Innovations for Clients: What to Expect from the New LawHelpMN.org

by Jenny Singleton, Legal/Technology Projects Manager

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State Support is excited to announce that work is underway to redesign LawHelpMN.org, Minnesota’s acclaimed legal information website for the public. The redesigned LawHelpMN.org  will improve client services by enhancing Minnesota’s online and client referral tools. We’ll keep you updated on our progress via periodic blogs highlighting what to expect and anticipate in the coming months. 

A key feature of the new site will be a  “triage” system to more fully integrate self-help resources, like State Support’s library of fact sheets, with referrals to legal aid organizations. After users answer a series of questions about their legal problem and eligibility criteria, the site will display the most relevant self-help resources and the organizations and legal clinics most likely to help. For an example of a triage system, visit Michigan’s Guide to Legal Help

In addition to using triage to better connect the public with legal resources, the new site will pilot an improved online intake system for two organizations in Hennepin County (Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Network). Clients whose legal problem and eligibility criteria match them with one of these organizations will be able to seamlessly submit an online application to the organizations, right from LawHelpMN.org.

Finally, the site will debut a centralized user-friendly portal that legal aid organizations can use when making client referrals. Legal aid organizations will be able to update their organizational profiles to reflect changes in the services they offer, which will give the legal aid community, and the public, real-time, accurate information about the types of cases legal aid offices in Minnesota can handle. The portal will use the OpenReferral data standard, which will facilitate future integrations with other databases, like United Way 2-1-1.

The LawHelpMN.org redesign is being conducted in partnership with Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, the Volunteer Lawyers Network, and the Minnesota Judicial Branch. The project is made possible through grants from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Innovation Grant Program, the Minnesota Legal Services Advisory Committee, and the Minnesota Court Technology Fund.

Housing Court Workgroup Honored by Dispute Resolution Center

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Gerry Kaluzny, supervising attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), along with his colleagues in the Second Judicial District’s Housing Court Workgroup, were recently honored with the A. M. "Sandy" Keith Alternative Dispute Resolution Award. 

The award, presented by the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), recognizes an individual or group committed to the promotion and support of the use of alternative dispute resolution processes, particularly in conjunction with the courts. The award was presented at DRC’s 35th Anniversary and Volunteer Recognition Celebration, held the evening of Wednesday, December 13, 2017, at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Earlier this year, Chief Judge John Guthmann convened a working group of community stakeholders to address challenges to the rental market that frequently find their way into the Second Judicial District Housing Court.  In addition to SMRLS, the group included Volunteer Lawyers Network, the McKnight Foundation, the National Center for State Courts, Family Housing Fund, Ramsey County Human Services, Dispute Resolution Center, Ramsey County Court Administration, St. Paul PED, and landlord representatives. At the conclusion of the group's work last June, a report was issued with recommendations for improving the housing court for both tenants and landlords. 

Significant recommendations and action items from the report included:

  • Strengthening information available to tenants and landlords before and at court
  • Providing space at the Housing Court for Ramsey County emergency assistance workers to provide information and screening on emergency assistance for tenants in need of rental assistance
  • Expanding representation options with pro bono attorneys and law school clinics
  • Making it easier for tenants to obtain expungments by modifying settlement forms and having judicial officers recommend expungment by agreement
  • Developing a “pilot” mediation program for evictions in advance of the court date or filing
  • Exploring the viability of a Housing Court Administrative order or rule that would maintain the confidentiality of an eviction filing until the case is determined on its merits. 

Governor’s Elder Abuse Consumer Workgroup Issues Recommendations

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Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) was named by Governor Dayton as one of five members of the Elder Abuse Consumer Workgroup, a body he appointed in late November to offer recommendations (by January 26th, 2018) on how to address the egregious problems surfaced by a Star Tribune expose on elder abuse (see "Left to Suffer"). The Governor asked AARP to chair the group, which also consisted of the Alzheimer's Association - Minnesota/North Dakota Chapter, Elder Voice Family Advocates, and Elder Justice Center. 

Supervising attorneys Genevieve Gaboriault and Ron Elwood represented MMLA in the Consumer Workgroup and contributed to the report submitted to the Governor. The report's recommendations are aimed at improving the system of care, services, and protections for older and vulnerable adults, and are grouped into four areas:

  • Strengthening and expanding rights of older and vulnerable adults and their families
  • Enhancement of criminal and civil enforcement of rights
  • Development of a new licensure framework for assisted living and dementia care
  • Improving Department of Health licensing regulation, Office of Health Facilities Complaints enforcement and investigative process, and Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center reporting protocols.

On the conclusion of the group's work, Elwood noted, "The Workgroup is proud of the report and recommendations it has developed in a inordinately short period of time, and hopes the legislature will adopt as many of the recommendations as possible.  The situation is grim, and, as the group concludes, 'immediate and dramatic fixes' are necessary."

Read the full report is available here.  

LASNEM Attorney Appointed to 6th Judicial District Bench

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Robert Friday, director of advocacy for Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota (LASNEM), has been appointed state district judge by Governor Mark Dayton. Friday, the newest judge on the Iron Range, is a staunch advocate for low-income families and youth. The 6th District includes St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties, and Friday will be at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia.

As director of advocacy at LASNEM, Friday manages the legal work of the program, provides legal education in the community, and works with the Volunteer Attorney Program in Duluth.

Commenting on his legal services work, Friday noted, "There is no other area of law that impacts a community more than family law. Other than minor criminal charges, the most likely reason someone is going to interact with the court system is family issues. Our children are our future, and we need to protect the best interests of our kids."

LASNEM executive director Dori Streit said, "Bob has been my partner in vision for legal services for many years. He'll continue to be a huge ally, but we will all miss working with him." Read more in the Duluth News Tribune

SMRLS Prevails in Appeal Holding Recipients of Housing Support Harmless for Overpayments

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In an appeal interpreting new law by Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), a Human Services Judge concluded that recipients of Housing Support (formerly Group Residential Housing, or GRH) are to be held harmless for overpayments.  The judge also determined that Ramsey County, acting on instructions from the state Department of Human Services (DHS), had incorrectly determined that SMRLS' client's agency-error overpayment of $97 in General Assistance was collectable.

The client, a resident in a GRH facility since March 2017, worked for temporary agencies and properly reported her income, but her county worker got confused because she reported the jobs as if the work site, rather than the temporary agency, was the employer.  The county originally assessed more than $5000 in overpayments.  After SMRLS got involved, the county reduced the overpayment to $1400 in Housing Support plus $97 in GA (representing one month's grant).

Minn. Stat. 256P.08, which establishes uniform overpayment and underpayment procedures for several state public benefit programs, became effective in 2016.  It says that GA recipients are not responsible for agency-error overpayments "unless the amount of the overpayment is large enough that a reasonable person would know it is an error."  DHS issued instructions to counties saying overpayments are collectable if the overpaid amount exceeds the correct grant amount for the month.  Because the client's correct grant amount for GA should have been $0, Ramsey County concluded that the $97 overpayment was collectable.  The Human Services Judge held that DHS had applied the wrong standard and that the $97 overpayment was not large enough to make the client responsible for it.

Minn. Stat. 256P.08 also states that recipients of Housing Support "are exempt from this section."  No other provision of law grants the state or county authority to collect Housing Support overpayments.  DHS has written instructions to counties on its CountyLink website that mirror the overpayment procedures in Minn. Stat. 256P.08, except for the provision that forgives agency error overpayments.  The Human Services Judge concluded that this guidance is not supported by legal authority and that the apparent intent of the legislature was to hold Housing Support recipients harmless for overpayments.

Both Human Services Judge Kathleen McDonough, who decided the appeal, and Co-Chief Human Services Judge AmyLynne Hermanek, who approved the decision on behalf of the Commissioner, are former Legal Aid attorneys. The case is docket no. 197507.  For more information, contact staff attorney, Ben Weiss at ben.weiss@smrls.org

Legal Aid: Keeping Roofs Over Families' Heads in Landmark Victory Appeal

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Legal Aid represented a young man with disabilities who lives on SSI as his sole source of income and yet manages to rent independently in the private market.  The young man fell behind on rent one month, but managed to pay the entire balance at the eviction hearing in court.  His landlord filed another eviction anyway, arguing that the client had to pay the attorney fees it claimed from the case—an amount nearly five times his rent—in order to stay in his home.  Legal Aid fought the case to the Court of Appeals and prevailed, securing a published decision that protects the right of tenants to keep their homes notwithstanding onerous attorney fee provisions in lease agreements. 

Congratulations to managing attorney Luke Grundman, and staff attorney Georgina Santos, for their work on this landmark decision that protects tenants' right of redemption at a critical time in history, as Minnesota experiences an acute shortage of affordable housing for the most vulnerable among us. Read the decision in ACC OP (University Commons), LLC v. Rodriguez from the Minnesota State Court of Appeals. 

Want a Training? State Support Wants to Hear From You

State Support is expanding our training services approach to better support the access to justice community, and we'd like to hear from you about topics and  trainers you're interested in, and how we can help. In addition to  planning and hosting our own statewide trainings as we always have, we can also assist programs with training and event support on an ala carte  basis. Depending on what you need, we can help run a webinar, publicize  your event, apply for CLE credit, process registrations, or provide other support to you to help make your CLE or event a success.

We have two models:

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Traditional Training
You have an idea for a webinar or in-person training, but do not want to help plan or coordinate the training. This is State Support’s traditional training model. You help us refine the topic and brainstorm speakers, and then we take it from there.

Co-Sponsored Event
You have a speaker, topic, and location arranged and want support putting on the event. We work together to decide which of these services State Support will provide:

☐ Create an online registration page to process payments and/or to track attendance of an in-person event (Requires 4 weeks’ notice)

☐ Apply for CLE credit (Requires 4 weeks’ notice to have the event code before the event. This can also be done after the event.)

☐ Publicize the event with an email announcement to State Support’s list of 2K+ members of the legal aid and pro bono community (Requires 3 weeks’ notice)

☐ Create a webinar registration link to send out before a webinar (Requires 2 weeks’ notice if we are not creating an online registration page)

☐ Run the webinar during event

☐ Introduce speakers and/or facilitate questions during the event

☐ Provide other in-person support during an event

☐ Provide a link to the recording of the webinar

☐ Post the recording link and materials in ProJusticeMN.org after the event

☐ Provide some other kind of support for the event

Ready to get started? Contact us at 651-228-9105, statesupport@mnlegalservices.org, or complete our training suggestions form at: goo.gl/forms/KAPkAACCHs2UClK62

SMRLS Staff Attorney Receives Outstanding Service Award from Minnesota Justice Foundation

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November marked the Minnesota Justice Foundation's (MJF) Annual Awards Celebration at International Market Square in Minneapolis. Every year since 1991, MJF has honored the work of public interest attorneys, private pro bono attorneys, advocates, and law students whose commitment to service shines as a beacon of hope and embodies the very best of our profession.

The 2017 award winner for Outstanding Service by a Direct Legal Service Attorney is Kathy Eveslage, staff attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), St. Paul. 

Kathy joined St. Cloud Area Legal Services in 1982 as a paralegal working on family and elder law issues. She moved to the Twin Cities and went to law school, all the while continuing to work at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services in St. Paul.

For the past 33 years at SMRLS, Kathy has specialized in handling cases for low-income and needy elderly people. She developed expertise handling appeals for elders who were denied personal care assistance, which allows them to stay in their homes. Kathy also has developed expertise in dealing with abusive debt collection practices. She has served her profession through her activities at the Minnesota State Bar Association, as a member of the Governing Council for 14 years.

Kathy loves to travel, and enjoys photography, reading and karaoke. She thanks all of her fellow legal aid colleagues from whom she has learned so much. She extends special thanks to Steve Wolf, Greg Marita, and Laura Orr.

This year's Advocate Award went to Bridget Gernander, Legal Services Grant program manager with the Minnesota Judicial Branch. Bridget began her career after law school as an Equal Justice Fellow working to expand MJF’s network of volunteer opportunities including its first ever volunteer spring break trips and pre-orientation projects.

In the words of her nominator “no single individual in the state of Minnesota has done more to encourage and expand services to the disadvantaged than Bridget. Because of her role on the legal services advisory committee, and her highly collaborative and humble nature, she is often out of the spotlight however, and does not seek the sort of recognition she deserves." Thanks to Bridget, Minnesota has a reputation as a cutting-edge state with a well-run, innovative, client-focused civil legal aid funding system.

MJF's other awards for outstanding service went to the following deserving individuals:

  • Private Practice Lawyer Award:  Rebecca Schiller, The Academy Law Group, P.A.
  • Law Student Award Winners: Lora Fike, Mitchell Hamline School of Law; Nicole Faas, University of Minnesota Law School; Melissa Bumanglag, University of St. Thomas School of Law.

Disability Law Center Wins Class Certification Motion in Federal Court

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This fall, the Minnesota Disability Law Center of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) was successful in obtaining class certification on behalf of individuals with disabilities who are unnecessarily segregated in corporate foster care facilities. A decision was issued by the United States District Court in Murphy et. al. v. Piper et. al, which certified a class action for individuals with disabilities who want to live near family and friends. With this ruling, the federal court is allowing a challenge to the statewide practice of overreliance on corporate foster care settings as housing for those with disabilities and its failure to provide persons with disabilities information and access to reasonable and individualized alternatives. Moreover, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to consider the Department of Human Services’ request to reverse the certification order, so the case will now proceed through discovery and trial, if necessary. In failing to provide citizens with disabilities the opportunity to live in individualized settings, Minnesota has not been consistent with federal law. One of the lawyers for the Plaintiffs, Sean Burke, stated "We simply want a system in place that allows individuals with disabilities to live where they want, like everyone else, and in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs."

Legal Aid staff who were instrumental in the achievement of this action include staff attorneys Sean Burke and Christen Champman, litigation director Justin Perl, Steven Pincus, Peter McGelliot, and Joe Anthony of the Anthony Ostlund law firm (co-counsel), and supervising attorney Bud Rosenfield. The decision can be found here.

SMRLS Housing Attorneys Help Secure Accommodation for Assistance Animal

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Lisa Hollingsworth and Laura Jelinek, attorneys with the Housing Equality Law Project at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), recently helped a client win a legal settlement with her landlord that will help other disabled tenants in the future. Litigation began because the apartment complex would not accommodate their client’s doctor-mandated need for an assistance animal. The client’s lawsuit alleged that her apartment complex violated the federal Fair Housing Act by refusing to let her keep an emotional assistance dog for her disability, and that she faced repeated bullying from property managers, including attempts to evict her.

"People's treating doctors recognize how much a companion animal can provide to people who are relatively shut in because of a disability," said Hollingsworth, who sometimes sees nearly 100 cases per year where requests for assistance animals are denied or ignored by a landlord.

Under the settlement agreement, the apartment complex must expand its policies on accommodating assistance animals, notify residents of policy changes, and state in advertisements that it is an "Equal Housing Opportunity Provider." Read more in the Star Tribune.

State Support Wins Self-Represented Litigation Network's "Best Forms" Competition

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The Forms and Technology Working Group of the Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) recently announced the winners of its first ever Best Forms Contest. The group's goals were to recognize civil legal forms that utilize plain language, design, and interview and instruction elements to best advantage and ease from the self-represented litigant's viewpoint, as well as to collect a critical mass of forms as examples for the Forms and Technology section of SRLN.org.

Legal Services State Support is very pleased to announce that our staff were selected for both categories!

The winner of Best Static Form is Elsa Marshall, Education for Justice coordinator with State Support, for the Delegation of Parental Authority form.

The winner of Best Automated Form is Jennifer Singleton, legal/technology projects manager with State Support, for the Motion to Modify Child Support or Spousal Maintenance form.

There were 31 entries from around the country and the Working Group found judging the forms difficult. SRLN leader Katherine Alteneder noted that the contest demonstrated how process simplification goes a long way toward reducing the difficulty that self-represented litigants have when filling out court forms.

The Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) is the only non-profit supporting justice system professionals focused on the question of how best to reform ALL aspects of the legal system (courts, legal aid, the bar and non-legal partners) so that SRLs experience the courts (and indeed the legal system) as a consumer oriented environment guided by the principles of equal protection and due process.

LSNM Partners to Form First Medical-Legal Partnership in North Dakota

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Thanks to a Bush Foundation community innovation grant, and the teamwork of Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota (LSNM), Legal Services of North Dakota (LSND), and Family HealthCare, North Dakota has established its  first cross-border medical-legal partnership (MLP).

Legal Advocates for Health joins other MLPs across the country that bring together medical and legal aid organizations to help disadvantaged people. Currently funded for two years, the project embeds a legal aid attorney with medical staff at Family HealthCare’s downtown Fargo clinic.

Helping patients with matters like benefits denial, employment discrimination or housing often means medical staff need to flag patients’ problems that call for legal aid. The three partners are currently seeking a qualified lawyer to lead Legal Advocates for Health, currently being staffed by two law students.

“Training [the medical point of contact] is really important [with regard to] what questions to ask,” said LSNM's executive director Anne Hoefgen. “If you ask [patients], ‘Do you have a family law issue,’ they might not know what that is." Read more.

Minnesota Legal Advice Online & ProJusticeMN Featured in Bench and Bar

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October's edition of Bench and Bar of Minnesota features all things pro bono. Among them, legal aid's options for the busy Minnesota lawyer: Minnesota Legal Advice Online and ProJusticeMN.  These time-saving and innovative online outlets for assisting low income Minnesotans are explained in a featured article by State Support's Emily Good.

MN Legal Advice Online is a virtual legal clinic with a flexible commitment. Through an email conversation, volunteers select submitted questions they want to answer based on their subject matter knowledge. The site easily tracks volunteer hours for CLE credit or North Star Lawyer certification.

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ProJusticeMN.org, a website supporting pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, assists volunteers in finding a pro bono case or project, or an upcoming legal training. The site also has an extensive poverty law resource library with practice manuals, document assembly tools, interview guides, and settlement checklists for different areas of law. Read the full article in Bench and Bar.

Celebrate National Pro Bono Week Minnesota Style

The last week in October offers a special opportunity to celebrate the value of pro bono work by participating in Minnesota's activities as part of National Pro Bono Week. The ABA's country-wide effort, highlighting local action and celebration, promotes recruitment of volunteers, recognition of the efforts of current pro bono volunteers, and seeks to increase support and collaboration. Pro bono plays a vital role in closing the justice gap by helping to increase the number of low-income individuals who can get legal advice at crucial moments.

As part of the local celebration, the Minnesota State Bar Association is hosting “Beyond Status: Meeting the Legal Needs of Today’s Immigrants.” The CLE will take place on Tuesday, October 24th at midday, hosted at the offices of Stinson Leonard Street. Presenters include pro bono attorneys and legal aid staff who will discuss ways they serve immigrant clients in housing, employment, public benefits, DACA and preparedness matters. Immigration is continually in the news, but the legal needs of immigrants extend beyond status. Noting the need for this topic, moderator Emily Good of Legal Services State Support, said “because of their status, their language, their race, immigrants’ legal problems can be amplified and complicated.” Registration for this event, as well as a full schedule of events around Minnesota for the week, are available on ProJusticeMN.org.