Minnesota Joins National Celebrate Pro Bono Week

The American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service chose to launch Pro Bono Week because of the increasing need for pro bono services during these harsh economic times and the unprecedented response of attorneys to meet this demand. The National Pro Bono Celebration can be an effective strategic tool for enhancing and expanding local efforts to increase access to justice for all.

Here in Minnesota, Pro Bono Week provides an opportunity for the legal profession and the larger community to focus on the important service provided by pro bono lawyers. Throughout the week, legal aid providers schedule opportunities to serve clients, train attorneys, and recognize service. On Wednesday, October 26 (12 p.m.) at the Minnesota CLE Center in Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Bar Association will host its annual Pro Bono CLE, the signature statewide event for the week. This year’s topic is “The Criminalization of Poverty,” featuring a keynote by Nusrat Choudhury from the ACLU Racial Justice Project in New York, as well as a panel of local legal and community experts. Registration information for this event, as well as a full schedule of events around Minnesota for the week, are available at www.projusticemn.org/calendar.

"We are bound by a responsibility to use our unique skills and training - not just to advance cases, but to serve a cause; and to help our nation fulfill its founding promise of equal justice under law...The obligation of pro bono service must become a part of the DNA of both the legal profession and of every lawyer."
- Attorney General Eric Holder

Read Attorney General Eric Holder's address to participants at the National Pro Bono Summit on October 24, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Landmark Supreme Court Decision on Concept of Legal Occupancy

Mary Cocchiarella saw an advertisement for a rental home, and after looking at the apartment, agreed to rent it.  She paid the landlord $2,400 to cover first month’s rent and a security deposit.  When she went to move into her home, the landlord denied her access and made excuses that it wasn’t ready.  He continued to deny her access for a period of days.  With nowhere to live, she sought relief in court for the landlord’s unlawful exclusion of her from her new home.  With Legal Aid’s help, she brought separate claims for possession and statutory penalties.  The trial court denied her request for relief and dismissed both of Ms. Cocchiarella’s claims, finding that – because she had not yet moved in – she was not “occupying” the rental home and thus was not a “residential tenant” as defined in landlord-tenant statutes.

Legal Aid helped Ms. Cocchiarella appeal the decision.  The Court of Appeals reversed part of the trial court’s judgment, finding that Ms. Cocchiarella was entitled to pursue her claims for statutory penalties regardless of whether she physically occupied the rental home.  But the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s judgment that Ms. Cocchiarella could not seek possession of her home for this reason. 

Legal Aid helped Ms. Cocchiarella seek relief on this important issue in the Supreme Court of Minnesota.  The Supreme Court took the case.  After reviewing arguments presented by Legal Aid and landlord/tenant interest groups in briefs, the Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled in Ms. Cocchiarella’s favor.  The Supreme Court held that “occupying” a rental home within the meaning of landlord-tenant law includes the legal right of possession, even in the absence of physical occupancy.  Because Ms. Cocchiarella presented evidence of a lease, with payment of rent and a security deposit, she had pleaded a case for possession under that lease.  Following this landmark decision on the concept of legal occupancy, the case is headed back to the trial court for Ms. Cocchiarella to put forth her evidence in support of her claims for possession and statutory penalties. Read the decision. Contact: Gary Van Winkle, gvanwinkle@mylegalaid.org.

MMLA Attorney Named "Up & Coming" by Minnesota Lawyer

Every year Minnesota Lawyer magazine recognizes a group of attorneys within their first 10 years of practice who have already distinguished themselves by their achievements. Among them is Rebecca Scholtz, staff attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA).

“I was interested in immigration issues even before law school,” recalled Scholtz, who also worked with migrant children in the Peace Corps. “This was my dream job. I’m lucky in that I get to do both direct representation and broader work.”

Scholtz and her fellow awardees were honored at a Sept. 8th luncheon at the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis. Read more about her at Minnesota Lawyer.

Senior Legal Line: Tips from LASNEM's Senior Citizens’ Law Project

Newspapers, service providers, and readers in northeastern Minnesota are familiar with a longstanding tradition: question and answer "tips" written by the three-person staff of the Senior Citizens’ Law Project at Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota (LASNEM). These popular Q & A informational articles are also available to seniors across the state via LawHelpMN.org. Dubbed the Senior Legal Line, the impetus for the articles was to get legal information to as many people as possible in hopes of preventing common legal problems faced by seniors.

Managing attorney Kristin L. Parendo notes that, "it's a great way to distill tips about common legal problems/questions that we see to the general public.  The hope is that readers can get an idea about what they can do to help themselves prevent problems, or at least know the high points of a topic so they can tell if this is something they should find out more about."

"Sometimes we write the Q & A to bring attention to a new law, or about topics that aren’t talked about much, such as our article about sex in the nursing home. We get people that write to us with questions and become clients." Visit LawHelpMN.org for a full listing of Senior Legal Line articles.

Senior Citizens’ Law Project (pictured from left to right):  Courtney Kile, paralegal; Robin Raplinger, staff attorney; Kristin Parendo, managing attorney

Senior Citizens’ Law Project (pictured from left to right):  Courtney Kile, paralegal; Robin Raplinger, staff attorney; Kristin Parendo, managing attorney

Supreme Court Appeal Establishes Personal Entitlement to Data Under MDGPS

A client contacted the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) in November 2013 to complain about his treatment on a Metro Transit bus earlier that month.  Staff attorney Justin Page requested Metro Transit provide a copy of the bus video, so he could view the incident.  Metro Transit refused to provide a copy of the video claiming the video was “private personnel data” under the Minnesota Governmental Data Practices Act (MGDPA).

MDLC filed suit arguing that the video is both public data, and that their client is the subject of the data. The district court agreed with this argument, and ruled that the video is public, and that the client is entitled to the video because he is the subject of it.  The Met Council appealed to the Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court decision that the video is public data.

The Met Council again appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.  The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the district court decision on the basis that the client is the subject of the data under the MGDPA.  This ruling will have a wide impact.  Whenever a governmental agency has information that pertains to your client, your client is entitled to the information as a subject of the data under the MGDPA. 

Justice Changes Everything: Balancing The Scales In Housing Court

Thanks to Hennepin County’s new Eviction Representation Project, a pilot program of Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network, more tenants will have an experienced attorney to represent them when their landlord pursues illegal eviction.

Doug Clark, a Legal Aid staff attorney with over 30 years of experience in housing law, has taken the lead on the new project. Sometimes he helps with simple negotiation over a misunderstanding. The landlord receives their rent, the client either continues the lease or leaves with a clean record and everyone wins with minimal demand on Housing Court resources. In cases that go to trial, the tenants have an attorney able to fully articulate all the facts underlying their defense. Often, Clark asks the court to determine that health or safety problems exist and orders repairs and reduced or returned rent.

In Hennepin County eviction cases, fewer than 5 percent of tenants have attorneys and many are in court for the first time. In contrast, 40-45 percent of landlords have counsel and those without attorneys often have professional property management agents who understand the eviction process and have done it many times.

“There’s a complete inequity and imbalance in sophistication when it comes to navigating that system,” says Legal Aid supervising attorney Drew Schaffer. “The advice services offered by the already existing Housing Court Project are invaluable. They arm people with information about their rights and support to defend themselves. But there are many cases where advice doesn’t fully vindicate the person’s rights.” Read the full article in the September edition of Attorney at Law magazine.

Leveraging Technology for Justice

The August edition of Attorney at Law magazine features an overview of the work of Legal Services State Support to leverage technology for access to civil legal justice in Minnesota. State Support's efforts are directed and supported by the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition programs, and its technology initiatives are developed in cooperation with Minnesota's legal aid and national legal aid communities. Read the full article in the digital edition of Attorney at Law.

Minnesotans With Disabilities File Federal Class Action Lawsuit Seeking To Live In Their Own Homes

Last week, a group of people with disabilities filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court in Minneapolis on behalf of people with disabilities who are being denied access to homes of their choice. The lawsuit claims that the Minnesota Department of Human Services allows very few people to access individualized housing options and refuses to help hundreds of people currently forced to remain in corporately owned and operated group homes. They experience isolation, lack of control, and an overall helplessness about their lives. The plaintiffs are asking for help to find and move into homes they choose with services they control.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit with co-counsel Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie P.A. Legal Aid attorney Sean Burke stated, “The system Minnesota has relied on has not evolved since the early 1980’s. The State has promised people with disabilities the chance to be integrated into their communities, but for many it only offers housing in group homes. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires more than that.”

Lead Counsel for plaintiffs, Justin Perl, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Litigation Director, added, “Our clients just want to live where they want and with whom they want, just like people without disabilities. Unfortunately, the system Minnesota has created for them has needlessly segregated them from the rest of society. It is simply unacceptable, and a violation of the ADA, to foreclose our clients from access to housing options that exist in the community.”

Dionne Swanson, a plaintiff in the suit, remarked “I’m 43 years old and I want to have the freedom to make my own choices, basic stuff - like what time I go to bed.”

Read more in the Star Tribune.

VLN's New Criminal Expungement Guide: Valuable Assistance for Pro Se Petitioners

Volunteer Lawyers Network has published a new legal information guide aimed at pro se petitioners seeking to expunge a criminal record. Using a straightforward, numbered format that includes visual prompts and sample documents, "Criminal Expungement in Minnesota: A Step-by-Step Guide for Pro Se Petitioners" explains how to complete the necessary paperwork, and provides tips for increasing a favorable outcome. Using a guide developed by the Court as inspiration, Yaima Couso, VLN’s Robina Fellow, decided to memorialize in writing the information already being covered at VLN’s monthly criminal expungement seminars because she noticed that helping pro se clients with expungement often involved writing down step-by-step what needed to be done.

Of the new guide, Couso said “I think the criminal expungement process can be overwhelming and confusing, even for experienced attorneys. Having an easily accessible step-by-step guide can help alleviate a lot of the anxiety of going through expungement.”

The complete guide is available on LawHelpMN.org in both PDF and online viewing formats.

Legal Services Advocacy Project Publishes Annual Session Summaries

The Capitol.JPG

The Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP) is pleased to present its 2016 Session Summaries. These summaries cover a wide range of substantive areas, and the specific changes to Minnesota law made by the 2016 Legislature that are most relevant to the lives of low‐income and financially‐fragile Minnesotans, and the attorneys and advocates who serve them. They are divided by area of substantive law, and contain the name and contact information for the lead LSAP attorney in that substantive area. We hope you find them useful. Read the summaries.

Minnesota's LawHelp Interactive Part of Growing Nationwide Trend

Yesterday's New York Times essay on the rise of online legal forms aimed at millions of Americans needing legal help for civil problems is encouraging validation for Minnesota's legal aid community. The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, and its project office Legal Services State Support, were early partners in Pro Bono Net's LawHelp Interactive initiative - a guiding force in the development of online interactive interviews which then generate corresponding court forms.

In 2015, over 23,000 legal documents were created in Minnesota using interactive online forms, the 6th most in the nation.  LawHelpMN has 18 interactive interviews (with 4 in Spanish), including interviews for creating eviction expungement documents, a motion to modify child support, and a power of attorney.

On the work being done in Minnesota, Mary Kaczorek, supervising attorney at State Support said, “As in Michigan and Maryland, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition has been a leader in using technology to increase access to justice. Our criminal expungement document assembly tool – hosted on LawHelp Interactive – won a 2011 Innovation Award from Law Technology News. Tools like this help maximize limited resources and expand legal aid’s reach to provide critical help to underserved populations across Minnesota.”

VLN’s Martha Delaney Honored with National Pro Bono Award

Martha Delaney (L), Deputy Director, Volunteer Lawyers Network

Martha Delaney (L), Deputy Director, Volunteer Lawyers Network

Volunteer Lawyers Network’s Martha Delaney was awarded the Tanya Neiman Pro Bono Professional of the Year Award by the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals at the 2016 Equal Justice Conference in Chicago.  This award recognizes steadfast commitment and exceptional contributions to the delivery of pro bono legal services.  NAPBPro’s announcement referenced Martha’s work in promoting outcome measurement, innovation, holistic services, inclusivity, poverty competency among attorneys, and industry best practices. Most recently, Martha has been instrumental in reframing pro bono work in a broader context of social justice. Congratulations Martha!


MDLC on the Effects of New Wage and Hour Rules for Home Health Workers

A new federal home care labor rule is having unintended consequences for some of Minnesota's most vulnerable. The new law requires overtime pay and travel costs, which has resulted in a shortage of home care workers, as employers cut hours to save money.

Hundreds of Minnesotans with disabilities are now faced with gaps in care and how to meet them. Disability advocates such as the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) have alerted policy-makers, and the Minnesota legislature is considering new funding  to help pay for overtime and travel costs for roughly 25,000 home care workers who provide services through the state’s Medicaid program. 

“If nothing is done, vulnerable people are going to face some desperate choices,” warned MDLC staff attorney Anne Henry.  Read the full Star Tribune article