Posted on January 25th, 2023
Welcome to the January edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. This edition is focused on our 2023 Policy Priorities. You can read an archived version of the newsletter here.
Read our full 2023 policy agenda here: 2023 Policy Priorities – Empire Justice Center
Posted on December 21st, 2022
Welcome to a double-stuffed November & December edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we’re covering our efforts to combat EBT skimming scams, legislative victories as health, child care, and benefits bills are signed by the Governor, how we are pushing for equitable e-filing rules, growing efforts to combat child poverty, a new initiative pushing for health equity through language access, recognizing staff achievements, and a report out on our Celebration of Leadership event! You can also read an archived version of the email newsletter here.
Combatting “Skimming” of Benefits
Empire Justice staff, including Jessica Radbord and Cheryl Keshner, have been working to raise awareness of and find solutions to the issue of “skimming” public assistance benefits. Skimming is the practice in which thieves attach devices to credit card machines to steal information and access the accounts. While most credit cards now have chips that protect the card from skimming, EBT cards — through which people access benefits like SNAP (food stamps) — do not. Additionally, when people have their benefits stolen, the state does not refund them the way a bank refunds someone who held a credit or debit card. This is leaving some of the most low-income New Yorkers increasingly vulnerable, through no fault of their own and with little they can do to protect themselves.
The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) estimates that over 4,000 low-income people in New York State have been victims of EBT skimming so far – with more to come if there is not a solution in place soon. We have been working with staff at OTDA, Senator Schumer’s office, Senator Gillibrand’s office, and leaders in the NY state legislature to raise awareness of this issue and pursue solutions, such as reimbursing people who have had their benefits stolen, and transitioning to cards with chips. This is getting media coverage. Senator Gillibrand recently introduced a bill and quoted Empire Justice in the release. There is language addressing the issue of skimming SNAP benefits in the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill that is currently being discussed.
We are hopeful that SNAP benefits will be restored through the Omnibus bill, with the help of our advocacy, and will continue to work with OTDA and state legislators to ensure that cash assistance recipients are also reimbursed for their losses and afforded basic protections against theft.
Child Care Victory – Greater Access for Gig Workers, Homeless, and Other NYS Parents
We have several victories to share in this edition, as Governor Hochul is signing a number of important bills passed during the legislative session before 2022 ends. The first is the Child Care Decoupling Bill (A.7661/S6655-A), which amends Social Services Law 410(3)(b)(1) to provide that public welfare officials may not limit child care services based on the hours of work, training, or educational schedules of the parents, or the number of hours spent in work, training or educational activities.
This legislation expands access to child care by removing outdated restrictions so more low-income, homeless and other families on public assistance who are working part time, have rotating schedules, or who are participating in educational and vocational activities are able to access child care.
We are proud that our Senior Benefits Attorney and longtime child care advocate Susan Antos helped draft the original bill, based on issues faced by our clients. Thank you to Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi and Senator Jabari Brisport for their commitment to this bill, the Empire State Child Care Campaign for their advocacy on the bill, and Governor Hochul for signing the bill into law.
Health Justice Victory – Patient Medical Debt Protection Act Signed Into Law
A victory for all New Yorkers on November 23 as Governor Hochul signed into law the Patient Medical Debt Prevention Act (S.6522-A/A.7363-A), which will now prohibit health care providers from placing home liens on an individual’s primary residence or garnishing wages to collect on medical debt.
As we noted in our memo of support for the bill back in January, New Yorkers struggle with health care costs, even when they have insurance. Over 52,000 New York patients have been sued for medical debt by non-profit hospitals in the past five years, and eight percent of New Yorkers have delinquent medical debt that appears on their credit reports. Communities of color in New York are more than twice as likely to have medical debt than their white counterparts in counties like Westchester, Erie, Monroe, Onondaga and Albany. This carefully tailored law will still allow providers to collect medical debts by suing debtors and attaching other assets including bank accounts, second homes, cars, and boats – but will ensure that people will not have to fear being made homeless due to liens from medical providers, or being unable to pay their bills due to garnishments from medical providers.
We thank Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried in their leadership on this bill, our colleagues in the End Medical Debt Coalition for working hard to push it forward, and Governor Hochul for signing it into law.
Facility Fees Bill Goes to Governor
Another bill addressing medical debt has been sent to the Governor’s office for signature – the Facility Fees Reform bill (S.2521-C/A.2470-C). Increasingly, hospitals are acquiring medical practices and labs and then charging patients outlandish “facility fees” when they use these services – including for preventative care that is supposed to be free. Patients are shocked when they mysteriously find a $150-$250 facility charge on their bills months after seeing a medical provider. Insurance companies often do not pay facility fee charges – leaving patients stuck with them.
This legislation would inform patients of a facility fee in advance of being charged the fee by a medical practice affiliated with a hospital and would also prevent a fee from being charged for preventive services entirely.
Thank you again to Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried for their commitment to this bill. Governor Hochul has until December 23 to take action on this bill – we hope she will sign it into law.
Ability to Apply Electronically for Benefits Finally Going Statewide
Since 2018, the NYDocSubmit app for mobile devices has been available, allowing applicants
and recipients of Temporary Assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Home Energy Assistance Program, and Medicaid to submit documents online by uploading pictures of their paperwork – but only if their county has opted to offer the program. Unfortunately, many counties had not opted to offer the program, making it difficult to impossible for New Yorkers with mobility issues, lack of transportation, lack of access to child care, non-traditional work hours, or safety concerns (such as domestic violence) to apply for badly needed benefits.
We are very pleased that Governor Hochul has signed A.9118-A/A.6348-A into law, which will modernize the administration of public assistance across the state by requiring all social services districts to accept documents through electronic systems. It will not only provide for more equitable access to benefits statewide, but it is also likely to enhance efficiencies and reduce errors within local departments. Thank you to Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Senator Rachel May for championing this important legislation, and to Governor Hochul for signing it into law.
Pushing for Equitable E-filing Rules
The option to use electronic methods for filing important documents is important, but mandating electronic filing can also come with its own problems. On December 13 we submitted comments to the Office of Court Administration in preparation for their report to the Legislature, Governor, and the Chief Judge on mandatory e-filing in NYS courts. We underlined that it is critical that any expansion of e-filing maintain the exception for people who are pro se or unrepresented. Many low-income New Yorkers do not have internet access, or have limited, unreliable or intermittent access, and mandatory efiling would place an unfair burden on them.
We also recommended that the OCA develop a method to enable the immediate temporary sealing of e-filed documents, until those documents can be reviewed by a judge. Under current e-filing methods documents cannot be sealed until a court directs that a matter be sealed. This means that documents that are e-filed, as opposed to traditional filing methods, are at risk of being made public due to the existence of web scrapers and other programs that automatically pull publicly available information from websites and publish it on third party websites. Once this information has been captured and made public, it cannot be retroactively protected, even where a court subsequently orders sealing or redaction.
NYS Poverty Surpasses National Average for 8 Years in a Row
NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released the first of a series of reports on New Yorkers in Need on December 8. This report, called A Look At Poverty Trends in New York State For The Last Decade, examined disparities in poverty rates between racial groups, urban and rural residents, and the impact of the social safety net and pandemic relief.
“Poverty is an urgent and solvable problem in a state as well-resourced as New York,” said Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown in the press release announcing the report. “This new report documents that, particularly during the pandemic, poverty harmed marginalized communities the most. Empire Justice Center applauds Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Governor Kathy Hochul for shining a light on the inequitable impact of poverty, and for presenting solutions. We support the recommendations in this report and from the Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council, particularly extending the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Empire State Child Tax Credit, and increasing the public assistance shelter allowance and basic needs grants. All together, these are concrete actionable steps that will move the needle on the goal of reducing poverty in New York state and we look forward to working toward their enactment in 2023.”
Call for Expansion of the Child and Earned Income Tax Credits
Empire Justice was among other advocates and community leaders in Rochester and New York City that gathered on December 10 to call on Congress to re-expand the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.
In 2021 the United States was able to reduce child poverty nationwide by 40% due to a temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit as part of the American Rescue Plan. But since that expansion ended, nearly 4 million children across the U.S. have fallen back into poverty.
“In our work we have supported almost 200,000 families in the Rochester area with their tax returns, we have seen the tremendous impact of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments and how effective they were in lifting children and families out of poverty,” said Yversha Roman, director of our CASH tax help program, to RochesterFirst.com. “We ask our Congressional leaders to put children first by making it easier for families to pay for clothing, gas, rent, and food by extending and expanding the child tax credit.”
At the state level, we applaud Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, Senator Andrew Gournardes, and Senator Jeremy Cooney for unveiling plans for a state-level measure modeled on the federal credits called the NYS Working Families Tax Credit on December 8. This proposal would increase the maximum credit to $1,500 per child and provide, at minimum, a $500 credit per child regardless of income.
Working Toward Better Health Outcomes Through Language Access
Thanks to Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s Health Equity Award, Empire Justice was able to invest in our Language Justice Program and partner with Common Ground Health to launch the 2022 My Health Story. This survey is a way for residents of the Rochester region to share info about their health and life circumstances that impact their well-being, focusing on under-resourced communities and individuals whose stories are often left out of public health initiatives, and Empire Justice will be focusing on working with the Monroe County Language Access Coalition to strengthen inclusion of community members who have limited English language communication and reading skills.
WROC Channel 8 in Rochester covered the launch of the program and interviewed our Language Justice Program Senior Manager Marlene Cortes. She said, “Usually the LEP community (which stands for Limited English Proficient community) and deaf and hard of hearing communities don’t partake in these surveys, because they’re not accessible to them.”
What Lawyers Can Do When Pet Abuse and DV Intersect
Our Regional Attorney Coordinator Amy Molloy Bogardus wrote an article for the New York Bar Association (NYSBA), What Lawyers Can Do When Pet Abuse and Domestic Violence Intersect. This article explains how violence against pets intersects with other manifestations of domestic violence, tells legal services providers how to identify the presence of animals within their client’s environment, and outlines legal tools that may help domestic violence survivors and their pets.
Recognizing Our Emerging Leaders
We’re happy to recognize five of our staff members who graduated from the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes’ Emerging Leaders Development Programs!
- Amadimo Belleh, HOPP Technical Coordinator
- Katie Blum, Civil Rights Staff Attorney
- Keith Jensen, Public Benefits Paralegal
- Mercedece Love, Legal Assistant
- Sarah Thompson, CASH Office Manager
A Celebration of Leadership
Thank you to everyone who came to or otherwise supported this year’s Celebration of Leadership fundraiser in Albany, on November 17.
If you missed the event but would still like to support us, it’s not too late to donate in honor of our awardees!
Thank You For Reading
If you need civil legal help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.
The Empire Justice Policy Team
Posted on October 31st, 2022
The Disability Law News is a quarterly newsletter published for DAP Advocates. In this issue, we give introduce some new faces joining the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) and their rolls, along with explaining what DAP Statewide Legal Support is and the services provided under this separate contract. This issue features details on the historical COLA increase for 2023, an article on the barriers many recipients of Social Security Disability (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) face if they want to marry. New Regulations, Court Decisions and a recent Report on using data to assess equity within the Social Security Administration.
Posted on September 30th, 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.
Thank You For Reading
The Empire Justice Policy Team
Posted on July 31st, 2022
The Disability Law News is a quarterly newsletter published for DAP Advocates. In this issue, we give tribute to Kate Callery and her 35 years of supporting DAP advocates statewide as she recently announced her retirement. We wish Kate the very happiest of retirements and extend our gratitude to her for her immeasurable contributions and friendship. This issue features several new Regulations, Court Decisions and recent Studies & Reports on treatment of critical cases, the decline in kids’ SSI claims, and the collection of medical evidence.
Posted on June 30th, 2022
Welcome to the June edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we wrap up the legislative session with bills on pandemic assistance, protecting medical patients from health provider liens and garnishments, and establishing a wellness and equity fund to support transgender New Yorkers; testimony on the future of NYS courts, legal analysis of possible new tenant protections, comments on community reinvestment in Rochester, a presentation on legal tools to help reduce gun violence, and our participation in National Give Out Day – don’t forget to support our work on LGBTQ rights! You can read an archived version of the newsletter here.
2022 Session Wrap-up
The legislative session ended with a number of bills left unfinished. The bill to waive pandemic unemployment assistance repayments under certain circumstances (S.6244-B/A.7511) passed the Senate but didn’t make it to the floor in the Assembly. This bill would help many New Yorkers who received payments through no fault on their part, so they do not have to pay for mistakes made by the Department of Labor, especially since these payments have already been used to pay for rent, groceries, and other necessities.
However, we are happy to say that the end of session did bring another victory for poor New Yorkers – Protecting Patients from Health Provider Liens & Garnishments (A.7363/S.6522) passed both houses and is waiting to be sent to the Governor for signature. This bill would stop health providers from being allowed to place liens on patients’ homes or garnish their wages.
And this past Sunday came another victory for transgender New Yorkers as Governor Hochul signed the bill establishing the Lorena Borjas Transgender Wellness and Equity Fund (A.9418/S.8884). This fund will support organizations that provide critical services for the transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary and intersex (TGNCNBI) community, and is named for noted transgender activist Lorena Borjas, who sadly passed from COVID-19 in 2020. Lorena dedicated her life to supporting transgender immigrants, many of whom fled transphobic oppression in their home countries. We are happy to have been a part of making this fund a reality.
Looking to the Future of NYS Courts
Our President & CEO, Kristin Brown, presented testimony to the Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts on June 7th. This testimony was brought together expertise from across our organization, and focused on three key issue areas for the courts to address:
- The need for statewide consistency and development of best practices
- The barriers created by mandating notarization
- The urgent need for language justice in the courts
Legal Analysis – Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act
Our Senior Housing Attorney, Michael Furlano, wrote a legal analysis of the recently passed Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act, and the ways this act, if signed by Governor Hochul, would provide a clear right of action for tenants to compel repairs and to seek monetary relief for living with hazardous and unsafe conditions – all without risking eviction.
Comments on Five Star Bank’s Rochester Reinvestment Performance
The Greater Rochester Community Reinvestment Coalition (GRCRC), which Empire Justice Center convenes, recently commented on Five Star Bank’s performance in reinvesting in the Rochester community. The comments focus on three areas:
- Five Star’s Home Mortgage Disclosure Act/Mortgage Lending
- Five Star’s Community Reinvestment Act Small Business Lending
- Five Star’s Reinvestment of Deposits into the Community, Response to Community Needs and Opportunities for Investment
Barb Van Kerkhove, our Consumer Policy Analyst, also attended the National Community Reinvestment Coalition Conference – the first since 2019!
Legal Tools to Reduce the Risk of Gun Violence
In the wake of the terrible mass shooting in Buffalo on May 14, legal services providers have been looking for ways to use their skills to help reduce the risk of gun violence. Our Senior DV Attorney, Amy Schwartz-Wallace, and Project Leader of the Crime Victims Legal Network, Remla Parthasarathy, teamed up with the Minority Bar Association of WNY and the Bar Association of Erie County to create and present a CLE on New York’s Red Flag Law: What Attorneys Need to Know to File an Application (Extreme Risk Protection Order).
The Red Flag Law, also known as the Extreme Risk Protection Order Law, prevents individuals who are at risk of hurting themselves or others from purchasing or possessing firearms, rifles, or shotguns. This law, which went into effect in August 2019, can be an important tool in preventing domestic violence homicides, suicides, and situations of mass violence, but many practitioners still don’t know about Emergency Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) and how to obtain this civil protection order. Please note: We are still reviewing the recent SCOTUS decision on concealed carry weapons, but at this time we do not think it will affect the Red Flag law or its recent amendments.
National Give Out Day
And lastly, today is National Give Out Day – a national day of giving for organizations that provide services to the LGBTQ+ community. Please consider giving to our LGBTQ Rights Project, which advocates for the queer and transgender community by engaging in systems change, providing legal training and technical assistance, and providing direct representation and legal counsel to individual community members.
Thank You For Reading
Policy Matters will be taking a break for the summer, but we’ll be back in September. In the meantime, 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.
The Empire Justice Policy Team
Posted on May 31st, 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
The Empire Justice Policy Team
Posted on May 2nd, 2022
The Disability Law News is a quarterly newsletter published for DAP Advocates. In this issue, Social Security Administration’s office reopened in April and we continue to monitor complications and provide contacts to report problems accessing local field offices and telephone issues. In the case of Puerto Rico’s exclusion from SSI, The Supreme Court has issued it’s decision in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero. We take a look at the decision and give our analysis. Also in this issue are new regulations and several new court decisions.
Posted on April 29th, 2022
Welcome to the April edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we cover the end of welfare mortgages in New York State, a final 2022 budget wrap-up, working to end abusive auto industry practices, and a training on coordinating HIV health benefits for people who are eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare. You can read an archived version of the newsletter here.
New Era For Low Income Homeowners
Regular followers of Policy Matters will remember that last year we achieved a long sought after victory by ending the practice of requiring homeowners to give a mortgage on their homes in exchange for receiving welfare benefits. New York was the last state in the nation to end this practice, which perpetuated a cycle of poverty and prevented very low-income people from achieving economic stability and security for decades.
This budget we completed this victory by wiping all existing welfare mortgages off the books for good.
The regulations were released by OTDA last week, reading in part, “Effective April 9, 2022, districts must not recover any TA real property and/or mortgage liens that were previously accepted and have not yet been satisfied.” We’re immensely proud of the work done on this issue over the past decade by Senior Attorney Susan Antos, Benefits Attorney Jessica Radbord, Senior Attorney Kirsten Keefe, CEO & President Kristin Brown, as well as Empire Justice alums Tamara Frazier, Saima Akhtar, Gary Grasso, Evan Baer, and everyone who contributed to ending this practice.
2022 Budget Wrap-up
Ending welfare mortgages was not our only budget victory. Our other funding and policy campaigns were very successful:
- Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP): $20 million from the Executive, with an additional $15 million from the Legislature to meet the increased need for services due to COVID.
- Upstate and Long Island Eviction Defense: New funding of $35 million for services outside of New York City.
- Disability Advocacy Program (DAP): Achieved a raise in funding to $12.52 million, up from $8.26 million, which will allow the program to tackle the backlog of cases caused by the physical closure of Social Security offices during the pandemic.
- Community Health Advocates (CHA): Will now be able to offer services to all New Yorkers, including people on Medicaid.
- Elimination of the 185% Standard of Need Test: We’ve long advocated for the elimination of this test, and it will result in small increase in the amount of money that very poor New Yorkers can receive every month.
- Language Access: Codification and expansion of executive orders requiring state agencies to translate vital documents in the 12 most common non-English languages in the state, with four additional languages available based on regional needs.
- Expansion of the Gender Recognition Act: Mandated creation of new X gender marker options for all state agencies, as well as a provision to ensure that transgender, nonbinary, and intersex New Yorkers are able to update their marriage certificates.
You can read more about all of these victories, as well as the budget overall, in our press statement: 2022 State Budget – Good Budget for Many Programs Benefitting Low-Income New Yorkers; Must Do More for Immigrants.
Pushing to End Abusive Auto Industry Practices
Senior Attorney Ruhi Maker took part in a New York/Connecticut roundtable discussion on abusive auto industry practices, and what can be done about them, with a collection of economists, advocates, and state representatives, including Yale’s Ian Ayres, Consumer Reports’ Chuck Bell, and Reps. Christopher Rosario and Quentin Williams.
HIV & Dual Eligible Benefits
Senior Health Attorney Fiona Wolfe and Health Attorney Alexia Mickles delivered a training on how to coordinate benefits for individuals living with HIV who are eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare on April 12. The webinar was designed for health or social services providers and legal advocates who work with or advocate for people with HIV/AIDs.
Thank You For Reading
The Empire Justice Policy Team
Posted on March 31st, 2022
Welcome to the March edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we’ll cover the rapidly approaching end of budget season, an important settlement for students with disabilities in Rochester, crime victims advocacy trainings, and a last chance at free tax preparation help for folks in Rochester. You can read an archived version here.
Heading Towards the Budget Finish Line…
The hours and minutes are ticking down to the passage of the final budget bills, and we’re continuing our advocacy for numerous programs and proposals.
We were very pleased to see the funding for the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP), which provides legal representation to New Yorkers facing foreclosure, in both the Senate and Assembly one house bills. We are also continuing to push strongly on our funding asks for both the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP), which helps New Yorkers through the federal disability appeals process, and the Consumer Health Advocates (CHA), which helps New Yorkers navigate health insurance, medical debt, and disability appeals.
We’re also continuing to push to Fund the Gap – to provide funding to plug a temporary gap in funding for crime victims legal services across the state. While the Executive provided $14.4 million in the 30-Day Amendments, a total of $25 million is needed to ensure that program services for victims of crime are not cut.
For years now we have advocated for a number of common-sense updates to public benefits programs to ensure that more folks can get the help they need when they need it. The Executive and the Legislature have introduced a number of proposals that could address some of these perennial issues, including doing away with the 45-day waiting period for Safety Net Assistance, increasing the earnings disregard for New Yorkers without children, and putting in place a 12-month work exemption for parents and caregivers to those providing care for a child under one year of age.
We are also supporting the proposal for a transgender & nonbinary (TGNB) wellness fund, which would fund services and programs by and for the TGNB community in New York State.
We’ll have more to share on these, and other budget campaigns, once the State Budget is finalized.
Consent Decree Reached for Students With Disabilities
Empire Justice Center and Nixon Peabody announced earlier this month that a federal court has approved an Amended Consent Decree that further resolves claims in a lawsuit brought by a class of students with disabilities in the Rochester City School District and their families to secure the District’s compliance with special education laws. The Decree requires the School District to meet objective goals that demonstrate continual measurable progress in providing timely services, improving achievement and graduation rates, eliminating racial disparities in classification and suspension, and increasing involvement with parents of students with disabilities.
“This case has always been about students with disabilities and their families,” said Senior Attorney, Maggie Robb, in an article by WXXI. “We want them to know that we are here to help enforce their civil rights so they can achieve academic success and prepare for life beyond high school.”
You can learn more about this important case and the effects it will have on students with disabilities in this interview of Legal Director Jonathan Feldman, who also worked on the case, by David Lombardo on the Capitol Pressroom.
Crime Victims Advocacy Webinars
New York Crime Victims Legal Help will be hosting two noteworthy webinars in April to mark Crime Victims’ Rights Week:
- Two Years Later: The Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Domestic Violence on April 26th, at 11:00 am.
- How to Help an Adult Victim of Sexual Abuse in Family Court on April 28th, at 12:00 pm.
Last Chance for Tax Help From CASH
WROC Channel 8 in Rochester did a story on our CASH program, highlighting the importance of professional tax help for low income families and individuals, and interviewed the Director of CASH, Yversha Roman.
“It’s super important to seek professional help and guidance. Right now we are still even looking for clients or individual community members who haven’t claimed their child tax credits because every year tax laws and credits change, it can become very confusing,” Roman said.
If you’re in the Rochester area you can schedule your appointment for free tax preparation today, including for 2018, 2019, or 2020 returns. Call 585-900-1004 or visit https://empirejustice.org/cash for more information.
Thank You For Reading
The Empire Justice Policy Team