On Monday, Sept. 21, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore held her annual statewide public hearing evaluating civil legal services in New York City. This year, she focused on the civil justice crisis that has become prevalent due to COVID-19.
Judge DiFiore invited presenters to speak about the civil service needs of New Yorkers. Bridging this justice gap will be absolutely essential for low-income New Yorkers when needing counsel in civil cases. The Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, established in 2015 by DiFiore, works to provide New Yorkers with legal services regardless of their background or economic status. The Commission was constructed in order to make sure the missions of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, established in 2010 by then-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, became permanent.
At the beginning of the hearing, the Chief Judge thanked presenters who chose to speak. “When we hear from our presenters and clients, be mindful that there are literally tens of thousands of New Yorkers who are facing eviction, foreclosure, unemployment, consumer debt, bankruptcy, the fallout from domestic violence, poverty and other serious issues,” Judge Fiore said. “We are particularly grateful today to the clients coming forward to present. It is not always easy to come forward and present your story.”
Amongst the presenters were Lillian Moy, the Executive Director of The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, accompanied by one of their clients, William Lathers. In 2013, when Lathers was 57 years old, he lost his job at the Albany International Airport.
“I never thought I would need help. I’ve always had a lot of pride in self-sufficiency,” Lathers said. “I owned my own house and have been employed since I had my first job at 17 years old.”
Lathers goes on to emphasize the difficulty he found getting a job while also experiencing kidney failure at the same time. After also having melanoma, resulting surgeries made him unable to work at all. Eventually, he was unable to pay taxes on his home.
“The stress I felt every single day continued to amount until it was nearly unbearable,” Lathers said. “I never would have harmed myself, but you do get into a place where you do think about it.”
In June of 2019, Lathers was referred to legal aid attorneys Alex Pappas and Michelle Brown by a hospital social worker. Pappas and Brown, who Lathers refers to as his “angels,” were able to help him claim his social security disability income.
“My biggest need was income, but in three and half months Alex and Michelle were able to turn my life around,” Lathers said. “I hope people like me will continue to be able to obtain assistance when our legal problems are related to our health problems.”
Client of the Legal Aid Society, Roslyn Grimes, also spoke at the hearing while accompanied by her attorney, Gabriella Torres-Lorenzotti, as well as Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice Division of the Legal Aid Society.
“Until August of this year I was living in a homeless shelter in Long Island City,” Grimes said. “My story starts in 2012, in the Bronx, where I was living in my own three bedroom, two bathroom apartment with my two children.”
She began to feel ill, only to suspect her sickness was due to allergies. Once she began coughing up blood, she went to the hospital where she learned there was mold in her apartment.
“I was diagnosed with chronic-asthma and chronic pneumonia,” Grimes said. “My family and I had to leave our apartment.” Grimes and her family lived in homeless shelters for 8 years. During this time her physical health began to suffer due to the ongoing stress of living in shelters.
In January 2020, Grimes sought services of a realtor to help her apply to the The Special One-Time Assistance Program. This program provides one year’s full rent up-front for DHS clients who are eligible. Grimes found an apartment in New Jersey and submitted all of the paperwork necessary for the apartment.
However, when COVID-19 hit in March, the city was at a “stand still.” Grimes was unable to move into permanent housing. When unable to get assistance from the DHS, she turned to The Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project for help.
“Gabriella reached out, and she was an absolute godsend,” Grimes said. “In a very long time, I felt hopeful that there would be light at the end of the tunnel.”
After weeks of negotiation with the attorneys at the Department of Social Services and Grimes’ landlord, Torres-Lorenzotti and her team were able to persuade the DSS to reimburse two months of back-rent to the landlord.
“Finally on Aug. 14, 2020, my family moved into a brand new home for the first time in eight and a half years,” Grimes said with emotion. “We were able to exhale. It was as if the weight of the whole world was lifted from our shoulders. We are finally free.”
Grimes reiterates why the services of the Legal Aid Society are “absolutely imperative” for her and others in similar situations as her and her family.
“We are extremely grateful to Gabrielle and the Homeless Rights Project who helped advocate on our behalf,” Grimes said. “Thank you for letting me share my story.”