Legal Services Workers Testify at Office of Civil Justice Hearing on Universal Access to Counsel

Joint Testimony of Unionized Legal Services Workers on the NYC Office of Civil Justice’s Programs to Provide Universal Access to Legal Services for Tenants Facing Eviction

Contact:
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325 – Alexi Shalom, ashalom@alaa.org
Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW Local 2320 – Sonja Shield, sshield@lssa.org

November 15, 2018

We are a coalition of unionized workers who represent and support tenants under the Universal Access Law. The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), Local 2325 of the United Auto Workers (UAW), is comprised of staff attorneys from The Legal Aid Society and all non-management staff at CAMBA Legal Services, among others. 1199 SEIU represents support staff and paralegals at The Legal Aid Society. Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA) represents all non-management staff at Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) and at Mobilization for Justice (MFJ) and is a part of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, Local 2320 of the UAW.

Our organizations have supported the right to counsel and universal access in housing court since the very beginning, recognizing that high-quality eviction defense is central to protecting affordable housing and preventing displacement and homelessness in gentrifying neighborhoods. We submit our testimony today in hope that NYC Office of Civil Justice will work with those of us on front lines to ensure the success of this ground-breaking law.

While there have been many triumphs in the first year of Universal Access, our organizations are concerned that due to a lack of resources allocated at OCA and insufficient funding to the legal service providers, the Universal Access system as it stands, is unsustainable. We have identified three interrelated areas for which improvement must be made before Universal Access can work as intended: (1) client services; (2) court infrastructure and administration; and (3) provider funding and support.

As zipcodes are added to the rollout of Universal Access, we are continuously forced to turn away tenants with strong cases in rent-regulated and subsidized housing in order to accommodate the mandatory zip code cases. By the time Universal Access reaches all zip codes, it will be too late for these tenants and their affordable units. Furthermore, our offices have had to turn away long standing clients—those who knew they could always rely on us in the face of their unscrupulous landlord’s tactics to force them from their homes. We ask that you work with us to secure a stream of funding during the rollout of Universal Access or grant us the discretion to set aside a certain portion of our grants that allows our organizations to protect the rent-regulated and affordable housing stock in zip codes not currently covered.

Housing courts in every borough are still struggling to properly and efficiently administer Universal Access. Particularly concerning to all of our members is the lack of confidential interview space to conduct intake on our referral days. In Staten Island, intakes take place in a back area with open cubicles and landlord attorneys roaming around. In the Bronx, we are forced to conduct cursory intakes in the hallways and we must schedule each person for a private intake at a later date in our office. On countless occasions, tenants have disclosed sensitive information within earshot of their landlord’s attorneys. Without confidential interview space, tenants are denied their fundamental attorney-client privilege. On intake days, providers see between up to fifty people and are expected to appear right away for special zip code clients – with no investigation and little information on the background of the case itself. With a first appearance we are able to adjourn for investigation but for clients who have previously turned down services, we are often forced to make decisions on the spot without the proper background checks.

The resolution parts administering Universal Access are constantly overburdened. Even after return dates on orders to show cause were moved to the afternoon calendar, many resolution parts still have between sixty and ninety cases on for the morning calendar. Our members have reported that it can take upwards of two hours to make an application or argue a motion. Some boroughs have assigned additional court attorneys to the Universal Access resolution parts but cases are still constantly bottlenecked because there are not enough judges handling the selected zip codes. We believe that zipcodes need to be spread amongst more judges in each borough and the courts should implement a basic cap on calendared cases that does not exceed fifty cases per session. In Manhattan, the judge in the UAC part frowns upon litigation and leans heavily on parties to either settle quickly or go to trial. Attorneys and non attorneys have to fight with HRA and APS to get clients much needed services -which attorneys can not provide- but because these agencies have not grown as quickly as free legal services, the process for outside help takes significantly longer. We are dealing with clients who suffer from mental illness and other ailments that constrain their ability to keep up with the fast paced nature of the practice. But rather than the City putting more money into much needed non-legal services to meet the non-legal needs of UAC clients, we are just expanding into more zip codes without examining the issues with the system as is.

Through the efforts of our respective unions to recruit and the efforts of the organizations for which we work, we have hired a vibrant, diverse staff who believe in Universal Access. We are saddened and dismayed to report that our members are repeatedly subject to discrimination and micro-aggressions by court staff. For example, members who identify as people of color have been asked directly by judges if they were our clients. We urge that all court staff, including employees of the Human Resources Administration, attend mandatory anti-bias training to make housing court a more professional and welcoming environment to people of color.

Finally, our organizations are facing substantial attrition of both new and experienced attorneys. While there has been an unprecedented expansion in funding for civil legal services, none of the grants held by our respective employers allows them to fund our work in a way that would allow us to provide consistent, high-quality representation to our clients. This forces providers to cut corners: making the tough decision not to hire social workers and hiring fewer process servers, secretaries, and paralegals than we really need. As a result, our support staff are overloaded and attorneys take on overwhelming amounts of peripheral administrative work, leading to widespread frustration and inefficient delivery of services. The practice of housing law is now driven by quantity and not quality. Attorneys mandated to take cases are expected to reach a quick resolution in a very short time frame which, frankly, does not allow attorneys to grow and develop in the practice. Rather, attorneys learn just enough to get by and resolve cases so that they can quickly move onto the next. Since organizations cannot maintain attrition of staff, offices are hiring law graduates who are on intake and in court within a week of beginning employment – with zero training. Our low income tenants deserve better than that.

Without sufficient funding for paralegals, attorneys are forced to engage in extended and time-consuming benefits advocacy in between researching and writing motions, appearing for court, conducting home visits, and preparing for trial. This means that cases last longer and advocates’ caseloads balloon. Our members are justifiably concerned about the quality of their representation. They are working longer and longer hours just to stay afloat and it is not sustainable.

Without social workers, our case handlers must frequently choose between trying to find resources for clients in crisis and meeting litigation deadlines. They cannot afford to lose the time it would take to assist clients with applying for identification cards, obtaining certified documents and medical records, or finding child care services. They lack the foundational education and training of social workers to assist clients facing domestic violence and those contemplating suicide. Many of our members struggle with secondary trauma and seek counseling of their own to process these situations.

We ask that case caps and sufficient funding for support staff, including funding for social workers, be incorporated into the Universal Access grants to protect our shared goal of high-quality representation and meaningful access to justice for New York City tenants.

Oral Testimony of Amber Marshall, Staff Attorney, Legal Aid Society, Bronx,
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325

Good evening. My name is Amber Marshall. I am a Civil Vice President of The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, Local 2325 of the United Auto Workers and have worked as a housing staff attorney in the Bronx since January of 2015. I represent a diverse group of compassionate, driven, and remarkably intelligent attorneys at The Legal Aid Society that believe in safeguarding affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers. I thank the Office of Civil Justice for allowing ALAA to testify about our experience on the front lines of implementing the Universal Access Law.

In addition to the joint written remarks submitted to this body on behalf of our coalition of unionized workers, I testify today to specifically detail the impact the rollout has had on my members and consequently those that we serve.

A common theme you will hear today is that we lack adequate funding to properly do this work. Our organizations are unable to hire social workers, paralegals, and administrative staff to support our work. Without social workers, our members must choose between trying to help our clients navigate complicated systems within government, at non-profits, and at hospitals for which they lack experience or say that we simply cannot help them. My members struggle to provide adequate resources to clients facing domestic violence and those who call us contemplating suicide. On at least two occasions this year, attorneys in my union were unable to identify suicide prevention resources while they were speaking to a client on the phone who expressed specific plans to commit suicide. As a result of instances like these, secondary trauma among legal service providers is pervasive. I have personally assisted multiple members with accessing mental health services since the rollout of Universal Access began.

Furthermore, without paralegals, attorneys are forced to engage in extended and time consuming benefits advocacy in between researching and writing motions, appearing for court, conducting home visits, and preparing for trial. This means that cases last longer and our caseloads are ballooning. In one borough, my members have reported that their average experienced attorney had handled fourteen more cases by the end of October than all of 2017. They are justifiably concerned about the quality of their representation. They are working longer and longer hours just to stay afloat and it is not sustainable.

Consequently, we are now losing experienced housing attorneys at alarming rates and cannot attract enough new attorneys to keep expanding our practice. Fewer attorneys are staying long enough to become supervisors. They are forced to choose between doing the work they love and starting a family or paying off debt or their own mental health. The low-income New Yorkers we represent deserve more. They deserve attorneys who have the freedom to comprehensively and creatively litigate their cases, not treat them like stipulation mills. I urge you to build in case caps and fund our organization for sufficient support staff so that Universal Access is more than justice in name only.

Oral Testimony of Caroline Roe, Staff Attorney, Mobilization for Justice
Legal Services Staff Association, National Organization of Legal Services Workers UAW Local 2320

My name is Caroline Roe and I am a union member and delegate with the Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW 2320, and a staff attorney at Mobilization for Justice, formerly known as MFY. The Legal Services Staff Association is a wall-to-wall union that represents all non-management employees at Mobilization for Justice and Legal Services NYC. Thank you for your time tonight.

I am here today to tell you about a client that my office served through UAC.

Sylvia is a 49 year old woman with a disability. She and her husband live with one adult child and two minor children. She was sued for non-payment of rent in September 2016. Her case was initially settled in November 2016. Her attorneys had to file 3 OSC’s for more time to pay the arrears due to delays and mistakes in obtaining a one-shot deal and FEPS. Her case was not resolved until May 2017, eight months after it started. She was sued again for non-payment in late 2017.

Sylvia’s case illustrates two problems with UAC:

First, attorneys representing tenants in non-payment cases spend a significant amount of time doing advocacy and follow-up with HRA and HRA contractors (Bronx Works, Help USA, etc). HRA is paying attorneys from outside agencies to turn around and advocate with HRA’s own staff to receive the assistance our clients need.

Second, UAC does not provide adequate funding for non-attorney staff. Sylvia’s problems could have potentially been resolved sooner if she’d had a social worker or paralegal to help her navigate HRA’s bureaucracy. It is an inefficient use of funding for attorneys to spend hours at HRA helping clients apply for OSC’s and following up on applications. However, because Universal Access is not fully funded, recipient organizations like mine have to decide which necessary staff will not get hired, and what we are seeing is that programs are prioritizing hiring attorneys which does not leave enough money to hire necessary non-attorney staff. That leaves attorneys being paid attorney salaries to do tasks that could be done at a lower cost by a social worker or paralegal.

In addition, clients often have underlying issues with benefits or need services that cannot be addressed with current staffing. For example, many clients make very little money, yet still do not qualify for Public Assistance or they were receiving Public Assistance and it has been shut off. Even if a client can come up with the money to cover one month’s rent, get a One Shot Deal, and have their case closed, there are still no guarantees that they won’t fall back into arrears. In fact, this happens frequently. Unfortunately, housing attorneys don’t have the time or resources to assist with the root causes of the client’s inability to pay rent and can really only focus on the case at hand. Although Sylvia’s 2016 non-payment case was resolved, she has since been sued again.

The intersection of these two issues causes many tenants to be sued for non-payment of rent repeatedly. Many tenants are plagued by the instability and unpredictability of public benefit programs. UAC clients often have suspended, terminated, or inadequate benefits. They are often unable to resolve the problem themselves. Increased efficiency and decreased bureaucracy from HRA and OCA and increased funding for non-attorney UAC staff would improve the long-term housing stability of the New Yorkers we are serving.

On behalf of my union, I ask that you work to fully fund the true cost of Universal Access to Council so that our employer organizations can hire the full set of support staff who are needed for us to provide quality services to tenants.

Oral Testimony of Jeanette Cepeda, Staff Attorney, Legal Services NYC
Legal Services Staff Association, National Organization of Legal Services Workers UAW Local 2320

My name is Jeanette Cepeda and I am a union member with the Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW 2320, and a housing staff attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services, which is part of Legal Services NYC. The Legal Services Staff Association is a wall-to-wall union that represents all non-management employees at Legal Services NYC and Mobilization for Justice. Thank you for your time tonight.

The roll out and implementation of the Universal Access law has been both an exciting new change for civil legal services providers and a challenge. Tonight I would like to talk with you about the challenges I and other Legal Services Staff Association members are experiencing as legal services providers during the rollout and expansion of UAC.

Provider Experience & Funding
One of the important challenges our members face is discrimination by court staff, HRA employees and members of the landlord bar. Discussions about our race, gender, sexual orientation and our bodies are rampant in court. For example, assuming I am the tenant and not an attorney, court staff have asked me to “locate my attorney” when checking in on my client’s cases. In addition, some court staff have attempted to chase me out of designated “attorney” areas. One HRA employee commented on the length of my skirt in contrast with the size of my hips, and even attempted to “fix” it by physically moving it. HRA staff have also inquired if I was pregnant and when I informed them that I was not, went on to comment about my recent weight gain. I have experienced a member of the landlord bar test the elasticity and length of my curl by pulling it with his hands. Finally, I have witnessed court staff give female attorneys, especially those of color inappropriate looks complete with them licking their lips. Court staff, including court officers, have witnessed this behavior and failed to address it.

One result of the discrimination that our members face in court, as well as the increased caseloads and work presented by UAC, is that our members have been quickly burning out and transferring different practice areas or leaving altogether. Although the funding provided has allowed provider organizations to increase in size and hire at an unprecedented rate, additional funding is required to fully fund the work of support staff who provide invaluable service to our clients. More funding is required to hire paralegal, secretary and process server staff as they help ensure the best quality of service to our clients and help assess clients issues and provide assistance with difficulties attorneys and clients experience.

If the program is not adequately funded, our legal services providers will be unable to keep up with the demands of the UAC practice, will burnout quickly and seek opportunities elsewhere. And when advocates leave just as they’ve started to learn the practice, to be replaced by inexperienced new advocates, tenants are the ones to suffer. Low income New Yorkers deserve better than that.

Infrastructure
One of the other issues our members are facing is within the infrastructure of the courthouses and the inability OCA has had in providing private physical space in the courthouse. Part of ensuring adequate representation of clients is building confidence and trust.

For example, while meeting with a client in what is supposed to be a private space, a landlord’s attorney barged in in an attempt to use the same space as a private space for him to make a phone call. This prompted an abrupt pause to the client meeting, while my supervisor engaged in an argument with him about whether he was allowed to use the space while we were using it. This occurred because the space is not marked private for use of UAC and it is shared with other court personnel and HRA staff.

Private meetings with client is increasingly difficult to do so due to lack of private space in the courthouse. We face challenges in ensuring we do not violate client privilege and often have to request adjournments for the sole purpose of scheduling our clients to meet with us in our office. Oftentimes, because of capacity issues, a private client meeting does not occur until a date closer to the adjournment date, leaving staff without enough time to work out some issues between court dates.

I urge you to implement measures to prevent and redress discrimination, including mandatory anti-bias training for all court staff; to secure private space for client meetings within the courthouses; and to fully fund the work so that our employer organizations can hire the full set of support staff who are needed for us to provide quality services to tenants.

Thank you for your time.

Oral Testimony of Lino Diaz, Staff Attorney, Legal Services NYC (Queens Legal Services)
Legal Services Staff Association, National Organization of Legal Services Workers UAW Local 2320

My name is Lino Diaz and I am a union member and delegate with the Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW 2320, and a housing staff attorney at Queens Legal Services, which is part of Legal Services NYC. The Legal Services Staff Association is a wall-to-wall union that represents all non-management employees at Legal Services NYC and Mobilization for Justice.

Thank you for your time tonight. I would like to talk with you about three issues we have seen during the roll-out process of UAC.

First and foremost, we lack the court structures required to talk to people with a semblance of confidentiality. In Queens, we only have access to one room in the courthouse in which to do intake for UAC. As a result, we are forced to resort to talking to people about their issues in crowded hallways. This creates two types of confidentiality issues. The first is that as legal services providers, we are required to collect a large amount of sensitive data from clients, and doing so in public spaces creates safety concerns for that information. Anyone could overhear, putting the client at risk of identity theft or worse. Second, we are potentially asking people to discuss their cases — including possible defenses, or lack thereof — in front of numerous people who are either unrelated to the proceeding or could have an adverse relationship with our clients. This is a terrible situation in which to create a client-attorney relationship.

Secondly, the UAC roll-out has forced us, as legal service providers, to turn away potentially meritorious cases for the sake of meeting the demand of UAC cases. We are supposed to be preventing evictions, but in forcing us to prioritize certain zip codes instead of giving us the discretion of denying service to unmeritorious cases, we are being forced to let preventable evictions slip through the cracks. If the UAC roll-out occurred more rapidly, thus increasing the number of zip codes available to us, we would be able to step in on these cases that we are currently forced to decline representation.

Finally, we are watching UAC create a two-tiered system for client services. UAC cases can only be adjourned at 3-week intervals, while cases being represented by private attorneys have no requirements as to when an adjournment can be dated. We cannot allow people who are already underserved and underrepresented to receive second-tier representation for the alleged sake of judicial economy — especially when the lack of time creates more reasons for OSC’s down the line, thus cutting against the efficiency argument.

On intake days, providers see between 20-30 people and are expected to appear right away for special zip code clients – with no investigation and little information on the background of the case itself. With a first appearance we are able to adjourn for investigation, but for clients who have previously turned down services, we are often forced to make decisions on the spot without the proper background checks. Many staff attorneys have questioned whether the terms we are required to practice under are grounds for malpractice.

UAC is a tremendous step forward for New York City’s low income tenants. For its vision to truly be realized, I ask that you work to provide private space in the courthouses and eliminate procedures that contribute to UAC recipients receiving a lesser version of representation.

Oral Testimony of Katherine Groot, Staff Attorney, CAMBA Legal Services, Brooklyn,
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325

Good evening. My name is Katherine Groot, I am a member of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, local 2325 of the United Auto Workers and a staff attorney at CAMBA Legal Services’ Housing Unit in Brooklyn. I thank the Office of Civil Justice for allowing myself, and my fellow legal services providers, to testify regarding our experiences with working under Right to Counsel.

We recognize Right to Counsel as a monumental piece of legislation. We are proud to be part of this effort and hope it is the first step toward bringing Civil Gideon to New York City. We believe that the continued success of Right to Counsel requires that the program evolve in response to lessons learned in the trenches and we hope you heed our concerns and suggestions.

As legal services providers, we endeavor to provide each client with high quality legal services. We are concerned, however, that the lack of discretion afforded to attorneys, and the client quotas imposed by the Right to Counsel contract, require us to make comprises that we are not comfortable with.

First, I echo my colleagues concerns regarding the roll-out of Right to Counsel by zip codes. Currently, Right to Counsel requires legal services providers to represent tenants who reside in the specified Right to Counsel zip codes over those who do not.

One of the best ways to preserve affordable housing in this city is to stop landlords from illegally deregulating the rent stabilized housing stock. Unfortunately, we are forced to turn down tenants who do not live within Right-to-Counsel zip codes, even those who reside in rent stabilized apartments. This practice jeopardizes affordable housing in zip codes not currently included in the program. By the time Right to Counsel adds those zip codes, it will be too late. This concern extends to tenants residing within NYCHA and HUD project-based apartments as well as tenants with vouchers and other housing subsidies.

Second, we believe the quotas imposed by the Right to Counsel contract are unrealistic and unattainable. Our caseloads have increased to a degree that negatively impacts our client-centered practice.

Finally, we believe that the housing court buildings – which are the initial point of contact between legal services providers and tenants – must be upgraded to both meet tenants’ needs and to accommodate Right to Counsel.

The physical infrastructure of housing court alienates tenants, particularly those with disabilities and other limitations because of the long lines to enter the building, lack of seating in the court parts, long waits to see a judge, and complete lack of private spaces to preserve client confidentiality.

Court facilities must be upgraded to ensure that tenants are treated with dignity and respect from the moment they enter the court house as well as to preserve confidentiality between tenants and their attorneys.