Legal Aid is fortunate to have a robust pro bono network supporting our mission. This year was no exception as attorneys across the city stepped up to address urgent needs for our client community. To date, we have referred out 129 cases to more than 40 firms this year – including a large number of Unemployment Insurance and housing conditions cases.
UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE PROJECT WITH ARNOLD & PORTER
Legal Aid was inundated with Unemployment Insurance (UI) cases this year due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Fortunately, we were able to refer out more than 40 cases to a dedicated team of lawyers at Arnold & Porter. The UI pro bono leadership team was led by the firm’s Pro Bono Committee Chair Dan Cantor, Rebecca Gordon and Roberta Horton, and supported by attorneys like Sandra Rizzo who was especially committed to representing unemployed workers.
Early on in the pandemic, Arnold & Porter independently launched a nationwide pro bono initiative in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation to help restaurant and hospitality workers who lost work as a result of COVID-19. More than 100 Arnold & Porter attorneys have been involved with this effort nationwide.
In the District, where the restaurant and hospitality industry employed 80,000 workers pre-pandemic, including many low-wage workers, Arnold & Porter approached Legal Aid about forming a pro bono partnership to help unemployed workers. The firm offered to accept clients referred from Legal Aid, and Legal Aid agreed to provide substantive law training and ongoing mentoring and technical assistance to the firm’s UI team.
Many clients needed help with navigating the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) bureaucracy when their pending claims languished amid tens of thousands of claims. Others needed representation in appeals hearings at the DC Office of Administrative Hearings.
“The collaboration with and expert mentoring provided by Legal Aid has allowed us to train and involve a large team of Arnold & Porter lawyers in providing assistance to unemployed workers.”DAN CANTOR
The pro bono partnership has been highly effective due to the Arnold & Porter leadership team’s significant involvement. From day one, the leadership team took it upon themselves to dig in and learn the nuts and bolts of the District’s UI system, as well as the additional federal benefits that were made available as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dan, Rebecca, and Roberta personally represented low-wage workers in addition to supervising other dedicated attorneys and managing the project as a whole.
Some of the workers Legal Aid referred to Arnold & Porter included a banquet server at a local hotel, a bartender at a nearby restaurant, a sales clerk at a large retail store, a taxi cab driver, and a parking attendant at a downtown garage. Some workers were single parents or supported elderly family members. At least one client was homeless, living out of his car while waiting for back-benefits in order to secure a safe place to live. These are just a few of the clients who received critical assistance from Arnold & Porter:
- A 72-year-old worker who supplemented his limited retirement benefits with part-time work but lost that job due to COVID-19. He filed a claim for UI benefits, but his benefits were denied after he allegedly failed to respond to an email from the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) requesting more information on his unemployment claim. The client never received the email in question. Arnold & Porter helped him provide DOES with the needed information in order to turn on his benefits and then successfully represented him at a hearing to reverse the denial of back benefits and ensure that he received all of the benefits to which he was entitled.
- A fast food restaurant worker who had been awarded UI benefits when his hours were reduced due to a pandemic-related loss in income, which made him eligible for UI. Unfortunately, his employer appealed the award of benefits and claimed the reduction in hours were not pandemic related and asserted an alternative theory that could have denied his benefits. Arnold & Porter represented him in his administrative hearing, where, due to the skillful lawyers, the employer eventually conceded on the record that the reduction in hours was related to the pandemic — thus ensuring that the client continues to receive the benefits for which he is eligible.
We are grateful to Arnold & Porter’s UI team and all the attorneys who took on UI cases through this unique partnership. In a year filled with heightened stress, anxiety, and fear for our client community, these attorneys were able to step in and offer much-needed assistance and relief.
“It was incredibly rewarding to help jobless workers access desperately needed benefits during the COVID-19 public health crisis. We were not going to sit on the sidelines during this historical economic crisis.”REBECCA GORDON
DC residents may have been safe from evictions temporarily thanks to moratoria put in place by the DC Council, but we saw an influx of housing conditions cases as a result of the pandemic. As DC tenants and their families necessarily are spending much more time in their homes, for many, this has meant being subject to unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions such as collapsing ceilings, rodent infestation, severe leaks and water damage, broken appliances, plumbing issues and/or electrical problems.
In July, Legal Aid Staff Attorney Eleni Christidis led a webinar for pro bono counsel on handling cases on the Housing Conditions Calendar – a docket dedicated solely to cases brought by tenants against their landlords to force their landlords to make needed repairs and remedy unsafe housing conditions. Over 50 participants attended the live webinar. To date, 18 housing conditions cases have been referred out in 2020, including:
- A team of attorneys from Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber represented a tenant who filed a housing conditions case against her landlord to force the landlord to make needed repairs and remedy conditions. The tenant and her children were living with mice infestation and frequent sewage backups in their apartment. Once the Robbins Russell team got involved, the landlord arranged for extermination services and completed other needed repairs. The tenant was satisfied with the repairs, and the case was dismissed.
- Perkins Coie attorneys represented their client, a senior citizen who lives alone, in a housing conditions case that the tenant filed against her landlord. The tenant’s primary concern was the presence of mold and mildew in her apartment resulting from prior water damage that was exacerbating her pre-existing health condition. The air quality in her bedroom was so poor that the tenant was sleeping in her living room. There were other conditions that needed repair, as well. The case proceeded for five months during the pandemic until the landlord finally made all necessary remediations and repairs.