In late 2013, the City Bar Justice Center and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center co-sponsored a conference in Hartford on legal problems faced by veterans. Legal services providers from 10 different organizations from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maine attended the Veterans Legal Services Provider Conference. The group of veterans advocates included representatives from bar associations, local and national legal service providers, law firms and law schools all committed to serving veterans.

The participants’ diverse perspectives and a range of expertise in different legal practice areas provided for a unique platform for collaboration to assist veterans.  Lawyers working on veterans issues took this opportunity to discuss the challenges of their work and strategize about solutions. A significant issue that many veterans face is difficulty in accessing VA disability benefits for injuries related to their service. The attendees discussed the obstacle of long wait times at the VA and regional differences in the processing of these claims. The Veterans Assistance Project at the City Bar Justice Center recruits, trains, and mentors pro bono volunteers from firms and corporations around New York City to help veterans with these claims for benefits.  Participants also discussed ways they support the pro bono volunteers who work with their organizations to most effectively leverage legal services for veterans.

The attendees agreed that there is a great need for more legal assistance for veterans, mainly in the areas of family law and housing.  A bill is currently pending in the U.S. Senate that would authorize the VA to fund legal services for veterans. The legal services providers that assist veterans are watching this bill with great interest and working to make the need for legal services known.

Veterans who are given less than honorable discharges from the military often face additional significant barriers adjusting to civilian life.  These discharges can impact veterans’ ability to find work and can make them ineligible for important VA benefits, such as the GI Bill, healthcare or disability compensation. Many of the legal services providers that attended the conference are interested in helping veterans file for discharge upgrades given the lack of services available in this area.  Overcoming these discharges can be an important first step in allowing veterans to become self-sufficient. Caitlin Kilroy, Staff Attorney on the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project noted, “In our clinics, we have seen many deserving veterans who have been discharged for behavior that likely resulted from an underlying mental health issue, such as PTSD.”

Professor Michael Wishnie of the Yale Veterans Legal Services clinic delivered the keynote address. He spoke about the wide-ranging legal issues that the clinic tackles on behalf of veterans. Each clinic student works on both individual matters with a veteran, such as an application for VA benefits, and on systemic legal issues. For example, the clinic has sought public records regarding the incidence of sexual assault in the military, fought to expand pretrial diversion programs for veterans, and sued the military for failing to properly review discharge upgrade applications from veterans with PTSD. The depth and breadth of the work of the Yale Veterans Legal Services clinic inspired attendees to discuss ways they might be able to expand the scope of the services they offer to veterans.

The networking opportunity and chance to pool expertise and resources provided by the conference was invaluable. Carol Bockner, Director of the Veterans Assistance Project and Director of Pro Bono Initiatives at the City Bar Justice Center said, “We look forward to continuing to work together in our shared mission to help veterans in need.”

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When Tania Lopez, a single mother of two from the Bronx, was laid off from her job in 2006, she decided to turn misfortune into opportunity and use her entrepreneurial spirit to follow her passion for food. Tania spent most of her life in the South Bronx but moved to Puerto Rico for ten years to raise her children. It was there that she delighted in the gastronomic culture of her native country and grew accustomed to cooking all of her dishes from scratch. Upon returning to the United States, however, her fast-paced New York lifestyle left her little time to carry on with her healthy eating habits. Tania found herself resorting to more efficient – yet less healthy – fast food to accommodate her busy schedule, and she felt her health decline as a result.

Tania LopezLooking around her local, predominantly Latino community, Tania saw that she was not alone. She constantly heard complaints from her friends and family about their weight, diabetes, heart problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Realizing that these widespread health problems were inextricably linked to an American habit of depending on overly-processed food, Tania was inspired to start Coquí the Chef, a company that promotes a holistic approach to eating through healthy recipes and fresh ingredients. The company’s philosophy centers on the idea that cooking at home is not only essential, but fun as well. The entrepreneur said, “I grew tired of hearing about obesity, diabetes and other life threatening health issues taking lives. I got to the point where I realized I no longer wanted health issues to control me or my loved ones, so I decided to look into food instead of relying on western medicine to ‘fix’ us. My exploration led me on a journey… a journey into a different world: one that acknowledges the wonders of food.” Tania chose the coquí frog to be her company’s mascot due to the endangered amphibian’s symbolic importance to her native island, and she partnered with talented graphic artists to draw up the cartoon frog.

Coqui frogIn January 2013, Tania approached the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project for assistance with a trademark application. Through NELP, Tania was paired with Jordana Garellek, an associate at Duane Morris LLP who helped her trademark her business name and logo. They discussed other intellectual property issues and plans for expanding her business as well, such as licensing her mark and creating her own cooking show. Ms. Garellek remarked on Tania’s entrepreneurship: “She has been a pleasure to work with and her entrepreneurial spirit seems to have no bounds. She is always looking for ways to improve her business in order to truly make a difference in her community.”

Tania and Coqui the frogTania has a recipe blog to help parents make healthy eating choices for their children, and she sells cookbooks and shares recipes through her website, www.coquithechef.com. She has also started a YouTube channel through which she shares cooking tutorials. And for special occasions such as the 54th Annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade, she even dons the Coqui the Chef costume herself to help spread nutritional awareness! What began as a true passion became an enduring business for Tania, who said, “Coqui the Chef not only speaks about healthy eating and nutritional awareness; he is here to remind us that food is more than something we eat. It creates and defines us… most of all it connects us.”

Tania & Kids

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The Philippines recently requested that Washington designate the country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The request was made in the devastating wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which has killed more than 6,000 people, displaced more than four million, and affected an estimated 12 million since it struck the Philippines on November 8th, 2013.

What is TPS?
TPS is a temporary, humanitarian form of relief extended to foreign nationals who hail from a country suffering from an ongoing armed conflict or, like the Philippines, a natural calamity that makes it unsafe for them to return. Individuals who receive TPS are not removable from the United States, can obtain work authorization, and may be granted travel authorization. “It’s meant to help people who are in the U.S. and whose conditions in their home country prevent them from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately,” said Claire Nicholson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It allows them to stay in the U.S. and work until they can safely return home.”  However, as TPS does not lead to permanent resident status, when the designation terminates beneficiaries revert to the same immigration status they maintained before TPS or to any other status they may have acquired while registered for TPS.

Current TPS designated countries include El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria.

How Would TPS Benefit the Philippines and Filipino Nationals Now in the U.S.?
A number of public policy objectives would be addressed by a TPS designation for the Philippines. First, given the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan and the ensuing massive relief and restoration efforts, TPS would alleviate the Philippines’ burden of having to reabsorb thousands of its nationals from abroad during this national emergency. Second, TPS would protect Filipinos in the United States from being forced to return to their home countries in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian calamity. Third, TPS would grant eligible Filipinos here in the United States employment authorization, thereby enabling them to work and send money to support their families in the Philippines and otherwise aid in the recovery process. Indeed, prior to Typhoon Haiyan, remittances from overseas Filipinos equaled nearly 10 percent of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product. Now more than ever, Filipino nationals temporarily living in the U.S. should be empowered to aid in the recovery of their own homeland and to alleviate the tragic consequences befalling the Philippines.

What Role Could the City Bar Justice Center Play In the Event TPS is Designated for the Philippines?
Uniquely able to leverage the resources of the New York City legal community, the City Bar Justice Center is fully prepared to respond in the event the Department of Homeland Security designates the Philippines for TPS. Within two weeks of the Typhoon, the Justice Center worked closely with the New York City Bar Association and its Immigration and Nationality Committee to issue a letter calling upon the Obama Administration to designate the Philippines for TPS.  The Justice Center also has a long track record and tremendous experience organizing large scale legal clinics in response to emerging needs and crises, such as Special Registration following 9/11, Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA), and Hurricane Sandy. Indeed, following the tragic earthquake and subsequent U.S. government designation of TPS for Haiti in January 2010, the Justice Center immediately organized free legal clinics to assist Haitian New Yorkers in navigating the TPS application process. Mobilizing pro bono attorneys from law firms throughout the city, the Justice Center assisted hundreds of Haitian nationals in receiving TPS.

The City Bar Justice Center urges the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to designate the Philippines for Temporary Protected Status without further delay, and stands ready to mobilize its vast legal network and resources to aid this disaster-stricken community.

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When faced with a cancer diagnosis, priorities shift and patients find themselves in unfamiliar territory on many levels. A workplace that has been a second home for many years can suddenly feel less secure when asking for time off for surgery and ongoing treatment. The quality of one’s health insurance is put to the test and medical costs can balloon. A health crisis can also trigger a desire to ensure that one’s wishes are documented in life-planning documents. Acquiring the vital information necessary to deal with these matters can take considerable effort under any circumstances, so for those dealing with a serious illness, the toll is greater. For minority populations, there are often additional impediments that result from more limited access to resources and, for some, a language barrier.

With support from the Greater New York City Affiliate of Susan G. Komen® and Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert (JALBCA), the City Bar Justice Center’s Cancer Advocacy Project (CAP) is meeting this challenge in the Latino community on a number of fronts. The project has fostered close partnerships with Latino community groups and, with them, has organized a number of community presentations for support groups. The events are conducted in Spanish and offer the groups a chance to learn about important issues that affect them as cancer patients, survivors, or caregivers. Audiences have been very appreciative of the information they receive through these forums, including medical-debt and life-planning issues. On a wider scale, CAP has conducted presentations and workshops on these and other topics for communities and health care providers throughout New York City.

In addition, CAP has created a series of user-friendly guides on a number of topics of relevance to cancer patients and survivors. Of these, three have been translated into Spanish: A Simple Guide to Advance Directives and Estate Planning, A Guide to Medical Debt: Your Rights and Options, and A Guide to Funeral and Burial Options in NY.  It is anticipated that this will be expanded over time so that all materials are available in Spanish.

CAP seeks to offer information to the Latino community in a safe and supportive setting where participants are able to receive information and share information specific to their own situation.  Most recently, in November, CAP conducted a medical-debt presentation at Beth Israel Comprehensive Cancer Center during LatinaSHARE’s monthly support group meeting. As is often the case during these presentations, the participants were surprised to learn of their rights with regard to dealing with medical bills and debt collectors. They left the session feeling more empowered and confident in their abilities to navigate these processes.

CAP is eager to continue its community partnerships in 2014 to focus further on assisting the Latino population in this manner.

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The City Bar Justice Center’s Pro Bono Consumer Bankruptcy Project provides direct advice or assistance on personal bankruptcy to hundreds of low-income debtors each year.  However, hundreds of other debtors are unable to obtain this help and must file a pro se bankruptcy without any professional assistance or guidance. The Project tries to reach out and provide education to these debtors by conducting bankruptcy workshops and providing educational materials such as the guidebook “Personal Bankruptcy: Is It Right for You?”

Unfortunately, many of these pro se filers run into issues and complications they are unable to deal with on their own. Some of these problems can lead to a case being dismissed or an otherwise unsatisfactory outcome for the debtor. A typical problem would be the need for a debtor to enter into a Reaffirmation Agreement with a creditor in order to preserve a necessary piece of property; this might involve the preservation of an automobile being financed by the debtor and needed to get to work.  Pro Se debtors often do not understand the conditions or consequences involved in such agreements, and the judges must spend time and effort explaining these to the debtor.

When several judges in the Southern and Eastern District reached out to the Project to see if we could produce an educational pamphlet for pro se debtors explaining Reaffirmation Agreements, we collaborated with the Pro Bono Subcommittee of the New York City Bar Committee on Bankruptcy and Corporate Reorganization to write a pamphlet called “Bankruptcy: Understanding Reaffirmation Agreements.”  The subcommittee sought input from a variety of sources, including bankruptcy judges and experienced bankruptcy attorneys in order to produce a comprehensive and informative pamphlet. With the help of a grant from the Eastern District Civil Litigation Fund, Inc., the Project was able to publish and distribute 2,000 copies of the pamphlet. Most of the copies have gone to the Clerk’s Offices of the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. They are being made available free of charge to pro se debtors who need the information. An electronic version is also available to the general public on the City Bar Justice Center’s website.

The information in this pamphlet will make it easier for pro se debtors to make informed decisions about how to proceed when they are confronted with demands by creditors to enter into a Reaffirmation Agreement. This will lead to a better outcome and a true “fresh start” for the debtors.

Download “Bankruptcy: Understanding Reaffirmation Agreements” here: http://bit.ly/1eauqcD

 

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Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced on Monday a new rule that will allow thousands of additional corporate in-house attorneys to provide pro bono services in the State of New York. Attorneys who work in corporate law departments in New York but are not admitted in New York State will now be allowed to provide pro bono representation as long as they are admitted and in good standing in another state. This new rule will afford in-house counsel the same opportunities to provide pro bono services to indigent and underserved New Yorkers that are already available to attorneys admitted to practice law in New York State. The rule is in effect as of today.

The City Bar Justice Center has a rich history of leveraging the resources of New York’s in-house legal community to provide access to justice to the city’s neediest populations. The City Bar Justice Center has been active since 2003 in assisting in-house counsel in starting pro bono programs and in finding appropriate projects for corporate counsel.  To date, we have assisted about 50 corporations with organizing programs, drafting documents, choosing appropriate projects and overcoming as many obstacles as possible to the successful launch of corporate pro bono programs. Most of our projects at the Justice Center have active in-house counsel volunteers.  The Justice Center joins the in-house community in celebrating this step forward in providing access to justice to New York’s underserved.

We are hopeful that Chief Judge Lippman’s new rule will mean many additional pro bono hours devoted to underserved New Yorkers. The new rule offers an exciting opportunity for in-house legal departments to expand and strengthen existing pro bono programs, and for even more corporations to launch pro bono programs for the first time.

For additional important information about the rule on pro bono by registered in-house counsel, visit the court’s website here.

 

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Today the City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Women & Children Project (IWC) released a Special Report, Spotlight on 150 Human Trafficking Cases, that reflects over a decade of direct representation of low-income immigrant survivors of human trafficking in the New York City metropolitan area and informs the Justice Center’s advocacy and policy recommendations. The Special Report by Suzanne Tomatore, Director of the IWC, and Laura Matthews-Jolly, Staff Attorney at the IWC, provides a snapshot of 150 IWC human trafficking cases handled from 2002 through the summer of 2013. These cases involve a number of complex legal issues in the areas of immigration, civil litigation, restitution, and criminal justice advocacy.

The analysis of data brings to light human trafficking trends of immigrant survivors in the New York City metropolitan area. Victims were from 39 different countries, and the data includes a breakdown of the top five countries of origin for both labor and sex trafficking survivors. Of the 150 human trafficking cases, 54.6% involved labor trafficking and 45.3% involved sex trafficking. Domestic work was by far the most frequently reported form of labor trafficking, representing nearly 80% of the labor trafficking cases. While it is known that domestic workers can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to the isolating and often hidden nature of the work, the fact that nearly 80% of the labor trafficking cases were domestic workers was higher than anticipated. Also of note: in 26 of the 150 cases, the trafficker was in the diplomatic service. The victims in these 26 cases were all domestic workers, some of whom reported sexual and/or physical assault during their trafficking.

Additionally, the findings show that the average age of the victim at the time of trafficking was 23 years old. This is an older average age than previous studies have shown, and is in contrast to frequent—but disputed—claims that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years of age. This data serves as a reminder that young adults who are trafficked need help and legal assistance just as younger victims do.

Finally, the Special Report offers recommendations for anti-trafficking efforts. One of these recommendations is to “provide legal and social services for trafficked persons of all genders and ages, and promote acceptance of people who do not conform to stereotypical trafficking experiences.” The Special Report further recommends that lawyers working with human trafficking survivors approach anti-trafficking work from a human rights perspective.

The Special Report can be read here: http://bit.ly/1g4023K

 

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The Justice Center’s work is to mobilize the legal community to respond to unmet legal needs. As exemplified by the pro bono programs it developed following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, the Justice Center has a history of training and mobilizing pro bono volunteer attorneys to meet those needs when disasters strike. When Superstorm Sandy hit, the Justice Center immediately launched a response and created its newest project, the Disaster Assistance Project.

The City Bar Justice Center thanks all of the members of the New York legal community who volunteered in Sandy’s aftermath to provide pro bono legal assistance to storm victims. The following is a summary of the Justice Center’s involvement in recruiting, training and coordinating the work of Sandy volunteers for the past year:

  • Trained over 450 attorneys to provide legal assistance to disaster victims.
    • Trained 250 lawyers to provide legal assistance to individuals and families affected by Sandy.
    • Trained 125 attorneys to assist small businesses affected by Sandy.
    • Trained 100+ lawyers in FEMA and insurance appeals.
    • All training materials and videos are available online at www.ProBono.net/NY
  • Provided direct legal services in affected areas
    • Coordinated and staffed 25 weekly legal clinics in the in affected areas, providing walk-in clients with brief legal advice.
    • Partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of NY to hold three additional legal clinics.
    • Continue to intake cases referred by other legal services organizations; and recently successfully represented a client at a hearing before the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs at which the contractor was ordered to repay the client 100% of the money paid for shoddy and incomplete work.
    • Assisted over 600 people with the help of 85 trained pro bono attorneys from 39 different law firms and corporate legal departments. (Other trained pro bono attorneys volunteered with other legal services organizations.)
    • Matched 37 cases with pro bono attorneys for full representation on issues involving FEMA and insurance denials or underpayments, and more recently, contractor disputes.
    • Expanded the Legal Hotline’s hours to full-time to handle storm-related phone calls.
  • Provided help to small businesses
    • Organized 15 legal clinics specifically for small business owners affected by Sandy.
    • Provided 133 small business owners with brief advice.
    • Matched 25 small business owners with pro bono attorneys for full representation on issues involving denials by their commercial insurers, landlord tenant disputes and applications for loans or grants for affected businesses.
  • Increased access to justice
    • Recognized the need for early intervention of legal services into the City’s disaster recovery efforts.
    • Successfully negotiated access for pro bono legal teams at the NYC Restoration Centers (single-stop venues for storm victims seeking assistance from various federal, state and city agencies).
    • Recruited and organized teams of legal service providers and pro bono attorneys to handle that service delivery at each site at least one day a week.
  • Helped create a national FEMA appeal template
    • Was instrumental in drafting a pro se FEMA appeal template, now a nationwide standard template for a FEMA appeal, to simplify the process of appealing FEMA denials.
    • ProBono.Net turned this template into an online interactive tool that walks individuals through the required steps to generate a completed FEMA appeal letter at the end. It can be found at www.femaappeals.org.
  • Increased the knowledge and collaborative efforts of the legal services community around issues affecting Sandy victims
    • Developed a series of Roundtable discussions in 2013 to bring the legal community and experts in the field together to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting.
    • Hosted and moderated five Roundtables, to date, on the following issues:
      • Homeowner’s insurance, with a presentation by an expert New York insurance law practitioner, who also presented on the topic of insurance broker liability, a topic that was unfamiliar to many members of the legal community.
      • Federal flood insurance, with a presentation by a representative from FEMA who explained the complexities of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
      • The response by regulatory agencies to insurance disputes, with representatives from both the Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Financial Services on hand to explain their respective offices’ efforts to help consumers who are dealing with complaints against insurance companies.
      • Home improvement contractor disputes and fraud, with a representative from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs to explain the role of the Department of Consumer Affairs in handling complaints.
      • Proof of loss forms that must be completed by homeowners who are filing claims under the National Flood Insurance Program, with a presentation by an expert in this field who detailed the complications of completing what should be a simple form.
    • Created a Home Improvement Contractor Handbook, a valuable resource that will be available to homeowners who have issues with home improvement contractors and pro bono attorneys assisting homeowners with contractor disputes.

Low income Sandy victims with ongoing unmet legal needs can call our Legal Hotline at 212-626-7383.

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On October 29, 2013, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project (NELP) of the City Bar Justice Center, and eight other NYC legal service providers hosted the inaugural Small Business Legal Academy at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater.

Over 200 small business owners attended to receive free legal counsel from volunteer attorneys representing nearly 35 NYC law firms.  On Tuesday, attorneys from top corporate law firms took the main stage of the Apollo, where musical legends such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin have performed in the past.  The presentations covered information on legal essentials for small businesses, intellectual property issues, and not-for-profit formation, among other topics.

Business owners were free to move between the presentations taking place on the main stage and the legal counseling tables in the back of the auditorium. Over 25 corporate attorneys lined the back wall to meet one-on-one with clients who had specific legal questions about their businesses. Among the many issues addressed, incorporation matters and intellectual property questions were the most common.

Business owners who required ongoing legal assistance were referred back to the nine legal service organizations that partnered together to organize the all-day conference: Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, City Bar Justice Center, Lawyers Alliance for New York, The Legal Aid Society, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Pro Bono Net, Start Small Think Big, Urban Justice Center, and Volunteers of Legal Service.

Photography by Joyce Mishaan.

 

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Early last year, Milteri Tucker Concepcion approached NELP for legal assistance filing a trademark for her business, BOMBAZO. Born in Puerto Rico, Milteri moved to the Bronx after high school to pursue her passion for dance. She began her New York City career as a Hispanic folkloric dancer, combining the traditional Afro-Puerto Rican style of bomba with modern-day influences. By offering bomba dance classes and producing recitals for her students to showcase their work, Milteri sought to keep Puerto Rican heritage alive in her local Bronx community and empower young girls through the benefits of dance.

Bomba consists of a creative exchange between the drummer and dancer in which the dancer leads, producing a series of movements with her full, colorful skirt, while the drummer keeps up with a synchronized beat. As Milteri’s classes grew more popular, she began to receive numerous requests for the particular style of skirt that bomba dancers wear. Seizing the entrepreneurial opportunity, she started BOMBAZO in 2009 to combine her business endeavors: Bombazo Dance Company and Bombazo Wear by Milteri®.

Bombazo Wear by Milteri

In early 2012, Milteri reached out to NELP to assist her with employment and intellectual property matters. She knew she had a great product and a growing business, and she wanted to take prudent steps to protect her work. Through NELP, Milteri was able to secure pro bono legal assistance filing a trademark application to protect her brand. Her pro bono attorney, Michael Lavine from Kirkland & Ellis, praised Milteri: “Though very busy, Ms. Tucker has been a very focused, enthusiastic client and has been actively engaged in the process to obtain her trademark. Ms. Tucker indeed has a very entrepreneurial spirit.”

Bombazo Wear by Milteri

Since receiving legal assistance from NELP, Milteri has enjoyed great success in her business. Bombazo Wear by Milteri® has been featured in the Off Broadway Musical: Temple Of The Souls, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, and the 2012 International New York Salsa Congress.

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