News

Alum Brings Innovative Consumer Protection Project to LSC

Emily Wilkinson, JD ’17 shares how her time as a student in LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic influences her work as an attorney and motivated her to return to LSC as a Skadden Fellow. 

Emily Wilkinson first came through the doors of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) as a law student. Before law school, Wilkinson worked as a paralegal at a Washington, DC-based civil rights law firm whose practice focused on fair lending, fair housing, and credit discrimination. The experience sparked Wilkinson’s interest in consumer protection as a civil rights issue and illuminated the lasting effects predatory lending and lack of legal representation can have in the lives of low-income individuals and families.

When she arrived at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2014, Wilkinson quickly immersed herself in public interest work, joining the Tenant Advocacy Project, a student practice organization that works to protect the rights of public housing tenants. Her interest in lending fairness and justice brought her to LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic.

Emily Wilkinson

Emily Wilkinson JD ’17

Wilkinson relished the hands-on experience she gained at the clinic, and the opportunity to interact directly with clients and learn the day-to-day realities of working in a community-based law office. During her first semester in the clinic, she worked on a case involving a lender that had issued predatory and illegal loans with interest rates exceeding 100 percent, a violation of state law. The case was later taken up by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and ended with a settlement that provided $2 million in debt relief for low-income consumers, including many disabled veterans. The California-based lender in the case, Future Income Payments, was barred from making future loans in Massachusetts, a result that clearly demonstrates the broad and lasting impact of LSC’s consumer advocacy work.

In her two semesters as a clinical student, Wilkinson gained experience at the elemental skills of being a lawyer—interviewing clients, conducting legal research, drafting demand letters and court filings, preparing arguments, and representing clients in state and federal court. Through her work on behalf of clients and her participation in the Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic’s seminar—where students reviewed and discussed topics and cases relevant to their practice and the clinic’s work—Wilkinson learned of the pressing access-to-justice issues faced by consumers in the Massachusetts court system, issues that would serve as the basis for her future work.

In Massachusetts, where the National Consumer Law Center estimates that 23 percent of residents have at least one debt in collections, private debt collectors and their attorneys have been allowed to manipulate the court system to their advantage, intimidate consumers into signing unjust agreements with predatory terms, and even operate outside the law without consequence.

After graduating and completing a year-long clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Wilkinson was selected for a Skadden Fellowship, which supports early-career attorneys to work full-time at civil rights and legal services organizations around the country. For her fellowship, Wilkinson decided to return to LSC, designing a fellowship project to increase access to justice for Boston-area consumers facing debt collection. Although Wilkinson finds herself in LSC’s Jamaica Plain office with a new title, she’s driven by the same fundamental purpose that brought her to HLS to begin with, to pursue justice on behalf of consumers whose futures are threatened by predatory debt collectors.

Wilkinson’s work focuses on individual representation of low- and moderate-income consumers facing debt collection in small claims court, district court, and Boston Municipal Court. She has deliberately chosen to represent clients with smaller debts—ranging anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars. “While it might not sound like a lot relative to other debts, a debt like that is a life-changing amount of money for many, many people, especially those who can’t afford legal representation,” she explained.

Going to court can be a confusing and intimidating process for anyone, but is especially challenging for low- and moderate-income consumers who have no legal help and who might have limited literacy and English-language skills. The system is ripe for abuse, and court officers exacerbate the existing power imbalance, directing consumers to negotiate with debt collectors’ attorneys before the case is even heard by a judge.

Small claims court, originally intended as a space for the efficient resolution of conflicts between individuals, has effectively been taken over by debt buying companies, many from out of state, who flood the court with debt collection cases. According to the Midas Collaborative, in 2015 alone, debt collectors filed over 66,000 cases in Massachusetts small claims and district courts. Unfortunately for Massachusetts consumers, these companies and their lawyers aren’t always required to provide evidence of the validity of the debt before a judgment is entered.

When consumers don’t appear in court to fight a debt collection lawsuit, which happens in the majority of debt cases in Massachusetts, a default judgment is entered. This default judgment—enforceable for 20 years—records the consumer as legally owing the debt and allows debt collectors to charge 12 percent interest and even garnish wages to collect payment. LSC’s Consumer Protection and Predatory Lending Clinic has been involved in legislative advocacy around these practices, supporting statewide efforts to decrease the lifespan of and interest rate for judgments, among other protections.

One of Wilkinson’s cases that is emblematic of the challenges consumers face in Massachusetts courts is that of Elizabeth,* a woman with a disability who was defending against a debt collector seeking more than $25,000. The out-of-state company that filed the case refused to produce documentation that they were legally permitted to collect debt in Massachusetts. Finally, after months of pressure, they agreed to settle the case, with no financial liability for Elizabeth. If not for Wilkinson’s work, a judgment may have been entered against Elizabeth, saddling her with years of debt and accumulating interest she could not pay, and the company would have continued to prey on vulnerable consumers unchallenged.

In addition to defending individual clients when they are sued, Wilkinson undertakes affirmative claims when debt collectors aren’t following state and federal laws related to debt collection practices, working to enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the state’s consumers.

She also conducts community education, giving presentations to consumer advocacy organizations and community groups about consumer rights, common debt collection defenses and rules debt collectors are required to follow, with the goal of having more people show up to court and avoid the lasting consequences that come with default judgments. She also plans to start a Lawyer for the Day program in small claims court, similar to the one that exists in Boston Housing Court and elsewhere, which would provide legal advice to unrepresented litigants facing debt collection.

Roger Bertling, Director of LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, who first supervised Wilkinson when she was a law student, says that having her back in the office is an asset for clients and colleagues alike. “It’s always great to have a former student join our staff at LSC, especially one as dedicated, thoughtful and hard-working as Emily. Since her first day as a clinical student, she has been a great advocate for her clients and a joy to work with.”

For Wilkinson, returning to LSC to work on consumer law issues allows her to enhance what she learned as a student, be responsible for her own slate of cases while benefiting from the expertise of LSC’s experienced attorneys, and find new ways to protect consumers in court and by changing policy. Said Wilkinson, “Being a relatively new lawyer and having the support of such knowledgeable attorneys and teachers here at LSC is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. It allows me to do my best work for clients.”

* Name has been change to protect client privacy.

The Latest Reports on Betsy DeVos Scamming For-Profit College Students

ITT and Corinthian Borrowers Continue to Fight for Relief as the Department of Education Skirts the Law Every Step of the Way

At the end of last week, there was a great deal of news from the U.S. Department of Education — reinforcing that it skirts the law and epitomizes corruption — and much of it flew under the radar.

Automatic Closed School Discharge for 7,000 ITT Borrowers

Betsy DeVos announced that the Department finally began to process automatic closed school discharges for certain borrowers who were cheated by ITT Tech and were enrolled when the company shut down. The Department estimated it would cancel $95 million in loans to ITT students.

The announcement followed demands from elected officials like Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Elizabeth Warren and other senate democrats for the Department to follow the law and process these discharges. 

The Department has fought against discharging bogus student loans from ITT Tech for years. Ultimately, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department were mandated to process these automatic closed school discharges after a successful lawsuit brought by students (Bauer v. DeVos) ended the illegal delay of the 2016 borrower defense rule, and elected officials like Senator Dick Durbin demanded it.

While this is good news for these select students, many more are still waiting for justice. And the Department of Education continues to go out of its way to prevent them from getting it.

  • Approximately 45,000 students were attending ITT Tech when it closed in September 2016, and were left with massive debt and no diploma. Approximately 16,000 ITT students have already individually applied for and been granted closed school discharges. The Department’s announcement covers about 7,000 additional borrowers.
  • By the end of 2018, more than 19,000 former ITT students had applied for borrower defense, and because of the Department’s inaction, their bogus debts are still hanging over their heads. Secretary DeVos needs to follow the law and cancel the debts of all ITT students once and for all
  • Just three weeks ago, Secretary DeVos published a new borrower defense rulegutting protections for student borrowers and eliminating the automatic closed school discharge provision. This rule would leave students without this safety net if their school abruptly closes.

Illegal Collection on more than 16,000 Corinthian Borrowers

At the same time, Secretary DeVos admitted in a court filing that the Department of Education continued to collect from thousands of former Corinthian Colleges students in direct violation of a federal court order.

According to new numbers revealed by the filing, thousands of students were hurt by DeVos’ illegal actions.

  • The filing was made in a class action lawsuit by Corinthian Colleges students represented by the Project and HERA, Calvillo Manriquez v. DeVos.
  • Last year in this case, the federal court ordered Secretary DeVos to stop collecting the loans of thousands of students who were defrauded by Corinthian Colleges. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
  • Instead, the Department demanded incorrect loan payment from 16,034 Of those students, 3,289 borrowers made one or more loan payments because of these demands, which they were not actually supposed to pay. The Department has harmed the credit of 847 non-defaulted borrowers. The Department subjected 1,808 borrowers to involuntary debt collection by garnishing their wages or taking their tax refunds or benefits.

This is part of a pattern by Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education. They callously strip away basic student protections and illegally collect on student loans, all while blaming the courts, blaming servicers, and blaming the students themselves. The court will address these revelations by the Department at a status hearing on October 7.

Click here for the Project’s statement on this news.

Student Loan Truth: Jessica’s Art Institute Story

Jessica is a plaintiff in the lawsuit Sweet v DeVos, in which she and six other former for-profit college students are suing the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, seeking to force the agency to follow the law and issue the debt relief to which the former students are entitled. The plaintiffs are suing on behalf of more than 158,000 former students who have filed applications for borrower defense to repayment because their schools cheated them.

How did you hear about New England Institute of Art (NEIA)?

After getting my associates degree at Mount Wachusett Community College, I really wanted to continue my education. I was the only person in my immediate family to go to college and it was important for me to keep going. At Mt. Wachusett, I relied on my advisors all the time, so I was expecting a similar experience at NEIA. I trusted Art Institute advisors to help me make the right decisions for my education.

What made you decide to attend NEIA?

I really wanted to be visual effects video editor. When I contacted NEIA, I was told their Media Arts and Animation program would prepare me for a career in visual effects, even though they advertised the program as focused solely on gaming and animation. The advisors told me their program was difficult to get into, but that graduates were highly sought after in their fields. They created a lot of pressure and a sense of urgency for me to apply right away. I didn’t find out until much later that none of this was true.

What did the school tell you about getting a job after the program?

During the whole process, NEIA consistently claimed they had the connections I would need to get a job in the industry. They said the name of the school carried weight in the visual effects industry and it would be easy to find a job. I went on a tour and they made a big deal about having a high tech green screen that students would be able to use. Later on, as a student, I learned that we weren’t actually allowed to use the green screen. Instead, they had us tape green paper to the wall to film our projects.

What was your experience like once you started attending New England Institute of Art?

Everything I was promised was a lie, just like the green screen. I was told that I’d be using state-of-the-art technology in class, but instead, we were either given old and obsolete equipment or we had to make our own. The classes were a joke.

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

Part of their pitch to get me to go to NEIA was how great their connections to the industry were. However, the reality when I got there was the exact opposite of what I had been told. When I reached out to the Career Services Office about getting an internship in visual effects, I was either given no response or a link to Craigslist with a document entitled “Tips for Applying to a Job from Craigslist”. I never found a permanent job in the field. People wouldn’t hire me because of my degree. I’m currently working on my own small business.

Did going to New England Institute of Art make your life better or worse?

It made my life significantly worse. My credit is destroyed, I can’t get a car or a house. My mental health has suffered. I refuse to get married because I’m afraid of associating my partner with my debt. I debated not having kids at all. My life has been placed on hold. It’s devastating.

How long have you been waiting for an answer on your Borrower Defense application?

I filed for Borrower Defense to Repayment in 2015. Four years later, I still don’t have an answer. Just radio silence. The debt is bad enough, and then adding even more uncertainty from not getting an answer is devastating. I can’t plan for my future.

Some policy-makers doubt that for-profit colleges are a problem – what would you say to them?

I would tell them that despite putting in the time and effort at school, the degree that NEIA gave me is useless. I can’t get a job because companies don’t trust the school. I can’t go back to school because other schools don’t recognize my NEIA degree. A bank wouldn’t give me a loan to further my education if I asked.

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. They ignore the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to them about the need to cancel these loans?

It’s their job to do the right thing. I’m beyond disappointed about the fact that the government isn’t doing anything to stop these schools from defrauding students in the first place. Students should be able to trust their schools and advisors. The fact that there is no protection for a vulnerable 21 year old signing a loan for the first time and being taken advantage of isn’t fair or responsible. You shouldn’t need a lawyer to be able to go to colle

My Student Loan Truth: Theresa’s Brooks Institute Story

When Theresa graduated from the Brooks Institute in 2006, she never imagined that she would find herself suing the U.S. Department of Education years later over her student loan debt. But after being cheated by her school and years of waiting for answers, she is a plaintiff in Sweet v DeVos – representing over 158,000 students who were cheated by their schools and have been ignored by Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education. This is her story.

 

My name is Theresa Sweet.

On the day I graduated from college, my fellow students and I were lined up in a cordoned off area, under the perfect Santa Barbara sun, waiting to enter the theater and accept our diplomas. Myself and several other students turned our heads toward a commotion beyond the ropes only to see an exasperated administrator tailing my father, sternly telling him that he needed to wait until after the ceremony to speak with his student. My mounting concern quickly turned to laughter when he hurried over, gave me a quick hug, and said, “I just wanted to tell you again how proud I am of you.” That moment remains among a literal handful of times in my life that I ever saw my father cry.

While The Brooks Institute (then owned by Career Education Corporation) is no longer in operation, I know that there are plenty of predatory, for profit trade schools still operating in California today. I am here today to share my story in the hope that I can prevent others from living through a similar experience.

I attended the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and Ventura, CA from January 2003 to June 2006, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Photography. Once a source of pride, my education quickly became a ruinous source of personal and financial stress.

Since graduation, I have never had a job where I used the education I received at Brooks. I have never had a job that has helped me earn an income that is remotely close to what is necessary to pay off these loans. I can’t finance a car, much less a home. It is unlikely that I will ever be able to marry or adopt children as I would essentially be condemning my family to a lifetime of poverty.

I currently work as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and I would love to be able to further my education and obtain a Nursing degree. Unfortunately, Brooks, like so many other for-profits, actively misled students as to the transferability of the course credits they earned. In addition, Brooks also made sure to guide students to borrow the maximum amount of Federal Student Loans allowed in pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree, making me ineligible for student loans and financial aid to pursue nursing.

Brooks used unethical, high pressure sales tactics such as pain points about me being the first person in my immediate family to attend and graduate from college. They relied on the fact that there was no one in my life who could help me ask the right questions. They made a point of never answering questions via email, only over the phone. They created the false impression that the admissions process was competitive when, in fact, all they cared about what getting the maximum number of students enrolled and filling out student loans applications. In reality, Brooks admitted anyone with a high school diploma or a GED, as long as that person could get a student loan.

Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, after I graduated I found out that the “Admissions Counselors” were just commissioned sales people. They weren’t paid to give me accurate information about the school, to tell me how much it could cost me, or to counsel me on whether the school would help me reach my goals. They were only paid to get me to enroll.

After graduation, the “Career Services” office regularly contacted me with financially meaningless opportunities for unpaid jobs that they found on the local Craigslist page.

Perhaps worst of all, Admissions Counselors blatantly lied about the employment rates of students after graduation as well as the amount of money these graduates were making, knowing that the lies they were telling were giving students false impression that they would be able to pay back their student loans. You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find evidence of all of this.

In short, while I worked multiple jobs to stay at school, Brooks and CEC were happily raking profits by defrauding thousands of students. And NO ONE was stopping them. No one was alerting the public or prospective students. No one was there to help any of us recoup our financial losses, to say nothing of the disastrous effect this high level of debt has on personal relationships.

If this seems outrageous to you, GOOD! It is outrageous, and it isn’t hyperbole. There are hundreds of former Brooks Students who have already filed Borrowers Defense to Repayment claims, and that number is sure to grow. I filed my own paperwork in 2016. I’ve been waiting for a response for three years. It is one of 158,110 applications that sits at the Department of Education unanswered right now.

The Department of Education is determined to sit on their hands, doing nothing to help. So us students have been forced to turn to the courts for justice. We are done waiting.

 

By Theresa Sweet

 

Learn more about the lawsuit Sweet v DeVos

Servicers Are Wrongly Denying Closed School Discharges to Art Institute of Phoenix Students. Why?

In December 2018, scores of Art Institute campuses closed their doors. Before the closure, students got three options: (1) transfer to another Art Institute campus to complete their degree, (2) participate in a teach-out at a different school to complete their degree, or (3) request a closed school discharge of their federal student loans. Borrowers are eligible for a closed school discharge as long as they didn’t complete their program or transfer credits to a comparable program and were enrolled within 120 days of the schools’ closure date—in this case, December 14, 2018.

Students who wanted to discharge their loans—and move on with their lives—had a plan. That is, until some students tried applying for a closed school discharge.

Some Art Institute of Phoenix students who were enrolled in the school within 120 days of the school’s closure have reported that their servicers are denying their application for a closed school discharge. The servicers have claimed that, because the Art Institute of Las Vegas remains open, Art Institute of Phoenix students are ineligible for a closed school discharge.

One student received the following response from their servicer:

Our records indicate that the main campus of ART INSTITUTE OF PHOENIX, also known as formally known as ART INSTITUTE OF LAS VEGAS remains open. As the main campus is still open, you do not qualify for School Closure discharge. If the main campus has in fact closed, you must provide proof. Proof must be on school letterhead.

This is wrong. The Art Institute of Phoenix was a “branch campus” of the Art Institute of Las Vegas, but just because Art Institute Las Vegas remains open does not mean Art Institute of Phoenix students are ineligible for closed school discharge.

Art Institute of Phoenix students can discharge their federal student debt because their school closed. Federal regulations governing closed school discharge say that “‘school’ means a school’s main campus or any location or branch of the main campus, regardless of whether the school or its location or branch is considered eligible.” That means that if a branch campus closes and the main campus remains open, students from the branch campus are eligible for closed school discharge. The Art Institute of Phoenix is (and was) recognized by the Department as a branch campus of the Art Institute of Las Vegas. So, even though the Art Institute of Las Vegas remains open, students from the Art Institute of Phoenix are eligible for closed school discharge (as long as they didn’t finish and attended the school within 120 days of December 14, 2018).

So what gives? And why isn’t the Department intervening to fix it?

We aren’t sure why servicers are misinforming students. The Department of Education’s official record (.xlsx) of closed schools shows that the Art Institute of Phoenix campus closed on December 14, 2018. Therefore, students who didn’t complete their program or transfer their credits to a comparable program and were enrolled in Art Institute of Phoenix after August 16, 2018 are eligible for closed school discharge.

One possible explanation for some servicers’ wrongful closed school discharge denials may stem from the inaccurate information the Department itself has distributed. In its information page regarding closed Argosy and Art Institute schools, the Department of Education listed the closure date of 24 Argosy and Art Institute campuses—including the Art Institute of Phoenix—as March 8, 2019.

What should you do if you attended the Art Institute of Phoenix and your servicer denies your application for a closed school discharge?

If your loan servicer tells you are denied for closed school discharge, even though you 1) were enrolled in the Art Institute of Phoenix after August 16, 2018 (and did not graduate), 2) did not participate in a teach-out, and 3) did not transfer credits to another similar program at another institution, you should call your servicer and tell them that:

1) You are eligible for closed school discharge because you were enrolled at the Art Institute of Phoenix and did not transfer to the Art Institute of Las Vegas;
2) The closure of the Art Institute of Phoenix, as a branch campus of Las Vegas, makes you eligible for closed school discharge according to Department of Education regulation;
3) The fact that the Art Institute of Las Vegas is still open does not impact your eligibility for closed school discharge because you never attended that campus;
4) The Postsecondary Education Participant’s System’s Closed School List shows that the Art Institute of Phoenix closed on December 14, 2018, and you were enrolled within 120 days of that date and did not complete your program.

If your servicer does not change their response, you should call your servicers’ ombudsman (normally you can find their contact information on your servicer’s website). You should explain that your servicer is rejecting your request for a closed school discharge, and provide the four reasons above that your servicer is wrong. If that doesn’t work, you should call the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman at 1-877-557-2575.

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:

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.