Policy Matters – September 2022

Eòghann Renfroe September 30, 2022

Welcome to the September edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we cover our annual testimony on the importance of civil legal services, a final push for new tenant protections, our work to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act, advocacy for limited English proficiency SNAP recipients, recommendations for uniform standards of eligibility in family courts, a collection of recent legal education efforts, recognition of excellence in advocacy for several staff members, and last but not least – an invitation to our next Celebration of Leadership event in Albany! You can read an archived version here.


Chief Judge’s 2022 Hearing on Civil Legal Services in New York

On September 19th our President & CEO, Kristin Brown and Health Attorney, Alexia Mickles, testified at this year’s Chief Judge’s Hearing on Civil Legal Services in New York, along with our former client, Jenna McCormack, who shared her experience being represented by Empire Justice Center.

Ms. McCormack is studying for a degree in social work and loves working with children with disabilities. She also experiences disabling chronic illnesses, including a condition called occipital neuralgia – an inflammation of the nerves at the back of the head that causes near-constant pain. At one point this condition became so severe she could not work or go to school for over two years because she was mostly bedbound.

When her health insurance denied the procedures her doctor had ordered to address her pain, Ms. McCormack tried to represent herself through her first fair hearing, which she lost at an administrative fair hearing. Then Empire Justice Health attorneys Alexia and Fiona Wolfe represented Ms. McCormack through her second hearing. With the help from our attorneys, Ms. McCormack was able to win her appeal and, nine months ago, finally undergo the radiofrequency ablation ordered by her doctor, which has drastically reduced her pain and allowed her to focus on her health, studies, and even a part-time job working at a daycare.

In 2021, over 150,000 fair hearings were requested at OTDA alone, and the vast majority of these New Yorkers are unrepresented, just as Ms. McCormack was during her first hearing. Her experience underlines how important and life-changing civil legal representation can be.


Pushing New Tenant Protections Closer To The Finish Line

Senior Attorney Kirsten Keefe joined Senator Neil Breslin, Assemblymember John McDonald, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, and others for a press conference on August 23 to highlight recently passed bills that would help cement the rights of tenants in New York State and in Albany County.

  • 10113 (McDonald)/S.9036 (Breslin) will ensure landlords are complying with Albany’s local laws before they evict a tenant.
  • 3241 (McDonald)/S.6721 (Ryan) will help tenants living in unsafe and uninhabitable conditions by giving them the ability to have unhealthy living conditions addressed by a court of law.

We will continue to push for Governor Hochul to sign these measures into law.


Modernizing the Community Reinvestment Act

For the first time in 27 years, there may be extensive changes coming to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) under a proposed rule to modernize the law.

Under the CRA a bank is obligated to meet the credit needs of its entire community, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Even though the CRA was passed in 1977 to address redlining, it says nothing about race or ethnicity; persistent and wide-ranging racial disparities in lending, income, and wealth remain to this day.

Consumer Policy Analyst, Barb Van Kerkhove, and Senior Attorney, Ruhi Maker, worked with the rest of the Greater Rochester Community Reinvestment Coalition (GRCRC) to write and submit comments on the proposed rule change on August 4th, asking that the final rule consider bank activity by race and ethnicity, among other recommendations, to help address these long-running disparities.


Better Data Collection For SNAP Recipients With Limited English Proficiency

To ensure that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) have meaningful access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), language assistance must be provided at a time and place that avoids the effective denial of benefits or imposes an undue burden on or delay in access to benefits.

Senior Benefits Attorney Jessica Radbord submitted comments to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on August 19th, pushing for stronger data collection of LEP SNAP recipients to ensure meaningful access.


Uniform Standards of Eligibility in Family Court

Senior Staff Attorney Laura Dwyer submitted comments on a proposed rule to develop uniform standards of eligibility for assigned counsel in family court proceedings to the Office of Court Administration (OCA) on August 3rd. Our thorough recommendations include:

  • Additional funding and resources to the assigned counsel program;
  • That “reasonable living expenses” are localized to the relevant jurisdiction;
  • That timely notice be given in the top six languages of each judicial district;
  • That assigned counsel be given during all child protection agency investigations;
  • The addition of certain protections for victims of domestic violence;

As well as a number of other clarifications and language access provisions.


We Teach The Law

The summer and early fall have been a busy season for our training and technical assistance efforts:

  • Getting to Zero Student Loan Debt Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (August 9 through October 12)
    • We partnered with Consumer Reports, the Student Borrower Protection Center, New Yorkers for Responsible Lending (NYRL), and the Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program (EDCAP) to produce a series of informational webinars for borrowers and employers on eligibility requirements and the application process for student loan forgiveness and temporary waiver opportunities. English and Spanish language webinars available!
  • Legal Tools for Serving Polyamorous Clients II (August 18)
    • This CLE covered substantive law issues facing polyamorous family client communities, including relationship rights and dissolution, parentage, property issues, and domestic violence.
  • Statewide DV Task Force Meeting – Spotlight On: Westchester Initiatives to Address Family Violence (September 13)
    • Our Senior DV Attorney Amy Schwartz-Wallace helped coordinate this presentation in which members of Westchester’s coordinated community response team, the Domestic Violence High Risk Team, discussed the thinking and planning behind the development of this new team, including the planning, implementation and funding.
  • Elegibilidad de Beneficios para Inmigrantes (September 20)
    • Senior Paralegal Cheryl Keshner partnered with the Long Island Immigration Clinic to deliver this presentation explaining the benefits that are available to immigrants based on their immigration status and discuss the facts and myths about public charge.
  • How Public Benefits May Help Victims of Domestic Violence and Other Crimes (September 13)
    • Victims of crime, especially victims of domestic violence, may need financial resources and support to recover from crime or to leave an abusive partner. Senior Benefits Attorney Susan Antos presented this CLE on public benefits available to low-income New Yorkers.
  • 2022 Family Law Conference (October 13-14)
    • We are co-sponsoring this dual in-person (NYC) and virtual conference where law practitioners, survivor leaders, social service professionals, members of the judiciary, and advocates have the opportunity to examine the significant challenges for survivors in family law cases, learn about key legal developments, engage and collaborate with practitioners and advocates across organizations, and develop meaningful solutions.


Recognition of Excellence in Advocacy

We were delighted that Marlene Cortés, our Senior Manager of Language Justice Program, was a nominee for the Annual Colors of Success DEI Award, presented by Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce! Marlene is one of 27 local changemakers who demonstrated exemplary leadership in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the greater Rochester community and was among those honored on Friday, September 16.

We are also excited to announce that Lettie Dickerson, our LGBTQ Rights attorney, has been appointed to the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission of NY Courts to further its mission to raise awareness about LGBTQ issues and to foster a more supportive environment in NYS courts.


A Celebration of Leadership

It’s back! Our annual Celebration of Leadership fundraising event will be held on Thursday, November 17, from 5:30-8:30 at the Cornerstone at the Plaza in Albany. Our leadership awards will be presented to:

  • Andrew Brown, President of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA)
  • Laura Valeria Gonzalez-Murphy, Executive Director NY State Office for New Americans
  • And a posthumous honor to Don Friedman, former Senior Attorney at Empire Justice Center, to recognize his legacy of advocacy across decades.

Don’t forget to get your tickets or sponsor the event!


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.

You can find all of our COVID-19 free legal resources on our website, and if you need help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.


The Empire Justice Policy Team