The seven legal services programs comprising the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition recently teamed up to adapt an inspiring video about what legal aid does for the most vulnerable in our community. The video, originally produced by Cleveland Legal Aid (CLA), tells the legal aid story in a fresh, new way. CLA encouraged programs across the county to customize the video, and Legal Services of Northwest MN, Inc. worked with the Ohio videographer to spotlight the impact of civil legal aid in Minnesota. Please share the video far and wide, and help MLSC tell the legal aid story in Minnesota.
Low-income people in northern Minnesota who can't afford a lawyer can seek access to justice through the Volunteer Attorney Program (VAP) in Duluth. VAP's executive director, Dori Streit, understands the obstacles, and her commitment is inspiring to others. In fact, she'll be honored next month with the MSBA's Bernard P. Becker Emerging Leader Award.
"All attorneys have an ethical obligation to aspire to provide 50 hours of pro bono service per year," Streit said. "We work to make it easier for attorneys to do their volunteer work by screening clients for eligibility and keeping track of the details." Read the full story.
Legal Services State Support is excited to announce a brand new Eviction Expungement interactive interview available online through LawHelpMN.org. The Eviction Expungement interview was created by Jenny Singleton, Legal/Technology Projects Manager at State Support, with substantive legal expertise contributed by Lindsey Hanson and Drew Schaffer of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, guidance from Central Minnesota Legal Services, and support from LSC's Technology Initiative Grant Program.
The free online interview is for those who want to ask the court to remove an eviction from their record, and who have either a Minnesota eviction case where the rent was not subsidized, or have a Minnesota eviction case where the renter received a Section 8 Voucher. The interview takes users step-by-step through all the information they will need to submit to the court in order to request the expungement. The interview then compiles the user’s information to suggest what evidence the user should try to get and create the forms the user will need to file with the court. To access the new interview, visit LawHelpMN.org. Other interactive interviews and forms are available on LawHelpMN.org/FormHelper.
The Star Tribune recently interviewed Suzanne Pontinen, executive director of Volunteer Lawyer's Network (VLN), about how the program's civil legal services are as needed as ever. VLN manages 21 clinics and offers poverty law training to its network of nearly 1,400 volunteers, including 800 to 900 attorneys who volunteer annually. In 2014, as part of its work, VLN helped 120 people avoid eviction, and 68 people get old criminal records expunged. Read the full interview.
The Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged Committee will present its annual Bernard P. Becker award for outstanding legal services to the following recipients at the April 22nd MSBA Assembly meeting.
- Law Student: Krzysztof Wysokinski, University of Minnesota Law School
- Advocate: Melissa Pfeiffer, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
- Legacy of Excellence: Mike Persellin, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid
- Emerging Leader: Dori Streit, Volunteer Attorney Program
These honorees have demonstrated a commitment to providing zealous and skilled legal representation for low-income and disadvantaged Minnesotans, as illustrated in the following summaries of their significant contributions. Congratulations to the 2016 award winners!
Law Student: Krzysztof Wysokinski, University of Minnesota Law School
Mr. Wysokinski is a law student who has accumulated over 760 Minnesota Justice Foundation volunteer hours. His accomplishments include representing criminal defendants at the Neighborhood Justice Center, acting as the student director of the U of M Consumer Protection Clinic and chair of the U of M Student Criminal Justice League, volunteering at the Council on Crime and Justice (CCJ) Second Chance Saturday criminal expungement clinic, and representing criminal expungement clients through CCJ.
Non-Attorney Advocate: Melissa Pfeiffer, Immigrant Law Center
Ms. Pfeiffer is the Associate Director of the Immigrant Law Center (ILCM). She has over 11 years of experience working in civil legal services, and an additional four years of nonprofit service. She successfully managed a large expansion of ILCM's staff and service areas and was instrumental in navigating ILCM through the recession, when funding cuts threatened civil legal aid programs throughout the state. According to ILCM's Executive Director, "She has a deep passion and commitment to equity, justice and the protection of the vulnerable and victims of abuse. She sets personal and organizational expectations of excellence, has an uncompromising work ethic, and is one of the most patient, caring, funny, creative team players with the unique gift of making everyone around her better."
Legacy of Excellence: Mike Persellin, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid
Michael Persellin is a staff attorney with the Senior Law Project of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, specializing in consumer and benefits issues. He has worked in the civil legal aid field since 1983, at more legal services offices than any attorney in Minnesota. Mr. Persellin's current practice centers on Social Security, debt collection, and Medical Assistance appeal issues. He is co-chair of the MSBA Social Security Disability Section, and edit's the Section's newsletter. Since 2008, Mr. Persellin has maintained case law summaries and an index of Social Security cases within the 8th Circuit. His deputy director describes Mr. Persellin as having "a legendary career as an all-around utility player for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid."
Emerging Leader: Dori Streit, Volunteer Attorney Program
Ms. Streit has been the executive director of Duluth-based Volunteer Attorney Program for the past four years. She is well-known for turning the organization around, and expanding coverage and local volunteer support, during a time of limited resources for civil legal aid programs. She has expanded staff and established a wildly popular annual fundraiser called "Lawlapalooza." Before working at VAP, Ms. Streit clerked for Battered Women's Legal Advocacy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union during law school. Following law school, she worked at Indian Legal Assistance Program (ILAP) for four years. She provided direct legal representation to low-income clients on civil matters, along with assisting with funding development work for the organization. As a staff attorney at ILAP, Ms. Streit established herself in the Duluth-area legal community and developed an understanding of the legal needs (and barriers to addressing those needs) of low-income community members in Northeastern Minnesota.
Each year, the Hennepin County Bar Association recognizes outstanding volunteerism and pro bono service in the legal profession with its Pro Bono Publico Awards. Three awards focusing on distinguished service and excellence for public and private attorneys are given to honor and encourage contributions to the community.
This year's Pro Bono Publico Award of Excellence for a Public Attorney goes to Tom Walsh, staff attorney with the Volunteer Lawyer's Network (VLN). Details about Walsh's exemplary work and inspirational accomplishments are featured in the current edition of The Hennepin Lawyer. Congratulations to Tom on this well-deserved honor, as well as to James Long, and Don McNeil, who were also recognized for their commitment to pro bono service this year.
Cody began as a staff attorney at ALS in 2006, primarily representing juveniles in delinquency cases, victims of domestic abuse in family law matters, and clients facing evictions in tribal court. Over the years, Cody delved into administrative work, including grant writing, training other staff and agency providers, and participating in Code Committee Development with the local Tribal Councils. In 2012, Cody was named co-executive director of ALS. In addition to his great work at ALS, Cody was the program's representative on the Bi-County Community Action Program (Bi-CAP) for Beltrami and Cass Counties since 2009.
Cody has been a zealous advocate on behalf of clients and a great mentor to staff at Anishinabe Legal Services. He is wished the very best in his new post.
Jessica Webster, staff attorney, with the Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP) has written a powerful new report on the effects of inflation on direct assistance to poor families. Published earlier this month by LSAP, the report shows the devastating consequences of a 30-year delay in increasing cash assistance for MFIP families, and what this erosion has meant for those struggling to meet basic needs.
For example, in 1986, the $532 grant covered rent and possibly a little bit of transportation money. Today, $532 does not pay for a habitable fair market rent anywhere in the state. The report also posits that the opportunity before Minnesota - of raising the grant by $100 per month - while unable to resolve 30 years of stagnation, would be a meaningful step to address this level of poverty. Read the full report.
Thanks to the efforts of the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC), and a possible lawsuit, the Saint Paul city council voted last month to bring curb ramps up to federal ADA standards. Approximately 230 ramps need to be retrofitted, having been passed over when the city embarked on a major street repair project beginning in 2013.
Steven Schmidt, staff attorney with MDLC, said clients became concerned when they noticed that as the work progressed on the St. Paul streets, “the city was not doing any work to the curb ramps.” Read the full Pioneer Press article.
Legal Services State Support is excited to announce a brand new interactive interview available online through LawHelpMN.org. Originally suggested for development by the Volunteer Attorney Program in Duluth, the interview was created by Jenny Singleton, Legal/Technology Projects Manager at State Support, with assistance from Central Minnesota Legal Services, and LSC's Technology Initiative Grant Program. The free online interview is for those who already have an existing child support or spousal maintenance order, and allows them to fill out the paperwork needed to ask the court to change the amount of child support or spousal maintenance. Users can ask the court to change basic child support, medical support, child care support, overdue payments (arrearages), and/or spousal maintenance. The interview takes users step-by-step through all the information they will need to submit to the court in order to request changes. The interview then compiles the user’s information to create the forms they will need to file with the court. To access the new interview, visit LawHelpMN.org. Other interactive interviews and forms are available on LawHelpMN.org/FormHelper.
This year, the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) celebrates 50 years of pro bono legal service, and The Hennepin Lawyer takes note in a multi-page feature on this exemplary organization, its mission, history, and impact on the lives of countless Minnesotans.
During the last fiscal year, VLN volunteers "kept $10 million in the pockets of struggling individuals and families" in the region. This milestone represents VLN's sustaining vision: "to ensure for all persons access to the legal services essential for stability and well-being." Read the full Hennepin Lawyer article.
Last week, law students and staff from the U of M's Center for New Americans (CNA), along with attorneys from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and Faegre Baker Daniels, won stays of removal for asylum seekers caught up in surprise ICE deportation raids in Minnesota. The raids occurred around the country. The CNA team's efforts prevented the deportation of 12 families to countries where they faced immediate harm.
The student arm of the team was supervised by Rebecca Scholtz, staff attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and adjunct professor at the CNA, along with CNA teaching fellow Katherine Evans. Attorneys from Faegre Baker Daniels included Dianne Heins, pro bono counsel, as well as Lariss Maldonado and Sari Long. Read the full story on the U of M's website.
MMLA Co-Chairs Help Guide New Policies Benefiting Vulnerable Adults
More than 48,000 lost their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits beginning in February, 2014, because Minnesota reinstituted time limits and mandatory work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) following expiration of its federal waiver. Concerned community advocates requested that DHS form a taskforce to review and improve ABAWD policies and practices. The ABAWD taskforce, formed in February 2015, was co-chaired by Kathleen Davis and Barbara Kuhn of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Colleen Moriarity of Hunger Solutions and included representatives from the Department of Human Services, Department of Employment and Economic Development, community-based service providers, community advocates and philanthropists.
Following the recommendations of the taskforce, the state has implemented several changes to the "fitness to work" criteria which enables people to prove they are unable to work, and thus exempt from the time limits and work requirements. The state also adopted a policy that allows people who have used up their three months of SNAP to reapply and receive three additional months, if they demonstrate some progress towards addressing their barriers to work. This policy is in effect now and advocates should spread the word that ABAWD people who lost SNAP since February 2014 should go to their local county office and reapply (see DHS Bulletin #15-01-01). For the complete list of recommendations, see the Taskforce Recommendations report, and for a general legal summary of changes, click here.
The Legislature enacted a law this year to help iron ore mines, steel mills, paper mills and other large energy users become more globally competitive by giving them a chance to lower or better predict their electricity bills. The law gave certain utilities the right to petition the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to change the rate structures for these customers if they could show "a net benefit." Minnesota Power (MP), a Duluth-based utility serving the Iron Range, filed with the PUC to lower the rates for these industrial customers, which would result in a rate hike of 14.5% for residential customers – including low-income and senior Minnesotans.
The Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP), AARP, Energy CENTS Coalition, the Attorney General and the Department of Commerce, and other consumer groups, filed briefs claiming that MP has failed to meet its burden to show net benefit, and that the proposed increase was not just and reasonable, and would exacerbate the financial hardship being felt by consumers on the Range.
"The issue is why does it have to be, "You win, and I lose?" Ron Elwood, supervising attorney for LSAP, said in an interview. "Why can't we figure out a way to minimize the impact?" Read the full Star Tribune story.
Ann Cofell's 35 years working on behalf of disadvantaged Minnesotans is an inspiration and beacon to her colleagues and the thousands she has helped. Cofell, deputy director of the Saint Cloud office of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and an integral part of the Stearns County Domestic Violence Court, was recently featured in an MPR piece highlighting her work, dedication, and motivation.
"If they're in our office they're almost always in a really tough spot," Cofell said. "It's dealing with people in crisis, people who've been served divorce papers, people who are being served eviction papers or being told they're going to lose their kids." Read the full story.