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Equal Justice at Work: April 2013 LGBT Civil Rights and a Medical Legal Partnership To Help Veterans

Executive Director's Corner

A few weeks ago, crowds gathered outside the Supreme Court here in Washington, DC, to make their voices heard while the Justices held hearings on two landmark cases for the LGBT civil rights movement. The arguments were about the constitutionality of California's Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Decisions are not expected until the end of June, and most court watchers believe it is likely the Court will dismiss the appeal in the Prop 8 case for lack of standing and strike down DOMA on federalism or equal protection grounds.  No matter how the Supreme Court decides these cases, the oral arguments underscored that we are on the verge of a major civil rights breakthrough. 

Equal Justice Works has a history of supporting Fellows who work on behalf of LGBT populations, ensuring that equal rights are upheld for health care, employment, housing, immigration, domestic violence, and other issues. One such Fellow is Chase Strangio, an alum from the class of 2010, whose project addressed a gap in services for low-income trans, non-conforming and intersex people with psychiatric disabilities. Chase continues to work on closing that gap at the ACLU LGBT project.

As the LGBT civil rights movement continues, I am thrilled our pool of Fellows working for LGBT rights will expand next year with our new Rapoport Fellowship for LGBTQ lawyers of color who propose projects addressing issues impacting LGBTQ communities of color in New York State.  The Rapoport Fellowship will fund one Fellow every two years for the next 10 years, sending a total of five Fellows on a career path towards public interest law for LGBT populations.

Meanwhile, many current Fellows are working on other important issues – from disaster relief to foreclosure defense. We have a fleet of AmeriCorps Legal Fellows dedicated to helping veterans. Among them is Sunny Desai, serving at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Champaign, IL. Sunny addresses the myriad challenges low-income veterans face. Working through a medical-legal partnership, he is able to help veterans gain access to their VA benefits, mental healthcare, and hospital care.

As our Fellows make steady strides toward a common goal of equal justice for all, I am reminded of a quotation from Martin Luther King. He said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable….  Every step towards the goal of justice requires…the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

While there is still a long way to go to help marginalized populations everywhere, I am proud to be associated with so many people working on behalf of human progress. 



Fellows on the Front

A medical-legal partnership expands its reach 
Growing up in India, Sunny Desai saw first-hand the human consequences of people lacking basic healthcare. When he moved to America, while the situation was less dire, he saw that many low-income and rural communities were experiencing similar hardships. He knew lawyers could make a difference in helping these people access healthcare.  He set out for law school at the University of Illinois College of Law and is now an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Champaign, IL.
Sunny’s project is a notable and relatively new medical-legal partnership, in which lawyers work directly in the hospital so that patients are aware of and have access to the legal assistance they may need. Sunny says this medical-legal partnership “increases our footprint, reaching more low-income individuals than ever before. It makes us more visible in the community.” Sunny’s project works with two local hospitals at four different locations. He says, “This permits us not only to help more low-income individuals—but with the help of physicians, nurses, and social workers, we can identify those individuals who need assistance but are unaware that help is available.” Land of Lincoln also hosts another AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, Donis Barnes, who works with Sunny and holds legal clinics at the hospital for veterans seeking legal assistance.
Sunny is proud to be an advocate for people trying to navigate complex legal issues, from obtaining federal benefits such as Veterans Affairs benefits or Social Security, to family law issues such as divorce, child support, landlord-tenant disputes, and more. One of his first clients needed help acquiring Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), as he had become disabled on the job and was unable to work. Before coming to Sunny and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, the client had filed for SSDI benefits with a private attorney who had advised him to reject the initial settlement and fight for more money. That claim was rejected, and the client and his child faced homelessness.
Enter Sunny and Land of Lincoln. After the client had been living with no income for two years, Sunny finally received a hearing date for him to receive his SSDI benefits. “The client was nearly moved to tears,” Sunny said. “I was successfully able to convince the Administrative Law Judge to approve his claim. The client received enough back pay to put a down payment on a home and is receiving a monthly check that will allow him to care for his son.”
Sunny is proud to be working on a project that closes the justice gap for people in his community. The medical-legal partnership reduces one more hurdle for low-income individuals seeking help. While medical-legal partnerships are just beginning to be established in communities across the country, we are proud to have an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow like Sunny on the front lines of this initiative.  



Alumni News

A public interest law career continues to thrive

In 2010, Chase Strangio became an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a collectively-run organization in New York City working to ensure that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. Chase’s Fellowship project focused on the mental health needs of transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex (TGNCI) individuals in prison, jail, immigration, and psychiatric hospital settings. Chase says, “I went to law school because I wanted to do legal work with LGBT communities with a focus on the experiences and legal support needs of transgender communities in particular.  My Fellowship allowed me to begin this work right after I graduated from law school at an organization I had long-admired.”

Chase’s Fellowship has come to an end, but not his commitment to public interest law. Today Chase is a staff attorney with the LGBT & AIDS Project at the ACLU in New York City. The Project works to ensure that all LGBT people, as well as HIV and AIDS affected communities, can enjoy the constitutional rights of equality, privacy and personal autonomy, and freedom of expression and association.  Chase says that throughout his Fellowship he developed “substantive expertise in the legal issues affecting TGNCI individuals and [was able] to collaborate with other lawyers, community organizers, and leaders,” working on behalf of this community.

“As I grew as a lawyer, I realized I wanted to work on litigation and large-scale policy efforts that support the needs of TGNCI individuals,” Chase says. “When I left SRLP, I wanted to continue to work on LGBT issues. I came to the ACLU to deepen my legal expertise and support the incredible work of grassroots organizations that have identified the key areas of need within our communities.  It is my hope that my entire career will focus on challenging the violence, discrimination and systemic exclusion from programs and political participation that LGBT individuals, especially low-income LGBT people of color, experience.”

At Equal Justice Works, we believe lawyers can be great advocates for people in need, no matter the challenges they face. Chase emphasizes this point, saying that lawyers “have key resources and power to bring litigation and to affect local, state and federal policy initiatives that impact the lives of LGBT individuals. Our work is to take guidance from those most affected by the policies and laws we are challenging and utilize our expertise and resources to change the legal landscape and hopefully transform it in ways that will make it easier for our community members to thrive. ”

Chase’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship was just the first step on his public interest career path. We look forward to following his important work on behalf of the LGB and TGNCI communities. 



AmeriCorps Update

Veterans assistance and a webinar reminder

AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Antoinette Balta, at the Public Law Center (PLC) in Santa Ana, California, led the design and implementation of the PLC Veterans Project known as Operation Veterans Re-Entry. Within Orange County, there are few legal resources for veterans, making PLC’s work essential to help veterans within the area.

During her fellowship, Antoinette discovered that veterans in Orange County primarily need legal assistance with matters such as expungements or dismissal, discharge upgrade, public benefits, veteran benefits, family law, housing, immigration, and employment issues. In one case, Antoinette had a 100% disabled veteran client on Section 8 housing who was being bullied by his landlord. Antoinette ensured that the faulty 30- and 60-day notices were corrected to the proper 90 days allotted by law and later advocated to get the veteran’s $900 security deposit returned. In another case, Antoinette represented a client who was a service member for 24 years and recently separated from the military. The client's military severance benefits were being wrongfully levied by Social Security. The levy amount should have been approximately $200 every two weeks but was raised to $1,400 and then $1,900 for, according to a letter written by a government organization, “an unexplained reason.”  This effectively forced the veteran into homelessness. The client pawned all of his belongings to pay his rent and for his truck, which was almost repossessed. PLC enlisted the assistance of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez’s office and was able to resolve the issue successfully. Further, PLC negotiated with Social Security to reduce the bi-monthly garnishment from $200 to $100 and to secure reimbursement for all retroactive monies paid out.

Antoinette also assisted a client who is a decorated Korea-era veteran fluent in Korean, Vietnamese and English. The client is extremely hard of hearing, almost to the point of being deaf.  Due to his disability, he has suffered discrimination from people mistaking him for being slow or uncomprehending, often being impatient with him. However, the client is in fact mentally alert and very intelligent. The client started to come into PLC for two hours every other week to resolve his VA benefits issues, Social Security issues, and problems with his medical bills and state taxes. Thanks to Antoinette's work, the client's monthly income will increase—enhancing his quality of living and reducing the number of times he must interact with the benefits bureaucracy.

Antoinette is changing the attitudes, behaviors, conditions, and circumstances for veterans throughout Orange County. If you are interested in learning more about a career serving the legal needs of veterans or if you are interested in practicing veterans’ law at a federal agency, please participate in the upcoming Equal Justice Works webinar entitled Helping Those Who Served: Addressing the Legal Needs of Veterans at 3:00pm on April 26. You can register here!


Educational Debt Tip of the Month

Student Loan Fairness Act would Improve Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Regular readers may remember the Student Loan Forgiveness Act (H.R. 4170), which was introduced in the last Congress by Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-MI. This Congress, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., has combined the Student Loan Forgiveness Act and her own 2012 legislation, the Graduate Success Act, in a new bill titled the Student Loan Fairness Act (H.R. 1330).

For public interest attorneys, the big news is the bill would improve Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) by providing forgiveness after 60 payments (five years of qualifying payments) for those committed to public service careers. Under current law, a borrower must make 120 qualifying payments (at least ten years’ worth) to earn forgiveness.

The bill would also greatly benefit attorneys who have already been working long term in public interest careers – especially if they have private loans which are not eligible for PSLF. Here’s how.

First, the Student Loan Fairness Act would give certain borrowers a year to convert private loans into a Federal Direct loan. These new loans would be eligible for PSLF – a great boon for every public interest attorney with private loans.

Second, the bill provides full (and tax free) forgiveness of federal loans for borrowers who have made payments up to ten years prior to the date the Student Loan Fairness Act goes into effect that were not less than ten percent of their discretionary income. (Payments of $0 made during a month the borrower was in deferment due to an economic hardship would also count.) This means some borrowers who have been paying off their federal loans for ten or more years will be eligible for full and immediate forgiveness if it passes.

There are many other helpful aspects to the Student Loan Fairness Act. To review the details and learn how to support passage of the Act, please see our comprehensive post in the Student Loan Ranger. To learn how programs such as income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness can help you now, we invite you to attend one of our free webinars or purchase our comprehensive Kindle e-book, Take Control of Your Future.