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Policy Matters – June 2023

Eòghann Renfroe June 30, 2023

Welcome to the June edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we cover the end of the 2023 state legislative session, the launch of a new legal help resource for fair hearings, new guidance regarding transgender and gender expansive students in public schools, widespread delays in processing SNAP applications, the end of the pause on student loan repayments, help for people facing foreclosure in NYS, continued advocacy for bank consumers in Rochester, our nursing home survey, and an exciting new appointment in Monroe County. You can also read an archived version of the newsletter here.

 

Legislative Session Wrap-up

After a brief back-to-Albany trip by the Assembly last week, the 2023 legislative session has officially wrapped. While many big ticket items remain unresolved, we are pleased to note the following bills that passed both houses that will positively impact our client communities when signed by Governor Hochul.

  • Notarization Bill (S.5162 Hoylman-Sigal/A.5772 Lavine): Will allow litigants in civil cases to swear to a statement under penalty of perjury without having to notarize the document, removing an outdated burden to access to justice in civil proceedings.
  • Decoupling Bill (S.5327 Brisport/A.4986A Hevesi): Will provide equitable access to child care for children whose parents work non-traditional hours.
  • Safe Harbor Bill (A.6046B Bronson/S.2475B Hoylman-Sigal): Will provide protections to people seeking or providing gender-affirming care. Governor Hochul kicked off the Pride celebration in New York City this past Sunday by signing this bill into law.
  • Fair Medical Debt Reporting Act (S.4907 Rivera/A.6275 Paulin): Will prohibit medical debt from being collected by a consumer reporting agency or included in a consumer report.
  • Private Education Debt Registry Bill (S.5056 Thomas/A.5286 Epstein): Will require the NYS Department of Financial Services to establish a registry of private student loan debt owed by New York State residents
  • Deed Theft recovery bill (S.6577 Kavanagh/A.6656 Weinstein) Will streamline procedures for a federal, state or local government to stay proceedings to recover possession or quiet title when there is a good faith reason to believe the owner was the victim of deed theft.

Speaking on these bills, our President & CEO Kristin Brown stated, “[W]e could not be more proud in lauding sponsors, and partners in the advocacy community who worked so hard to make these future policy changes happen. We look forward to working with legislators and advocacy partners to ensure these bills are signed and to advance legislation that remains on the table.”

We also saw progress on a number of other bills that were passed by the Senate, but not yet by the Assembly. We will be working to push them to full passage next legislative session:

  • Coverage for All (S.2237 Rivera)/A.3020 González-Rojas): Would provide Essential Plan coverage to individuals who would otherwise meet enrollment criteria but are currently precluded from participating based on their immigration status.
  • Private Right of Action for Mortgage Servicing Regulations (S.564A Kavanagh/A.2131A Dinowitz): Would provide homeowners the ability to raise violations of NYS mortgage servicing regulations promulgated by NYS Department of Financial Services (Part 419) as a defense to a foreclosure, bring a counterclaim, or file an affirmative action against a mortgage servicer for failure to comply with the regulations.
  • Language Justice (S.3381 Kennedy/A.7235 De Los Santos): Would expand NYS language access policy to include American Sign Language, the most common languages by region, and prioritize languages based on the most recent arrivals within the past five years.
  • Deed Theft criminalization bill (S.6569 Myrie): Would criminalize deed theft, giving the Attorney General authority to investigate and prosecute.

If you’d like to learn more about our support for these bills, along with others, such as the bill to codify the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) into law (S.7297 Kavanagh/A.7636 Solages), please read our full press statement on the end of the NYS legislative session.

 

New Legal Help Resource

The Legal Aid Society, Empire Justice Center, and New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), in partnership with Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic, have launched Fair Hearing Help NY, a free, virtual legal resource for New Yorkers who are representing themselves at an administrative hearing with the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).

When an individual’s benefits are reduced, discontinued, or their application is denied, they can request a Fair Hearing. A Fair Hearing allows the individual to make their case and the agency will review the decision. According to OTDA’s Annual Report, 155,662 hearings were requested in New York State in 2022 (123,990 in New York City alone). Ninety-seven percent of Appellants are not represented by counsel.

The new website will help New Yorkers who are representing themselves in a Fair Hearing navigate the complex process and offer information that will allow them to more fully participate  in exercising their due process rights.

“Fair hearings are the only recourse for New Yorkers whose benefits have been unfairly reduced or denied,” said Susan Antos, Managing Attorney of our Benefits practice group. “However, Fair Hearings are fundamentally a legal process. The new Fair Hearing Help NY website will walk people through the process so they understand the procedural rules and are more likely to be successful. This will mean the difference between people being able to access basic necessities – like food for their families, shelter, access to medical care – or not.”

 

Ensuring a Safe and Supportive School Environment for Transgender and Gender Expansive Students

This month, the New York State Education Department released a legal update: Creating a Safe, Supportive, and Affirming School Environment for Transgender and Gender Expansive Students. This is an update of the original 2015 guidance and reflects the progress in state and federal law since 2015, including the passage of the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA) in 2019, which added “gender identity and expression” to the protected classes in the NYS Human Rights Law, and the closing of the legal loophole that left NYS public schools outside of the jurisdiction of the NYS Human Rights Law for much of the 2010’s.

This legal update provides guidance to all K-12 public schools in New York State on how best to support transgender and gender expansive students while creating an equitable learning environment for all. It also provides national and state-level data on the experiences of transgender and gender expansive students; clarifies information regarding student privacy and student records, and provides links to additional resources for schools.

Readers of Policy Matters will recall that last fall, our Civil Rights practice group launched a statewide school discrimination helpline that will provide advice and counsel to students and families who may have been the subject of discrimination at a school in New York State. New York State prohibits schools from denying the use of its facilities or permitting the harassment of any student on the basis of race, color, religion, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, sex, age, or marital status. NYSED’s legal update provides additional protection for transgender and gender expansive students. Any students or families concerned they have been the subject of discrimination in a school setting in New York State can call 800-724-0490 Ext. 5827 or email schooldiscriminationhelpline@empirejustice.org to get legal guidance to understand and navigate their options. You can also visit the School Discrimination page on our website for more information.

 

SNAP Delays Leaving New York Families Hungry

A recent survey conducted by No Kid Hungry New York found that nearly two in five adult New Yorkers have experienced food insecurity in the last twelve months, with more than half (56%) worried they would be unable to afford groceries if faced with an unexpected $500 expense. This food insecurity makes the importance of access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits essential to keeping New York families fed.

However, applicants are experiencing significant delays in processing applications in many areas across the state. Senior Benefits Attorney Jessica Radbord spoke with Dave Lombardo on The Capitol Pressroom about this important issue.

Jessica shared that while SNAP benefits are funded federally, applications are processed at the local level by each social services district (each social services district is administered by county, besides New York City, where all five boroughs are gathered in one social services district). That means processing delays are squarely a New York State problem, not a federal one.

Not every part of the state is experiencing these delays, but many are – despite the fact that social services districts are legally required to process SNAP applications on time. As of March 2023, more than a third of districts outside New York City were processing 10% of their applications late, thirteen districts were processing more than 20% of applications late, and five districts (Broome, Duchess, Rockland, Ulster, and Wayne) were failing to process more than half of their food stamp applications on time, with a high of 73% of SNAP applications being processed late. New York City is currently being sued for not processing applications on time. A huge part of this issue is a staffing shortage at the social services district level, where they don’t have  enough people to process applications on time.

“Every month, what that means is that there are tens of thousands of NY families who aren’t getting decisions on their applications on time, which means they’re not getting those federal benefits that they’re entitled to, which means that they aren’t able to buy food. They’re going hungry,” Jessica told Lombardo.

 

Student Loan Payment Pause Ends

The pause on student loans, introduced during the height of the COVID pandemic, is set to end soon as part of the new debt ceiling deal that passed the House of Representatives earlier this month. Our Student Debt Councilor Jordan Daniels spoke about the issue with CBS 6 in Albany, and described the work she does to help borrowers reduce or eliminate their student loan debt.

“I’ve helped borrowers rid themselves of $200,000 plus of debt that they didn’t even know was possible. They thought they literally were going to die with this debt,” Jordan told CBS 6. “It’s been a long three years. It’s vital [borrowers] are paying attention and preparing for those payments to start, so they can avoid default and economic hardship.”

If you’d like to learn more, check out our Educational Debt Consumer Assistance Program, or request an appointment with a student debt counselor by emailing StudentDebt@empirejustice.org, or call us at 518-935-2849.

 

How to Avoid Home Foreclosure in New York

Senior Attorney Kirsten Keefe spoke with Spectrum News about why foreclosure filings are up 8% nationally from the same time last year. While the COVID-19 foreclosure moratorium formally ended in January 2022, there was a delay between the end of the moratorium and an increase in foreclosure proceedings as the backlog of cases made its way down the pike.

The good news is that thanks to resources like the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP), and legislative advocacy by Empire Justice and other housing advocates, New Yorkers have many legal protections in place to help keep them in their homes.

“We are very fortunate to have probably the largest network of nonprofit housing counseling and legal services programs funded through the state to provide direct assistance to homeowners in default and foreclosure,” Kirsten told Spectrum News. “People should not be feeling like they need to move immediately. The foreclosure process is a judicial process, so it does take time. So it’s good to just understand what the process is and what to expect, and then it can help you plan your next step.”

 

Advocating for Consumer Banking Interests in Rochester

As part of our work with the Greater Rochester Community Reinvestment Coalition, Senior Attorney Ruhi Maker and Policy Analyst Barb van Kerkhove submitted comments regarding KeyBank’s (Key) CRA Exam conducted by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) for 2019 through 2021.

 

NYS Nursing Home Survey

We need your input! In partnership with Center for Elder Law & Justice and through funding made available by the New York Health Foundation, we are pleased to announce the expansion of our nursing home resident rights resource guide.

We want to hear from community members who have had personal experiences with nursing homes, whether as a resident, family member, friend or employee. In connecting with our community, we will identify issues for nursing home residents, create educational materials, and advocate for change.

To take the survey, visit Nursing Home Experience Survey.

 

New President of the Monroe County Bar Association Foundation

Empire Justice Center is thrilled to announce our Chief Legal Officer and Senior Attorney, Maggie Robb, as the new Monroe County Bar Association Foundation President! Maggie is a member of our leadership team, where she oversees our legal practice, Compliance, and Human Resources; and is a Senior Attorney in our Civil Rights practice group. Since 2012, she has focused her work on helping low-income New Yorkers to resolve civil rights, employment, and education issues.

Maggie is an active member of the Monroe County Bar Association, having served in numerous roles over the years, including Foundation Board Member, Member of the President’s Commission on Anti-Racism, Board Trustee, By-Laws Committee Member, Chair of the Memorial Committee, and a Lawyers for Learning Program volunteer. Congratulations Maggie!

 

Thank You For Reading

If you’d like to keep up with our policy work, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or visit the Policy Central page on our website.

If you need civil legal help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.

 

The Empire Justice Policy Team