MMLA Appellate Brief Brings Remand in Asylum Case

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Attorneys at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) have secured a remand from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), creating the chance for their client to avoid deportation and get the medical treatment he needs for a healthy and productive life.

The client sought asylum because he feared the manifestations of his mental illness would result in persecution in his country of origin. The judge denied the client’s asylum request solely on discretion, without assessing the merits of the asylum claim. The BIA rejected the judge’s denial on discretion alone, and found that in light of how the client’s country of origin treated those with this mental illness, the client belongs to a cognizable social group, and the judge must consider the client’s claim. Further, the BIA instructed the judge to consider the client’s fear of forced medical treatment, isolation, and severe economic deprivation when weighing whether the harm he fears upon return to his home country amounts to persecution. The BIA remanded the asylum case for full examination. 

MMLA’s team on the appeal included staff attorneys Eren Sutherland, Anne Carlson, Laura Wilson, and litigation director, Justin Perl. The team persuasively distinguished the client’s claim from some faulty Eight Circuit precedent, and their appellate brief creatively relied on evidence at trial, which included testimony from a professor of public health who had visited the client's county of origin numerous times and affirmed that the feared treatment is typical in that country. Read the full decision here.

CMLS Appeal Secures Habitability Defense in Eviction Cases

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On May 7th, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the arguments of attorneys at Central Minnesota Legal Services (CMLS), resulting in a published case correcting an earlier unpublished decision regarding habitability defenses in Minnesota eviction actions. 

The earlier unpublished opinion, Ellis v. Thompson, was the basis of the landlord’s argument that CMLS’s client could not raise a habitability defense to an eviction case unless the tenant followed the procedures for a rent escrow action, including giving written notice of the repair problems 14 days in advance. There is no basis for that argument in the statute, but the same landlord successfully made the argument to the Court of Appeals in 2015’s nearly identical Ellis v. Thompson

According to Elizabeth Sauer, lead attorney on the appeal, “Had the landlord’s argument prevailed this time, the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in Fritz v. Warthen  (that a covenant in a lease for payment of rent and the statutory covenants of habitability are mutually dependent) would have been severely limited, making it impossible for many of legal aid’s clients to raise habitability defenses in eviction proceedings.”  Monday’s published decision makes clear that a Fritz defense is entirely separate from a Rent Escrow Action, and that Fritz does not contain a written notice requirement.

Staff attorney Neng Vue assisted Sauer on the case. Read the published Court of Appeals decision

Innovations for Clients: Online Triage System on the New LawHelpMN.org

By Betsy Parrell, Supervising Attorney

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For this month’s post in State Support’s series highlighting what to expect from the upcoming LawHelpMN.org redesign, the focus is on a much-anticipated online triage system. In case you missed our earlier posts, the first post gave an overview of the plans for the redesign, and the second post took a deeper dive into an exciting new aspect of the project: a centralized referral portal.   

The site’s “triage system” navigation will allow a person seeking civil legal resources to respond to a series of simple questions that are designed to guide that individual to the most relevant legal informational materials and referrals. This type of system has been successfully implemented by similar legal aid websites in other states, including Michigan and Connecticut

One reason for creating the triage system is that people looking for legal resources are often unsure how to categorize their legal problem, especially to the degree of specificity that would connect them to the right legal information. To narrow and refine the legal issue, the triage system starts with a set of branching questions for users to click through. This process helps direct the person to a tailored set of the most relevant self-help materials without the person having to click around the website. These targeted results will prioritize State Support’s Education for Justice fact sheets as the first resource displayed, and cleanly display other materials such as videos, booklets, and guided form tools. If an individual using the website is only looking for self-help materials, the process will stop there.   

If someone is looking for legal help, the next step in the triage process is to be “matched” with appropriate legal referrals by responding to an additional set of questions. This subsequent set of questions will address the individual’s potential eligibility for services such as location, income, and age, and whether the user is a person with a disability or a veteran. These questions will also incorporate several “soft factors” intended to help guide individuals toward the level and type of service that might work best for them. The system will then “match” an individual with the most appropriate legal referrals.   

For those who may be eligible for legal aid services, this “matching” function of the triage system will depend heavily on the centralized referral portal described in our last blog post. Legal aid organizations across the state will maintain detailed eligibility criteria and case acceptance guidelines, as well as legal clinic information, in the password-protected referral portal. The triage system will in turn draw data from that portal to match the user to services based on the accurate, real-time information being kept up-to-date by the programs in the portal. In this way, the triage system is being designed to provide potential clients with referrals only to services for which they are likely to be eligible. By reducing staff time spent with potential clients who aren’t eligible for that program’s services and reducing potential clients’ time calling around to offices that can’t help, the system endeavors to increase the accuracy and quality of referrals while maximizing available resources.  

Depending on the specific legal issue and the individual’s circumstances, referrals could include: 

  • clinics and other opportunities for legal information, advice, and brief service;  
  • legal aid programs that may be able to offer full representation;
  • alternative dispute resolution services such as mediation; and
  • private attorney referral services, including reduced fee programs and unbundled or limited scope options.   

Those already familiar with LawHelpMN.org, such as legal aid staff and others in the justice community, will still be able to access materials and referral information by searching the self-help library and organization directory. The triage system will function as an additional tool to help a person in need connect fluidly to the most on-point civil legal resources.