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HRHA Public Housing Tenants Reach Settlement

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

DATE: November 10, 2020

 

PUBLIC HOUSING TENANTS REACH SETTLEMENT WITH HOPEWELL REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY ON CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT

 

 

Richmond, VA — Public housing tenants and the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) have reached a proposed settlement valued at nearly $300,000 in a federal class-action lawsuit challenging HRHA’s failure to properly set and implement tenant utility allowances.  This morning, the Parties appeared in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division, to ask the court for preliminary approval of the settlement.  This is an important step in the settlement approval process and with this preliminary approval, HRHA will begin sending notices to class members regarding their proposed recovery. 

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, $220,000 will be distributed among current and former Hopewell public housing tenants who were subjected to HRHA’s utility surcharges from June 1, 2014, through September 30, 2018.  Approximately $95,000 was previously saved by tenants through the waiver of gas and electric utility charges during the pendency of the lawsuit.  The new gas and electric utility allowances negotiated as part of this settlement are expected to further reduce charges to tenants by approximately $144,000 over just the first three years.

 

The settlement is the result of hard work by both parties, and we are very pleased that in addition to relief for past charges, our clients will be billed fairly and in compliance with HUD rules going forward,” said Sylvia Jones, LAJC attorney for the plaintiff tenants.  “Improperly implemented utility allowances are a common problem for public housing.  After the conclusion of this case, we will have been able to bring relief to public housing tenants across all of Central Virginia, having previously addressed the matter with the other housing authorities as well.

 

The class-action lawsuit, filed in April 2019, alleges that HRHA’s failure to properly set, implement, and charge electric and gas utility allowances resulted in unlawful excessive charges to current and former public housing tenants.  Federal law requires that public housing tenants not be charged more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities. A proposed class of plaintiffs, represented by lawyers at Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), and Crowell & Moring LLP, contend that these excessive charges increased tenants’ share of their housing costs and caused tenants to pay more than allowed in violation of federal law, state law, and tenants’ leases.

 

While HRHA denies any wrongdoing, the parties have agreed to the proposed settlement in order to avoid the uncertainty and expense associated with continued litigation and believe that the proposed settlement agreement is in the best interest of HRHA and all impacted public housing tenants.

 

The proposed settlement, filed yesterday, must be approved by Federal District Court Judge Hannah M. Lauck before it is final.  In addition to monetary relief, under the terms of the proposed agreement, HRHA also agreed to:

 

  • Set and implement new, higher utility allowances that will stay in place for at least three years, and which became effective January 1, 2019.
  • Create new notices, policies, and procedures for elderly and disabled tenants needing additional electric usage due to their conditions.
  • Change its billing statements to give tenants more information about their utility surcharges.
  • Change its lease so that late fees and other non-rent charges are not treated as rent.
  • Change its lease so that it states whether a tenant has submetered utilities and list each tenant’s utility allowance.
  • Ensure HRHA staff is trained regarding utility billing procedures, tenant requests for relief from utility billing, and the grievance procedure for tenants to contest charges.
  • Suspend all charges for gas consumption between October 1, 2016 and January 1, 2019.
  • Suspend all charges for electricity consumption between October 1, 2018 usage and January 1, 2019.

 

The bills should not be so complicated that you need assistance in understanding what you owe,” said Natasha Brown, a plaintiff in the case and an HRHA resident,  “The old bills were nearly impossible to figure out and it led to my paying money I didn’t owe. I am glad that no one will have to deal with that in the future.

 

“If the Court approves the settlement, the agreement will provide tenants significant monetary relief to compensate them for the improper past charges,” Rachel McFarland, one of the tenants’ lawyers added,  “Additionally, and importantly, the non-monetary relief in the form of changes to HRHA’s utility allowances, leases, billing statements, policies, and practices will ensure that current residents are sufficiently informed of the charges assessed, have adequate access to relief from excess charges where appropriate, and are charged no more for their utilities than permitted by law.”

             

About the Legal Aid Justice Center

 

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), representing Plaintiffs in this case, partners with communities and clients to achieve justice by dismantling systems that create and perpetuate poverty. By justice, we mean racial, social, and economic justice. We integrate individual representation, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and organizing strategies to identify and address root causes of poverty while mitigating acute impacts.

 

About Crowell & Moring LLP

 

Crowell & Moring LLP is an international law firm with approximately 550 lawyers representing clients in litigation and arbitration, regulatory, and transactional matters. The firm is internationally recognized for its representation of Fortune 500 companies in high-stakes litigation, as well as its ongoing commitment to pro bono service and diversity. The firm has offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, London, and Brussels.

 

 

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Statement on Eviction Protections in State Budget

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STATEMENT: Tenant Protections in Proposed Budget Will Leave Too Many Virginians At Risk of Eviction

During this national emergency, tenants in Virginia need a comprehensive eviction moratorium to protect themselves, their families, and the community. While the language in the proposed budget provides some protections for tenants who cannot pay their rent, it falls far short of the comprehensive eviction moratorium Virginians need to keep themselves and their families safe during this pandemic. While we are grateful for the tireless work of our representatives to improve the language, we are disappointed that it does not provide more help to families in need.

First, the budget language only provides protections against eviction for nonpayment of rent, which leaves out anyone facing eviction for reasons other than rent. Any evictions during this pandemic create an increased public health risk for anyone who is then forced into homelessness or housing instability, no matter if they are evicted for not paying rent or for any other lease violation. We have heard from tenants across the commonwealth whose landlords have attempted to evade the CDC moratorium by alleging pretextual non-rent related issues.

Next, the budget language allows a landlord to evict a tenant for nonpayment if their application for rental assistance isn’t approved within 45 days of when it is first submitted. A tenant can do everything right but still be evicted for reasons outside of their control – because their local RMRP administrator is unable to process their application in time due to insufficient staff or other administrative barriers. In Richmond, for example, the local administrator is operating at an over three-month backlog because demand is so great.

Finally, we’re pleased to see the language directing landlords to apply for rental assistance—as the landlord application process is far more streamlined and efficient—but we’re very disappointed that the language allows landlords to shirk this responsibility if a tenant has already applied, especially given the lengthy wait time for approval of tenant applications. This language creates a huge hole in the protections, and we fear that tenants will slip through into homelessness and worse. The solution to an inefficient process should not be the eviction of tenants who do everything they can to make the process work.

We thank our representatives who fought hard to protect Virginians from homelessness during the pandemic, in particular Senator Ghazala Hashmi and Delegate Josh Cole who carried bills that could have provided the holistic protection needed in the eviction crisis, and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who advocated for these broad reforms.  We will continue the work with legislators, community groups and advocates by listening to tenants and fighting to keep people in their homes.

Lawsuit Filed: Lord et al v. Senex Law, P.C

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CLASS-ACTION LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST LAW FIRM WHO ILLEGALLY PROFITS FROM MASS EVICTIONS ACROSS VIRGINIA

 

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), along with the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley and the Charlottesville law firm MichieHamlett, today filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of tenants throughout the state of Virginia against Senex Law alleging abusive and unfair debt collection practices in violation of federal law.

Senex Law, P.C. is a debt collection mill representing landlords across the Commonwealth of Virginia and has a starring role in the state’s mass evictions. Landlords throughout Virginia contract with Senex Law to prepare and send notices to tenants whenever a renter is late on a rent payment. With each notice, Senex charges the tenant attorney’s fees—though the firm did little more than print and mail a letter—raking in big profits off the backs of those most in need. Senex Law then, a few days later, files hundreds of Unlawful Detainers in court, again adding their attorney fee despite no meaningful review of the cases they file. It is simply impossible for Senex Law to provide the services they claim to the enormous volume of notices and cases they process.   

And, because it is functioning as a debt collector, Senex Law must provide specific information required by federal law to prevent abusive and unfair debt collection practices. This includes the right to have 30 days to verify that the amount billed is accurate, among other protections. Instead of providing this required information, Senex Law ignores the law by attempting to hide behind landlords, disguising its true role in the profit scheme, and eagerly collecting their fees.

These practices are abhorrent at any time, but as our state struggles through the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senex Law continues to prey on poor tenants who have few options.

“The Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley (LASRV) believes that SENEX is using deceptive practices while attempting to collect alleged past due rent from many of our clients and their neighbors living in the Roanoke Valley, “ said David Biedler, LASRV Executive Director, “LASRV wants to help affected tenants stop the deception once and for all and believes that a class action lawsuit against SENEX is the most efficient and effective way to do that.”

“Senex Law has taken extraordinary measures to try and skirt the protections Congress put in place to try and prevent abusive debt collection practices. They lurk in the shadows so they can flout necessary consumer protections and charge attorneys’ fees that put Virginians who are already in financial trouble further into the hole,” said Brenda Castañeda, Legal Director with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

“It’s no coincidence that Senex operates in five jurisdictions that rank in the top ten for highest eviction rates in the United States. MichieHamlett is proud to partner with the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Legal Aid Society of the Roanoke Valley to prosecute a case against a company that, in our opinion, unquestionably contributes to the epidemic of housing instability within the Commonwealth,”said Bryan Slaughter, an Attorney at MitchieHamlett PLLC

In today’s lawsuit, filed by the attorneys of LAJC, LASRV, and MichieHamlett, the Plaintiffs bring claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and ask the Court to compensate them for their victimization by Senex’s abusive debt collection practices and baseless fees.

 

 

About the Legal Aid Justice Center

LAJC partners with communities and clients to achieve justice by dismantling systems that create and perpetuate poverty. By justice, we mean racial, social, and economic justice.  We integrate individual representation, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and organizing strategies to identify and address root causes of poverty while mitigating acute impacts.


About Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley

The Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley (LASRV) applies a full range of expert legal services to identify and resolve the most critical civil injustices facing low-income people. The LASRV is a non-profit organization offering free civil law help and services to qualifying low income residents of Roanoke, Salem, Lexington, Ovington, Clifton Forge, Bedford, Botetourt, Craig, Franklin, Alleghany, Rockbridge and Bath counties.


About MichieHamlett

MichieHamlett has been serving clients for over 70 years in the courts of Virginia and the United States in multiple areas of the law. In addition to maintaining a strong litigation practice in commercial, domestic, and personal injury cases, the firm has represented and advised clients on matters ranging from trusts and estates to complex commercial transactions. Eleven of the firm’s attorneys are listed in “Best Lawyers,” which is the oldest and most respected peer-review publication in the legal profession. Nine attorneys are “Super Lawyers,” which is a list of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The firm represents clients throughout the mid-atlantic, including Virginia, the District of Columbia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, and more.

 

Read the full complaint here

 

 

 

 

Critical Protections Passed Protecting Workers

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Download PDF here

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Critical Protections Passed Protecting Workers Against COVID-19

Emergency temporary standards mandate common-sense protections for Virginians in the workplace

 

Richmond, VA— Today, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board acted to protect the Commonwealth’s workers by adopting emergency temporary standards, which set forth enforceable, common-sense requirements that employers must follow to protect their workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By doing so, Virginia became the first state in the nation to enact coronavirus-era safety emergency standards that companies are required to implement to protect workers from infection, which will then mitigate the spread of this deadly disease back out into the community.

The standards will be in place for six months unless replaced by a permanent standard or repealed. The required protections will vary depending on the risk of exposure to the virus associated with a given job. Key requirements, such as those for physical distancing, workplace sanitization, and information sharing, will apply to all workers.

Although guidelines for critical safety measures were published by the Centers for Disease Control, they were mere recommendations, meaning they were not required. Employers could—and did—ignore them at will, therefore endangering their workers and the public at large. But no more. By virtue of these new standards, workers will now benefit from a host of key protections that employers must implement.

Jason Yarashes, Lead Attorney and Program Coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center, applauded the Board’s decision: “This historic victory will ensure that workers’ health is protected and that businesses are part of the solution to curbing the spread of the virus. We commend Governor Northam, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industries, and the Board for being leaders on the right side of history in passing this emergency standard.”

“This emergency temporary standard protects all workers as well as the families who interact with workers. Nothing is more significant in the fight against COVID-19 than passage of this standard,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

Doris Crouse-Mays, President of the Virginia AFL-CIO stated, “Finally, Virginia has demonstrated that it values workers. We now have standards that will protect workers, families, and communities by keeping them as safe as possible during this unprecedented time.”

“Due to anti-worker policies and structural racism in our economic, labor, and healthcare systems, Black, Brown, and Indigenous workers are overrepresented in frontline jobs and are at higher risk of infection and mortality from COVID-19. This new standard ensures all of Virginia’s workers have the basic safety protections needed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace,” said Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project.  

This breakthrough would not have been possible without the advocacy of the Legal Aid Justice Center and partner organizations Community Solidarity for Poultry Workers and Virginia Organizing. Legal Aid Justice Center first submitted the petition that set this process in motion back in March, when the critical threat posed by this virus first became apparent, and has continued to put pressure on the Board to step up and protect workers. The emergency standard is a major step forward in protecting workers in Virginia, and the broader coalition of worker advocates looks forward to working with the state to enact permanent standards.

A Long Road to a Big Win

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Ending Virginia’s Driver’s License Suspension Trap

Six years ago, a Charlottesville jail superintendent brought a serious problem to the local reentry council: the jail was full of people locked up just for driving on a suspended license. What’s worse, they lost their licenses due to criminal/traffic court debt they just couldn’t pay. To tackle the problem, LAJC recruited pro bono attorneys to help people get their licenses back. It did not take long to realize that trying to help people one-by-one was not working. There were just too many people and too many barriers. 

Through public records requests, we discovered that nearly one million driver’s licenses were suspended by the state for court debt, and over 600,000 of them were suspended solely for that reason. We also discovered that black people were disproportionately hurt by both license suspension and driving while suspended.  

So, we launched our “Drive Down the Debt” campaign. We started by convincing the General Assembly to pass a law requiring courts to publish their payment plan policies. This first step allowed legislators—and the Virginia Supreme Court—to see how most courts’ often punitive one-size-fits-all payment policies failed to take financial hardship into account. Our critique led to new rules making it easier for people to get on payment plans. But we didn’t stop there. Realizing that Virginia was not alone, we published the first national report finding that 43 states suspended licenses for unpaid court debt. 

Throughout our work, we met people heroically battling against impossible odds—caught in a cycle of debt, license suspension, job loss, incarceration, and further debt: A mom of two who lost her ability to drive to her job as an in-home care aide, and with that, her primary source of income. A dad who had fewer job options, and who didn’t have time, using public transit, to hold down a second job to uplift his family.  A mom who was told she needed to appear in-person in order to get on a payment plan, even though she couldn’t drive legally. They were fighters, and they rose to the challenge as partners with us in changing the system.          

Four years ago this week—July 6, 2016—we filed Stinnie v. Holcomb, a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s court debt suspension on the grounds that it violated basic constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. In late December 2018, the court held that the law likely violated the Constitution and ordered Virginia to stop enforcing the law against our clients. Alongside the litigation, we built a legislative campaign that grew into a large bipartisan coalition. As the case progressed, our clients also brought their stories to halls of the General Assembly and this, combined with the pressure from the federal court injunction, helped motivate policymakers toward action. In April 2019, the Governor stepped up and passed a budget amendment to halt the practice in the Commonwealth, but it was only a temporary reprieve. The legislature needed to fully end the law.

Then during the 2020 legislative session, after six years of research and individual casework, five years of legislative and administrative advocacy, four years of litigation, a critical preliminary injunction, and a temporary fix through an amendment to Virginia’s budget, we arrived at full repeal of this harmful, unconstitutional law by an overwhelming vote in both chambers of the legislature. 

On July 1, 2020, quietly alongside the hundreds of other laws passed the Virginia General Assembly this last legislative session, the court debt suspension law ceased to exist. Virginians will no longer be suspended for being poor and can have a true opportunity to restore their lives from the harms that have flowed from that broken policy. We knew the journey would be long, but we are proud to have reached this anniversary and changed Virginia—and the lives of hundreds of thousands of families—for the better.

We thank all who made July 1 possible, from pro bono partners like McGuire Woods, to bold policymakers and steadfast coalition partners like the Virginia Poverty Law Center and Americans for Prosperity. But we especially thank Damian Stinnie, who let us tell his story over and over and gave his name to the litigation; Adrainne Johnson, who testified so forcefully at the preliminary injunction hearing; Brianna Morgan, who spoke about her experience and her hope for a better future; and all the other clients who sat for depositions and let lawyers for the state interrogate their finances and question the strategies they have used to survive this brutal law and provide for their families. And finally, we salute the hard work and perseverance of the hundreds of thousands of people per year who have managed to take care of themselves and their families, despite the license suspension trap.

From Eviction Crisis to Eviction Catastrophe

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Download PDF here Eviction Crisis to Catastrophe

 

New Data Predicts an Avalanche of Evictions in Virginia

 A report from the Legal Aid Justice Center examines new Census data that show low-income communities and communities of color are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain stable housing

 

Richmond, VA— The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) has released a new paper titled From Eviction Crisis to Eviction Catastrophe. Using data from the U.S. Census’s recent Household Pulse Survey that reports weekly findings across the country on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the paper zeros in on housing insecurity in Virginia to find troubling trends that may predict an avalanche of evictions in the Commonwealth.

One striking finding: Almost half of Virginians who have an income of $25,000 or less said they have slight or no chance of paying rent next month.  

While nearly all Virginians have been affected economically by the health crisis, inequities are seen in who are in the most precarious housing situations.  Black and Hispanic residents reported a significantly higher concern of making rent payments on time or at all.  

The paper calls for action to be taken by Governor Northam and elected leaders across the state as well as by the Supreme Court of Virginia to immediately halt evictions for the duration of the crisis and to take steps to protect renters.

 

Download the paper at www.justice4all.org/evictioncatastrophe

 

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The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) LAJC partners with communities and clients to achieve justice by dismantling systems that create and perpetuate poverty. By justice, we mean racial, social, and economic justice. We integrate individual representation, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and organizing strategies to identify and address root causes of poverty while mitigating acute impacts.

Statement On the Proposed Re-opening of Virginia

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Legal Aid Justice Center Statement On the Proposed Re-opening of Virginia

Governor Northam’s jaw-dropping announcement on Monday, reiterated today, that Virginia could be partially re-opening for business as early as May 15 is reckless and cruel.

A partial reopening on May 15 is reckless for the following public health reasons:

  • Virginia’s testing rate for COVID-19 is one of the worst in the country. The Commonwealth ranks 48th among states.
  • Virginia does not yet have an established system for contact tracing, a method other countries have successfully used to slow spread of the virus absent a vaccine. (We learned today that we do not even know how many people are employed in the state to do contact tracing, nevermind whether they speak Spanish or other languages.)
  • Due to asymptomatic presentation, infection rates are likely to be far higher than reported, particularly in congregate settings, such as assisted living and long-term care, group homes, adult and youth jails and prisons, and other forms of detention, some of which are not being tested at all.
  • Without a vaccine or contact tracing, we are relying solely on herd immunity, which means that 70% of people will get the virus.

A partial reopening on May 15 is cruel for the following humanitarian reasons:

  • Due to systemic racial inequities, infection and death rates are highest in Black and brown communities. In our state capital of Richmond, 15 of the 16 deaths from COVID-19 were Black residents. In Fairfax County, while only 17% of the population is Hispanic, 56% of all confirmed cases are Hispanic.
  • If the courts follow the Governor’s guidance, dockets will be swarmed by landlords clamoring to evict tenants and debt collectors seeking to garnish people’s wages and stimulus checks.
  • Imprisoned people, including youth, will be asked to endure the psychological torture of isolation, the only form of social distancing possible in jail and prisons, in an attempt to protect them as the virus rages through these facilities at even higher rates than the general population.
  • Poultry processors and farmworkers will go on working in unsafe conditions with no social distancing, sacrificing their lives just to keep the price of meat and vegetables low.
  • As non-essential businesses reopen, many low-wage workers will be presented with a Hobson’s choice: go to work, risking illness or even death, or prioritize health and safety and lose employment, which means losing unemployment and possibly health care benefits, and a risk of losing housing, utilities, and the ability to care for family.
  • With schools closed and the pandemic limiting Virginia’s already scarce supply of high-quality, affordable childcare, parents will be faced with more impossible choices and trade-offs between caring for the daily needs of their children and providing for the economic security of their families.
  • These impossible choices will often fall heaviest on Black and brown Virginians—those who provide childcare, stock the shelves of retail stores, serve meals in restaurants, and work the floors of factories.

  
Even prior to this pandemic, Virginia has been failing on every measure that really matters: Nationally, we are
ranked #43 for steps taken to protect people from losing housing, #40 for state funding per student for K-12 education, and dead last on worker-friendly labor and employment policy.

But yet the Commonwealth was ranked #1 for business in 2019.

And we fear that is the measure that matters most to policymakers.


We stand in solidarity with community leaders who have implored Governor Northam to resist corporate pressure to jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of low-wage workers, confined populations, and communities of color. Until we can reliably deliver basic public health protections and care—especially to marginalized communities—and take aggressive steps to minimize the cruel and inequitable effects of the pandemic, Virginia must stay closed for business. There is no acceptable margin of lives lost or families devastated that justifies prioritizing economic pressures over the health and safety of people, especially when Black and brown Virginians would bear the brunt of this deadly calculation.
  


Email and Tweet at Governor Northam


 

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