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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Proposed “Sweep” in the Executive Budget Would Put Civil Legal Services Further at Risk

Posted on February 5th, 2024

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

Contact: Alex Dery Snider 

ADerySnider@empirejustice.org

202.641.5124 

Wage gap between state-funded attorneys, government peers is driving an employment crisis in New York’s Civil Legal Services 

Proposed “Sweep” in the Executive Budget Would Put Civil Legal Services Further at Risk 

 

The wage gap between civil legal service attorneys’ salaries and their government peers is fueling a civil legal services crisis and driving the state’s Access to Justice Gap, according to a white paper released today by the New York Legal Services Coalition (NYLSC). Additionally, a proposal in the Executive Budget to sweep funding from the Interest on Lawyers Account (IOLA) — earmarked for civil legal aid — to the General Fund would further harm low-income New Yorkers seeking justice. The IOLA funds are intended to assist in addressing the dual crises of an estimated $ 1 billion civil justice gap and community wide salaries that are at least 30% below counterparts in similar public interest and public sector fields.  

 

Pay Parity: A Shared Vision to Achieve Pay Parity for All Attorneys Working to Close the Justice Gap 

 

“No Governor in IOLA’s 40-year history has ever transferred the non-taxpayer money earned on attorney escrow accounts into the General Fund.  IOLA urges Governor Hochul to rescind the proposed transfer in her 30-day amendments and avoid harming the provision of civil legal aid in New York,” said Christopher B. O’Malley, Executive Director of The Interest on Lawyer Account Fund of the State of New York 

Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal said, “The proposed $100 million sweep from the IOLA fund would have a devastating impact on low-income New Yorkers who rely on civil legal services for eviction prevention and assistance with housing, healthcare and government benefits. If New York is to close the justice gap, we must ensure that we’re properly funding the legal services organizations and programs that are dedicated to helping those in need. The State Legislature must firmly reject this sweep outright and in no uncertain terms.” 

“In order to close the Access to Justice gap, we must strengthen and grow the dedicated civil legal aid workforce that is providing direct representation and counsel to clients. This starts with achieving pay parity between the civil legal services and government positions,” said Tina Monshipour Foster, Executive Director, JustCause and Board President, NY Legal Services Coalition. It is not only the just thing to do for these mission-driven professionals but will ultimately pave the way for broader access to justice initiatives across the state.   

“Sweeping the IOLA funds into the General Fund would have a terrible impact on New York’s civil legal aid community, and, more importantly, the people we serve. The New York Legal Services Coalition is calling on the governor to rescind this proposal in her 30-day budget amendments. We ask Governor Hochul, please don’t undermine our community’s plan to make progress in fixing these pernicious problems – instead, work with us to close the justice gap,” said Kristin Brown, President and CEO of Empire Justice Center and co-vice President of the New York Legal Services Coalition. 

“Sweeping the IOLA funds into the General Fund would have a terrible impact on New York’s civil legal aid community, and, more importantly, the people we serve. The New York Legal Services Coalition is calling on the governor to rescind this proposal in her 30-day budget amendments. We ask Governor Hochul, please don’t undermine our community’s plan to make progress in fixing these pernicious problems – instead, work with us to close the justice gap,” said Kristin Brown, President and CEO of Empire Justice Center and co-vice President of the New York Legal Services Coalition. 

 

New York’s Civil Legal Services Salaries Need to be Increased to be in line with other Government-funded Legal Services Salaries  

NYLSC conducted a survey of its constituent members in 2023 and found that salaries are significantly lower when compared to Assistant Attorney Generals (AAG), in New York City and across the state, for starting salaries and after 10 years of service.  AAG salaries were used as a basis for the comparison due to the similarities in qualifications and scope of work with civil legal aid attorney positions. 

Unlike in criminal proceedings, New Yorkers do not have a statewide right to an attorney in civil matters, though civil matters are legal proceedings that impact their access to housing, health care, employment, education – considered the “Essentials of Life” by the Office of Court Administration. Help is provided in the form of the Civil Legal Services, which offer free legal assistance to low and middle-income people. The Access to Justice Gap — the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income New Yorkers and the resources available to meet those needs – has been estimated by the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice in their annual report to the Chief Judge in  November of 2023 as $1 billion; however it was also documented that every $1 spent on Civil Legal Services saves New York State $5. IOLA reports that civil legal services providers save the state $2.8 million dollars annually and create 8,000 jobs.  Clearly investing in civil legal services programs is good business for New York State. 

Both civil legal services salaries and government positions are funded by the state and have similar mission-driven work, yet there is a significant wage gap: Entry level pay in the civil legal services is 30% to 45% lower than their government counterparts, and those inequities grow as careers advance: at ten years of service, the gaps in pay between civil legal services attorneys and AAGs are as much as 75% in some areas of the state.  

“The wage inequity between government positions and civil legal services positions is creating a staffing crisis for civil legal services organizations that are now struggling to attract and retain employees. This is particularly true in Western New York where we have a local law school and significant competition for legal talent. In addition, the salary gap has negatively impacted our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts as our diverse staff regularly leave our agency for government jobs,” said Karen Nicolson, CEO of the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo.   

 

Proposed Sweep in the Executive Budget Would Exacerbate the Problem 

The report estimates that achieving pay parity will cost an additional $170 million over the next 3 years, or $57 million per year. The Interest on Lawyers Account (IOLA) is a critical source of infrastructure dollars for the Civil Legal Services community and is reliant on interest earnings that fluctuate. With the recent higher interest rates and subsequent increased interest earnings, IOLA has developed a plan to invest in civil legal services infrastructure to help address the Access to Justice Gap, beginning in the next round of grants– the Request for Proposals to be released in August 2024. Grantees would be able to use these additional funds to begin to increase salaries and move closer to pay equity. However, a proposal in the Executive Budget would sweep $100 million from IOLA to the General Fund, potentially setting these efforts back years and setting a dangerous precedent.  

“Governor Hochul’s proposal to siphon IOLA funding for critical civil legal services to the general fund would only exacerbate the harm to low-income New Yorkers who already face deep inequities in the justice system, and cost the state millions of dollars,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “We urge Governor Hochul to rescind this proposal in her 30-day amendments and stand with New York’s civil legal services community and the communities we serve.” 

“The Governor’s proposal to sweep $100 million in IOLA funds into the general fund is misguided and undermines her stated commitment to expand access to justice for all New Yorkers,” said Raun Rasmussen, Executive Director of Legal Services NYC. “The IOLA Fund was created to provide lawyers with an ethical way to manage client escrow funds by supporting legal services to low-income New Yorkers. For forty years, it has accomplished that purpose. Reducing those funds, at a time when New York is falling far short of meeting the justice gap and when legal services providers are losing lawyers due to pay inequity, will be a giant step backward for those of us seeking justice for all.” 

 

About the New York Legal Services Coalition 

The New York Legal Services Coalition is a statewide association that represents the interests of civil legal services organizations and the communities they serve. Our members collectively provide services in the areas of family law, housing, immigration, and public benefits across all 62 counties of New York State. 


STATEMENT: 2024 Executive Budget

Posted on January 18th, 2024

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Alex Dery Snider, 202.641.5124

 

Empire Justice Statement on the 2024 New York State Budget

 

January 18, 2024 

 

Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown offered the following statement on the Executive Budget. 

“Empire Justice Center applauds Governor Hochul on crafting a thoughtful budget while facing a significant revenue deficit, with two glaring omissions. In particular, we are incredibly grateful to the Governor for her support of services to crime victims through the inclusion of a multi-year commitment of funding to support victim assistance programs through the Office of Victim Services.  At the same time, we are deeply disappointed that the Governor did not include any funds for foreclosure prevention in the budget. Advocates with the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) have helped over 130,000 New Yorkers avoid foreclosure. We urge the Governor to include funds for HOPP in her 30-day amendments. 

Federal VOCA funds, which support the Office of Victims Services grants for Victim Assistance programs, are not being generated at the levels necessary to support the services crime victims need. We need a federal solution for that. In the meantime, we are grateful that Governor Hochul and New York state will not let victims down. These funds support legal services that help domestic violence victims rebuild their lives, including obtaining divorces and orders of protection, secure the safety and custody of their children, legally terminate joint leases, and assisting in maintaining employment while victims address their immediate needs.   

Additionally, Empire Justice Center appreciates continuation of funding for important programs that provide legal assistance to low-income New Yorkers like the Disability Advocacy Program, Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program, and Community Health Advocates. We look forward to working with the legislature to increase the level of funding for these important critical services.  

Empire Justice also applauds Governor Hochul for delivering on her promise to modernize New York’s consumer protection law, including banning unfair and abusive business conduct. We look forward to working with the governor, the attorney general’s office, and the legislature to enact even strong consumer protections in the final budget. 

We note that the executive budget does not include long-overdue increases in the completely inadequate public assistance grants. The Basic Needs Allowance, which has not been updated since 2012, was intended to pay for necessities like clothing, hygiene products, and transportation. The Shelter Allowance, which has not been updated since 2003 for families with children and since 1988 for households without children, is so low that most New Yorkers who rely on public assistance live on the edge of homelessness month after month. New York must  increase the grants that support low-income New Yorkers to a level that stabilizes families.  

Finally, Empire Justice Center is deeply concerned about the omission of the Homeowner Protection Program from the executive budget. Given the governor’s focus on housing and deed theft, we are do not understand the omission of funding for the only program in New York state that preserves existing homeownership – at a time when New Yorkers across the state face foreclosure and a housing affordability crisis. Eliminating HOPP would be devastating for struggling homeowners and their communities, especially Black and Brown communities that are historically targeted for predatory lending. 

Any comprehensive housing proposal must include efforts to retain New York homeowners. We respectfully ask Governor Hochul to restore funding in a 30-day amendment and to ensure full funding of $40 million in the final budget to support this crucial program.”  

 


PRESS RELEASE: Court Approves Final Relief for Individuals Denied Public Assistance Because of the Value of their Vehicle

Posted on October 10th, 2023

 

For Immediate Release: October 10, 2023

Empire Justice Center Contact: Susan Antos, Managing Attorney, Santos@empirejustice.org 

NCLEJ Contact: Saima Akhtar, Senior Attorney, Akhtar@nclej.org

Legal Services of Central New York Contact: Julie Morse, Staff Attorney, JMorse@Lscny.org 

 

Court Approves Final Relief for Individuals Denied Public Assistance Because of the Value of their Vehicle

 

Albany, NY – The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Empire Justice Center, and Legal Services of Central New York are pleased to announce Court approval of a settlement that will benefit thousands of low-income New Yorkers who have been or would be denied critically needed cash assistance because of vehicle ownership.

 

Read the notice to class members in English.

Read the notice to class members in Spanish.

 

Read the Re-Noticing Stipulation here, and read the Standardized Restored Benefits Stipulation here.

 

The Stewart v. Roberts settlement will benefit low-income New Yorkers in multiple ways: applicants for public assistance will no longer be denied benefits when they have little to no equity in a car valued at more than $12,000; applicants who were wrongfully denied due to a car with little to no equity value will be issued a notice, and some wrongfully denied applicants will be eligible for a standardized payment.

 

New York State law provides that vehicles below a certain value ($12,000 in 2023) cannot be counted as a disqualifying resource when applying for public assistance. However, in 2015, Tricia Stewart’s application for public assistance was denied because the fair market value of her car was over the legal resource limit. At the time of the public assistance denial, Ms. Stewart also owed more than $13,000 on the car, which meant her equity interest in the vehicle was negative. Lawyers for Ms. Stewart argued that because of the outstanding loan on the vehicle, it had no countable value as a resource and that Ms. Stewart should be eligible for public assistance. The Albany County Supreme Court agreed that using the equity value of Ms. Stewart’s vehicle, rather than the fair market value, was the proper assessment of the vehicle’s value. The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision, stating that the policy was “irrational and unreasonable.”

 

“When I lost my job, I needed help.  DSS denied my application for public assistance because they said my car was too valuable.  That didn’t make any sense to me because I owed more on my car loan than the car was worth. ” said client Tricia Stewart. “I’m happy that people who were affected by New York State’s outdated resource rule may be compensated.”

 

Following the Appellate Division’s decision, concerns arose about identifying and notifying potential class members about the case. This prompted lawyers for Ms. Stewart and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (“OTDA”) to negotiate a simplified process for issuing notice to possible class members and providing relief to class members.

 

To resolve this long-standing litigation, the Court ordered the following:

 

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The National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) is a legal services nonprofit organization that advances racial and economic justice for low-income families, individuals, and communities across the country through ground-breaking impact litigation, policy advocacy, and support for grassroots organizing. Founded in 1965, NCLEJ fights to protect access to critical benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, and childcare, protect low-wage workers’ rights and safety, advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and fights unlawful debt collection.

Empire Justice Center is a statewide nonprofit law firm whose mission is to make the law work for all New Yorkers, particularly for those who need its protection most. We take a 360-degree, comprehensive approach to changing systems by engaging in three major and interconnected areas of service. We teach the law by providing training, support and technical assistance to legal services and other community-based organizations; we practice the law by providing direct, civil legal assistance to low-income people with a particular focus on those from marginalized communities; and we change the law by engaging in policy analysis, research and advocacy and undertaking impact litigation to get at the root of systemic issues.

For more than 50 years, Legal Services of Central New York has fought to help people overcome obstacles, achieve goals, and pursue justice.  Our team of 45 attorneys offers expertise in confronting community-wide problems and representing individuals with low-income.  In 2017 we helped more than 15,000 people in 5,600 cases. We serve a 13-county region of Central New York (Broome, Cayuga, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Otsego, and Oswego), fighting for justice and opportunity for all.  For free legal assistance apply online at www.lscny.org or call (877) 777-6152.

 


PRESS RELEASE: Application Deadline Extended to 12/1/23 for Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship

Posted on August 21st, 2023

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                          

Application Deadline Extended to 12/1/23 for Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship

Fellow Will Focus On High Priority Legal Concerns of Low-Income People

 

ROCHESTER, New York (Nov 1, 2023) – Empire Justice Center is currently accepting applications for The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship, a two-year post graduate legal fellowship that was established in memory of Hanna S. Cohn, who served as the Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services Project (now known as Just Cause) for twenty years.  Former U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca characterized Hanna as a “drum major for justice… who devoted her life to those in need.”

The goal of this prestigious Fellowship is to increase legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income families in high priority areas that are currently underserved. The Fellowship will be awarded to a dynamic and talented new lawyer beginning a career in the practice of poverty law.

The Fellow will be placed at the Empire Justice Center in Rochester, NY and will represent low-income clients in complex areas of law through litigation, policy and systems change advocacy.  The Fellow’s background and interests will be matched with high priority legal concerns of low-income individuals that are not currently being addressed or that require additional resources.

The application deadline is December 1, 2023.  The Fellow will be notified in January, 2024 and will begin work in September, 2024.  Applications can be downloaded from Empire Justice Center’s website; applications can also be submitted online.

Issue areas addressed by past Cohn Fellows include: the legal rights of LGBT individuals, wage theft, consumer law and fair credit reporting, legal issues regarding clients with limited English proficiency, access to health care and on serving Monroe County’s deaf and hard-of-hearing population.

The Fellowship is made possible by the Hannah S. and Samuel A. Cohn Memorial Foundation and through private donations to the Hanna S. Cohn Memorial Fund.

Jerry Wein who was Hanna’s husband notes, “In creating the Cohn Fellowship our family’s vision was to recognize Hanna’s journey by opening a door for a new lawyer–as one was opened for her.   We hoped to provide an opportunity, within a supportive legal community, for a lawyer entering the profession to build on their values and skills and help fashion a world where the phrase “equal justice” had real meaning.  Our vision is a reality thanks to the accomplishments of a remarkable group of Fellows, the leadership and support provided by Empire Justice, the Campaign for Justice, and the many friends who continue to contribute to the Hanna S. Cohn Memorial Fund.”

“We are honored to have the opportunity to build upon Hanna’s legacy in Rochester by bringing bright new lawyers to Rochester to practice with our attorneys and learn firsthand how impactful systems change advocacy and poverty law can be”, said Kristin Brown, President & CEO of Empire Justice Center. “I want to personally thank Jerry, the Cohn family and the many contributors to this effort for creating this important program that has touched so many lives and launched incredible careers for former fellows.”

Empire Justice Center’s mission is to make the law work for all New Yorkers, but especially for those who need its protection most.  For more than 40 years, our staff has protected and strengthened the legal rights of people in New York who are poor, disabled or disenfranchised.  This is accomplished through three major and interconnected areas of service: providing training, support and technical assistance to legal services and other community-based organizations; offering direct legal assistance and undertaking impact litigation; and engaging in policy analysis, research and advocacy. Empire Justice has offices in Albany, Rochester, White Plains, Yonkers, Central Islip and Hempstead.  Please download the application for more details.

Contact:
Kristi Hughes, Chief Operating Officer
khughes@empirejustice.org
(585) 295-5817

# # #

 

 

Empire Justice Center is a non‐profit law firm dedicated to making the law work for all New Yorkers using a powerful, 360‐degree approach. We teach the law by providing training technical assistance to other advocates. We practice the law by providing free, direct civil legal services and impact litigation. We change the law by engaging in legislative and administrative advocacy on issues that affect under‐served communities. Empire Justice has offices in Albany, Rochester, Yonkers, White Plains, Central Islip and Hempstead.


PRESS RELEASE: Report Demonstrates New York State’s Shelter Allowance is Totally Inadequate

Posted on August 15th, 2023

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Alex Dery Snider
aderysnider@empirejustice.org
202.641.5124

 

 

Empire Justice Center Report Demonstrates

New York State’s Shelter Allowance is Totally Inadequate

There are no safe and habitable units priced below the Public Assistance “shelter allowance” and state supplements fail to bridge the gap, creating housing instability and homelessness for public assistance recipients.

 

Today, Empire Justice Center released a report demonstrating the profound inadequacy of the shelter allowance portion of the public assistance monthly grant for eligible low-income New Yorkers. The report, No Keys to Safe and Decent Housing in New York’s “Safety Net”: The Inadequacy of the Public Assistance Shelter Allowance and Rental Supplements, documents how the shelter allowance, which has not been updated for households with children since 2003 and has not been updated for households without children since 1988, does not reflect the reality of the private housing market. The current shelter allowance for a family of three with children ranges from a low of $259 in Franklin County to a high of $447 in Suffolk County. These amounts are not enough to cover the cost of any habitable rental unit in New York State, falling hundreds of dollars below what the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has determined to be fair market rents for these areas.

In the report, a client recounts how she attempts to survive on such a small public assistance grant. The client is unable to work and receives only $440 per month in public assistance. The cheapest unit she could find in Monroe County was a bed in a rooming house with code violations for $430 per month.  After paying rent, she is left with only $10 a month to meet all her other needs.

“There is no rational basis for the meager shelter allowance. Recipients cannot find habitable apartments in the private market on a public assistance budget. Because of the inadequacy of benefits, people receiving public assistance are likely to end up living in substandard or overcrowded housing, be at risk of eviction, face frequent moves, or experience homelessness, making it incredibly hard for them to improve their long-term economic prospects and work toward their goals.” says Jessica Radbord, Senior Attorney and coauthor of the report.  “While only 0.4% of New Yorkers are experiencing homelessness at any given time, over 17% of public assistance recipients are – and that number is likely to continue to rise if benefit amounts stay the same while housing prices continue to increase.”

The report also documents the extent to which state-funded rent supplement programs fail to solve the problem of the inadequacy of the shelter allowance.  The report shows that the number of supplements available is dramatically lower than the number of households in need of assistance.

“Current state-funded supplements cover only 3% of public assistance recipients, leaving a majority of households without additional support” said Haley Kulakowski, staff attorney and coauthor of the report.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Empire Justice Center is advocating for improvements to public assistance and rent supplement programs to address these problems.

Other important changes are also needed to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to safe and affordable housing, including developing affordable housing in opportunity areas where vacancy rates are low, increasing the minimum wage so low wage workers can afford adequate housing, increasing the state supplement for SSI recipients, and making improvements to tax policy to leverage its power to lift people out of poverty. But increasing the public assistance shelter allowance and expanding and improving rent supplement programs are immediate and effective means of lifting thousands of New Yorkers out of deep poverty and stabilizing their housing.

 

Feedback on the No Keys to Safe and Decent Housing in New York’s “Safety Net”: The Inadequacy of the Public Assistance Shelter Allowance and Rental Supplements report:

“New York’s safety net system was created to help lift families out of poverty, but with the ever-increasing cost of living and public assistance benefits remaining stagnant, the system is no longer delivering the help New Yorkers desperately need to live in a safe and affordable home,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal (D/WF – Manhattan), Chair of the Assembly Committee on Housing. “Everything from the cost of groceries to transportation and housing has risen over the years, yet in many counties, a family is still provided just over $300 per month for housing, the same amount they would have received 20 years ago. I commend the Empire Justice Center for its deep commitment to the people affected by these outdated policies and for its Shelter Allowance report that highlights the inadequacies cash assistance and the unnecessary obstacles it creates for those looking for a safe place to live. As the sponsor of legislation to increase the shelter allowance and cash assistance grants, I look forward to working with Empire Justice Center to pass these bills into law and finally provide the support necessary for individuals and families to survive in this increasingly high-priced state.”

 

“This new report from Empire Justice Center employs present-day data to reinforce a long-standing fact: New York State needs to invest more in preventing homelessness and alleviating housing instability”, said Senator Roxanne J. Persaud, Chair of the NYS Senate Social Services Committee. “Further, the maximum public assistance shelter allowances, last increased in 2003, provide but a small fraction of what it actually costs individuals and families living in poverty to rent an apartment anywhere in New York State.”

 

“The issue of public assistance shelter allowances and rental supplements in New York State highlights a pressing concern that demands attention and reform. The existing inadequacy of these provisions underscores the growing challenge faced by vulnerable individuals and families striving to secure stable housing. In a region known for its high cost of living, the current assistance packages often fall short of meeting the realistic financial demands of obtaining suitable shelter. As housing costs continue to rise, the gap between the assistance provided and the actual expenses widens, exacerbating the risk of homelessness and housing instability for those reliant on these benefits. Addressing this inadequacy is not just a matter of economic equity, but a fundamental step towards creating a more inclusive and compassionate society that ensures all residents have access to safe and affordable housing, fostering a stronger sense of community and social well-being,” said Maritza Davila, Chair of the NYS Assembly Social Services Committee.

 

“Shelter allowances are by design supposed prevent people from becoming homeless. Unfortunately — as underscored by this report — New York’s shelter allowance rates remain unconscionably inadequate when compared to the real costs of housing. Empire Justice has pointed this out for years. There are bills in both houses of the legislature which could give families a reasonable chance to reach stability, and it’s time these proposals finally get their due consideration,” said Andrew Hevesi, Chair, Assembly Committee on Children and Families.

 

“This report makes an air-tight case for crucial, common-sense reforms that would increase rental assistance to New York’s lowest-income families and thereby prevent homelessness, which is far costlier to every stakeholder. New York must implement these reforms now. Failure to do so amounts to our government making a choice to relegate New Yorkers to deep poverty and homelessness,” said Susan Welber, The Legal Aid Society, Bronx Neighborhood Office.

 

“Safe, stable, and affordable housing is key to addressing poverty for children and families. Unfortunately, that housing is too often unavailable or out of reach for many New York families,” said Kate Breslin, President & CEO, Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy. “With the enactment of the Child Poverty Reduction Act, New York has committed to reducing child poverty by half over the next decade. As New York leaders look to take the next concrete steps toward reducing child poverty as the law requires, reports – like this one released by Empire Justice – that shed light on some of the systemic barriers faced by families and communities, are a critical component to ensuring New York stays on track to fulfill its commitment to the state’s children.”

 

 

ABOUT EMPIRE JUSTICE CENTER

Empire Justice Center is a non‐profit law firm dedicated to making the law work for all New Yorkers using a powerful, 360‐degree approach. We teach the law by providing training technical assistance to other advocates organizations. We practice the law by providing free, direct civil legal services and impact litigation. We change the law by engaging in legislative and administrative advocacy on issues that affect under‐served communities.

 


PRESS RELEASE: Legal Aid, Empire Justice, NYLAG Launch “Fair Hearing Help NY” Website

Posted on June 20th, 2023

 

For Immediate Release: June 20, 2023

 

Contact:

The Legal Aid Society: Alejandra Lopez
Empire Justice Center: Alex Dery Snider
New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG): Nadia Khasawneh

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read as a PDF

Legal Aid, Empire Justice, NYLAG Launch “Fair Hearing Help NY”

New Website Offers Free Legal Resources for New Yorkers Navigating Government Benefit Hearings

 

(NEW YORK, NY) – The Legal Aid Society, Empire Justice Center, and New York Legal Assistance Group, 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 — such as SNAP 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. However, this is a legal process, and it can be intimidating for many individuals.

 

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 of administrative hearings and offer information that will allow them to more fully participate in their Fair Hearings and exercise their due process rights.

 

“We are proud to launch Fair Hearing Help NY with our partners to help thousands of low-income New Yorkers maintain the life-sustaining benefits to which they are entitled,” said Anne Callagy, citywide director of the Government Benefits Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “When a family’s benefits are wrongfully reduced or terminated, they are forced to make impossible decisions, like whether to put food on the table or pay rent. The new website will equip New Yorkers with the tools to help them keep their benefits.”

 

“For New Yorkers representing themselves in Fair Hearings, having access to the information and resources that will allow them to fight for their benefits is essential,” said Marta Mychak, coordinating attorney in the Public Benefits Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). “Fair Hearing Help NY will help to level the playing field during these hearings so that more New Yorkers can keep their benefits to feed their children, stay in their homes, and more. We are thrilled to launch this website to empower more New Yorkers with tools they need to assert their rights.”

 

“Fair hearings are the only recourse for New Yorkers whose benefits have been unfairly reduced or denied,” said Susan Antos, Managing Attorney of the Benefits practice at Empire Justice Center. “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.”

 

Individuals can request a hearing online, by mail, by telephone or by fax, and once a hearing is scheduled, they will be able to explain why they think a decision about their case made by a local social services agency is wrong. OTDA will then issue a written decision which will state whether the local agency’s decision was right or wrong. The written decision may order the local agency to reverse its prior determination, and restore an individual’s benefits.

 

Fair Hearing Help NY can be accessed at http://fairhearinghelpny.org/

 

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The Legal Aid Society exists for one simple yet powerful reason: to ensure that New Yorkers are not denied their right to equal justice because of poverty. For over 145 years, we have protected, defended, and advocated for those who have struggled in silence for far too long. Every day, in every borough, The Legal Aid Society changes the lives of our clients and helps improve our communities. www.legalaidnyc.org

Founded in 1990, New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) is a leading civil legal services organization combating economic, racial, and social injustice by advocating for people experiencing poverty or in crisis. NYLAG exists because wealth should not determine who achieves justice. Our services impacted the lives of 113,000 people last year. www.nylag.org

Empire Justice Center is a statewide nonprofit law firm whose mission is to make the law work for all New Yorkers, particularly for those who need its protection most. We take a 360-degree, comprehensive approach to changing systems by engaging in three major and interconnected areas of service. We teach the law by providing training, support and technical assistance to legal services and other community-based organizations; we practice the law by providing
direct, civil legal assistance to low-income people with a particular focus on those from marginalized communities; and we change the law by engaging in policy analysis, research and advocacy and undertaking impact litigation to get at the root of systemic issues.


STATEMENT: Highlights of the 2023 Legislative Session

Posted on June 13th, 2023

 

For Immediate Release: June 13, 2023

Contact: Alex Dery Snider, 202.641.5124

 

Empire Justice Center Issues

Highlights of the 2023 Legislative Session

 

With the end of the official legislative session, Empire Justice Center shared an overview of highlights of the work achieved, and the work still to be completed.

 

“Every legislative session is unique, and this was another one for the record books. This year featured multiple critical committee leadership transitions after the election, an abbreviated amount of time between the budget passing and the end of session, and the political conversation being dominated by big-ticket items that, with a few notable exceptions, went largely unresolved, for the time being” said Kristin Brown, Empire Justice Center President and CEO. “Especially given those dynamics, Empire Justice is gratified to highlight three bills that passed both houses that will positively impact on our client communities when signed by Governor Kathy Hochul. Removing barriers to access is in our organizational DNA and these three bills do that in access to civil justice, child care, and gender affirming health care – we 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 remain on the table.”

Empire Justice Center joined with advocacy colleagues to support the following bills impacting low-income and marginalized New Yorkers; these bills passed both chambers, and we encourage Governor Hochul to sign them into law.

 

 

 

 

The following bills passed the Senate but not yet the Assembly. With the Assembly planned to return later this month, we encourage leadership to take up these bills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And we are looking toward the work to be beyond this session:

 

 

 

 

To find out more about Empire Justice Center, visit our website, www.empirejustice.org.

 

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Empire Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm that seeks to make the law work for all New Yorkers, especially those who need it the most. We do so by identifying critical issues, developing and implementing creative solutions and monitoring ongoing results. Our staff has protected and strengthened the legal rights of people in New York, especially historically marginalized communities for more than forty years. We do this through three major service areas.  We teach the law by providing training, support and technical assistance to legal services and private attorneys and other community-based advocates to help them better serve their clients. We practice the law by providing direct civil legal assistance and undertaking impact litigation. And we improve the law by engaging in policy analysis, research and advocacy. 

Empire Justice has offices in Albany, Rochester, Yonkers, White Plains and Central Islip and Hempstead on Long Island.

 

 


STATEMENT: Asylum Seeker Emergency Orders

Posted on May 30th, 2023

 

Statement from Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown on New York counties issuing emergency orders to prevent housing of asylum seekers:  

 

As a not-for-profit law firm working with immigrants on a daily basis, Empire Justice Center strongly supports efforts to provide resources, shelter and work authorization for asylum seekers. Welcoming immigrant communities is fundamental to the foundation, values, and future of our nation, helping to form our identity, culture, economy, and continued innovations.

 

As such, we condemn the emergency orders being  issued by various towns and counties in an effort to keep asylum seekers out. Like generations of immigrants before them, asylum seekers come to this country seeking a better life and often are escaping horrific conditions such as political persecution, war, gang violence, or violence based on their gender, gender identity, or sexuality. They have been vetted by the federal government upon entry. More importantly, we know that dehumanizing policies and language result in violence, create distrust and cause serious harm to impacted individuals and damage to the fabric of our communities.

 

We call on all levels of government — cities and towns, counties, the state, and the federal government – to work together to identify the needs, resources, and planning required to be able to receive asylum seekers as efficiently as possible, with dignity and compassion. We also encourage all levels of government to be mindful of the need for interpreters and translators, as well as culturally competent services. Language justice is a human right and a legal right; it facilitates communication and builds trusting relationships. Any failure to provide those services adds additional strain for the service providers on the front lines.

 

We applaud Governor Hochul, Speaker Heastie, and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins for the historic investment of $63 million dollars for the Office of New Americans for legal and essential services that was in the state budget. We encourage the executive to ensure the funding is put to its intended use as quickly as possible.

 

And finally, we echo the governor’s calls for the federal government to expedite the process to authorize asylum seekers to work legally in the United States. Every day we see how eager our clients are to begin working – many literally counting down the days. Providing tools and resources will streamline asylum seekers’ transition to their new life, including being able to support themselves and contribute fully to their new communities.

 

 


STATEMENT: Final state budget has steady progress in some areas, gaps in others

Posted on May 4th, 2023

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Alex Dery Snider, 202.641.5124

 

Empire Justice Statement on the Final 2023 New York State Budget

 

Final state budget has steady progress in some areas, gaps in others

 

The need for civil legal services across New York State has never been greater. Thankfully, the final New York State budget included funding that will serve our clients and our client communities – with notable increases for some of Empire Justice Center’s key programs, including the Disability Advocacy Program, the Homeowners Protection Program, and a cost of living adjustment for Judiciary Civil Legal Services (JCLS).

 

“We applaud the governor and the legislature for their support of essential civil legal services that help New Yorkers navigate complicated systems. These programs are part of New York’s social safety net, helping to keep people in their homes and provide economic support that help families put food on the table and pay rent and utilities,” said Kristin Brown, President and CEO of Empire Justice Center. “We are especially grateful to the Judiciary and the Chief Judges for recognizing the importance of providing cost of living adjustments in the JCLS funding. Most of our other state contracts do not have them and it’s getting increasingly difficult to cover staffing and overhead cover costs as a result.”

 

Brown expressed frustration at the unexpected cut for the Community Health Advocates program.

 

“We were surprised and disappointed that the legislative add-on for Community Health Advocates was significantly cut – just as the public health emergency was winding down,” said Brown. “With people at risk of losing health insurance, this work has never been more critical.”

 

There are several substantive issues addressed in the budget, such as reimbursing victims of skimming of public benefits and amending the tax law to leverage its power to lift people out of poverty.  However, Brown raised concerns that the final budget does not account for decreases in federal funding for victim services, which ultimately puts those services at risk.  “We were disappointed that there was not additional funding made available for Victim Services,” said Brown.  “Federal funding is and will continue to decline. New York State needs to step up to ensure victims of crime have access to the services they need. Survivors need support.”

 

Brown expressed gratitude for the support of the Tenant Defense Project, a jointly-run pilot project that offers legal representation to all income-eligible tenants facing eviction proceedings in Monroe county. “We are especially grateful to Senators Cooney, Brouk, and Ryan for support of Upstate Legal Services, which was funded at $3.5 million, which supports our Tenant Defense Project in Rochester,” said Brown. “The program has helped to keep tenants housed and has saved money by avoiding costly re-housing and shelter placements.”

 

Looking forward with concerns about New Yorkers experiencing deep poverty, it is clear that New York State has fallen further behind in meeting its constitutional duty to provide aid and care for the needy by failing to increase monthly public assistance grants. The public assistance allowance for rent has not been increased in 20 years, and at this point, according to the federal government’s analysis, there are no units in the private rental market that are priced at or below the shelter allowance.  Because grant amounts are so low, recipients are at risk of homelessness and housing instability and unable to meet their basic needs.

 

“Previous governors have kicked the can down the road – and we hope that Gov. Hochul will give this the attention it deserves in the coming year,” said Brown.

 

Brown also commented on the issues with contracting with the state:

 

“We are grateful that the money was appropriated. However, given the problems with New York State’s contracting systems, this has proved to only be half the battle. We look forward to working with our partners to address this, to ensure a streamlined way for us to continue to provide services to New Yorkers.”

 

Additional information about particular programs is as follows:

 

Final budget includes historic funding for program to support struggling homeowners

The NYS Office of the Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) is the only statewide network that helps homeowners at risk of foreclosure. The network of 89 non-profit housing counseling and legal service providers serves homeowners in every county of the state, and was funded at $40 million in the final budget, up from $35 million last year.

 

“New York State homeowners are fortunate to have a Governor and state legislative leaders who recognize the importance of keeping families in their homes,” said Kirsten Keefe, Senior Attorney and Director of Empire Justice Center’s HOPP Anchor Partner program. “We especially want to thank Housing Committee Chairs Senator Kavanaugh and Assemblymember Rosenthal, as well as Senators Hoylman-Sigal, Krueger, and Myrie, Assemblymembers Weinstein, Dinowitz, Solages, Lavine, and Wallace for their support. This year’s increase of funding for HOPP recognizes the increased need following the pandemic and centers the needs of homeowners of color who are twice as likely to face delinquency than white homeowners in New York State. HOPP is New York’s best homeownership preservation program and the best defense against the proliferation of deed theft and other scams targeting homeowners.”

 

Final Budget includes historically high funding for program to support New Yorkers with disabilities

The Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) provides representation for low-income New Yorkers who have been denied federal disability benefits, which is the sole source of income for many low-income families. The final budget included stable funding of $5.26 million from Governor Hochul over the previous year, and a restoration of the Legislature’s historic $1.5 million addition, which, in addition to a county match, means that DAP will be funded for a total of $13.52 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year.

 

While the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, the long-term effects are only just beginning to be felt – including rising numbers of claims beginning to be filed by New Yorkers disabled by Long COVID.

 

“This funding will ensure that DAP is better able to tackle new, complex Long COVID cases, as well as the enormous backlog of Social Security claims, caused by both record low staffing levels at the Social Security Administration and the long-term physical closure of Social Security offices during the pandemic,” said Emilia Sicilia, Managing Attorney and Statewide Coordinator of the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) at Empire Justice Center. “This is the 40th anniversary of DAP, and the highest level of funding we have ever secured, which is really a testament to the success of this program and the immense good it does for New Yorkers and for the state. We thank the Senate and Assembly Social Services Chairs, Senator Roxanne Persaud and Assemblymember Maritza Davila, as well as Governor Hochul, for recognizing the need to invest in services to help low income disabled New Yorkers at this pivotal time.”

 

Budget addresses the skimming of public benefits but does not go far enough

Skimming of cash public assistance and SNAP benefits, whereby thieves install devices at point-of-sale terminals to steal card data and drain recipients’ accounts of benefits, has been on the rise in New York State. From October 1, 2022, to March 15, 2023, $1.1 million in cash public assistance was stolen from over 4,000 households, and $6.3 million in SNAP benefits was stolen from over 7,000 households. There is almost nothing recipients can do to protect themselves against skimming – the only prevention measure that is likely to be truly effective is replacing out-of-date magnetic stripe benefits cards with chip-enabled cards. In the meantime, to prevent victims from experiencing food insecurity, falling behind on rent, and being unable to meet their basic needs, replacement benefits should be issued to them.

 

This year’s budget allows for compensation of no more than two months of stolen cash assistance, no more than two times per year until 2024, then dropping to no more than one time per year. There is no provision for replacement of stolen emergency assistance benefits. There is no provision for replacement of stolen P-EBT benefits (a lump-sum food benefit for eligible children). No additional replacement issuance of SNAP benefits is authorized beyond what is permissible under federal law.

 

“We are glad that this budget acknowledges the harm caused by the skimming of public benefits, but it does not go far enough. As a matter of basic fairness, victims of public assistance and SNAP skimming and other forms of benefits theft should be fully compensated for their losses,” said Jessica Radbord, Senior Benefits Attorney at Empire Justice Center. “We are disappointed that the replacements are limited to twice per year. There is very little victims can do to protect themselves, and the third time their money is stolen is no less of an injustice than the first.”

 

“We look forward to working with the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and community partners to make implementation of the new reimbursement program as effective as possible. We also plan to advocate for promulgation of rules to increase compensation for victims. We will also advocate for additional protections via the Farm Bill and other mechanisms. We thank Assemblymember González-Rojas and Senator Persaud for their leadership on this issue,” said Radbord.

 

Budget cuts program that helps New Yorkers navigate health insurance coverage, just before wind down of the public health emergency

Navigating healthcare is one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks any New Yorker can face. Community Health Advocates (CHA) helps New Yorkers, including those who rely on Medicaid, to understand how to use and maximize their coverage, access needed services/supplies/medications, reduce medical debts, and address unfair denials. Last year, CHA helped more than 32,000 New Yorkers. Due to a reduction in the legislative add-on in this budget, the CHA program is facing a nine percent budget cut only weeks before the end of the federal Public Health Emergency (PHE). The PHE and its protections – like the inability to lose public health insurance coverage, or guaranteed coverage of over-the-counter and laboratory-based COVID-19 testing for public and private insurance beneficiaries – comes to an end on May 11, 2023.

 

“This is an unprecedented time for New York public health insurance recipients. As a CHA specialist organization, in addition to “business as usual” access to healthcare, we are gearing up to help consumers and advocates navigate the PHE unwind, the resumption of Medicaid, CHP and Essential Plan renewals, all while dealing with growing uncertainties over access to coverage for immigrants and confusion over the recent Medicaid pharmacy carveout. The need for CHA services is only going to increase and we’re deeply concerned about the knock-on effect this budget cut will have for our client populations,” said Fiona Wolfe, Managing Attorney of Empire Justice Center’s Health Law Unit. “We thank Community Service Society, however, for leading the advocacy effort, and look forward to continuing this vital work as the COVID-19 PHE protections wind down.”

 

Final Budget includes tax amendments to help families with young children

The final budget expanded the Empire State Tax Credit to cover families with children under four and increased the amount of money families will receive.

 

“This year, on average, our clients saw federal returns that were about half of what they were last year – a direct result of tax policy changes,” said Yversha Roman, director of Empire Justice Center’s CASH (Creating, Assets, Savings and Hope) program, which provides free tax preparation for low-income people in Rochester, NY. “We know the extension of the Empire State Child tax credit to include children under four will make it easier for families to meet basic needs – including food, clothing, gas, and rent. This is a tremendous step, and we look forward to continuing this work to leverage the power of our tax credits to lift New Yorkers out of poverty. We thank Senator Cooney, Senator Gounardes, and Assemblymember Hevesi for all their efforts.”

 

Empire Justice lauds increased funding for Emergency Rental Assistance Program

ERAP Legal Services were funded at $50 million total, including $40 million for rest of state and $10 million for NYC providers. Additionally, Rental Arrears (ERAP) was funded at $641 million total, including: $356 million (including subsidized housing tenants); $250 million continuation of CARES funding; and $35 million for NYCHA rental arrears.

 

“ERAP provides critical legal services for renters facing eviction and funds for renters to cover rental arrears. We thank the legislature for support for this critical funding,” said Kristin Brown.

 

Funding secured to support people who carry student debt

The Community Service Society of New York’s Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program (EDCAP) was funded at $3.25 million. Empire Justice Center is a recipient of a grant under this program.

 

“We appreciate the level funding from the Governor and New York State Legislature for the Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program,” said Kirsten Keefe. “Our grant enables us to do presentations and provide one-on-one counseling to student debt borrowers throughout the Capital Region and beyond. This is the first time these services have been readily available to folks grappling with student debt in Upstate New York and we look forward to EDCAP continuing to grow and positively help people with student debt.”

 

Hoping the next budget includes support for nonparent caregivers

Funding for a Kinship Legal Network – to help nonparent caregivers navigate our legal and social services systems and building off the successful kinship navigator – was in the Assembly one-house, but was not included in the final budget.

 

“We thank Assembly Children and Families Committee Chair Hevesi for his work on this issue, and we hope it will be in the final budget next year,” said Brown. “Given the children who have lost their parents to COVID and the opioid epidemic, it is a real need.”

 

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STATEMENT: Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown on the Appointment of Rowan Wilson as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals

Posted on April 21st, 2023

For Immediate Release

Contact Alex Dery Snider:

Aderysnider@empirejustice.org / 518-462-6831

 

Read the Statement as a PDF

 

 

Statement From Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown on the Appointment of Rowan Wilson as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals

 

Empire Justice Center enthusiastically joins New Yorkers across the state in congratulating Judge Rowan Wilson on his appointment to the position of Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. Empire Justice Center’s mission is to make the law work for all New Yorkers and Judge Wilson’s career in both the private sector and public service reflects his lifelong commitment to doing just that. His pro bono work, his 21-year leadership role with Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, his participation in the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, and his numerous decisions and dissents that focus on the needs and rights of those in marginalized communities all reflect his compassion and deep sense of justice.  We applaud Governor Hochul’s appointment, and the Senate’s quick confirmation, which prioritizes  the people who need the law’s protection the most, and we welcome and look forward to Judge Wilson’s leadership of the New York Court of Appeals.

 

About Empire Justice Center

Empire Justice Center is a statewide nonprofit law firm with offices in Rochester, Albany, Yonkers, White Plains, and on Long Island whose mission is to make the law work for all New Yorkers, particularly for those who need its protection most. We take a 360-degree, comprehensive approach to changing systems by engaging in three major and interconnected areas of service. We teach the law by providing training, support and technical assistance to legal services and other community- based organizations to strengthen their work; we practice the law by providing direct, civil legal assistance to low-income people with a particular focus on those from marginalized communities  such as LGBTQ; minorities, immigrants and LEP; and crime victims; and we change the law by engaging in policy analysis, research and advocacy and undertaking impact litigation to get at the root of systemic issues.