The attorneys and student advocates at the Legal Services Center continue to work tirelessly for our clients as they face unprecedented challenges and financial distress. Below is a brief update on just some of our latest work and innovative approaches as we advocate for our client community during these trying times.
Getting safety net benefits to veterans in need
Our clinic has reported a tenfold increase in recent visitors to our new online calculator—MassVetBen.org—that helps veterans determine their eligibility for a unique $72 million Massachusetts program which offers emergency cash assistance to veterans and their family members for basic needs such as housing, food, fuel, and medical care. Although this program is more crucial than ever during the COVID crisis, disabled and low-income veterans often remain in the dark about how to actually access these benefits. We and other advocates have been reaching out to the state Department of Veterans Services and the media to get more financial assistance into the hands of our low-income veterans more quickly. Read the Boston Globe’s coverage of our advocacy efforts.
When the pandemic began, Destini Agüero, director of LSC’s Estate Planning Project, was concerned because the Project’s clients—all of whom are disabled veterans and many of whom are of advanced age—face a unique combination of challenges in the COVID-19 outbreak. They have urgent needs to get their estates in order, are at high risk from the virus, and may lack access to virtual platforms or not be able to easily navigate them. In addition, until legislation was passed in late April, the execution of wills and other estate documents required an in-person notary.
Student attorney Bryce Burgwyn ’21—a veteran herself—had established a trusting relationship with her elderly client, a U.S. Air Force veteran seeking documents that protected his wishes in the event of a crisis. Burgwyn worked tirelessly since the start of the Spring semester to counsel her client and draft his estate planning documents. Once remote learning for law students was in place, Burgwyn pivoted immediately to ensure she stayed connected with her client and established a schedule of regular phone calls to complete his documents. She was not deterred by the added challenges the pandemic brought, and instead further earned her client’s trust as she assured him that her level of representation would not waiver despite an inability to meet in person.
Once his documents were completed, Agüero and her students set out to find a way to execute them. They created a plan for an outdoor document execution that would keep all parties well beyond six feet apart while still allowing for the documents to be reviewed, signed, and notarized. Agüero put out a call for volunteers to her LSC colleagues, looking for two witnesses and one notary. She also provided a detailed plan for the unique process to everyone ahead of time—what documents would be emailed and printed beforehand; what materials everyone would need to bring; and step-by-step rules for how the process would happen with all parties maintaining appropriate distance and personal protection.
On the day of the document execution, with chairs aligned around a field and plenty of hand sanitizer available, the process went smoothly, and the client was very happy to have his documents completed and fully executed. He now had peace of mind that his affairs were in order. Agüero expressed gratitude for the collaborative spirit that made the process a success, saying, “I’m incredibly appreciative to my colleagues who were willing and able to volunteer. With the help of our fantastic LSC community, we’ll continue to find creative ways of helping people during this crisis.”
In the two short weeks of March before LSC moved to remote work, Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack, and her students (two of them veterans themselves) represented four clients in administrative hearings before the Social Security Administration and the Massachusetts Welfare Department. Three cases have been decided already, despite both agencies having moved to remote work – resulting in more than $137,000 in back payments for clients, plus ongoing benefits totaling $2360 per month moving forward. Read the full article…
Criminal record sealing self-help materials developed
Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack and the students working with her on criminal record sealing (a mostly administrative process before the Massachusetts Probation Service) have taken advantage of the enforced slow-down brought about by COVID19 to develop audio-visual self-help materials for veterans and others seeking to remove the stigma of long ago involvement in the criminal justice system. These materials will be shared with Veterans Advocacy groups and community activists over the coming month. Read more…
Class action filed against Florida Career College
The Project on Predatory Student Lending filed suit on behalf of students of Florida Career College (FCC), a Florida-based for-profit college chain, for selling a predatory product systematically targeting Black students using false representations and high-pressure sales tactics that leave students in mountains of debt they cannot repay.
FCC is a for-profit college that operates multiple campuses in Florida and one in Texas. Co-counsel for the case are the law firms Gelber Schachter & Greenberg and Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello.
The suit was filed as a class action in federal court, despite FCC’s history of using of forced arbitration provisions in their contracts, because a 2016 federal rule requires schools taking federal student aid—like FCC—to agree that students may bring claims like this in court. FCC’s programs cost up to $51,925, yet in Fall 2018, FCC spent only between 4 and 18 percent of the tuition on programs at its Hialeah, West Palm Beach and Lauderdale Lakes campuses.
Its racially focused tactics include using Black models in many of its advertisements, targeting high schools with large percentages of Black students for outreach, and targeting its media placements to outlets whose audiences are predominantly people of color. Learn more from the Project on Predatory Lending’s press release about the suit, and additional coverage from Republic Report and Law.com.
In telephone hearing, student wins protections for client seeking to extend restraining order against an abusive spouse
A student successfully represented a client looking to extend her restraining order against an abusive spouse amid the COVID-19 crisis. The hearing – held by telephone rather than in person due to the virus – resulted in the client obtaining a one–year extension of the restraining order, which was a longer-than-anticipated extension from the court.
Debt extinguished, debt collector punished
A judge ruled that a Fall River woman sued by a debt collector in the City of Boston should have her $4,000 debt extinguished and receive a $1,250 payment from the debt collector after her LSC student attorney successfully argued that the debt collector had erred in filing the suit in Boston when state law requires that such suits be filed in the jurisdiction where the debtor lives. The $1,250 payment was levied for the inconvenience to the client of having to drive to Boston to appear in court.
Fighting for tax justice on behalf of exonerees
The Tax Clinic has been fighting on behalf of multiple individuals who were exonerated for crimes and subsequently received substantial payments for wrongful incarceration. In 2015 Congress passed a new code section, 139F, excluding payments received as a result of exoneration from inclusion in income. It made the exclusion retroactive; however, before the passage of this section many exonerees had received payments causing engagement with the tax system. Across the country a number of exonerees were being pursued by the IRS for taxes that were believed to be owed on the exoneration payments made before 2015. In one case, thanks to the work of Tax Clinic students and lawyers, the tax liability has been successfully reduced from several hundred thousand to $419 dollars. That individual had been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and incarcerated for twelve years. In another case, where an individual had been wrongly incarcerated for seven years a tax liability of over $100,000 has been reduced to zero. Both men were released after DNA evidence conclusively proved their innocence. The Tax Clinic continues its partnership with the non-profit organization After Innocence to assist exonerated individuals with any tax problems they may have.