SMRLS' Minnesota Supreme Court Victory Yields Custody Clarification

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Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) attorneys recently prevailed in an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The case, Christensen v. Healey, was centered on whether to apply the Minnesota best-interests-of-the-child standard or the endangerment standard to the father’s motion to increase his parenting time to every other week.

In the case, the parents had stipulated joint legal custody, with sole physical custody and the child’s primary residence with the mother. When the child was 7, the father moved to expand his parenting time to alternating weeks throughout the entire year. He lived an hour away from the mother’s residence.

Applying the endangerment standard, the District Court found the modification would change physical custody and primary residence, and dismissed the father’s motion. The Court of Appeals reversed this decision, holding that the District Court improperly focused only on the proportion of parenting time.

After SMRLS' appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the decision was reversed, concluding that the modification was a de facto change in physical custody to which the endangerment standard applied.

As a result of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision, district courts must evaluate modification motions under the totality of the circumstances to decide if it is a substantial change that would modify the parties’ custody arrangement. But, a motion for equal parenting time is not automatically a motion to modify custody because joint physical custody need not be equal parenting time.

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.