Policy Matters – May 2022

Eòghann Renfroe May 31, 2022

Welcome to the May edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we take a moment to observe the tragedy in Buffalo, and then we cover new language access mandates for mortgage lenders, the enactment of X gender markers on NYS drivers licenses, legal advocacy for trans youth, comments on proposed rules regarding Alternative Dispute Resolution, upcoming testimony on the future of NYS courts, and an exciting new addition to the Empire Justice team!


Statement on Massacre in Buffalo, NY

Words are inadequate to express the grief and shock we feel for the massacre in Tops Supermarket in Buffalo. We must call what happened for what it was: an act of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. We demand action from those in power to deliver on the promise of a more equitable society. We recommit to our client communities in Western New York and pledge to do our part in chipping away at structural inequities and racism. Lastly, our hearts are with the families and loved ones of people senselessly killed and hurt in the Saturday, May 14 massacre.


Federal Language Access Mandates for Mortgage Lenders

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) will now mandate lenders to obtain applicant’s preferred language during the mortgage application process. This will create a safer, more inclusive mortgage process for borrowers nationwide.

Senior Manager of our Language Access Program, Marlene Cortés, who leads our Monroe county and national consumer finance language access work, said in our joint statement, “We welcome the efforts of both FHFA and the CFPB to promote financial inclusion. These changes mean more people can understand the process and have the opportunity to own a home.”


X Gender Markers for Driver’s Licenses

Just weeks from the one year anniversary of the passage of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), X gender markers for drivers licenses are now officially available to all New Yorkers. While the rest of the provisions of the GRA were enacted at the end of last year, enactment of X driver’s licenses was not mandated to be complete until a year after the bill was signed into law.

Governor Hochul marked the occasion with an event with advocates on May 27. Several advocates with whom we worked closely on the bill were among the first to receive their new licenses – congratulations folks! A big thank you to the Governor and to the staff who worked closely with the Gender Recognition Act coalition to expand the act in this year’s budget.


Legal Advocacy for Trans & Gender Diverse Youth

Senior Attorney Amy Schwartz-Wallace and LGBTQ Rights Attorney Lettie Dickerson worked with several other advocates to present a continuing legal education (CLE) training, Trans-Affirming Legal Advocacy For Transgender & Gender Diverse Youth, on May 11.


Comments on Alternative Dispute Resolution

We submitted comments developed by Senior Attorney Amy Schwartz-Wallace on a proposed rule from the Office of Court Administration (OCA) regarding the expansion of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) by the referral of civil disputes in trial courts.

While we agree that access to ADR can be a wonderful tool for avoiding acrimonious and expensive litigation, narrowing issues actually in dispute, or facilitating settlement, and it can benefit the courts by lightening already over-burdened dockets, that must be balanced with the power dynamics that can undercut access to justice, especially when there is no right to counsel. We made a number of recommendations to improve this proposal and maintain focus on access to justice for all New Yorkers, including:

  • Organize a working group or series of public hearings to study whether ADR alleviates the justice gap or widens it, especially in the vast majority of civil cases beyond Family Court where litigants do not enjoy the right to counsel. This is necessary information before mandatory statewide presumptive ADR in all civil settings is established.
  • Require both baseline and annual diversity, equity, and inclusion training for ADR mediators and staff. Require trauma-informed training on family violence, including domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.
  • Require that issues of domestic violence be an exception to referral to ADR, and reference the products and policies developed by the DV Working Group.
  • Statewide rules should be enacted and local courts be given templates and other tools to streamline and standardize the ADR process.
  • Clear directives on the right to refuse, in clear and easily understandable language, and reassurance to parties that they will not be penalized for failure to participate, should be drafted by the Statewide ADR Office and provided to local courts.

Many of our recommendations are also in the 2020 Report from the Special Advisor on Equal Justice in the New York State Courts (aka the Jeh Johnson Report) that the court is actively implementing. They are all intended to address and help mitigate systemic bias around race and other identities. Therefore, as virtually all civil cases would have the potential to be shunted to ADR now, it is critical that these efforts around DEI are not diluted or lost in the scaling up.


Reimagining the Future of New York’s Courts

We will be offering live testimony at a hearing on pandemic practices held by the Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts on June 7. Empire Justice has noted in previous statements that virtual access to the courts may provide convenience for many, but exclusion for others due to the digital divide. In this testimony, we plan to highlight the following:

  • Statewide consistency in procedures and rules related to virtual access to the courts is needed, including centralized oversight and clearly defined best practices.
  • Due to the digital divide, changes to procedures for remote notarization are necessary to ensure that low-income litigants have equal access.
  • Persons with limited English proficiency and users of sign languages face additional barriers that must be addressed.

If you miss the hearing live, don’t worry, we’ll be including our testimony in next month’s edition of Policy Matters.


Former Public Defender Jill Paperno Joins Empire Justice’s Civil Rights Practice

We are very pleased to announce the appointment of Jill Paperno as the new Senior Civil Rights Litigator in our civil rights practice. Prior to joining Empire Justice Center, Paperno served in various roles within the Monroe County Public Defenders’ office for over 35 years, most recently as the acting Monroe County Public Defender.

A respected fixture in the Rochester community, Jill will bring us her wealth of knowledge and advocacy experience within marginalized communities as well as a client-centered approach to representation. Starting in the fall, Jill will be leading the expansion of Empire Justice Center’s civil rights work to include a focus on police reform and handling police misconduct cases. Read more about Jill joining Empire Justice in our statement.


Thank You For Reading

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The Empire Justice Policy Team