The Legal Services Center’s staff and students hope you are staying safe and healthy. We are all doing the best we can as we take on new challenges in advocating for client communities made ever more vulnerable by the COVID-19 outbreak. To be sure, remote teaching and lawyering present certain barriers, but these are nothing compared to what our client communities are going through. Here is a snapshot of how COVID-19 is impacting the people we serve and how we are responding.
The Tax Clinic is taking on new challenges while continuing to pursue its cutting-edge federal court litigation on behalf of low-income taxpayers. Among the new challenges, the clinic is pivoting to help people who need returns prepared in order to obtain refunds or benefits under the federal CARES Act.
In some cases, benefiting from key aspects of the federal CARES Act is contingent upon individuals having filed a tax return and having provided the IRS with a bank account so that funds can be deposited. Clients can also receive money via check, but the government estimates that checks will be distributed much more slowly. All free preparation sites used by low-income taxpayers have shut down, and it is unclear when they will reopen. We are therefore doing our best to help clients who may not have filed a return for 2018 or 2019 to do so, so they can receive CARES-related federal assistance as quickly as possible. The urgency of our work on these returns is driven by the knowledge that our client community is in desperate need of cash in order to meet their basic necessities.
Simultaneously, one of the Clinic’s cases will be argued to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which sits in Philadelphia and is hearing cases by phone rather than in person. The student who will be arguing the case is being prepared for that argument via moots on Zoom and by phone (the latter to simulate the circumstances of the actual oral argument). Not only will the student not have the benefit of the visual cues that can be so helpful in arguing a case before a three-judge panel, the student and his supervisor, Tax Clinic Director and Clinical Professor Keith Fogg, will be sitting in different states rather than side by side in the same courtroom when the case is argued. These are truly unusual times.
Fogg also presented a two-hour American Bar Association-sponsored continuing legal education (CLE) course via Zoom to hundreds of low-income taxpayer clinics across the country to train them on how best to deal with IRS issues in the pandemic. This is just one example of how our clinics continue to not only advocate for our own clients but are also training people across the country to advocate for clients in their own communities.
With almost all eviction litigation paused in the Eastern (Boston) Division of Housing Court, the Housing Clinic’s focus has been on affirmative community advocacy. In addition to direct (and successful!) advocacy focused on suspending Housing Court proceedings, and supporting the statewide campaign to enact a legislative moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the Housing Clinic has been actively working with community and statewide organizations that serve clients who may have already been threatened with eviction and foreclosure or anticipate a threat will be forthcoming due to job loss during the crisis. Our partners in this effort include the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), City Life/Vida Urbana, and Greater Boston Legal Services.
Since the state of emergency began, the Housing Clinic has been responding remotely to requests for support and advice, and has played an active role in developing written responses to frequently asked housing-related questions published on MLRI’s website. In one instance, we secured emergency relief from the Housing Court when a landlord threatened the interests of a current client.
If 2008 is a harbinger of what’s ahead, we know that there will be a significant backlog of clients who will have difficulty or be wholly unable to pay their rent or mortgages, and will be facing eviction and foreclosure. We are already gathering and organizing resources and referral partners to prepare for the eventual restart of the court system, and we are working to be optimally positioned to advocate for our clients and the community.
As of this writing, only emergency restraining order requests are being heard by the local family courts. That said, this is a particularly dangerous time for our clients, as they are compelled to shelter in place and may not be able leave a dangerous home situation. They are even more trapped than usual. When we are in contact with our clients in this situation, we need to be much more careful, in some cases resorting to text or email rather than phone calls in an effort to be more discreet. We continue our work with the Passageway medical-legal partnership at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, collaborating closely with social workers there to ensure safety plans and legal counseling for people seeking help. We anticipate that once physical distancing abates there will be a significant increase in case work in this arena.
Our team has been working with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and partner non-profits to gain a moratorium on all debt collection. The clinic has also established a new hotline for individuals who may be subject to unlawful debt collection during this period to provide emergency assistance.
The economic devastation is affecting our clients greatly as they lose jobs and income. But for-profit colleges and their predatory recruiting practices have traditionally prospered during economic downturns, and we have no reason to think it will be any different this time. Companies are already advertising crisis-related content targeting unemployed people. And the industry is receiving many millions of dollars in stimulus funding.
The stimulus package also included a six-month suspension on the repayment of student loans owned by the federal government, but this policy excludes 9 million student loans, and borrowers can’t tell whether they are covered. In a cruel irony, our clients who filed their federal tax returns before March 13 have had their refunds seized to pay back federal loans, while those who waited will not have their refunds seized once they file returns. Our students are stepping up to help clients understand where they stand and how to hold on to their tax refunds.
And in good news late last week, we learned that the federal Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos have agreed to process nearly 170,000 debt cancellation claims within 18 months from borrowers who say they were defrauded by their colleges. The proposed settlement agreement, filed in U.S. District Court in California on Friday, stems from a class-action lawsuit brought against Education Secretary DeVos and her agency in June by a group of borrowers awaiting decisions on their applications, some for as long as four years. The plaintiffs were represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending along with Housing & Economic Rights Advocates (HERA). To learn more, read the press release from PPSL as well as coverage from the Washington Post here and the AP here and Courthouse News here.
We have seen a stunning increase in the use of the Mass Veterans Benefits Calculator, an online tool developed by LSC that helps veterans and their families estimate their eligibility for benefits under a vastly underutilized state program that can provide as much as $1,000 a month in additional income to low-income vets. The calculator has seen a 1,000% increase in usage since early March as veterans and their family members seek more information about how to make ends meet during this crisis.
The Veterans Legal Clinic continues to advocate for its individual clients and client community, and we remain open for intake to screen for new legal issues that are arising during the pandemic. A clinic student advocated for a low-income, disabled veteran in a telephone hearing before the Department of Veterans Services to ensure his access to financial assistance during this difficult time. In similar manner to the Tax Clinic case mentioned earlier, the student diligently prepared the client for this remote hearing and was able to chat with his supervisor through Zoom to get live feedback during the hearing. The client’s disabilities prevent him from working during normal economic times, but the current crisis makes these benefits even more critical to his survival.
Our estate planning practice has also been busy helping to draft planning documents like wills and health care proxies – services that are only more important in a time of increasing health risks to our elderly and sick veteran populations. The practice has been adapting to the new normal of conducting client meetings by phone and videoconferencing and devising creative methods to permit execution of estate planning documents, like remote notarization.
LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic Director Alex Chen was interviewed recently by the Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review; listen to the ‘Taking Liberties’ podcast here. While not coronavirus-specific, the interview is a wonderful way to learn more about our newest clinic, its director, and its goals.
LSC’s work was also highlighted recently in Harvard Law Today. The first article, about the law school’s response to the pandemic, featured the Tax Clinic, while the second, a fascinating article about a (pre-pandemic) day-in-the-life of our clinical students, includes information on our criminal record sealing and veterans benefits efforts.