The Free Library and access to justice

Many Philadelphians are unable to get help with legal questions involving housing, health, access to benefits, family matters, and other basic needs. A new report from the Sheller Center suggests that the Free Library could play a significant role in narrowing this “justice gap,” which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.

In A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice, students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic report on innovative ways in which libraries around the country are helping patrons connect with legal information, forms, apps, court web sites, “help centers” and nonprofit organizations, and other sources of assistance. The report suggests ways in which the Free Library could provide a similar service here.

As the report notes, the Library is well suited to perform this role. It has branches across the city as well as a user-friendly website to which legal information could easily be added. Much of the information that patrons need, moreover, is now available electronically. While there’s work to be done to sort out what’s useful from what’s not, the Library would not need to buy expensive new books or subscriptions; instead, the task would be to assemble and curate existing resources, and to provide training and guidance to library staff.  Philadelphia has a strong public-interest and pro bono legal community that could partner in such an effort (and perhaps in creating a more extensive “lawyer in the library” program as well).

The report was developed by Access to Justice Clinic students Alex Burns, David Frias and Basmah Raja.

New report: reducing “evictions by default”

Over half of all “legal” evictions in Philadelphia are based on default judgments entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings. In these situations, the Court hears from only one side — the landlord — and typically enters a judgment for back rent and eviction in accordance with the landlord’s request. Eviction follows within a few weeks.

By contrast, when both parties are present, the Court tries to help the parties negotiate a settlement. If that can’t be achieved, the judge hears the tenant’s side of the story, as well as the landlord’s, before making a decision.

A new report, “Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court,” addresses some of the reasons that defaults make up such a big part of the Court’s docket. The report is based on the work of students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic. Through observations, interviews, and a review of several hundred court records, the students identified  problems with the Court’s operations that, if addressed, could bring the default numbers down.

Some tenants apparently do not appear because they do not get notice of their hearings, or do not understand the notice they received, which is written in complex legal terms (nearly all tenants are unrepresented). Other tenants do not know, since the notice does not tell them, that they can request a change of their hearing date if they have an unmanageable conflict such as a medical procedure. And there are other issues, including the startling fact that the courthouse is barely marked, so that some people miss their hearings simply because they can’t find the building.

Much of the students’ research predated the pandemic and the current moratorium on evictions. But the findings and recommendations are all the more timely now, given the backlog of cases that advocates fear will result in “mass evictions” later this year. The report urges that, as the Court plans for reopening, it take every possible step to ensure that its own procedures do not contribute to the occurrence of “evictions by default.”

The students whose work contributed to the report were Sarah Kim Eisenhard, Alice Elmer, Kevin Kulesza, Xavier O’Connor, Ranjani Sarode, and Julia Sheppard.

Students file tort claims for families separated at the border

By Elizabeth Castillo ‘22 & Emily Alvarez ‘21

The Trump administration has engaged in a policy of family separation, which it ramped up in 2018. Under that policy, families apprehended for crossing the border outside of a port of entry were forcibly separated. Parents were placed in adult detention while their children were sent to shelters for unaccompanied minors. They were frequently subjected to cruel conditions of confinement, including overcrowding and the inability to obtain adequate nutrition, hygiene, medical care or mental health services. Notably, the administration expressly announced its family separation policy as a tactic to deter Central American migrants from seeking safety in the United States.

In these facilities, parents and children endured weeks or even months without contact with one another. Parents and their children did not know when or if they would be reunited because immigration officials would not provide any information. The separation of parents from their children has predictably caused significant and long-lasting trauma to these families who had sought refuge in the United States.

Through the Sheller Center for Social Justice, we represented eight families in administrative claims against the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), and other government agencies responsible for this inhumane policy. These claims are brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), which allows individuals to hold the federal government accountable for personal injury. Filing these claims is a required step to preserve these families’ right to file a federal lawsuit to obtain relief for the unspeakable harm they suffered.

Our work began by interviewing each family. Question by question, we pieced together their experiences under the family separation policy. We then drafted detailed narratives for each family beginning with their entry into the United States until their reunification and release from detention. Details included detention center conditions, interactions with immigration officers, and most importantly, the emotional and physical impact on the families. This narrative became the central part of the administrative claim.

This effort to assist families in preserving their rights under the FTCA has allowed us to practice important lawyering skills. We talked through the relevant law and scope of representation with clients and answered their questions. We practiced the art of interviewing: how to build trust, sort through facts, and develop a cohesive narrative. As a group, we discussed at length and had the opportunity to engage in trauma-informed interviewing, a skill that few classes cover. We also researched the applicable tort law in the relevant jurisdictions in anticipation of filing federal litigation.

Beyond these skills, these families have taught us so much. Discussing immigration laws and policies and seeing their impact on the news does not prepare one to hear the stories first-hand. After speaking with these families, who have endured so much at the hands of our government, we have a deeper understanding of what a migrant experiences after he or she crosses into the United States. Their courage is remarkable and has inspired us as future lawyers. They fled to the United States to escape unimaginable abuse and even threats to their life and families. Even after that trauma, they incredibly still had the courage to share their experiences under the family separation policy. One client explained to us that she is motivated to share her experience, although it is very painful to recall, to raise awareness and prevent others from enduring it. In drafting these claims, we developed an appreciation of the meaningful role an attorney can play in people’s lives. We can help to provide a remedy, in the form of compensatory damages, and even support our clients in their healing processes.

The following students participated in this effort to obtain relief for families harmed by the government’s family separation policy: Erin Agnew, ‘21; Mana Aliabadi, ‘22; Emily Alvarez, ‘21; Elizabeth Castillo, ‘22; Stephanie Curl, ‘21; Dan Davis, ‘21; Laura DiGiulio, ‘21; Daniela Florido, ‘22; Theresa Glinski, ‘21; Sarah Hampton, ‘22; Lauren Leiggi, ‘21; Maya Lucyshyn, ‘22; Pretty Martinez, ‘20; Reena Naik, ‘21; Brittany Petrillo, ‘21; Natalia Ruggiero, ‘20; Kate Sears, ‘21; and Maria Thomson, ‘22. Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales created the project with the support of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Professors Jennifer Lee and Mary Levy also supervised student teams.

Access to justice in the time of COVID-19

The Center’s Access to Justice Clinic focuses on the civil justice gap – the fact that so many people who need help with important legal problems can’t get it. This spring, students examined a variety of innovative efforts to deliver help to unrepresented people, and also worked on two Philadelphia-based projects. (More on those projects, one of which looked at default judgments in eviction court, the other at public libraries as sources of legal information, in subsequent posts.)

But this also turned out to be the semester of COVID-19, which unexpectedly reinforced some of the clinic’s lessons. As state and federal courts issued order after order announcing special arrangements for urgent matters and postponing everything else, the limitations of our justice system stood out in bold relief. It is, after all, a system that’s heavy on personal appearances, crowded spaces, traditional but inefficient scheduling practices, and — still — a great deal of paper. And since it was simply impossible to continue normal operations under current circumstances, courts and administrative agencies ground to a quick and massive slowdown.

That would be a problem at any time, but it’s more so now, since the virus is producing a considerable increase in the numbers of people needing help with legal matters — unemployment, health care, housing, domestic violence, and more. The combination of backlogged courts and agencies, and an already underresourced legal aid system that could easily become further overwhelmed, creates a frightening prospect.

Yet there may also be seeds of hope here. For example, remote systems put in place during the pandemic may demonstrate their value and prove to be worth keeping in more normal times. While remote services must be carefully designed and are not appropriate for all situations, they can, as the National Center for State Courts argues, make court operations significantly more efficient and consumer-friendly — and, in some circumstances, navigable by litigants who lack access to full representation. Similarly, newly-improvised systems for handling urgent matters – such as new access points and modified procedures for people seeking protection from abuse orders – may turn out to be worth further development even after the pandemic has passed.

In this way, as students in the clinic were quick to note, the virus may be forcing reinvention in a field usually known for its strong adherence to tradition. And amid all the losses and sadness, that, at least, could turn out to be a good thing.

For more information on the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, click here.

Sheller Center Files Lawsuit about Family Detention in Berks County

The Sheller Center has filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) claiming that it has unlawfully agreed to the continued operation of the family detention facility in Berks County. These agreements amount to an end run around the legal process for issuing a license that DHS must follow under Pennsylvania law for licensing facilities that hold children.

Emma Pajer (’20), who helped to draft the lawsuit, spoke at a press conference about the detention center. She told the gathered crowd yesterday, “[t]his lawsuit serves as a message that we won’t let DHS get away with not doing their job and ignoring their fundamental mission.”

While DHS initially denied Berks County’s license in 2016, that license has been tied up in an ongoing litigation battle for four years. Under Pennsylvania law, children cannot be held in a secure detention facility if they are under the age of nine or have not been alleged or adjudicated delinquent. By detaining migrant children – including children as young as three months old – the Berks County facility is operating in violation of Pennsylvania law.

In the meantime, Berks County applied for new licenses for 2017-2018, and 2018-2019. Instead of denying these licenses, DHS has simply stipulated to allow the facility to continue to operate under its 2016-2017 license. DHS’ actions have resulted in permitting Berks County to keep immigrant children locked in a facility, which the American Academy of Pediatrics states can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children.

Co-counsel for the lawsuit includes Free Migration Project, Karen Hoffman (‘16), Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10), and ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center.

Judge Cites Sheller Report Granting Motion to Suppress and Terminate Immigration Proceedings

An Immigration Judge recently granted an immigrant’s motion to suppress and terminate proceedings after a local police officer made a basic traffic stop and then called ICE.  The court found that while the initial stop was lawful, the extension of the stop to interrogate the individual about their immigration status and to contact ICE violated the Fourth Amendment. It found that such violations were widespread based on a recently released report from the Sheller Center, called Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants. The court stated that that the report “allows the Court to reconsider its previous findings by demonstrating ICE’s concerted effort to encourage local law enforcement’s unconstitutional collaboration.” Considering this landscape, the Court found that the officer’s acts fit into a widespread pattern of misconduct.

Improving Enforcement of Worker Protection Laws

Today the Sheller Center released Enforcing Wins by Philly Workers: Transforming Laws on Paper into Real Change. The report focuses on how Philadelphia can make its worker protection laws more effective by improving their implementation and enforcement. The authors are Ryan Dickinson (‘21), Maria DiGeorge (‘21), and Kelly McGuire (‘20).

Over the course of the semester, the authors analyzed survey data from Philadelphia workers, collected by One Pennsylvania and Make the Road Pennsylvania, about their experiences with wage theft, sick leave, and work schedules. Further, they looked at what other cities are doing to more effectively enforce their worker protection laws. Philadelphia so far has fallen short of using its laws to protect workers, by failing to inform workers about their rights, help workers file complaints, and issue penalties against violating employers. The report recommends a series of changes, such as increasing staffing and funding, creating robust community partnerships, and engaging in the affirmative enforcement of worker protection laws.

“Supporting a right to counsel bill is the absolute least I can do”

That was the view expressed by Xavier O’Connor, a 3L student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, speaking before City Council yesterday during its consideration of an historic “right to counsel for low-income tenants” bill. Xavier and colleagues Julia Sheppard and Sarah Kim have spent the semester researching why so many landlord/tenant cases in Philadelphia result in default judgments  — which then lead quickly to eviction.

As Xavier explained: “Our research has shown tenants don’t know they are eligible for existing services, and often haven’t even been properly notified that they have been called to court. Our research has also shown that there are folks who used existing services from the Help Center on the day of their hearings but wish that they had had legal help beforehand.”

Temple Law, as Xavier pointed out, has a front-row view of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis: “As a Temple student, I walk through a North Philly neighborhood affected by eviction every single day. I see the consequences of displacement and how our legal system dramatically impacts these neighborhoods.”

The unanimous passage of the bill by Council yesterday follows several years of work by legal advocates (including Temple Law graduates Rahsheedah Phillips and Barrett Marshall), the Bar Association, and many others — and will lead to further work, since phasing in legal services will require time, training, and funding. In these efforts, Philadelphia will be able to share ideas and models with a growing number of other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland, that have adopted similar legislation.

Xavier summed up the reason for getting involved: “The legal landscape we [as law students] are entering soon is unfair but it does not have to be. It should not be. And I am here today to advocate for its change.”