Judge rules “Sunshine Act” case involving Berks Residential Center can go forward

For years, Berks County has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use a county detention facility to confine immigrant families and children. The arrangement has been lucrative for the County, but controversial among immigrants and immigrant advocates, who argue that secure detention of immigrant families is inappropriate and harmful.

Despite the controversy, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 in February to support an ICE proposal to expand bed space at the Center. (The Commissioners’ letter of support is here.) The Commissioners acted without public discussion and without revealing the content of the proposal that they had decided to support.

Make the Road PA and other plaintiffs, represented by the Sheller Center and co-counsel, sued the County for violating the Sunshine Act. That PA laws requires that public agencies hold their deliberations in public, and provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment on proposed action. How, the plaintiffs asked, could they provide meaningful comments on a proposal that was kept secret from them?

On June 7, at a hearing attended by Make the Road and community members, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas overruled the County’s preliminary objections and allowed the case to proceed. It is being handled by the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, along with partners at Syrena Law, Free Migration Project, Aldea, and Al Otro Lado.

For news reports on the ruling, see our News and Publications page.

 

Consumer debt and access to justice

  • By Anthony Antonini, ’21

Covid-19 brought many issues, but some things never change. America has a lot of debt. Household debt in America reached a record high of $14.3 trillion by the end of 2020. And even though card balances fell by $34 billion across the country as households spent less on consumer goods, large numbers of Philadelphians still find themselves in court facing debt collection suits.

Defendants in these actions are given little resources to adequately prepare and are almost always unrepresented. In an effort to assist, the consumer debt team in the Access to Justice Clinic focused on developing helpful materials for these defendants. The team, composed of Emily Alvarez, Elizabeth Wetzler, and Anthony Antonini, worked with Prof. Rieser and attorney Laura Smith at Community Legal Services to figure out what would be most useful.

By the conclusion of the semester, the team had crafted a set of materials comprised of a timeline showing how debt collection work, a checklist for defendants to follow as they prepare for their hearings, and two fact sheets on defenses to collection actions. The materials were reviewed both by CLS and by a person who had been through a debt collection action. Looking forward to the future, the team is excited to pass on the materials they crafted to the next group, so that they can more adequately test their effectiveness. We extend a special thanks to Laura Smith from CLS for all of her help.

Helping a client get back his wages

  • By Colin O’Neil

At the end of my 1L year, I knew what a complaint was, had learned some civil procedure, and had some abstract ideas of the difficulties disadvantaged communities face. After participating in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I’ve written an actual complaint, figured out how to apply civil procedure to a real case, and helped an actual client get the money he was entitled to from his former employer.

In our first meeting, my client—who knew little English and brought his son to translate—explained that he was an immigrant from Pakistan who had worked at a gas station in Philadelphia. For the seven months he worked there, his employer paid him well below minimum wage. Worse, he was never paid at all for his final few months of work. He didn’t want to sue his former boss, but didn’t know what else to do.

At the time, I didn’t really know what to do either. However, my partner and I worked through the possibilities and began drafting a complaint. Writing this complaint was the first thing I did in law school that would have a real-world impact on someone’s life, which was just as valuable, and scary, as it sounds.

After filing the complaint, we heard nothing from my client’s boss for months. When we finally sent him notice of our intent to file for default judgement, his attorney called us. We then began the settlement process. I went back and forth with opposing counsel, negotiating a settlement offer for my client. Months later, right before it seemed like negotiations were about to break down, my client decided to settle. Though it was less than he could have gotten if he had won at trial, he came away happy with this amount. I’ll never forget when his son called to thank me for helping his father.

Through the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I was able to apply what I had previously learned in the classroom to represent a client through their whole case—from our first meeting in the Sheller Center all the way to settlement. Along the way, I gained the skills and confidence I’ll need to continue helping clients in the future.

 

Helping Philadelphia low-wage workers at a virtual clinic

  • By BK Katzmann (’22)

Despite COVID-19 impediments, we have been fortunate to stay engaged with the larger community through the networks built by the Sheller Center for Social Justice. My interest in low-wage workers got me connected to the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW). CREW is comprised of twelve different community organizations advocating for Philadelphians across various industries. In recent years, CREW has achieved significant victories for low wage workers, including most recently pushing for extended paid sick leave related to the pandemic.

In December, CREW held their first Zoom legal clinic. I worked to organize  students to help with intake. The goal of the clinic was to both educate workers and ensure enforcement against employers who are violating the laws. Before the clinic, OnePA and Community Legal Services led trainings to teach us specifically about Philadelphia’s worker protection laws and how to work with potential clients coming from CREW’s member organizations. The clinic Zoom was set up such that organizers from CREW held Know-Your-Rights trainings in the main room, while the law students and other organizers met with workers individually in breakout rooms. Volunteer lawyers were available to field questions from the individual meetings and plan out next steps.

Although getting to apply the skills I am learning in law school was valuable on its own, the most impactful part of this volunteer opportunity was the ability to participate in a system where everyone had value. There was no sense that the attorneys knew more than anyone else. Instead, the community valued each individual’s skills, capacities, and needs. This sentiment was particularly apparent at the end of the clinic where all those remaining in the Zoom session—workers, organizers, lawyers, and law students—shared what we were taking away from the evening. Despite the diversity of voices and roles within the meeting, everyone offered some message of gratitude and solidarity. Participating first-hand in a setting where lawyers and clients work together in the pursuit of justice was truly powerful. I am grateful to the Sheller Center for Social Justice for this kind of learning opportunity, and I hope that many other students get the chance to work with our surrounding community.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court

– Puja Upadhyay

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Family Court in Philadelphia transitioned to online in mid-2020 and has largely remained online since then. The group arguably most affected by the transition to online was unrepresented people, who constitute the majority of Family Court litigants.

Even before the pandemic, the process for bringing a case in Family Court was complex, but the complexity was intensified with the transition to online. While there were some benefits to the new format, there were also new barriers to successful participation, including having an adequate internet connection, a quiet space without distractions, the required technology, and so on.

However, some Family Court judges have indicated their interest in holding hearings online for some matters even after there is no longer a health risk. Given the new virtual environment, our work as part of the Access to Justice Clinic this semester was to better understand, and find ways to improve, the online Family Court experience for unrepresented litigants.

Most of our work this semester focused on gathering information about the shift to online – specifically, the biggest challenges unrepresented litigants (and practitioners) were facing, and the solutions that they hoped to see in response. Esteban Rodriguez, Ross Wiech and I felt it was important to gather a range of perspectives, and to do so with enough depth that we would be able to gain meaningful insights for our work. To that end, we relied primarily on one-on-one interviews with family law attorneys, Temple Law students participating in family law clinic, and of course, unrepresented litigants themselves. To get the fullest picture of navigating Family Court online, we also observed several Family Court hearings to see first-hand how unrepresented litigants were faring.

We also took stock of the guidance that is already available online for unrepresented litigants. For instance, Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) has several webpages about navigating online Family Court and explaining the relevant law. The Philadelphia Bar Association also developed several in-depth brochures on navigating each type of matter in Family Court during COVID-19. There were also many general resources about how to prepare for a court hearing online.

However, based on our interviews and court observations, we identified a gap in the resources that were available to pro se litigants. While there is a lot of useful information available, it is spread across multiple different websites and formats. Additionally, there is relatively little guidance about participating in an online Family Court hearing, specifically in Philadelphia. Our conversations revealed that there were several tips and tricks for navigating Family Court in Philadelphia that were well known to people familiar with the system, but that were not clearly articulated in public resources.

Our goal became to create resources that would give pro se litigants a sense of what to expect at online Family Court hearings in Philadelphia. Unrepresented litigants are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Without a grasp on what to expect at an online Family Court hearing on a very basic level, they are already one step behind.  Focusing on practical guidance rather than legal arguments, we consolidated the advice from our conversations, observations, and the various resources spread across multiple channels, into two “portable” PDF flyers that could easily be attached to an email or even used as a physical handout. Additionally, to dispel any confusion over what it looks like to participate in an online hearing, we created two short explainer videos that demonstrate what it looks like to join a Family Court hearing on the Court’s chosen video conferencing platform, RingCentral.

We hope that these resources will help to level the playing field for unrepresented litigants. While the transition to online has improved access to justice in some ways, it has also severely limited it in others. With luck, our contribution will help unrepresented litigants feel at least somewhat more confident when they click into their Family Court hearing link.

 

Observations from a semester’s work on the SSI Project in the Access to Justice Clinic

-Stephanie Curl, Lauren Williams and Josh Lachewitz

This semester, we set out to create user-friendly materials to assist recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – a federal safety-net program that provides essential monthly benefits to people who are 65 and older, blind, or disabled and who are very low income. SSI is not the same as Social Security, for which many SSI beneficiaries don’t qualify. To be eligible for SSI, a person must have access to very little money (carefully calculated using many factors that look at assets and income) and have a documented and ongoing disability that makes it difficult or impossible to work.

Our project focused on two aspects of SSI. First, we addressed the situation in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) tells recipients that their benefits will be cut because they have too much money. Second, we addressed overpayments, which happen when SSA informs recipients that SSA paid them too much and now the recipient must pay SSA back. Focusing on these two areas — both of them sources of great stress and confusion to SSI recipients — allowed us to narrow the scope of a very complex topic.

Sara Lynch, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS), had brought the idea for this project to the Access to Justice Clinic after seeing clients who were confused and scared about what to do if their benefits were cut or they were told they owed SSA money. We began our project with research—wading through as much material as we could find on SSI—and quickly found out that SSI is incredibly complex. We then took questions and concerns to several local attorneys and community advocates who specialize in assisting clients through the SSI process. From those meetings, we were able to narrow down our project to the two areas described above; however, we also realized that there are many more aspects of SSI that students could focus on for future projects.

Steph spoke to a CLS client who had been denied SSI several times. The client expressed frustration at the long wait times that are characteristic of the appeals process. Ultimately, her first appeal resulted in a denial after a year of waiting for a response. The client said that she felt like her application was being sent off into a black hole and no one wanted to help her until she came to CLS.

After talking with the CLS client, our goal became to create materials that were not only user-friendly but that empowered people as they advocated for themselves. Our first pass resembled the information that was already available on the Social Security website—a bit academic, not conversational and a little too dense. We incorporated the feedback we received, and learned that our materials would be best presented as part of a family of materials CLS provides for clients, all with the same look and feel. CLS provided a template to us and we were able to drop our copy directly into it. We had been playing around all semester with graphics in Microsoft Word, but it turned out we didn’t have to be quite so creative.

We ended up creating a flyer informing SSI recipients about how to stay on SSI, which addresses what to do if recipients find that their benefits have been cut or reduced, and importantly, how to keep it from happening again. We also created a flyer on what recipients can do when SSA tells them they have been overpaid.

Throughout the project, we collaborated with Dacil Keo, a paralegal at CLS who works with clients, often when they have had their benefits cut off or reduced. She told us that many members of the Asian-American community in Philadelphia are affected, and our materials might be even more useful if translated into some of their native languages. Dacil also invited us to sit in on a meeting of the Asian Pacific American Social Services Providers Group, composed of individuals representing organizations that assist Asian Americans in Philadelphia. Through that discussion, we learned that the most useful languages for translation of our materials were likely Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese. But we are also left with the feeling that there is so much more to do! Immigration status affects SSI—what about a resource for that? Many community organizations work with people eligible for SSI—what about creating a resource for advocates to use when their work coincides with an application or an appeal related to SSI? What about the homeless population, for whom our suggestions about keeping receipts and documentation in a shoebox or a folder were particularly poorly suited? What could we do for them?

Though we learned a lot this semester and hopefully created some useful resources for CLS, we are hopeful and enthusiastic that other students may continue this work in coming semesters.

 

Berks County residents sue over secret plans for the Berks Family Detention Center

The Sheller Center, on behalf of Make the Road Pennsylvania and residents of Berks County, has filed a lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners for deliberately keeping secret its plans surrounding the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC). BCRC is one of three family detention facilities in the US that has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants seeking asylum. It has long attracted local, statewide, and national attention, particularly given the impact of detention on children.

On February 25, 2021, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 on a resolution concerning the future of the facility. While the vote was public, the language of the resolution was so cryptic that it was unclear what the vote was really about. The federal government has stated that it is working with Berks County to convert the BCRC into an adult facility. The resolution referred to executing a letter of support to ICE for a white paper proposal for the facility. The Commissioners, however, neither engaged in public discussion nor provided information about the contents of these documents.

Plaintiffs are concerned about the continuing use of BCRC for immigration detention. Since the resolution passed, the public has sought to get further information. Berks County’s response has been to deny these requests for information and refuse to answer questions concerning BCRC.

The Sunshine Act requires that local governments operate openly as part of the democratic process. The complaint alleges that Berks County violated the Sunshine Act by having private deliberations about the resolution and failing to provide the public with a reasonable opportunity to comment prior to official action. It requests that the resolution be voided and the public be provided the opportunity to discuss Berks County’s plans for BCRC.

Temple law students, Lina Ruth Duiker (‘22) and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) helped to draft the complaint. A Facebook Live event sponsored by the Shut Down Berks Coalition featuring Lina can be found here. Co-counsel include Temple Law alumni Karen Hoffman (‘16) and Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10) with Al Otro Lado, Free Migration Project and Aldea. Further media coverage of the lawsuit can be found here and here.

Environmental justice series begins this week

Together with 14 student organizations and the National Resources Defense Council, the Center is sponsoring a 3-part series of presentations and conversations on environmental justice. The events, organized by a phenomenal student team, kick off this week with Environmental Justice in Philadelphia: Race & the Climate Crisis (March 19). This discussion, designed especially for Temple Law students and faculty (but open to others), will include lawyers from Community Legal Services and the Public Interest Law Center, as well as the Climate Director of POWER.

The next two events are aimed at the public as well as the Temple Law community. On March 26, The Green New Deal Decade: From Platform to Policy brings together a distinguished group of policy experts and elected officials to discuss how to transform the Green New Deal into federal, state and local policies.

The final event (April 9), Environmental Justice Under a New Administration, features Shalanda Baker. Prof. Baker, longtime energy justice advocate and professor at Northeastern University Law School, is the newly appointed Deputy Director for Energy Justice and the Secretary’s Advisor on Equity at the U.S. Department of Energy.

All of the events will be online; you can follow the links for more information and to register for any or all sessions. We’re excited about the Center’s first venture into the area of environmental law and justice, and hope you’ll join us!

Sheller Center Creates Model Policies Toolkit for Communities Fighting Against Federal Immigration Enforcement

February 25, 2021The Sheller Center, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), releases Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania: Toolkit of Model Policies for Advocates & Communities Seeking to End Local Collaboration with Federal Immigration Officials. This toolkit aims to support community-based, immigrant-led movements that are fighting to end local government collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

By systematically targeting immigrants for arrest, detention, and deportation, ICE creates fear within communities and perpetuates cycles of trauma and hardship. ICE relies heavily on local law enforcement and other government officials to assist with gathering information, stopping, apprehending, and detaining immigrants in Pennsylvania. 

Immigration enforcement, however, is a federal responsibility. Participation by local authorities is entirely voluntary and not required by law. Further, by assisting with enforcement of federal immigration law, localities expend their own resources and open themselves up to potential liability. For this reason, several counties and cities in Pennsylvania have enacted policies that explicitly restrict local government participation in such collaboration. 

Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania provides sample model policies. The toolkit is divided into four broad categories of interaction with ICE that localities can seek to address: (1) general assistance; (2) interactions with criminal systems; (3) information sharing; and (4) contractual agreements. Community-based organizations can use the toolkit to advocate for policies that remedy specific forms of local ICE collaboration happening within their own communities.

Beyond the model policies themselves, the toolkit provides additional resources about each policy, including talking points, statistics, and legal information that can help advocates in speaking with local government officials. It also details information about similar policies that have been enacted in localities across Pennsylvania, with the full versions available on our website.

Mana Aliabadi (‘22), Alexis Fennell (‘21), and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) developed the toolkit as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. For the official launch of the toolkit, PICC will host a public webinar on February 26, 2021, followed by in-depth workshops in both English and Spanish. For more information on these events, please visit PICC’s website.