the food security landscape, including Project Bread, the Department of Transitional Assistance, and the Department of Public Health. Connecting with folks from these organizations was especially important as we consider our role in closing the Massachusetts ‘SNAP Gap.’ The SNAP Gap refers to those eligible for, but not receiving, SNAP benefits – according to the Mass Law Reform Institute, over 700,000 Massachusetts residents who are likely eligible for SNAP are not receiving benefits. This summer the LSC is reopening our SNAP appeals intake; we will represent those who have been denied benefits when they should have been approved. By helping individuals in complex situations secure SNAP benefits, we hope to take part in a larger movement to close that gap and make food security a reality for all of low-income Massachusetts. Connecting with these groups allowed us to consider future partnerships and to gather materials so that we can increase outreach and education efforts through our office.

Also at the event were many incredible community partners dedicated to serving the people of the greater Boston area. We spoke with many, including representatives of Bay Cove Human Services and Samaritans Inc., about ways we can partner to better serve our communities and share resources – such as workshops and presentations. Often, legal problems are the cause of mental or physical health problems. Other times, the root cause of a legal problem is really a housing or food issue. It was vital for us to connect (and reconnect!) with the government, non-profit, and social service organizations working in health, food, and housing so that we all can provide our clients with the broadest base of assistance available. It is so rare that someone is facing only one issue – to get at the root causes of the problems facing our clients, we need to call on each other.

In addition to talking to partner organizations, we met many people interested in learning how we can help them. We provided advice and referral information on a range of issues including overpayment of benefits, predatory student loans, and veterans’ legal issues. Because our services are free, we don’t have the resources to take every case, so events like this are a great way to get information to people who may not otherwise have access to it. Maria wouldn’t have known about our services if we hadn’t been at the Health Fair.

Plenty of folks also came to our table who didn’t have a specific issue they needed help with; they just wanted to know what kinds of services we offer. We are always happy to talk about our services to anyone who will listen! In addition to providing general information about the Legal Services Center, Julia Schutt of the Veterans Legal Clinic attended the Fair to showcase the project she manages developing an online tool to help veterans and military families learn if they are eligible for state Chapter 115 benefits.

After the Fair, we followed up on Maria’s case and, after consulting with other advocates here at LSC, determined that Maria’s situation would best be handled directly by the Project on Predatory Student Lending. Maria will be directly assisted by our office, thanks to the opportunities provided at the Community Health Fair.

The Community Health Fair was an extremely useful event and we are glad to have been invited. We are excited to see it grow and hope to be included every year!

Community Health Fair Flyer

Flyer for the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Take Care of Soldiers, and Things Fall Into Place

This post, by Joshua Mathew, J.D. ’19, was first posted on the Office of Clinical Programs blog.

Josh Mathew

Josh Mathew JD’19

My involvement with the Veterans Legal Clinic (VLC) has been, by far, my most rewarding experience at Harvard Law School. Through the VLC, I supported diverse cases, developed a broad range of legal skills, found my passion for advocating for others as a litigator, and made some of my closest friends at Harvard.

A Broad Range of Cases and Skills

As a student advocate with the VLC, I worked on a variety of matters, including an Army veteran’s appeal of the VA’s denial of his G.I. Bill benefits, a former Marine’s application for VA healthcare and an honorable characterization of his service, and oral arguments on behalf of Massachusetts veterans who were wrongfully denied the Welcome Home Bonus. In addition, my work with the VLC and conversations with instructors at Harvard’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic motivated me to pursue independent research, under Professor Dan Nagin’s supervision, on California’s regulations aimed at guarding veterans against exploitation by for-profit colleges.

My diverse caseload at the VLC allowed me to build a set of skills that I know will make me a more effective advocate for others. Drafting the appeal for my client’s G.I. Bill benefits enabled me to develop my legal writing and research skills. Presenting oral arguments in the Welcome Home Bonus case with my classmate Laurel Fresquez ’19 substantially improved our oral appellate advocacy skills. We learned how to organize a concise outline of arguments and incorporate feedback from numerous moots. And throughout all of my cases, I developed my ability to interact with clients, solicit their intent, and ensure that our case strategy reflected their long-term goals and interests.

From left to right, Jack Regan, Dana Montalto, Josh Mathew, Laurel Fresquez ’19, a client in the case, and Dan Nagin.

Helping Ensure That All Are Welcomed Home

Presenting oral arguments with Laurel in the Welcome Home Bonus case at Suffolk Superior Court was certainly my favorite experience at the VLC. You can read more about the case and the favorable ruling here and here. Preparing for the hearing served as a reminder that no one gets there alone: Laurel and I spent countless hours brainstorming and debating how to craft the most effective opening and closing arguments. We rehearsed those arguments over and over again in front of our supervisors, others VLC students, and WilmerHale attorneys. These moots and the VLC’s supportive community of instructors, students, and friends provided the feedback that we needed to identify our most powerful arguments and address our blind spots.

Engaging with our clients was also a treat. When we received a positive decision from the judge in late December, it was a pleasure for me and Laurel to call our clients with the good news. Those phone calls, full of gratitude and warmth, are some of my fondest memories at Harvard Law.

Finding Purpose and Friends

Lastly, the VLC has had tremendous personal benefits for me. When I left the Army, I saw law school as a reset switch, and I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I enrolled in the VLC, in part, to find that purpose. A wise platoon sergeant had once advised me, “Take care of soldiers, and everything else falls into place.” As a platoon leader, I found deep satisfaction in supporting my soldiers, and through the VLC, I have found similar fulfillment in supporting veterans’ claims for education, healthcare, and disability benefits. In addition, through challenging and meaningful casework, I have discovered my passion for litigation as a means of advocating for others.

In the process, I have made some of my closest friends at Harvard Law. It might be that the Legal Services Center attracts exceptionally kind students, or that its instructors do a great job of fostering a supportive environment. In any case, I am grateful to have gained that community, and I look forward to staying in touch.

Legal Services Center Housing Clinic wins precedent setting case for domestic violence survivors facing eviction

Ruling has implications for domestic violence survivors nationwide

Survivors of domestic violence in Massachusetts and nationwide facing eviction have won a major victory in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC)* with a new ruling that the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) protects tenants in federally subsidized housing from being evicted when the cause of eviction is tied to their domestic abuse. The court ruled that a domestic abuse survivor is protected even if he or she reveals the abuse late in the eviction process or after defaulting on an agreed upon payment plan, and that it doesn’t matter when or how the survivor alerts the court and the landlord that she is the subject of abuse.

The new precedent reduces the risk that domestic violence will lead to eviction and homelessness, a decision that has vital implications for survivors of domestic violence who are facing eviction in Massachusetts and across the nation.

The decision marks the end of a multi-year effort by a low-income Boston tenant to stay in her home. The client in this case, Y.A., is a mother of two who had been in an abusive relationship and had been trying to stave off eviction since 2014, when she first received an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. Her abuser subjected her to physical and emotional abuse and stole the income she earned from her job.

At a hearing in the Eastern Housing Court in January 2018, where she was facing immediate eviction, Y.A. explained that domestic violence caused her to fall behind on her payment plan. Nevertheless, the judge granted the Housing Authority’s motion to forcibly remove Y.A. from her home. In doing so the judge ignored a key provision of VAWA, the landmark 1994 law, which includes protection for tenants and applicants of federally funded subsidized housing from denial of housing or eviction from housing “on the basis that the applicant or tenant is or has been the victim of domestic violence.”

The WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) began representing Y.A. after she lost her case in Housing Court and helped her appeal the decision. The SJC took up the appeal of its own accord, and the case received national attention, with 14 advocacy groups filing amicus briefs in support of the survivor. Oral argument was held on January 7, 2019.

The SJC’s May 10, 2019 decision was unambiguous, declaring that: a survivor may raise a VAWA defense to eviction at any time during an eviction proceeding; there is no prescribed method or words needed to do so; there is no restraining order prerequisite to prove eligibility for the defense; domestic violence can be disclosed to the court without first disclosing to the landlord and still form the basis for a defense; the defense can be raised even in instances of chronic non-payment; covered housing providers have an affirmative duty to help survivors and not evict them for reasons directly related to domestic violence; and that judges, upon hearing evidence of domestic violence, are obligated to inquire further to fully evaluate the applicability of VAWA and write findings before issuing decisions.

“Housing is a basic human right, and stable housing is critical to stemming the cycle of the trauma faced by survivors of domestic violence,” said Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Representative of the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. “This ruling is a victory not only for Y.A. and LSC, but for every survivor who has faced housing instability as a result of domestic violence. I’m eternally grateful to Y.A. for her bravery and to LSC for reaffirming protections for survivors.”

Before releasing its full opinion, the SJC issued a brief order reversing the Housing Court’s earlier decision. The order allowed LSC to negotiate a new agreement with the Housing Authority on behalf of Y.A. that will allow her to stay housed and avoid another hearing in Housing Court.

Y.A., who fought her eviction for years without legal representation before finding LSC, expressed her happiness at the decision after a long and difficult fight, saying, “I tried for so long to get help, and to explain my situation. When [the Housing Authority] told me I had to leave the apartment, I cried, night and day. It was wonderful to get help from LSC, and I’m so glad that my case will help others.”

The result represents the culmination of a determined, collaborative effort by LSC’s Housing Clinic, including lecturer and attorney Julia Devanthéry, clinical student Emily Mannheimer ’19, and numerous allies around the state who helped prepare the Clinic for oral argument. Massachusetts-based organizations contributing amicus briefs in the case include the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Casa Myrna, the Domestic Violence Institute of Northeastern University School of Law, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Foley Hoag Domestic Violence Prevention Project, Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and the Women’s Bar Foundation. In addition, national and out-of-state organizations including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, the National Housing Law Project, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law filed amicus briefs with the court.

The SJC’s decision not only had a clear and immediate impact for Y.A. in this case, it also created an important precedent that will be useful to housing advocates in Massachusetts and across the country. Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Legal Service Center, described the decision as “a powerful example of how LSC’s individual representation cases have the potential to make real change for entire communities.”

* Boston Housing Authority v. Y.A

Read the full SJC decision: https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2019/05/10/12623.pdf

Project on Predatory Student Lending Director Toby Merrill Honored By American Constitution Society

At the American Constitution Society’s National Convention in Washington, D.C. this week, Project on Predatory Student Lending director and founder Toby Merrill was honored as a finalist for the prestigious David Carliner Public Interest Award. The American Constitution Society (ACS) is the nation’s leading progressive legal organization.

David Carliner, whom the award honors, was a champion of justice throughout his career, devoted to protecting civil and human rights and combating injustice on a systemic basis. The award recognizes outstanding public interest lawyers whose work best exemplifies Carliner’s legacy.

Toby has been a fierce advocate for students cheated by for-profit colleges since she founded the Project on Predatory Student Lending in 2012, and has since led the Project’s team of attorneys in winning groundbreaking court victories in landmark cases protecting and advancing the rights of defrauded students. The Project is part of Harvard Law School’s clinical program, and a number of its clinical students have gone on to pursue careers to attacking the big, systemic issues that have allowed such a predatory industry to thrive for so long.

“David Carliner was a true civil rights champion, and I’m honored to to be associated with this award named for him,” Toby said. “The Project’s clients have been treated so unfairly—first by a predatory industry and then by a government that refuses to recognize their rights. This recognition is a testament to their willingness to stand up and fight for their own rights and the rights of the millions of students across this country who were seeking a better life through higher education, and instead were lied to and ripped off by for-profit colleges. The billions of dollars of debt that the government tries to collect from them every day is illegitimate.

“In addition to our clients’ bravery and perseverance, the Project’s work is driven by its dedicated staff and clinical students,” Toby added. “They inspire me every day, and I’m lucky to stand up for our clients with such an amazing team.”

The Project represents thousands of former for-profit college students across the country. The Project has cases against for-profit college companies, and against the Department of Education for enabling and supporting this predatory industry. Many of the Project’s clients are people of color, veterans, and immigrants. Most are the first in their family to attend college. The Project’s work supports its broader goals of economic justice and racial equality.

The Project is part of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), a community law office and clinical teaching site of the law school. Clinical students join the Project’s staff to litigate cases on behalf of clients, in partnership with community-based and advocacy organizations.

In the Fight for Student Loan Relief

By: Drew Henderson, J.D. ’19

Drew Henderson, J.D. ’19

For years, Corinthian Colleges, a network of over one hundred for-profit schools, defrauded students to rake in profits from taxpayer-funded federal student aid. Tens of thousands of students—many the first in their families to seek out higher education—were promised serious career training and job prospects, but left Corinthian’s campuses with little more than thousands of dollars in debt. The company’s bankruptcy in 2015 followed a series of investigations into the fraud that the school inflicted nationwide. But for many who were victimized by Corinthian’s practices, relief has yet to arrive. Over 100,000 applications for loan discharge remain pending at the Department of Education, with tens of thousands coming from Corinthian students.

The Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard’s Legal Services Center has long represented students who attended Corinthian schools. When I first joined the Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, in the spring semester of 2018, the Project was involved in at least three lawsuits against the Department of Education for its failure to provide legally mandated relief on the federal loans of former Corinthian students. One of those lawsuits, Calvillo Manriquez v. DeVos, was a class action involving Corinthian borrowers whose applications for relief remain pending. Under a summary process established in the previous administration, those borrowers are entitled to prompt and full discharge of their debts.

A few weeks after the clinic started, I began working on Calvillo Manriquez. Corinthian students were beginning to hear back on their claims—but they were receiving much less than the full relief they had been promised. This news was concerning: not only would these partial denials require that our clients be forced to pay back unjust loans  that they could not afford, but the adjudication of their claims also meant that they would face collection soon, before we could challenge the Department’s actions in court.

Project directors and attorneys, Eileen Connor, Toby Merrill, and Josh Rovenger, decided to amend our complaint to challenge the Department’s new methodology for partially denying students’ discharge applications. And to prevent the Department from collecting on our clients in the meantime, we would also file for a preliminary injunction. The expedited schedule of a motion for preliminary injunction meant that I would get to file our motion and attend oral argument in the Northern District of California before the end of my semester in the clinic.

To amend our complaint, we would need additional named plaintiffs who themselves had received partial denial of their claims. These individuals would need to be able to convey to the court why the Department’s illegal policy shift threatened to cause them irreparable harm, such that it should be enjoined. Ordinarily, such preliminary relief is not available when money is at stake, but an exception exists for extreme financial hardship.

We had received word from legal aid colleagues in Los Angeles that one of their clients might be willing to serve as a named plaintiff in our lawsuit. When I spoke with the client last March, she explained how she had attended a Corinthian program after school recruiters promised that her degree would qualify her for a job in medical billing. She graduated on-time from the program, only a few months before Corinthian shut down. She never even received her diploma. Since that time, she has found that deficiencies in the school’s curriculum meant that she cannot obtain a job like she was promised. Only a week before our call, the Department had told her that she would receive only twenty percent discharge of her loans. Alongside the expenses of caring for three children, this partial denial would be a tremendous burden for her family. Her story was one of hope for a brighter future that  sadly turned to disappointment, and it is one that I heard many times during my clinical semester.

I worked to capture the client’s story in a declaration attached to our motion for preliminary injunction. In April, when I attended the oral argument in San Francisco, it was reassuring to hear the court reject the argument that our client had not faced irreparable harm — her story had  been heard. It was similarly gratifying a few weeks later, when the court ruled in our clients’ favor, enjoining the Department from implementing its partial-denial policy. But the reality is that for these students, staving off collection is not enough: long after Corinthian closed, their debts remain.

The fight continues.

Learning by Doing: A Student’s Perspective from LSC’s Safety Net Project

By Bryan Sohn

Before law school, I spent four years working in the education and non-profit world. By the end of my 1L year, I was feeling frustrated about being trapped in the “HLS bubble.” Without a doubt, my courses were fascinating and my professors wonderful. But I felt disconnected. And so I decided to seek out clinics. I considered the education law and child advocacy clinics but realized that I should branch out beyond my comfort zone. I signed up for the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) in large part because it reminded me of my students (from my high school teaching days) who have gone on to join the armed forces. And I ended up making the best decision of my law school career so far. My time at the clinic has been extraordinarily formative: in fact, the wonderful team at LSC couldn’t get rid of me and I’m now back for a second semester as an advanced clinical student!

Bryan Sohn photo

Bryan Sohn, center, pictured with attorney David Young (left) and LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg at LSC’s 40th Anniversary on April 5, 2019.

The Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic is divided into three projects: the Veterans Justice Project, the Estate Planning Project, and the Safety Net Project. I signed up for the Safety Net Project, which focuses primarily on Social Security benefits litigation. My wonderful supervisor, Julie McCormack, wasted no time in throwing me straight into the deep end. On my first day at the LSC, I was informed that I had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) the following week: I needed to get up to speed on Social Security law and draft that 15-page brief right away!

I quickly learned that this is a huge part of what makes the Safety Net Project and the Veterans Law Clinic so special. There is very little hand-holding. Students learn by doing. I was expected to the take the lead in building client relationships, building up medical records, and defining case strategies. Once I got staffed on a new case, I would spend several days wrestling with the facts and the law, shuttling back and forth between my carrel and Julie’s office. I would take the lead, but Julie was always available to share her support, wisdom, and incredible feedback despite having (at least) a gazillion other cases on her docket. Rinse and repeat. In my first semester, I ended up handling four ALJ hearings and three cases at the Appeals Council. The experience has supercharged my legal research and writing skills. I like to describe the LSC as a high-powered litigation boutique with a twist. Students take full responsibility for their cases and learn by tackling their cases head-on. But it’s a litigation boutique where the partners actually care about you. In fact, they are there precisely to support you. And most importantly, it’s a firm where the work itself is extraordinarily meaningful.

Above all, I will continue to treasure the relationships that I’ve built with our clients. My time at LSC has taught me what it means to lawyer as friend. So many moments come to mind: giving our client a hug after she broke down at the end of a successful hearing, finding out that a client who had suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder and over two dozen reconstructive surgeries would not lose her home because she had just won her benefits, and so much more. I’m so incredibly grateful to our clients for giving me the opportunity to be a part of their stories.

In my second semester at the clinic, I have continued to handle ALJ and Appeals Council cases. I am also partnering with a student at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as we prepare to argue a Social Security appeal at federal district court. Briefs have been submitted and oral argument is scheduled for September. I am incredibly excited to continue my LSC journey and get our clients the results that they deserve!

Mayor Pete Answers My Question About Predatory For-Profit Colleges

Last Saturday, I went to a town hall in New Hampshire hoping for the opportunity to ask Pete Buttigieg one question: Would he encourage his education department to cancel federal student debt from predatory for-profit colleges?

I wanted to ask him this question because, in addition to being a 2020 presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. South Bend is only a couple hours from Indianapolis where ITT Technical Institute, one of the largest and most predatory chains of for-profit colleges, was headquartered before they shut down. I know how important my question is because for the past decade I have observed, first hand, how ITT Technical Institute, and other for-profit colleges, shamelessly defrauded students. I was anxious to hear what Mayor Pete plans to do about it.

Ten years ago, I took an entry level position at an organization called The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, also known as ACICS. There, I learned that accreditation is the gateway that allows colleges to participate in federal financial aid programs. There are several kinds of accreditation, and ACICS focuses on the accreditation of for-profit colleges.

In 2010, ACICS was booming. Applications for new schools and new programs poured in from all over the country. Most of these applications were from a handful of large companies that owned chains of schools, including ITT Technical Institute. In my role at ACICS, I coordinated evaluations of these schools.

As I traveled around the country to evaluate ACICS schools, I noticed a trend. Large chains of schools used elaborate advertising techniques to target low-income and minority populations, promise lucrative job prospects, and then charged outrageous tuition for subpar training programs. There was no way the training offered at these schools would give students the earning potential to pay back their student loan debt. Students, fooled by these schools’ lies, were taking out mountains of debt and getting little to nothing in return.

These schools claimed to be invested in helping nontraditional students get an education and better their lives. But when you looked behind the curtain, these companies used predatory practices to target vulnerable populations so that they could profit off federal financial aid, which ACICS accreditation allowed them to access.

As time went on, I realized more unsettling things about ACICS. The Accrediting Council that made decisions about what schools ACICS would accept was largely made of executives from the very same companies engaging in the predatory practices that cheated students for their financial aid money. The fox wasn’t just guarding the hen house–the fox owned the hen house.

After seeing the fraudulent behavior and predatory practices of the for-profit college industry, I made the easy decision to take my career in a different direction and left ACICS. Years later, I was offered a position working for the Project on Predatory Student Lending, an organization standing up for the rights of students who were cheated by the for-profit college industry.

Last Saturday, I was proud to tell Mayor Pete I work with a group that defends former students of predatory for-profit colleges. Our government owes it to students who were sold lies and cheated out of their financial aid to cancel their student loan debt. As Mayor Pete put it, “If we’re going to talk about student loan forgiveness, the very first thing we should look at is the cases of these people who were let down.” I hope that all 2020 candidates see the importance of canceling all student loan debt for students who were let down.