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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    



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Working for Justice: Beginning with Inspiration


Written by Emily Miron, Policy Intern

In the beginning of the summer, my mother gave me a beautifully framed poem about justice and finding one’s passion by author and artist, Mary Ann Radmacher.  The opening stanzas pose important questions: “What is a voice if it does not raise against injustice?  What is a voice if it does not sing for change?”  I hung the poem on the far wall of my bedroom so that before I go to bed and when I wake up I can read it and be reminded of what I believe in.  The questions Radmacher raises have been reverberating in my mind since I took a college course titled “History of Justice and Equality” my first semester freshman year at the University of Rochester.

     



The course, without exaggeration, has influenced the rest of my education and outlook on the world in general.  Throughout the small seminar-based course we read works by Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, to try and answer broad questions like: What is justice?  What is equality?  How are they intertwined and are they universal?  Throughout the class I became more aware of my own privileges and the ways that society is deliberately organized to favor some groups over others.  Additionally, the course brought into focus how the lack of justice and equality has manifested in the contemporary world through segregation, systematic racism, racial profiling and socioeconomic inequality.  I was taken aback by the severity of these issues and their implications.

My major at the University of Rochester is in public health, and more specifically, “Health, Behavior and Society.”  I chose this major to learn how social determinants of health, like poverty and access to resources, impact one’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime.  I want to combine my passion for public health and advocacy in a proactive and meaningful way, and I feel very fortunate to be able to intern at Empire Justice Center this summer with the policy team to be able to engage in the political process to make important changes for New Yorkers.

During my second week with Empire Justice Center, I was able to see the impact of grassroots activism during the SWEAT lobby day.  SWEAT stands for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft.  The purpose of the proposed SWEAT legislation is to help workers and New York State collect the wages they are rightfully owed from unscrupulous employers.  Wage theft is a problem across all of New York State that predominantly affects low-wage industries, resulting in over one billion dollars in stolen wages per year.  These lost wages impact their housing, food, lifestyle and, ultimately, their health.  The lobby day was a day for all members of the SWEAT coalition to come together, as activists, workers, policy makers and legal representatives alike to advocate for the SWEAT legislation and educate various Senators and Assembly Members on the merits of the proposed bill.  It was quite remarkable to witness activism in action and see what can be accomplished.

   



I continued to work on SWEAT through the end of the legislative session by passing out memos of support to members of the legislature and participating in meetings with the Senate and Assembly legislative staff with the rest of the Empire Justice Center policy team.  We shared high hopes for the passage of the SWEAT bill, and even though neither house ultimately passed it, I could tell that momentum was building in both houses.  The groundwork has been laid for success in the next session.

I have learned so much this summer about the political process, the hard work that goes into legislative advocacy, and most importantly, that all the efforts by Empire Justice Center, the SWEAT coalition, and workers themselves is extremely beneficial.  Even though the SWEAT bill did not pass and become law, important strides were made in spreading awareness about how extensive this problem is in New York State.  Overall, working on the SWEAT bill during the legislative session surrounding has confirmed my passion for social justice and how I can be a voice in the world to fight against injustice and for vital change.

Emily Miron is a senior at the University of Rochester pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health with a minor in History. She hopes to get a Master’s in Public Health with a focus in health equity following graduation. 



Tags: wage justice | intern | justice | sweat





Giving Tuesday is November 29!


     

Looking for ways to take ACTION?
 
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, come together with other people, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world for one common purpose: to support organizations that DO GOOD.
 
The day has many names—internationally known as #GivingTuesday, we also have the stateside  'New York Gives' , and #ROCtheDay in Rochester.
 
Often lumped together with Black Friday during the holiday season, #GivingTuesday encourages people to invest in their community by donating to organizations that defend the values that they believe in. There's no rules for participation, just go to the website for the nonprofit(s) that you'd like to support and make a donation.
 
It's a chance for everyone to take part in supporting the values and ideals that you care about most. For us here at Empire Justice, it's laws and policies that make sense, community empowerment, and fairness for all in the justice system.
 
And that's what you get when you invest in Empire Justice - together with your help, we make the law work for all New Yorkers on a systemic level through policy advocacy, class actions, on-the-ground advocacy for individuals, and capacity building through training and support to other organizations around New York State.
 
So whatever way you choose to participate, #GivingTuesday, #ROCtheDay, or through New York Gives, choose fairness for all and help us make the law work for all New Yorkers.



Tags: civil rights | Giving Tuesday | Rochester | Albany | social justice | legal services | legal aid





Working for Workers: Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow takes on wage theft, bolsters workers' rights


Don and Koo lobbying


Empire Justice Center is excited to welcome the 2015-17 Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow Elizabeth Koo to the Workers’ Rights Project. Elizabeth, a community organizer-turned-community lawyer, credits the unjustifiable experiences and stories of our clients with energizing her passion for change.

Prior to earning her J.D. at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Elizabeth served as a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). During her five years at AALDEF, she was entrusted with personal, painful experiences—of stolen wages, working in extreme and unsafe conditions, and persistent barriers that kept her clients from asserting their legal rights. It’s this institutional injustice that motivated Elizabeth in her work as a Community Organizer for five years, and what inspired her to go to law school to gain more tools and skills, in order to bolster the movement for workers’ rights.

Now at Empire Justice for just over six months, she’s building relationships with local workers’ centers and community organizers. She’s also providing legal support to workers themselves, in order to empower them through litigation, education, and policy change.  And it’s this model—comprehensive legal advocacy and cooperation between organizers, lawyers and individuals—that Elizabeth believes in.

“The legal system can be a source of empowerment if a worker can access it, tell their story, and achieve their goals, but it can also be slow, rigid, and unfair,” she said, noting that together, organizers and attorneys are able to support the client in alternate ways.

In addition to representing low-income individuals in wage theft and discrimination cases and providing know-your-rights workshops and community legal education trainings throughout the Rochester community, Elizabeth is advocating on a statewide level. Namely, she is building coalition strength around the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill (A.5501 [Rosenthal]/ S.2232 [Peralta]), which will provide essential tools to victims of wage theft and help workers collect on court-awarded judgments for stolen wages.

In wage theft cases, exploitative employers hide or transfer their assets to avoid paying wages they stole from their employees.  Even when workers win a court-awarded judgment, they are unlikely to collect the money owed to them.  And when they are unable to collect the wages they earned, the minimum wage and overtime laws are rendered useless.

This proposed legislation would prevent employers from simply refusing to participate in the legal process by defaulting and selling the business or shutting it down, thus effectively insulating themselves from liability.

“Even after a worker stands up for their rights, wins and gets a judgment against their employers, oftentimes they can’t collect the wages that were stolen at the end of the day because the employer has  filed for bankruptcy, transferred their assets, or closed down the business, only to operate a new one,” Elizabeth said.

This legislation will strengthen New York’s law, providing workers with legal tools to ensure payment of their earned wages once they are awarded a judgment. For example, the bill would allow workers to place a lien on the employers’ property if the employer refuses to comply with a court order to pay the  earned wages. Momentum has been growing around the SWEAT bill, as workers’ rights issues come to the fore. And in July of this year, Governor Cuomo created a Statewide Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse.

This is part of why Elizabeth believes it’s an exciting time in Western New York, as there are many people from this area on the Statewide Task Force. “It’s a good moment for us to build on recent attention to these issues and keep workers’ rights on the map.”

Coincidentally, Western New York is one place on the map that this Queens-native never thought she’d be living. That was until she was introduced to Jerry Wein, and thus the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship. She and Wein met at the Feerick Center for Social Justice of Fordham Law School, where Wein (Hanna Cohn’s husband) served in the emeritus attorney program and where Elizabeth interned after her first year in law school.

The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship awarded every two years to a dynamic, new attorney. The fellowship was established in 2002 in memory of Cohn, who was the Executive Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project (VLSP) in Rochester for 20 years. The fellowship allows the attorney to design and implement a project to increase legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income individuals and families.

The fellows are often already leaders in their field—Elizabeth won the esteemed Samuel M. Kaynard Memorial Law School Student Service Awards, presented by the New York State Bar Association in 2015. She was also presented with the Haywood Burns Graduate Fellowship in Civil and Human Rights while in law school.

But Elizabeth admits that when Wein first mentioned the Fellowship, she wasn’t sure it was for her. It was “the perfect opportunity and dream job,” she recalls, but not in the city that she loved to call home. She grew up both on Long Island and in Queens, raised by newly emigrated parents who owned their own small business.

But as she advanced her legal career through clinical work and internships, representing clients in Workers’ Rights, consumer rights, public benefits and housing justice cases, doing the work that she loved in a new city didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I’m so grateful to the family members and friends of the Hanna Cohn Memorial Fund, for giving me this tremendous opportunity to do work that I love.  It’s been exciting to learn about and explore Rochester through social justice work with the community here.”

“To be in a position of learning is a really humbling experience and to be doing community lawyering work right out of law school is a tremendous privilege,” she said, keenly aware of the challenges that face her in navigating a new place—not just the physical layout of the city, but the “community landscape.”

Empire Justice is thrilled to bring on an attorney with such a commitment to empowering low-income individuals. Like many of the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellows, we believe her impact will be a great one.



Tags: Workers' Rights | Wage Theft | Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship





Bilingual Orders of Protection to be Issued on Long Island


Empire Justice Center and other advocacy groups that support domestic violence survivors were thrilled to learn that family courts on Long Island began issuing bilingual Orders of Protection in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian on January 4, 2016.  In response to a letter from a coalition of more than 10 Long Island based organizations, Office of Court Administration Executive Director Ronald Younkins announced the extension of a pilot project to issue Orders of Protection (OPs) in languages understood by limited English proficient (LEP) participants in family court proceedings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  The coalition of advocates had urged that bilingual OPs be made available on Long Island because of its large immigrant population and the potential dangers that arise when OPs are not understood by the people to whom they are directed. 

New York LEP residents have always been actively involved in family courts.  Victims of domestic violence will often petition in family court for OPs against abusers.  If a victim alleges that the abuser continues to represent a danger , the family court judge will issue a Temporary OP specifying what, if any, contact is permitted between the alleged victim and abuser prior to a hearing.  A temporary order will be extended if there is proof at a hearing that the abuser poses an active threat to the victim.

Until this year, however, OPs were only issued in English.  LEP domestic violence survivors often have access to language assistance and support from advocates, and interpreters are present in the courtroom.  However, when they return home with an order they are unable to read or understand, they will have difficulty if they need to seek its enforcement from the police or the court.  Additionally, it is problematic for the courts and law enforcement to insist on adherence to an order to stay away or refrain from certain activity if the order is in English and the LEP perpetrator cannot understand it.

New York began a pilot project in 2015 to issue bilingual OPs in English and Spanish in selected counties throughout the state.  The success of the pilot led the Office of Court Administration to expand the project to other counties and additional languages in 2016.  When Long Island advocacy groups realized that neither Suffolk nor Nassau County was included in the expansion despite the large LEP population in both counties, we wrote to OCA’s Executive Director and the Honorable C. Randall Hinrichs, the Tenth Judicial District Administrative Judge who oversees the administration of state courts in these counties, asking for reconsideration.  As a result, OCA determined to include Long Island in the 2016 expansion.

The availability of bilingual OPs will improve the safety of Long Island residents and may save lives.  Empire Justice and other advocates will continue to press for translation of bilingual OPs and other vital court documents into Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, and other widely used languages to offer greater protection to as many people as possible.  But for today, we can celebrate that the family courts are poised to take an important step in safeguarding our communities.









The SWEAT Bill: Protect Workers from Wage Theft


While Empire Justice Center applauded Governor Cuomo for the administrative mandate requiring bonds for nail salons as an important first step, the need to protect all workers from businesses which regularly fail to pay their employees spans all industries and is a crisis across the state. 

The SWEAT bill – Securing Wages Earned Against Theft, A.5501a (Rosenthal)/S.2232c (Peralta) - operates similarly to a bond by creating a lien against an employer’s property when there is a case of unpaid wages.  This will ensure that a business can’t unload or transfer their assets, leaving workers empty handed when a court issues a judgment in the workers’ favor or when the Department of Labor issues orders in their favor. 

The challenges of finding bond companies willing to issue bonds to businesses known for their unscrupulous practices underscores the need for alternative methods to protect immigrant workers.  The SWEAT bill provides a critical tool to protect workers and good businesses against those businesses that exploit workers and steal salaries without facing any consequences.

Empire Justice Center looks forward to working with Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to pass this bill to protect all workers at risk of wage theft.









The Supreme Court Reigns Supreme: Protecting Equal Rights, Access to Health Care for All

Issue Area: Health, Civil Rights


WHAT A WEEK FOR JUSTICE!

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies for health care will continue to flow to those who need affordable insurance the most, regardless of which state they live in.  It’s heartening to know that the Supreme Court has again upheld the validity of the Affordable Care Act, and this latest challenge to expanded access to health insurance is behind us.  Here at Empire Justice Center, we’ll continue to work to make sure that everyone is able to obtain quality health care.  Our friends at Health Care for All New York have released a statement – check it out here.



Marriage equality is now a legal reality in the entire United States! In a landmark decision, the SCOTUS ruled today in Obergefell v. Hodges that it is unconstitutional for states to ban same-sex marriage.  Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in the opinion that same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike are guaranteed “equal dignity in the eye of the law” under the U.S. Constitution.  We honor and thank the brave couples who demanded full equality for their families, and the lawyers and organizations who continued to fight for this victory! Today truly is a historic day to celebrate!









No Pay No Way: Stop Wage Theft in Port Chester


The No Pay No Way campaign in Port Chester, NY is an initiative created by the Communication Workers of America Local 1103 and Don Bosco Workers' Center.  The goal of No Pay No Way is to make the village of Port Chester a no tolerance zone for wage theft.  Port Chester businesses are asked to put a “Good Workplace” decal in their storefronts, pledging that they follow all wage and hour laws. 

Empire Justice Center provides legal representation to members of Don Bosco Workers’ Center who are victims of wage theft, and values and supports the No Pay No Way campaign as an important preventative measure and a way for the whole community to come together to combat wage theft.  No Pay No Way educates businesses and consumers about wage theft to ensure that businesses who exploit their workers no longer profit from unfair advantages and cause damage to the community.  

To learn more about No Pay No Way, check out their Facebook page and this video:



Tags: wage theft | Port Chester | CWA Local 1103 | Don Bosco Worker Center | No Pay No Way





Black Lives Matter

Issue Area: Civil Rights

Fair treatment in our justice system is a basic American right.  Everyone deserves equal protection under the law and to be treated with dignity and respect. 
 
The recent failures to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men clearly violate the principles of fairness and equal access to justice, undermining the rights granted to all of us under the United States Constitution.
 
Here at Empire Justice Center, we mourn the fallen and stand in solidarity with their families as well as all of those that have been affected by the inequities in our justice system that have been highlighted in the past several weeks.

We recommit ourselves to the pursuit of racial justice in all aspects of the justice system.
 
Will you join us?









Empire Justice Center Partnering with New York Disability Vote Network to Bolster Political Capital of Individuals with Disabilities


Written by Nicholas M. Lind, 2014 Policy Intern

New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN) Strengthens Individuals with Disabilities

Empire Justice Center is proud to announce our partnership with the New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN), a project of the Center for Disability Rights.  NYDVN strives to build, solidify and unify a disability voting bloc in New York State.  The network – the first of its kind in the State – will serve as a vehicle to promote a nonpartisan disability-friendly agenda initially focusing on health care, housing, transportation and employment.

NYDVN is developing at a time when voting rights for individuals with disabilities have come under attack.  In Los Angeles, the Disability and Abuse Project recently submitted a Voting Rights Act complaint to the U.S. Justice Department when officials limited the voting rights of individuals with disabilities who enter into conservatorships, legal arrangements in which parents or guardians are appointed to make certain financial or medical decisions. [1]

Bruce Darling, CEO of the Center for Disability Rights, commented in a statement released by CDR that, “People with disabilities have to fight for their civil rights every day.  Now New York will have a coordinated effort to ensure that the same people are also fighting for their rights in the voting booth as well.”  Kenyatta Dacosta, a community member, was also quoted in the report, remarking, “This project is important because it will allow elected officials to easily see how many people are affected by issues concerning disabilities.” [2]

Organizing a Disability Voting Bloc

A national movement led by the American Association for People with Disabilities has arisen in response to wide gaps in voting patterns between individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities.  In addition to New York’s campaign, similar voting and political networks have been created in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, North Carolina and California. [3]

Click here for a list of easy ways to make a difference and get involved!

Researchers that have studied political and voting participation of individuals with disabilities found that from 1992-2002, voter turnout for people with disabilities was 14-21 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities who had similar demographic characteristics. [4]

One factor leading to lower voter turnout may be persistent barriers to accessible polling places.  A review conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in 2000, 84% of polling places had potential impediments to access, and by 2008 that number had only fell to 73%. [5]

Even when physical barriers to participation are overcome, social and psychological characteristics of disabilities sometimes hinder voter turnout by decreasing an individual’s social capital and identification with mainstream society. [6]  Reaching out to voters not only informs them of the issues at stake but also counters feelings of segregation.

Despite these barriers, it appears that the movement to improve turnout of voters with disabilities is having an impact.  In 2008, the participation gap fell to 7% and by 2010 it had slid to 3%. [7]  NYDVN will work to cement the progress made in voter accessibility, and will turn toward the next step of political organizing: solidifying the disability voting bloc.  Importantly, statistics show that voter turnout among people with disabilities is positively correlated with developing group consciousness with a political party or organization (such as NYDVN), commitment to specific policies and involvement with formal or informal networks of like-minded peers. [8]

Making Progress: Gaining a Unified Voice

Political organizing efforts similar to NYDVN have proven effective at gaining the attention of policymakers.  Former Congressmen Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Tony Coelho (D-California) agree that “one of the biggest challenges [within the disability community] is uniting around common identity and common struggles.  When the community does unite, however, there is no stopping its strength and power.”

“It is estimated there are more than 65.7 million family caregivers, supporting relatives with disabilities and seniors at home,” Dole and Coelho write.  “Add to this the millions of direct-care workers, other professionals and friends who care about loved ones with disabilities.  You start to get the picture.  This is clearly an important constituency!” [9]

For more information, please contact Jessica Thurber, Voter Rights Coordinator at the Center for Disability Rights at jthurber@cdrnys.


End Notes:
 [1] Michael R. Blood. (2014, July 10). “Disabled people denied voting rights, group says.” Associated Press. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/ap-exclusive-disabled-banned-voting-24499436.
 [2] “New Website Geared at NY Voters with Disabilities” Press Release, The Center for Disability Rights (CDR). Retrieved from http://www.justicecenter.ny.gov/sites/default/files/documents/pressrelease_NYDVN_websitelaunch.pdf.
 [3] Each source provides information on voter organizing within a specific state.  See “Ohio Disability Vote Coalition Seeks People to Join its Voting Bloc” (2012, March 15). Disability Rights Ohio. Retrieved from http://www.disabilityrightsohio.org/news/odvc-vote-bloc-mar-2012.; “Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access for Americans with Disabilities”. (2014). Services: Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://www.drnpa.org/about-drn/services/. ; “Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition” (2012). Retrieved from http://www.disabilityvote.org/.; “Rhode Island Disability Vote Project”. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.ridvp.org/PDF/ridvpbrochure2011.pdf.; “Vote 2012! Your Right. Your Voice.: A Guide to voting for North Carolinians with Disabilities”. (2012). Disability Rights North Carolina. Retrieved from http://dev.disabilityrightsnc.org/sites/default/files/2012-VotingGuide_0.pdf.; and “All About the Disability Organizing Network”. (2014). DONetwork. Retrieved from https://disabilityorganizing.net/about-donetwork/.
 [4] “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see  “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [5] “Voters with Disabilities: Additional Monitoring of Polling Places Could Further Improve Accessibility” (September 2009). Report to Congressional Requesters, United States Government Accountability Office. GAO-09-941. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-941.
 [6] “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [7] See “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2008 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, July 2009. And “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2010 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, June 2011.
 [8] See “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [9] Bob Dole and Tony Coelho. (2012, September 16). “Disabled voters possess untapped political power”. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/81268.html.



Tags: disability rights | Center for Disability Rights | Voting Rights Act





LGBT Rights in Education: Recent Victories, But Our Fight Continues

Issue Area: Civil Rights

This is a dynamic time in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) civil rights movement.  Our LGBT communities continue to gain important victories in the fight for marriage equality, but there are still many inequalities that marriage simply cannot solve.  For multitudes of LGBT people, both in New York and nationwide, discrimination, violence and harassment are a reality lived daily that cannot be ignored.  True civil rights advancement means attaining long overdue, explicit federal and state legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the central areas of our lives - such as education, employment and housing. 

That is why Empire Justice Center wants to publically applaud the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for its recently released written guidelines declaring that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 [1] protects “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students” from sex discrimination. [2]  As this statement comes directly from the federal agency charged with enforcing Title IX, it is particularly impactful.  The sheer scope of Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any education programs or activities which receive Federal financial assistance. [3]
 
Title IX’s importance to the community of LGBT students who can rely on this directive to help attain the dignity and respect they need in the educational setting cannot be understated.  LGBT students face high rates of discrimination, violence and harassment in school - both nationally [4] and in New York. [5]  This discrimination can negatively impact LGBT people later in life.  For example, transgender people who were fired due to anti-transgender discrimination are homeless at 4 times the national rate. [6]  

These OCR guidelines follow a growing federal trend confirming that the “sex” protected status category includes gender identity and expression in both the education and employment contexts.  At least 6 federal circuits [7] and another federal agency, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), [8] have issued opinions to that effect.

OCR began showing its support for LGBT students publicly as early as 2010 in a “Dear Colleague Letter” [9] and since then also entered into a Resolution Agreement requiring the Arcadia, California Unified School District to implement inclusive policies for transgender and GNC students. [10]

Despite this trend, discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is still not explicitly prohibited in the text of any federal law.  This is another reason why it is so crucial for federal agencies and courts to continue to build a body of positive case law and guidance confirming the scope of existing laws’ application to these students.  Until the laws are amended or new LGBT-inclusive laws are finally successfully passed, Title IX will advance educational equality for these students.

Here’s the good news: though we need to continue demanding more for our nation’s students, it is now absolutely clear that anti-LGBT discrimination by a covered entity is illegal under Title IX.

To read Julia's article about other efforts on this topic, click here.


End Notes:
 [1] 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).
 [2] U.S. Dept. of Ed Office for Civil Rights, Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence, (April 29, 2014), available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-201404-title-ix.pdf.
 [3] U.S. Dept. of Ed. Office for Civil Rights, Title IX and Sex Discrimination, (June 18, 2012), available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html.
 [4] J. G. Kosciw ET AL., GLSEN, The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools, 90 (2012), http://glsen.org/sites/default/files/2011%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20Full%20Report.pdf [hereinafter “National School Climate Survey”].
 [5] GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), School Climate in New York (State Snapshot), 2 (2013), http://glsen.org/learn/research/local/state-snapshots (finding the majority of New York K-12 students surveyed reported being verbally harassed based on their gender identity/expression and/or sexual orientation).
 [6] Jaime M. Grant, ET AL., National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 3 (2011), http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf.
 [7] See Gossett v. Okla. Ex rel. Bed. Of Regents for Langston Univ., 245 F.3d 1172, 1176 (10th Cir. 2001) (Title VII jurisprudence is authoritative in a Title IX analysis because “courts have generally assessed title IX discrimination claims under the same legal analysis as Title VII claims”); see also  Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F. 3d 566, 575 (6th Cir. 2004) (holding that “discrimination against a plaintiff who is a transsexual – and therefore fails to act/or identify with his or her gender” is illegal sex discrimination under Title VII); see also Schwenk v. Hartford, 204 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2000) (holding that the definition of “sex” under federal non-discrimination laws includes both biological differences between men and women and failure to “conform to socially prescribed gender expectations”); see also Rosa v. Park West Bank & Trust Co., 214 F.2d 213 (1st Cir. 2000) (holding that a transgender loan applicant refused a loan because of her gender identity/expression may bring a sex discrimination claim under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a statute construed consistently with Title VII); see also Glenn v. Brumby, 663 F 3d at 1317 (11th Cir. 2011) (holding “discrimination against a transgender individual because of her gender-nonconformity is sex discrimination” under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment); see also Schroer v. Billington, 577 F. Supp. 2d 293, 308 (D.D.C. 2008) (holding “gender transition” is actionable per se sex discrimination under Title VII).
 [8] Macy v. Holder, 2012 WL 1435995, at *6 (E.E.O.C. Apr. 20, 2012) (finding that anti-transgender discrimination is per se sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination proscribes gender discrimination, and not just discrimination on the basis of biological sex . . .”).   
 [9] See “Dear Colleague” Letter of Russlynn Ali, Ass’t Sec’y for Civil Rights, 7 (Oct. 26, 2010), available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201010.pdf.
 [10] See DOE OCR, Arcadia Unified School District Resolution Agreement, 3 (July 2013), available at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/edu/documents/arcadiaagree.pdf.



Tags: HRL | Title IX | Transgender Rights | gender identity | Office for Civil Rights | LGBT | gender nonconforming





Principal Reductions in Mortgage Workouts are Essential to Reducing the Discriminatory Impact of Foreclosures


“Preserving an affordable home, in a stable neighborhood, for all Americans”—this phrase summarizes three key aspects of housing opportunity and the realization of the American dream.  The foreclosure crisis and the resulting recession, however, have undercut every aspect of this vision. 

Access to an affordable home with sustainable payments is out of reach for many more people today than before the crisis.  Millions of homeowners have already lost their home through foreclosure, are still at risk of foreclosure, or are stuck underwater with unaffordable mortgages as a result of the decline in housing values or lost income.  New York State alone currently has 122,544 mortgages in some stage of foreclosure, and another 197,507 that are seriously delinquent. [1] 

Moreover, due to stricter underwriting guidelines and other changes in the mortgage industry, the lower-income minority borrowers who are the potential purchasers most likely to help stabilize neighborhoods of color now have less access to affordable mortgages.

Our neighborhoods are at risk of instability and blight.  Worse yet, the neighborhoods that have seen the highest concentrations of foreclosures, resulting in higher numbers of vacant properties, are now seeing the steepest declines in housing values, putting many of these neighborhoods into a spiral of increasing instability and blight.

Rust-belt cities, like Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, which already had high numbers of vacant properties before the foreclosure crisis, are experiencing sharp declines in their tax bases, and may soon have to adopt triage strategies to stop the spread of blight.

The foreclosure crisis has had a disparate impact on African American and Latino homeowners and communities.   Foreclosures have not affected all homeowners and communities equally.  Since foreclosures are disproportionately concentrated in minority neighborhoods, and since all of homeowners living in those neighborhoods are impacted by foreclosures, African American and Latino homeowners are suffering disproportionately.  That’s because we live today with patterns of segregation that were established decades ago.  Because we live in segregated communities, African American and Latino homeowners are several times more likely than White, non-Latino homeowners to live in the areas most impacted by foreclosures. 

Minority homeowners either in foreclosure, or living in neighborhoods impacted by foreclosures, are suffering disproportionately from declines in housing values and neighborhood instability.

To get neighborhoods of color back on track, so they can share in the economic and housing recovery, we need to keep as many homeowners as possible in their homes.  This is especially true for the homeowners in the neighborhoods most impacted by foreclosures.

Principal reductions based on true value assessments are fair.

Requiring mortgage servicers to do principal reductions – based on the true (i.e., reduced) value of homes in impacted areas – will help us get back on track by keeping more owners in their homes, reducing  foreclosure-associated vacancies, stabilizing impacted neighborhoods, and thus reducing  the disproportionate impact of foreclosures and foreclosure-related vacancies on African American and Latino homeowners and neighborhoods.  Banks and servicers wouldn’t be losing anything, they’d just be recognizing the lost value of their assets that had already occurred.

Principal reductions must factor in the effect that HIGHER CONCENTRATIONS of foreclosures have on property values.  

True value assessments done in conjunction with principal reductions would result in a greater number of successful loan modifications and keep more owners from losing their homes.  But to do true value assessments, the impact of higher concentrations of foreclosures must be taken into account.  Neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreclosures [2] can be readily identified [3] and property valuations can be adjusted fairly.  If we fail or refuse to do principal reductions that take into account the greater drops in home values created by concentrations of foreclosures, it will be African American and Latino homeowners and minority neighborhoods as a whole who suffer. [4]

We can address the problem of concentrated foreclosures by urging federal policy makers to act.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, needs to begin to not only allow, but to require mortgage servicers to do principal reductions.  Congress needs to pass legislation requiring principal reductions and true value assessment.

Let’s make minority homeowners and communities of color equal participants in the nation’s housing recovery.


End Notes:
 [1] Empire Justice Center estimate using data from the CoreLogic, “National Foreclosure Report,” December 2013, as found at http://www.corelogic.com/research/foreclosure-report/national-foreclosure-report-december-2013.pdf.
 [2] Note, however, that zip code foreclosure totals alone are not sufficiently accurate for this purpose. For example, a suburban zip code with 350 foreclosures is not impacted as severely as an urban zip code with the same number of foreclosures, but which is 1/43 the size. (This is an actual example based on zip codes 14619 and 14580 in Monroe County, NY). Instead, the rate of foreclosures and geographic density should be taken into account. That can readily be done at the census tract level.
 [3] Empire Justice Center did this on Long Island. See our report.
 [4] These findings are based upon a data analysis conducted by the Empire Justice Center in New York State which included an evaluation of all foreclosures initiated in Rochester NY since January 1, 2009, mapping the foreclosures and linking the court records for each property to the city’s property information database, as well as census demographics for minority homeowners, in order to evaluate the characteristics of properties in foreclosure including location, concentration, case status, vacancy status and changes in ownership. 



Tags: foreclosure | minority homeowners | African American | Latino | neighborhoods of color | principal reductions | housing opportunity | FHFA





Directing Cornell’s Legal Aid Clinic: A Fulfilling and Worthwhile Experience!

Issue Area: Civil Rights

This fall, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a visiting clinical professor at Cornell Law School, where I am directing the Cornell Legal Aid Clinic.  I am still working at Empire Justice approximately one day a week, and I will return to full-time status in December.  This has been a great experience for me, but before I elaborate on that, I need to thank everyone at Empire Justice, especially the people with whom I work most closely, for letting me do this.  I know it is not easy to cover the caseload when I am only at Empire Justice one day a week, and I am so grateful for everyone’s flexibility, which has allowed me to teach in the clinic.
 
Although everyone might not agree, I see this opportunity as a “win-win-win” situation – yes, triple win!  First, it has been great for me on a personal level, as I really enjoy teaching, and this has given me the opportunity to do so.    Second, it has allowed me to spread the word about Empire Justice to a relatively new audience (Cornell and the Ithaca legal community).  I have brought several cases to the clinic from Empire Justice, and by working on the cases, the law students have learned about Empire Justice and the work we do.   Finally, by being exposed to new types of cases and new areas of the law, I have broadened my horizons, which hopefully will make me a better lawyer when I return to Empire Justice.  I have supervised clinic students in an unemployment insurance hearing (which we won!) and in a brief submitted to the Division of Human Rights, both of which were new experiences for me.   I have also been collaborating on many clinic classes with Professor Susan Hazeldean, who directs the LGBT Clinic.  By working closely with her and her clinic students, I have learned much more about legal issues affecting LGBT clients and the LGBT community, which is also an exciting new area for me.

Happily, by all indications, it appears that the law students gained much from their experiences, as well.  First, the students were very grateful for the opportunity to work on real cases.   As one student expressed, “The biggest reason why I wanted to work for the Legal Aid Clinic was because I wanted to stick my hands in the dirt and do some real lawyering instead of just slogging through abstract concepts in a lecture hall.  Wish fulfilled.”   Even more gratifying, the law students gained firsthand knowledge of the issues facing disenfranchised New Yorkers, which resonated on a personal level.   As one student explained, “As a patron of fast food establishments, I never gave much thought to the employees who were making my food and coffee.  In taking our client’s employment discrimination case, however, there was a reminder that the people working behind the counter are people too and not just machines that churn out coffee and a sandwich.  In fact, I no longer go to the fast food restaurant here in Ithaca, knowing that the employees are being poorly treated by their managers and the corporation.”  Because of insights such as these, I know that my Cornell experience will provide many lasting benefits when I return full-time to Empire Justice.









Bringing Together Language Access Advocates on Long Island


For many years, I have worked as a legal advocate and social worker with immigrant communities on Long Island.  During this time, I have witnessed the many difficulties which my clients have experienced in negotiating the system, obtaining benefits from government agencies, gaining police protection, accessing healthcare and understanding information about their child’s educational needs.  These difficulties are often compounded when there are language barriers or cultural misunderstandings.  When government funded programs, such as the police and social services, do not provide proper interpretation or translation, the results can be disastrous, leading to homelessness, a lack of protection for victims of domestic violence or other crimes, inadequate healthcare and even the removal of the children from the household.
 
Many other advocates on Long Island have shared these concerns.  Even though Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funds from practicing national origin discrimination, we were aware that this was happening on Long Island on a daily basis.  For this reason, in October 2010, several advocates from a diverse group of programs and agencies came together to form the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC).

LILAC has been active in addressing the disparities faced by limited English proficient (LEP) community members on Long Island  by documenting these problems, reaching out to program administrators and policy makers, letting them know the challenges our community members are experiencing, reminding them of their legal obligations and providing them with technical support.  We have seen positive results, including the assigning of more bilingual workers, increased staff training, improved signage and translations of vital documents.  We are also very encouraged by the passage of New York State Executive Order No. 26, which mandates state agencies with frequent public contact to provide comprehensive interpretation and translation services, and by the enforcement efforts of New York State’s Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice.  In alliance with other organizations, LILAC has been instrumental in gaining the passage of executive orders in Suffolk and Nassau counties which mandate county agencies to provide interpretation when needed, as well as translation of vital documents into six languages.  Yet we know that there is still so much work to be done and that we need to continue strategizing and learning to move forward!
 
On Friday, November 15th at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, LILAC will hold its second annual conference, “Navigating a Roadmap for Language Access: Celebrating Our Successes, Addressing Our Challenges.”  The purpose of this conference is to continue raising awareness and seeking solutions to the need for language access and cultural competence in our communities. 

The conference will begin with an overview of language access presented by Michael Mule, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice (and former employee of Empire Justice Center).  Workshops will feature a number of renowned speakers including Jose Perez of Latino Justice/PRLDEF, who will address language access and law enforcement issues, the Office of the NY State Attorney General discussing voting rights and Dr. Jack Levine of Nassau University Medical Center presenting findings of a study on the disparities in services for Hispanic families with children with autism.  Hot topics such as Language Access and Disaster Recovery, and Language Access and the Affordable Care Act will also be covered, in addition to numerous other topics. 

The afternoon will conclude with a panel of Suffolk County representatives discussing their plans to improve language access services on a local level.  We hope that participants will leave this conference with a better understanding of the issues and acquire the tools and resources necessary to improve their agency’s services, to assist their community members or to defend their own right to language access. 

To register online, go to www.longislandlanguageadvocates.org.  Early registration ends November 8th, so please register now for a reduced rate.  We look forward to seeing you there!



Tags: language access | limited English proficient | LILAC | New York State Attorney General





A Peek at a New Resource for Domestic Violence Victims who are Limited English Proficient


A Peek at a New Resource for Domestic Violence Victims who are Limited English Proficient

 

Imagine for a moment that you are the victim of domestic violence and are enduring the ongoing physical and emotional violence of your abusive intimate partner.  Now, imagine that during a particularly dangerous attack, you call 911 so that the police will come and help you and your children.  The police arrive, but you are unable to communicate with them because you are a non-citizen and English is not your primary language.  Your abuser, on the other hand, speaks English well and, instead of talking to you, the police only interview your abuser because they don’t call for  an interpreter.   As a result, you have no way of explaining what actually happened from your perspective.  Later, a domestic violence advocate advises you to seek an order of protection in family court.  You are not really sure what an order of protection is or how to get one.  Your experience with the police has alarmed you and you are not sure how to even begin taking the steps you need to take to get help without language assistance. 

 

This nightmarish scenario is the reality for many domestic violence victims in New York State who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), meaning English is not their primary language and they have a limited ability to speak, read, write, or understand English.  An estimated 2.4 million residents of New York are LEP.

 

Unfortunately, many LEP victims of domestic violence are unaware that both state and federal law require the courts, the police, and other service providers to offer language assistance at no charge when LEP individuals seek help.  In addition to language barriers, victims may be hesitant to access the civil or criminal justice system because they fear losing custody of their children or immigration consequences, such as deportation and removal from the United States.  Lack of familiarity with the legal system, as well as economic, cultural and religious barriers may also conspire to erect additional barriers for victims in their attempts to stop the abuse they suffer.

 

We are pleased to report that Empire Justice Center has produced a pamphlet designed to address this problem by clearly outlining the language access rights of limited English proficient victims in Family Court and how to access other services.  The pamphlet will be translated into the top 3 most common languages requested in New York’s courts. In an effort to reflect actual experiences with courts and police, as well as the real life fears and barriers to seeking help for this project,  Empire Justice Center surveyed various domestic violence and legal services providers across the state and used the information to inform the text.

 

The new resource, “Seeking Protection from Domestic Violence in New York’s Family Court: Information for Immigrant Victims with Limited English Proficiency is now available in English.  It is easily downloadable and will shortly be available in Spanish, Russian, Simplified Chinese— in addition to English.  For organizations that would like to order copies of this pamphlet in bulk, they will also be able to do so through our website.  Stay tuned!  In the next few days we will reveal the translated brochures!!!



Tags: Domestic Violence | Limited English Profiiciency