News

No Crime to be Poor; LSC Alum Blake Strode to Lead St. Louis Civil Rights Law Firm

This article was originally published by Harvard Law Today on June 26, 2018.

By Elaine McCardel

There is no shortage of serious legal issues facing poor people in Greater St. Louis, especially people of color, says Blake Strode ’15, who was born and raised in the area. Just three years out of HLS, Strode is back home fighting the criminalization of poverty as executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that has filed landmark cases that have already improved the lives of tens of thousands of low-income people.

Strode, who majored in international economics and Spanish at the University of Arkansas and toured the world for three years as a tennis professional before law school, always planned to go into public interest law. At HLS, he represented prisoners in disciplinary and parole hearings through the Prison Legal Assistance Project, helped fight evictions and foreclosures in Boston through Project No One Leaves, and was a student in the Housing Law Clinic at the Legal Services Center.

Not long after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Strode read a white paper on the over-policing of people of color in north St. Louis County that ArchCity Defenders had just published. The paper, which presaged a later Department of Justice report, “was the first time I’d seen that level of analysis of that problem in St. Louis,” he says. He reached out to the organization’s executive director and co-founder, Thomas Harvey, and soon found himself back in his hometown with a Skadden Fellowship to do housing-related work.

ArchCity had recently filed several cases challenging the constitutionality of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the jailing of poor people because they are unable to pay court fines and fees—and Strode changed his focus to helping build the organization’s civil rights litigation unit through impact litigation targeting this practice as well as police misconduct and inhumane jail conditions. In his short time there, he and his colleagues have filed more than 30 civil rights lawsuits in federal court, partnering on some with Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C., founded by Alec Karakatsanis ’08. Strode played a significant role in obtaining a landmark judgment against the city of Jennings for imprisoning people unable to pay municipal fines: $4.75 million for a class of about 2,000 people. Settled in 2016, the case resulted in sweeping policy changes that serve as a model for legal reforms in other courts.

In January 2018, at the age of 30, Strode was named ArchCity’s new executive director when Harvey decided to leave.

“My goal is the same as our organizational goal: to combat the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color,” he says.

“Our clients are poor and overwhelmingly people of color, which in St. Louis means overwhelmingly black. We are seeking systemic change with and for them, which is only possible through a concerted effort of both legal and nonlegal advocacy. We’re calling for nothing less than that.”

The ways our clients engage in fighting back inspire us.

ArchCity, which relies heavily on private donations, was primarily a volunteer organization until a few years ago; it now has a full-time staff of 20, half of whom are lawyers, Strode says. Yet there is so much need in the community that growth is a top priority, he adds. That means building capacity in order to represent more clients and expanding to other parts of the state. ArchCity is a holistic provider, so growth also means expanding advocacy in housing, access to education, and consumer matters.

And while ArchCity’s victories are heartening, “even those, we have to work very hard to hold on to, and those gains aren’t enough,” Strode says. The work can be especially difficult in a politically conservative area like Missouri, “where millions of people face the greatest systemic challenges on a day-to-day basis because those challenges are institutional and deep-seated.” However, he adds, “The ways our clients engage in fighting back are really inspiring and inspire us to remain committed.”

LSC Engages in Legal Outreach to Homeless Veterans at Stand Down 2018

LSC’s Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, Dan Nagin, Julia Schutt, Keith Fogg, Steve Kerns, and Evan Seamone volunteering at Greater Boston’s Stand Down 2018

A team of volunteer students and staff from LSC partnered with Veterans Legal Services to provide legal advice to over 120 veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness at Greater Boston Veterans Stand Down 2018. The event, which was held on Friday, September 7, at City Hall Plaza, brings together over 100 community providers in order to provide veterans with access to medical, housing, employment, legal, and other services.

Alongside Veterans Legal Services and pro bono attorneys, LSC staff volunteered in the legal assistance tent to advise veterans on areas of law such as VA benefits, Chapter 115 state veterans’ benefits, other public benefits, tax debt issues, and discharge upgrades. In addition to offering legal advice, LSC staff provided referrals to other service providers and in a few cases has followed up to explore potential legal representation.

Clinic Attorney Evan Seamone, whose work is supported through a generous grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in order to provide legal assistance to underserved veterans, reflected on the impact of Stand Down as an outreach event:

In a noteworthy trend this year, a number of veterans at the legal tent shared that they had learned valuable information at the Stand Down after years of failed attempts.  An answer awaited them, but finding it had been a major hurdle.  This year’s Stand Down underscored the incomparable value of concentrating essential services and resources in a single and accessible place.

The event was coordinated by the New England Center and Home for Veterans.  More photos from the event are online here.

Veterans Legal Services, pro bono attorneys, and LSC students and staff at Stand Down 2018

LSC Hiring a Veterans Intake & Pro Bono Coordinator (part-time)

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) seeks to hire a part-time Veterans Intake & Pro Bono Coordinator to work in the Veterans Legal Clinic.  The Clinic—through which Harvard Law students receive hands-on lawyering opportunities—provides direct legal representation to low-income disabled veterans and their families. The Clinic maintains a diverse docket of cases, including appeals involving federal and state veterans benefits, discharge upgrade and correction of military records cases, and estate planning matters.  The Clinic practices before agencies, in state and federal court, and before Department of Defense tribunals.  Many of the Clinic’s cases raise cutting-edge issues involving the rights of disabled veterans.  The Veterans Intake & Pro Bono Coordinator will work closely with clients and Clinic attorneys and will have various responsibilities, including conducting initial client intake phone calls and meetings; screening cases for eligibility; gathering and organizing client documents; maintaining case files; liaising with pro bono attorneys, referral organizations, and other third parties; helping to manage the Clinic’s docket; maintaining the Clinic’s case management system; contributing to community outreach and engagement efforts; and providing administrative support in other respects to the Clinic’s mission. The position represents a unique opportunity to join Harvard Law School’s clinical program, to work in a dynamic public interest and clinical teaching law office, to serve the veterans community, and to develop administrative and advocacy skills. Salary is commensurate with experience.

Minimum Requirements: At least one year relevant experience and strong commitment to serving the veterans community.

Additional Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree preferred, but not required
  • Strong preference for candidates who are veterans or otherwise have a personal connection to the military/veterans community
  • Demonstrated interest in working with the veterans community
  • Commitment to serving low-income communities and persons with disabilities
  • Excellent written, verbal, organizational and interpersonal skills; superior managerial skills; strong attention to detail; knowledge of Microsoft Office Suite and legal case management systems
  • Ability to thrive in a high-volume public interest litigation practice
  • Flexibility and the ability to handle multiple priorities
  • Ability to work well independently and as part of a team

To Apply:  Applications must be submitted via Harvard’s Human Resources website.  The posting and online application portal can be found here (Position ID# 46710BR).

2018 August — Veterans Legal Clinic — Harvard Law School — Intake and Pro Bono Coordinator Position

Estate Planning Project Hiring a Clinical Instructor

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School has an immediate opening for a Clinical Instructor. The position, which is available either as a full-time position or a part-time position, is within the Estate Planning Project of the Veterans Legal Clinic. The Estate Planning Project—through which Harvard Law students also receive hands-on training in lawyering skills—provides free legal representation to low-income disabled veterans on matters such as wills, powers of attorneys, healthcare proxies, living wills, trusts, special needs trusts, guardianships, conservatorships, and probate of estates. The goal of the Project’s representation is to help each veteran attain the maximum degree of control over financial, health, and family decision making. Many of the Project’s clients have multiple service-connected disabilities and/or face chronic or terminal illnesses.

The Clinical Instructor will oversee the Project’s docket, maintain community and pro bono partnerships, represent clients, and train and supervise law students who enroll in the Veterans Legal Clinic and who seek to develop skills in estate planning practice. The position represents a unique opportunity to work in a dynamic public interest law office within Harvard Law School’s clinical program.

Applications must be submitted via Harvard’s Human Resources website. The full posting and online application portal can be found here (Position ID# 46658BR).

 

Department of Education’s Proposed New Borrower Defense Rule Enables Predatory For-Profit Colleges and Harms Students

Yesterday, the Department of Education proposed a new borrower defense rule that strips away borrower rights, encourages the predatory behaviors of bad actors in higher education, and once again, benefits the for-profit college industry instead of students.

This proposed rule is a clear attempt to stop cheated students from asserting their legal rights. It encourages abusive and predatory institutions to continue to rip off students with impunity, while slamming the door on the debt relief that Congress has instructed the Department to provide to cheated students.

The Department’s proposal reflects its unfounded belief that the interests of institutions, taxpayers, and borrowers are opposed to one another. In fact, when institutions are not trying to profit off of federal student aid, those groups have shared interests. Instead of punishing students for supposed failures of personal accountability, the Department ought to look in the mirror. The Department alone has the power and ability to prevent predatory actors from cheating students and stealing taxpayer money.

The Project on Predatory Student Lending is the leading legal advocate for students cheated by for-profit colleges. In ITT’s bankruptcy in Indianapolis, the Project represents 750,000 former ITT students whose claims the Department has largely ignored. In a California federal court, the Project stopped the Department from using its illegal “partial denial” rule, which limited the relief for Corinthian students with approved borrower defense claims. And in D.C., the Project has challenged the Department’s illegal delay of the 2016 borrower defense regulations.

LSC releases report on LGBTQ Veterans Issues

In collaboration with community partners OUTVETS, and Veterans Legal Services, LSC’s Veterans Legal Clinic recently released a report on how to fully honor the service of LGBTQ veterans, especially those who received less-than-fully honorable discharges from the military. The report summarizes the findings made by participants—including dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans matters from the US and Canada—during a two-day summit at Harvard Law School in April 2018 on the unique issues faced by LGBTQ veterans.

As a result of decades of discrimination against LGBTQ servicemembers, enshrined in military policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and predecessor policies, more than 100,000 servicemembers were discharged prematurely based on their sexual orientation. These discharges not only impose profound stigma on LGBTQ veterans, they also have the potential to erect barriers that prevent LGBTQ veterans from receiving critically needed veterans benefits, healthcare, and supports. Despite the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to this day thousands of LGBTQ veterans are still denied access to essential veterans services—with dire consequences for their mental and physical health, financial wellbeing, and peace of mind.  The Department of Defense’s procedures for changing a veteran’s discharge status remains totally reactive, requiring individual veterans to submit a detailed application rather than identifying and notifying veterans of applicable changes in standards. Once a veteran does apply, it can take between 12 to 18 months just to receive a response. The majority of LGBTQ veterans eligible—estimated to be as many as 92%—have not applied for a discharge upgrade.

Titled “Do Ask, Do Tell, Do Justice: Pursuing Justice for LGBTQ Military Veterans,” this report details the Summit’s findings about how to begin breaking down the considerable barriers LGBTQ veterans face as they pursue justice and access to essential services.  The report concludes that LGBTQ veterans, while far from a homogenous group, do face common challenges as a result of prior discriminatory policies enforced the U.S. military and their ongoing legacies. Many stakeholders are actively working to meet the needs of LGBTQ veterans, but greater coordination between organizations, institutions, and individuals is needed to ensure that all LGBTQ veterans seeking help or supports have meaningful access. The report recommends that current efforts should not just continue, but should be enhanced and expanded:

Advocates for and allies of the LGBTQ veterans community should not be satisfied with the status quo of well-intentioned but (thus far) unsuccessful attempts at federal legislation to remedy the effects of discriminatory discharge policies, nor with the low rate—just 8%—of eligible veterans who actually seek relief through discharge upgrade processes.

The report’s recommendations include proposals for increasing outreach and media coverage, pursuing new litigation strategies, improving cultural competency, and engaging in policy reform and political action.

Read it here: Do Ask Do Tell Do Justice – Summit Report June 2018

Project on Predatory Student Lending Hiring a Racial Justice Fellow

The Project on Predatory Student Lending is excited to announce a one-year fellowship! The racial justice fellow will develop cutting-edge litigation to combat the discriminatory efforts of current higher education policies, and lead outreach efforts by engaging with existing clients and community partners and forging new partnerships with communities impacted by the predatory for-profit industry.

For more information and to apply to the position, click here.

For more information on for-profit colleges and racial justice, click here.

LSC, OUTVETS, & Veterans Legal Services Co-Host LGBTQ Veterans Summit

A two-day summit at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA on the unique issues faced by LGBTQ veterans brought together dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans matters from the US and Canada. The group of legal, political, and healthcare experts examined both past and present discriminatory policies — including Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — and the proposed U.S. transgender service ban, currently on hold in the courts.

Titled “Do Ask, Do Tell, Do Justice: Pursuing Justice for LGBTQ Military Veterans,” the two-day ideas-in-action summit was co-hosted by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, OUTVETS, and Veterans Legal Services. Also spearheading the event was John R. Campbell, Former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for the Office of Warrior Care and 2017 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow.

Held April 19-20, it brought together dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans’ matters. Participants who shared their stories, experiences, and best practices included representatives from OutServe-SLDN, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, American Veterans for Equal Rights, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, Dartmouth Hitchcock, Johns Hopkins, and the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, as well as co-hosts OUTVETS, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and Veterans Legal Services.

Canadian Attorneys John McKiggan and R. Douglas Elliott offered their perspectives as co-counsel on the groundbreaking matter of Satalic, et al v. Her Majesty the Queen, a successful national class action brought on behalf of current and former LGBTQ employees of the Canadian Armed Forces, Department of National Defence, and the Government of Canada. The action resulted in a record-breaking $145 million settlement and public apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The summit engaged participants in a multi-disciplinary examination of legal and non-legal remedies to enforce the rights of LGBTQ veterans and to honor and fully recognize their military service and unique sacrifices. The Honorable Halee Weinstein, and Paula M. Neira, JD, MSN, RN, CEN, gave powerful keynote luncheon addresses concerning discriminatory military policies against LGBTQ servicemembers, and the transgender service ban, respectively.

Weinstein, one of the few openly gay judges in the Maryland court system, was named Associate Judge, District Court of Maryland, District 1, Baltimore City, in 2002 and has been Judge-In- Charge of Eastside District Court since 2014. She served as a military intelligence officer in the Army from 1984 to 1986 until she was discharged because of her sexual orientation. Weinstein also created and is the current presiding Judge of the Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Court.  Neira was a surface warfare officer whose service included a tour of duty in mine warfare combat during Operation Desert Storm. After the Navy, she found a path toward nursing and law. She is the first transgender Navy veteran to have her DD-214 updated by order of the Navy to reflect her correct name. Additionally, she is the co-sponsor of the USNS HARVEY MILK. She is currently the Clinical Program Director at the John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health.

The summit also dovetailed with Harvard Law School’s (HLS) bicentennial celebration and engaged alumni in the second day’s “hackathon” discussions of potential ways to address past and current discrimination against LGBTQ service members and veterans.

“It is genuinely exciting to witness so many individuals committed to advancing the rights of LGBT veterans. Symposia like the HLS Hackathon give me hope that there are still possibilities for positive change within our society,” said participant Hanna Tripp, who serves as a Military and Veteran Fellow in the Office of Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, III.

Results from the summit’s working groups are currently being compiled into a more formal report which will be released in the next few weeks, but overall participants left the event feeling energized and hopeful, echoing Ms. Tripp’s comments.

“OUTVETS is honored to have been part of this amazing summit,” said Bryan Bishop, Commander of OUTVETS, a Boston-based LGBTQ Veterans Organization and the first ever LGBTQ organization to march in the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  “It never ceases to amaze me how, when we put our heads and hearts together, we can develop ideas that help the most vulnerable of our Veterans.  It is so important to remember that it is the one Veteran standing in front of us that is the most important.  This summit represents the beginning of an energized movement that works together to break down walls so no Veteran is left behind.”

Contact:
Anna Richardson, Veterans Legal Services
Anna@veteranslegalservices.org
Julie Rafferty, Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School
jrafferty@law.harvard.edu

New Tax Rules To Pose Challenges for Low-Income Taxpayers in 2018

As taxpayers file their federal and state income taxes for 2017, many are wondering what effects the federal Tax Cuts and Job Acts (TCJA) passed by Congress in December will have on what they will owe when they file returns for 2018.  For low-income taxpayers, particularly those with children aged 17-23, those whose children do not have a social security number or who depend on public housing, and anyone who gambles, the questions are especially acute.

According to Keith Fogg, the Faculty Director of the Federal Tax Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, some of the federal changes under TCJA are not going to be “helpful at all” to low-income individuals.  In late January, Fogg was one of 15 experts selected to testify before the Massachusetts House and Senate Joint Committee on Revenue regarding the impacts of TCJA on low-income taxpayers.

Massachusetts does not automatically adopt the federal government’s tax code to determine state income tax rules, but rather picks and chooses which statutes it will apply at a state level. As a result, testimony by Fogg and his colleagues will be particularly crucial as state officials examine whether and how to adjust state tax codes in response to the federal tax overhaul.

Overall, the tax cuts enacted under the federal bill may hardly be noticeable – the final draft of TCJA settled on an after-tax income cut of 0.4 percent for households making under $25,000 per year.  That comes out to about $60, on average, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institute

Those in the top 1 percent of earners – that is, those who are making more than $3.4 million per year — will see much a larger dollar tax benefit, and as a percentage of their earnings it will be nearly three times as large as the low-wage earners.  The average household in this tax bracket will see cuts amounting to $51,000.  However, that number is significantly lower than the $175,000 proposed in the earliest version of the bill, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

Although the income tax cuts may go unnoticed, particularly by the lowest wage earners, there are other ways in which TCJA could directly and adversely affect the lives of low-income taxpayers.

Tax bill hits low income families hard

One of the changes about which Fogg is most concerned is the removal of the dependency exemption and the subsequent expansion of the child tax credit.

Prior to the passage of TCJA, parents could claim a dependency exemption of up to $4,150 for each child they were supporting financially.  The effect of that exemption was simply to reduce taxable income, so parents would pay less in taxes.

However, under TCJA, the dependency exemption is gone, as part of an effort to simplify the tax code.

Consequently, to ‘make up’ for the loss of the dependency exemption, the child tax credit was increased from $1000 to $2000 under TCJA, and the level at which an individual or dual wage earners could qualify was increased.

The expansion in itself does not pose any problems for low-income families.

“Where it fails,” explains Fogg, “is when children do not qualify for the child tax credit.”

Indeed, while the dependency exemption covered dependent children up to age 23, the child tax credit only applies to taxpayers with children under the age of 17.  As a result, individuals with dependent children aged 17-23 will lose out not only on the dependency exemption, but also on the child tax credit as well.

Yet “the problem of the mismatch between the loss of the dependency exemption and the child tax credit doesn’t only apply to children,” says Fogg.

In fact, it applies to any person who would have been claimed as a dependent under prior law as a qualified relative.  Qualified relative dependents do not cause the taxpayer to receive the child tax credit.  So anyone who was taking care of elderly parents or other relatives or who had unrelated persons living with them for the entire year will no longer receive any tax benefit for this support to others.

Noncitizen immigrants also hit hard

 Another population disqualified from receiving the child tax credit are children without a Social Security number, who are overwhelmingly undocumented immigrants.

While documented immigrants are able to file for a Social Security number for their children –after they provide ID and their work-authorized immigration status with the application – undocumented immigrants are unable to do so.  Barring those without a Social Security number from receiving the child the tax credit places many vulnerable noncitizen families at risk, with the issue again being exacerbated by the repeal of the dependency exemption.

Tax rules eliminate incentives for public housing

Additionally, an indirect aspect of TCJA that affects lower-income populations is the elimination of incentives for investment in public housing.  The result of this is that those who need this assistance to cope with high prices in the housing market could face homelessness.

Gamblers beware

Finally, those who like to take the occasional trip to Foxwoods, as well as more serious gamblers, may struggle with alterations in the wagering laws introduced in TCJA.  To illustrate the differences between TCJA and the previous tax code, Fogg provides the example of a gambler who wins a few thousand dollars then loses that same amount shortly thereafter.

In the past, that individual could report both his winnings and his losses when filing taxes.  Now, with the repeal of miscellaneous itemized deductions in TCJA, the gambler can only report the few thousand dollars of winnings, while the equal amount that he or she lost is not taken into account in determining taxable income.

This may result in a significantly higher tax rate for frequent gamblers, many of whom are elderly or low-income.

Timeline for Massachusetts decision

With these changes in mind, the question becomes what Massachusetts will choose to do in response to TCJA’s passage.

Since the federal legislation affects the 2018 tax year instead of 2017, the state will have until next fall to come to a conclusion.

What sort of resolution would Fogg like to see?

Though admitting at this point that the details “are a work in progress,” he says he hopes Massachusetts lawmakers “will look at the broad issues stemming from this and create laws that will protect low-income taxpayers and ease some of the fallout from the federal tax rules.”

— Taylor Mahlandt

 

ITT Students’ $1.5 Billion Settlement Heard by Judge In Bankruptcy

Today, former ITT students proposed a $1.5 billion settlement claim in bankruptcy court that would cancel more than $500 million in debts. All participants in the case and members of the class have until April 24 to submit their views of the settlement with the court before it is heard for final approval on June 13.  This is good news for former ITT students, but there is still a long way to go.

ITT Tech systematically defrauded students. ITT lied to and misled students about financial aid and cost of attendance, job placement and salaries, the quality of equipment and experience of instructors, the employability of ITT graduates, ITT’s programmatic accreditation, the transferability of credits, and career placement assistance.

It would be simpler to list the things ITT didn’t mislead students about.

Data from 2014 show that on average, ITT graduates earn on average the same or less than high school graduates with no college education. Approximately one in five ITT students defaulted on their federal student loans within three years.

Now, a group of ITT students have reached a proposed a settlement with the bankruptcy estate that includes a $1.5 billion allowed claim. In addition to cancelling nearly $600 million in debts, the settlement would also return the $3 million that students paid directly to ITT after it declared bankruptcy. This landmark settlement shows that the only path forward is to cancel fraudulent and unenforceable debts created by predators like ITT.

The settlement is a good start, but there is still a long way to go to make things right for former ITT students.

More than 7,000 former ITT students have submitted borrower defense applications to the Department of Education to cancel their federal student loans. These loans – and the federal loans of all former ITT students, totaling nearly $4 billion – should be cancelled.  ITT’s estate has cancelled the student debts because of the school’s fraudulent actions, and it’s time for the Department of Education and all private holders of ITT debt to do the same.

As Paul Goodwin, a former ITT student, said: “I have still been struggling to pay back my student loans, which I should not even owe because of the way that ITT systematically lied to students. Getting more relief on temporary credit loans is great news for me and my family, but I am still waiting for the Department of Education to discharge my federal student loans.”

We will continue to fight for the Department of Education to meet its legal obligation to cancel these fraudulent student loans.

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