Technology Is Helping Us Provide More Pro Bono Services

The pandemic means that providing the same goods and services to customers and clients is more difficult. But technology has provided ways to make things easier in some cases. For example, many professionals are providing information services online. Teachers conduct class via Zoom video conferencing. Even lawyers have found ways to conduct their business remotely — some are even setting up firms devoted to remote services!

But the need is even greater for remote pro bono services due to the coronavirus pandemic. In part, this is because those who have the most need can’t properly navigate public assistance programs — especially those that are brand new. Many people don’t even know which programs they qualify for. Who qualifies for unemployment benefits for the upcoming stimulus package? Who qualifies for the new $600 check? Whose landlords can place an eviction notice during this crisis?

These questions are sometimes difficult to answer alone, which is why the need for free legal assistance is so critical, now and over the next few months as the vaccine is rolled out.

Immigrants have been especially hurt because government assistance programs have tried to bypass them entirely — especially those who are undocumented. DACA protections have been reimplemented, but support networks for the Dreamers still need to be maintained. That means legal assistance must be made available. 

These protections are mostly provided remotely now. For example, Chicago’s King County court rolled out a new system so domestic violence survivors can electronically register for a protection order (against the alleged abuser) rather than appear in court in person, which was the way it was done before the first cases of COVID arose in the United States.

King County Bar Association has also led the Housing Justice Project (HJP) to help tenants avoid unfair eviction, providing counseling when needed. Other resources have been made widely available and can be found with a simple search online.

What Does The American Bar Association Say About COVID-19 And Pro Bono?

This year has been extremely stressful for lawyers, most of whom are receiving more cases than usual amidst a dangerous pandemic that has also changed how they must do business. Most casework can be completed at home or in an office with appropriate social distancing procedures in place. But clients have mostly been barred from these environments. Meetings take place over the phone or on Zoom clients instead. It hasn’t been easy.

And there are other issues, too.

Most Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency expenditure. Well, almost all of those people have had to try to afford a $400 emergency expenditure — because many Americans have lost their jobs. The economy is slowly crawling back, but the GDP growth has collapsed for the first time in many years.

Pro Bono New Jersey has expanded its resources to help many clients in northern states, but the workload is unsustainable in the long-term. Those in southern or western states can try Pro Bono Net, but should expect many of the same concerns. The ABA also provides detailed information on how to find a pro bono lawyer.

What does the American Bar Association have to say? They want you to know that there are still lawyers out there who can help you. Also, taking a look at the ABA website can help you find some resources you didn’t necessarily know were already free. For example, the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) has made its library of online courses available to anyone who signs up — and every single one of those course is completely free. You can create a guest account without signing up for an ABI membership.

Those who require legal services right now can reach out to the ABA Young Lawyers Division, which established a national hotline in order to provide easy information resources.

As always, many pro bono opportunities are still available: ABA Free Legal Answers provides virtual legal advice for those who need it the most. You can simply post a legal question. If it has not already been asked, a qualified lawyer will answer it promptly. The Massachusetts COVID-19 Pro Bono Portal helps residents find pro bono projects that could apply in a given situation. Many of these projects are currently remote in nature, making it easier for those who cannot travel.

The National Disaster Relief Pro Bono Portal connects victims of natural and other disasters to lawyers who are well versed in finding alternative avenues of compensation. COVID-19 is included under the umbrella of disaster relief, so it’s worth a try. The National Disaster Legal Aid Advocacy Center provides similar help. Go there if you cannot find what you are looking for from the previous Pro Bono Portal. 

The ABA also links to resources offered by the CDC. This is a great place to look if you’re having trouble coping in strictly non-legal ways, i.e. depression or anxiety about the future.

Pro Bono Services Offer Protection From Voter Suppression

Part of the GOP’s platform is blatant voter suppression — sometimes through legal gerrymandering and sometimes through illegal intimidation tactics. Either of these strategies should be fought against because they reduce the ability of our elected officials to represent the greatest number of people. Tens of millions of people in this country are represented by state officials who lost the popular vote. That shouldn’t happen!

Onika Williams is a 37-year-old lawyer who volunteers with Election Protection, which is a platform created to protect our democratic interests — with bipartisan support. Williams helps field calls to the hotline the platform helped create. She said, “Voters are engaged and they want to make sure their votes count.”

Almost 24,000 lawyers have offered their services pro bono to ensure our rights are protected at the polls.

Have a question about registration? Where to vote early? How you can track your ballot after sending it by mail? Worried about heading to the polls because of coronavirus? You’re not alone.

President Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said, “The volume of litigation and intensity of the phone calls makes clear that the 2020 election is a season like none other in recent times.”

Many of the groups that make up this platform have helped create the foundation or strengthening of lawsuits to challenge the many changes being made by the Trump administration during this election season — and also because of simple mistakes. For example, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law successfully sued the state of Virginia when the voter registration system was disabled due to a cut fiber optic cable.

Over 100,000 calls were phoned in over only a few months — or nearly 7,000 each day. This is an enormous amount of interest compared to the previous election, which saw only 21,000 calls in the entire year before Election 2016.

Pro Bono Counsel and Director Harlene Katzman at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP said, “The onset of COVID-19 has posed really unprecedented challenges to voters all across the country.”

Is COVID-19 Amplifying Employment Litigation?

The quick answer is “yes” — there are far more employment lawsuits today than compared to a year ago. Since March, the number of new lawsuits has steadily climbed. Industry analysts expect this trend to continue for some time, especially if the U.S. fails to offer a meaningful vaccination or implement universal preventative measures. Pro bono lawyers are having a difficult time keeping up with the needs of low-income communities around the country, but they’re doing their best.

Coronavirus has everyone somewhat anxious about the future. Some have lost their jobs already. Some are still employed, but at increased risk because they were deemed “essential.” And some are at increased risk of infection due to other factors like age or underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Some have family members who fought and succumbed to the disease coronavirus causes, COVID-19.

The number of lawsuits is skyrocketing for at least three reasons. One, most essential workers never received any hazard pay, even though they’re the ones taking the biggest risk. They’re also effectively making less money than some people who lost their jobs in March and April but were able to get on unemployment. Two, many employers have been accused of failing to follow CDC guidelines on how to reduce the opportunity for coronavirus to propagate in a workplace. Three, employees have new rights because of new laws passed. Not all employers have had an easy time implementing the needed changes in the workplace. Workers aren’t happy.

There are a number of reasons a worker might make that fateful call to an employment lawyer.

One is FMLA interference. FMLA is time off thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act. Employers who do not approve FMLA leave when an employee has shown symptoms of coronavirus and/or been asked by his or her doctor to quarantine are subject to extreme litigation. One woman in Kentucky claimed that she was fired after requesting the leave in Hockersmith v. Elmcroft.

One of the most classic reasons for employment litigation is becoming more popular in the age of coronavirus: retaliation. When one plaintiff was denied medical leave (which would have been covered by workers’ comp) in Castaneda v. Niagara Bottling LLC, he complained about the lackluster coronavirus safety measures and was subsequently terminated. 

Another possible reason to sue is breach of contract. In Kalsey v. Dialsource, Inc., one contracted worker was fired when the contractor’s financial situation changed due to COVID-19. The employer offered a severance package, but the contracted employee turned it down as breach of contract. The employer still fired the contracted employee — but this time the reason was “for cause.” Allegedly, there was none. 

Lastly, discrimination cases are also on the rise. Perhaps this is because employers feel they can get away with more in the Trump era, or perhaps they think everyone is too concerned with coronavirus to notice. That’s not the case, and new lawsuits are pouring in everyday.

Pro Bono Legal Experts Hail Recent Ruling About Detention Centers A Major Victory

Many pro bono lawyers have spent countless hours fighting against the unimaginable cruelties continuing to take place along our southern border. Those lawyers are celebrating today after Federal Judge Dolly M. Gee for the U.S. District Court in the Central District of Columbia ruled that migrant children — who have often been separated from their parents indefinitely — must be released immediately due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus in those detention centers.

On June 8, 2020, ICE had 124 migrant children detained. They now have until July 17 to set them free. Of the 8,858 detainees at these centers, at least 751 are confirmed to have caught coronavirus.

Descriptions of the conditions inside these detention centers have been horrific. A letter penned by lawyers and organizations providing free legal aid said, “The Administration must stop using this public health crisis as a means for implementing unlawful and inhumane immigration policies. In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents.”

The letter was addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf alongside Matt Albence, the acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has alerted authorities that the legal order is current under review.

Gee wrote, “Although progress has been made, the Court is not surprised that [COVID-19] has arrived at both the [Family Residential Centers] and [Office of Refugee Resettlement] facilities, as health professionals have warned all along.”

One lawyer who was representing a class action lawsuit related to the detention of these families, Holly Cooper, said, “In order to do it in a humane way, they have to release the child with a parent…ICE makes a real horrible guardian of children … and so far ICE has opted to keep children detained … during a global pandemic.”

Not anymore!

New Student-Led Project Aims To Provide Pro Bono Services In Wake Of COVID-19

Thousands of American families are teetering on the brink of financial destruction right now. The reason why is obvious: coronavirus has all but shut down daily operations all over the world. Non-essential businesses are closing, employees are being fired by the millions, and unemployment benefit applications are skyrocketing. The economy is in freefall with no end in sight. That’s why we need pro bono help wherever and whenever we can find it.

One student-led project wants to provide support right now.

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law student Alyssa Leader saw thousands of tweets on Twitter from people crying out for help. Determined not to let these voices go unheard, she launched the Law Student COVID-19 Pro Bono Support Project.

These efforts are encouraging, but let’s not forget that immigrant families — and certainly those families seeking asylum protections at our southern border — need financial and legal protection as well.

Dozens of human rights and health organizations have sent a letter to Senators Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer to plead for additional protections for immigrant families:

We are writing to urge you to address to major provisions of the proposed COVID-19 relief bill that will exclude millions of immigrant families, including U.S. citizen children. We cannot protect the nation from the Coronavirus and its economic impact if we deny health care and financial relief to a large segment of our communities. The virus and its effects do not discriminate based on immigration status, and neither should relief efforts.”

It continues: “The Families First Coronavirus Response Act’s Medicaid state option for the uninsured excludes some green card holders and many other people who are lawfully residing in the US. Federal Medicaid is available only to a certain subset of immigrants who have had a ‘qualified’ immigration status for five years, ‘humanitarian’ immigrants, military/veterans and their families, and in some states, lawfully residing children and/or pregnant women.”

The organizations responsible for penning the letter didn’t just approach the pair of senators with problems. They also offered solutions. They named specific sections of the new $2 trillion deal already signed by Donald Trump for revision. 

The damage already done by the coronavirus outbreak and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is catastrophic. But the damage it will do in the coming weeks and months makes everything so far look like a cakewalk at best. We need to continue to help one another out in these dark times.

Pro Bono Services Help Pendleton Correctional Facility Inmate Win Big In Court

When you hear the words “pro bono,” what do you usually think about? Most of us know that pro bono cases are those that are undertaken by lawyers for clients who cannot afford to pay. We usually attach a number of connotations to the phrase. Pro bono cases are for those who are taken advantage of by someone — renters, senior citizens, children, and even immigrants. But we usually don’t think of prison inmates when we consider the type of case that might warrant pro bono work.

But it was a Pendleton Correctional Facility inmate who won a massive $425,000 payout after prison staff left him in solitary for four years!

The case stems from a 2009 incident in which three men escaped from the aforementioned prison. Some officials believed that inmate Jay Vermillion had been involved in helping the escaped cons, and so they charged him with trafficking. He refused to answer their questions at the time — which it is his constitutional right to do. 

Vermillion said that it was his silence that bought him four years in isolation — or 1,513 days in total. He quickly appealed the decision of prison officials. According to state law, he couldn’t be placed in isolation for more than a month. Margaux Auxier, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, said that, technically, no one is placed in solitary confinement.

Instead, she explained, they are placed in areas of the prison where they would be restricted from seeing other prisoners. Which, when you think about it, sort of sounds like solitary confinement. Since by definition it is.

Vermillion said he was kept in a “solid concrete tomb with a solid steel door for 23-24 hours a day.”

He wrote to a number of attorneys, all of whom either ignored him or explained that there was nothing they could do within the realm of law. But in 2018 the United States District Court in Southern Indiana requested that attorneys Alice Morical and Chris Wagner of Hoover Hull Turner Law Firm take the case. They said they would.

Morical said, “When we got involved, [Vermillion] had successfully gotten the case past summary judgment, and the court felt like it was a good time to have a settlement conference.”

After hearing Vermillion’s story, they quickly organized a pro bono blitz to serve the prison with the lawsuit that he eventually won. 

Morical said, “They did an amazing job of working the case. They took depositions, got experts to provide expert report and really positioned the case well for trial and/or settlement. And at that point, when the case was very close to trial, they were able to get the case settled.”

Does Pro Bono Work Bolster The Case For Open Government?

Conservative media outlets have for years screamed that our constitutional freedoms are under assault. There’s a war on Christmas. There’s a war against guns. There’s a war against journalists. No matter where you look, it’s war. But the reality is a lot different. The world is becoming a lot better by almost every metric (except environmental protections). People are more educated and living longer. Infant mortality rates are at an all-time low. 

And there are more Democratic governments in the world today than at any other point in human history.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has existed for 50 years, existing for no other reason than to protect the ability of journalists to do their job unencumbered by legal restrictions from an overbearing federal government. 

Journalists living in Pennsylvania are at the forefront of this fight. A new RCFP lawyer is joining them in their struggle to obtain access to classified government documents. Why do they want that information? They think it will help them dance around those aforementioned legal restrictions.

Journalists have been obtaining information from the government and sharing it with the public for a long time. That’s because the public is busy. Even though certain governmental activities are legally bound to be transparent, how many of us actually has enough time in the day to wade through the quagmire? Not many, we’d wager.

That’s why the RCFP is providing a “check” to government obstacles free of charge. The pro bono work will be done with the primary goal of ensuring transparency. 

Penn-Live Patriot News writer Michael Berry describes what they’re up against in an article titled “A pro bono mission for open government | Opinion.”

“In this kind of litigation,” Berry writes, “the laws often stack the deck in favor of secrecy. They provide no real-time remedy, and the litigation can go on for years. For example, the Right to Know Law provides an easy route to appeal when requests for records are denied. But, the agency that hears most appeals — the Office of Open Records — has no authority to enforce its decisions. And, public officials are free to appeal to court, where they can raise new issues and where the Office’s prior ruling has no significance.”

The Right to Know Law forces government organizations to keep public records of all activities.  Meanwhile, we have open courts (mostly) thanks to the Constitution. 

But some people in Pennsylvania don’t think these laws go far enough to provide information to those who need it, especially for ongoing litigation against municipal governments. Hopefully, that will all change soon.

Could New Pro Bono Services Increase Public Safety?

That’s the question being asked of Alaskan officials, lawmakers, law enforcement, and residents amidst an ongoing public safety crisis. The problems faced are so bad that even U.S. Attorney General William Barr has intervened with a declaration of national emergency. Barr announced a $59 million package that will be used for implementing new safety measures in rural Alaska. 

A separate measure would help indigenous people find missing loved ones by analyzing cold cases.

But most everyone agrees that another option would be the implementation of lower-to-no-cost legal services. It’s notoriously expensive to maintain residence in Alaska — so much so that the state actually provides a stipend available for most households. Whenever the need for legal services arises, it can be to the detriment of the family piggy bank.

This measure would help certain demographics more than others. Women, for instance, are adversely affected by domestic violence. Over half of women who reside in Alaska will fall victim to domestic violence. 

How would extra pro bono work help create better overall public health, though? The answer isn’t as complicated as you might think. Many large companies and corporations find loopholes in legal restrictions or outright break the law until someone comes along with a big enough lawsuit. But if no one can afford to sue a company whose lawyers are top of the line (i.e. expensive), then little can be done to shed light on the issues.

Hunsaker Ryan said, “I can tell when it’s a high ozone day. That’s one of my triggers. It does give me empathy for people who struggle with asthma, who do have triggers due to air pollution and who might not have access to health care.”

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency is taking one such Colorado company, Front Range, to bat, going so far as to classify the company as seriously violating the Clean Air Act.

Sometimes Alaskan cases aren’t thrust into the spotlight like cases in the lower 48 are.

State Representative Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel) writes: “The U.S. attorney general’s emergency declaration earlier this year reinforces the heartbreaking truth that rural public safety is in crisis. One that demands strategic and substantially funded partnerships. Alakans can no longer afford for the state to eliminate funding that supposedly goes unspent, just because it thinks it will save money in the short term. Shifting costs and deferring spending does not save money, it just hurts Alaskans.”

Rosita Kaahani Worl, Ph.D., president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, wrote that “public safety is a basic human right. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can provide state elected officials a guide and recommendations to address the basic human rights of Alaska Natives and the inequities that exist in law enforcement and address long-term solutions related to these historical wrongs.”

And pro bono work can become a big part of those complex solutions.

Houston Having Trouble Finding Pro Bono Help For Low-Income Families

According to legal industry analysts, the increasing number of low-income families in Texas is beginning to make a dent in the economy — and it’s made even worse because those families can’t afford legal help when they need it most. The biggest problem of all? In other areas of the country, pro bono lawyers help those low-income residents out. That’s not the case in Texas, where the need for pro bono help is at an all-time high.

The Texas Lawbook recently reviewed the situation. According to its analysis, corporate law firms are reaping the rewards of the economy while ignoring the needs of low-income families. In general, the expectation is that the more money a corporate law firm makes, the more free time it gives away (because it can afford to do more to help the community that made its success possible). But that’s not happening in Texas.

Believe it or not, the amount of pro bono work in Texas has actually gone down.

There are over 103,000 lawyers licensed to practice in Texas, but even they might not be enough to make up for the increased demand. The greatest need is in veteran law and family law, but not enough are practicing in those niches or providing pro bono work.

The situation is so bad that the government is getting involved. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has joined with general counsel from companies in the state to find a solution.

Hecht said, “It really is dire. We have lots and lots of people in our society who are unproductive because they have unmet legal needs.”

It should be noted that Hecht is one of the most conservative, pro-business justices in the state — and even he knows when it’s time to intervene.

Sadly, The Texas Lawbook reported that only 6 in 50 law firms said they increased the amount of pro bono work from 2017 to 2018, while 8 in 50 law firms said their lawyers did more than 40 hours of pro bono work over that same period. All those who were asked agreed that the change needs to begin with corporate entities who are doing less pro bono work instead of more. 

“Yes,” Hecht said. “The situation is dire and it is now physically impossible for the legal profession to meet the need.”

Texas routinely ranks among the bottom five states when it comes to doing just that. This is in large part because of the changing dynamic — the prices charged by law firms are going way up while the need for those lawyers simultaneously increases just as much. The consequences of this dynamic are only going to get worse.