Was A North Texas Family Illegally Evicted After The Federal Eviction Moratorium Extension?

The CDC recently extended a federal moratorium on eviction through the end of March to help families that are facing eviction because of financial hardships due to coronavirus and COVID-19. But that didn’t help Jonnay Mckinley, whose pro bono eviction attorney Mark Melton argues that the landlord and sheriff did not have the legal authority to proceed with the eviction. So why did it happen?

And at the end of 2020, Mckinley received the first notice to vacate. In response, she signed a declaration under the CDC’s policy and brought it to her leasing office. Nearly a month later, she was told that a constable would be on his wife the next day to remove the family forcibly if need be. She didn’t understand.

Mckinley said, “I felt so let down, like, what do I do? My kids, their faces. They’re like, Mom, I’m sorry. They feel sorry for me. ‘You tried so hard and it still wasn’t good enough.’”

According to Melton, Dallas County constables are not legally allowed to proceed with an eviction once they are informed that a tenant has submitted a CDC declaration. In that case, the constable can only return to court to alert the judge what transpired. The landlord would be forced to request a hearing if he still wanted to proceed.

We asked the Toronjo & Prosser law firm about their current bankruptcy cases. Like most firms around the country, they’re dealing with an increased caseload. According to attorneys at T&P, business owners have financial woes of their own — landlords among them — and haven’t been quick to show leniency to everyone else. But what goes around comes around, and people who disobey laws during the COVID-19 crisis will likely face harsh punishment if ever brought before a judge.

Mckinley’s experiences make that more than clear.

Melton said, “This isn’t even a he said, she said scenario. We have hard proof that this was submitted to all of the relevant parties and none of them did anything about it.”

But of course the constable says that Mckinley never mentioned it. 

Texas Supreme Court ruled on a 32nd emergency order to provide oversight about when and where a tenant needs to sign the moratorium declaration and send it. The 32nd would force the judge ruling over the case to halt the eviction barring a declaration hearing. None of that happened.

Eventually, late fees were waived by the apartment complex and her landlord said she could move back. According to the apartment’s management, a deal was reached. No other details were provided. 

Melton said, “Somebody slipped through the cracks and it has life-altering consequences to this young family. It never should have happened.”

Now, she has the keys to her old apartment back. She says she still feels like a failure, though. Mckinley explained, “My main thing is my babies. It’s not about me. It’s about them.”

Revisiting The Highest Profile Pro Bono Immigration Case Of 2020

President Joe Biden has basically stripped away nearly all of the misdeeds of the Trump presidency with a litany of executive orders — because many of those misdeeds were carried out by executive order themselves — but the stain won’t really wipe away so easily. Biden plans to allow many more immigrants and asylum seekers into the country over the next year or so, but fallout from Trump’s policies continues to haunt the new administration. 

Last year, Sidley Austin provided pro bono services during a joint lawsuit with Harvard Law School Clinic against the Department of Homeland Security because of illegal rules under enforcement by the Trump administration.

One such rule denied asylum seekers who were ever convicted of a felony or misdemeanor (with some exceptions). The rule went even further by barring entry to anyone who had ever helped one of these people.

The complaint filed by Austin and Harvard Law said, “These changes will dramatically curtail the availability of asylum to people fleeing persecution, in contravention of the INA’s plain language and the United States’ international commitments. The rule will thus have a devastating impact on asylum-seekers and immigration legal services providers — including plaintiffs and the communities they serve.”

The National Immigration Project, National Lawyers Guild D.C., and Immigrant Defense Project N.Y. helped file the complaint. They eventually won.

The argument was based on the simple fact that the restrictions would complicate the lawyers’ abilities to shift resources to help their asylum-seeking clients — or even meet with them at all. The rule would force the pro bono team to spend more time on each individual client’s case (because the government had just made them far more complicated), which would reduce the number of people they could assist and also cut off grant money, which was based on the number of people assisted. 

Trump’s rule would not only have applied to convicted criminals — but also to convicted criminals whose records were vacated or expunged.

Bank Of America Legal Offering Pro Bono Help To Improve Public Image

Big banks have big reputations. They’re too big to fail. Miss a payment and they will foreclose on your house. They will haunt you into the afterlife. You know, stuff like that. Now, it seems like Bank of America has realized that the public image might not be so great. The BoA legal department provides pro bono aid to lawyers and families, most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Bank of America might find its image is more difficult to shed than that. 

Bank of America debt settlement lawyers will be the first to tell you that the bank operates a little differently than most others — especially when it comes to haunting those who default on their debt payments. You see, most banks (and creditors in general) will actually sell off the debt to a third-party when the debtor fails to pay. But not Bank of America. They have their own legal department come after you. Word on the street is that they can actually be pretty relentless. Which is why the bank’s need for an image reversal is no big surprise to anyone.

But admittedly, they’re still accomplishing some good work.

Assistant General Counsel Brett Shockley decided to take Bank of America up on its pro bono offer, and worked with the bank on the housing team in order to represent tenants who have trouble with their landlords. Can’t get the guy to fix the pipes? A small pro bono claim is no big deal to Bank of America’s huge legal department, because they can swallow the cost without even noticing.

Brett said, “Working with Legal Aid has been an eye-opening experience. I have a much greater appreciation of the struggles that low-income people face on a day-to-day basis.”

And it’s that empathy some lawyers sorely need.

Global General Counsel David Leitch said, “We are committed to doing our part to assist all members of our community, but especially those who are most vulnerable and have the greatest need. Our team gives their time and expertise to assist on a wide-range of legal issues, including anti-discrimination in housing, estate planning, helping veterans access their benefits, tax preparation, and child custody issues.”

Dawn Sewell works as a process design consultant for Bank of America’s legal department. He served as a team leader on Charlotte’s pro bono projects, and everyone he interacts with on a daily basis knows that he provides this service on behalf of the bank. 

Dawn said, “The expectation of pro bono service is set at our department’s highest levels of management. We should be very proud of those who answer the call to give up their time and energy. We have the power to improve the lives of our least-represented neighbors in real and practical ways.”

Although providing free legal aid to those who live in poverty will always be a worthy endeavor, it’s one that’s unlikely to be noticed by the public eye — and so BoA might have to work harder yet to change that image in any meaningful way.

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.”