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Transformative Record Sealing Law Passes

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Today, Virginians are one step away from a major victory: criminal record sealing that is automatic, equitable, free, and far reaching. Bills (SB1339, HB2113) that will greatly expand and improve the process of sealing criminal records have successfully passed both houses and are awaiting Governor Northam’s signature.  

Criminal records are more than just files stowed away in a database—they can stand in the way of renting an apartment, securing a job or a work credential, gaining admission to or paying for college, keeping custody of children, leaning on public benefits programs when needed, and voting in elections. Compounded with this country’s legacy of disproportionate targeting of Black, brown, indigenous, and other traditionally marginalized people and communities by the criminal legal system, criminal records serve as a cornerstone of structural racism in our society. 

Before these bills, Virginia was one of only seven states that do not allow sealing or expungement of any criminal convictions (only prosecutions that did not result in conviction). Virginia also required people to navigate a costly and complicated petition-based court process—which often meant needing the help of a lawyer, a luxury many people cannot afford.

With this legislation Virginia takes a bold step forward for a person’s ability to seal their criminal records This is a significant accomplishment deftly navigated by Virginia House Leader Charniele Herring and Senator Scott Surovell with help from Governor Northam. It represents the first major change to Virginia’s record sealing laws in over 40 years. When these bills take effect in 2025, Virginia will automatically seal cases that were dismissed or dropped as well as nine different misdemeanor convictions. Individuals will also be able to petition to expunge convictions for other misdemeanors and low-level felonies such as larceny and drug possession. This is an important step towards eliminating the punishment that persists well after anything assigned by a judge is completed.  

“In 2004, my life was changed for what I thought would be forever. With a wrongful conviction, everything that I did was minimized by one question “Have you been convicted of a felony?”. Moving forward, I can be a Virginia resident who has the same opportunities as others who have not been ensnared in the criminal legal system. My past no longer takes center stage, and my sentence finally ends with the signing of this bill.” said Sheba Williams, the Executive Director of Nolef Turns. 

“Last fall, a small group of people, most of whom had survived the violence of Virginia’s prisons and jails, gathered to discuss ways to build better lives through legislation. Dedicated community leaders, under the banner of the Virginia Expungement Council, worked tirelessly to set the vision for free, automatic, and equitable criminal records relief. The passage of these bills is a manifestation of their work. A proper celebration looks like concrete efforts to build on their work,” said Yohance Whitaker, an organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

About the legislation: 

The bills establish a system of automatic sealing for charges that were dropped or dismissed and for nine types of misdemeanor convictions that are at least seven years old. The bill also allows petition-based sealing of numerous misdemeanor and felony convictions. The list of eligible offenses includes charges that disproportionately affect Black Virginians. The bill also forces private companies that profit from the sale of criminal records to delete records the state has sealed.

Why the current system is broken:

Under the current petition-based system, many of the steps are best accomplished with the help of a lawyer but few individuals who need their records sealed can afford to hire one. An individual must navigate the process on their own by finding and obtaining certified court records, completing and filing a petition for expungement, and serving a copy on the Commonwealth’s attorney. The individual must also go to a law enforcement agency and submit themselves to fingerprinting. After all this, there is still the prospect of attending a court hearing, at which time the court could simply decide to deny the request.

GA Session 2021 – LAJC Priorities

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Criminal Legal System Reform 

  • Expungement – Virginia’s criminal records expungement law is in urgent need of change. We must create an automatic expungement system that is equitable, far-reaching, automatic, and free.  
  • Court Fines and Fees – Monies owed by those with criminal legal system involvement is a serious barrier to their ability to move beyond their worst day. Virginia must publish demographic data, showing how court fines and fees are imposed against different groups of Virginians across the state. As we look to reform the court fines and fees system more broadly, there are a couple of easy changes we can make now that will improve people’s lives, such as automatically eliminating accrual of interest during incarceration and eliminating down payments to access payment plans. 
  • Pretrial System – Virginia’s pretrial system incarcerates far too many individuals—particularly Black and Brown residents—before they’ve even had the facts of their case considered. But the data of how this system works and who it impacts is inaccessible, making any meaningful reform challenging. Comprehensive open data must be made available. We must also end the presumptions against pretrial release that give judicial officers no choice but incarceration simply because a person is accused of a certain crime, regardless of the situation, or based on immigration status. And we must ensure a person’s first appearance in our courts is meaningful by guaranteeing access to counsel and the information necessary to advocate for pretrial release.  
  • Habitual Offender Legacy Repeal - This bill will complete the repeal of the habitual offender designation that created excessively harsh punishments, including mandatory prison time, for drivers who still receive enhanced charges and consequences for behavior as minimal as driving on a suspended license. While the GA acted in 1999 to repeal the habitual offender statute, it did not apply retroactively. This bill will remove the label for the approximately 32,000 people who have been enduring its effects for decades and will direct their driver’s licenses to be reinstated if they are otherwise eligible.  

Immigrants’ Rights

  • De-ICE State Mental Health Facilities – This bill would repeal the Virginia law that requires state mental health facilities to screen their patients’ immigration status and report immigrants (documented and undocumented) to ICE. The statute serves no purpose except to isolate and segregate treatment of immigrants seeking critical care. It discourages them from accessing mental health services out of fear that it might result in their being turned over for deportation or denied a green card. 
  • Driver’s Privilege Card Privacy – Virginia’s newly enacted Driver’s Privilege Card law does not adequately prevent ICE from using DMV data to make civil immigration arrests.  Virginia must prevent this data from being used by ICE to make bulk data requests or to use individual address information for civil immigration enforcement purposes.  
  • Financial Aid for DREAMers – In 2020, the General Assembly expanded in-state tuition benefits to all college students who grew up and graduated high school in Virginia, regardless of their immigration status. This bill would make those in-state immigrant students eligible for certain forms of state-funded financial aid for college.  
  • Special Immigrant Juvenile Status – Although federal law allows immigrant youth under the age of 21 fleeing abuse, abandonment or neglect to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, Virginia state law erects barriers that make it impossible for young adults 18 years or older to complete some of the steps necessary to apply. This bill would eliminate those unnecessary barriers, enabling more young immigrants in Virginia to seek permanent protection in the United States.


Health Care Reform

  • Statute of Limitations on Medical Debt Collection – State hospitals should not be exempt from the statute of limitations for the collection of debts. All medical debt, including debt owed to hospitals that are agencies of the Commonwealth, should have a three-year statute of limitations, in line with the existing statutory limitations on other types of unwritten contracts in Virginia.


Housing Reform

  • LAJC is advocating for the housing-related bills being led by the Virginia Poverty Law Center increasing tenant protections and addressing the ongoing eviction crisis in our state. You can read more here.


Worker Protection Reform

  • Farmworker and Guestworker Minimum Wage Exemptions – Virginia continues to exempt farmworkers and migrant workers on H-2 visas from the protections of the Virginia Minimum Wage Act. It is long past time we repeal these exemptions, ones rooted in racism, and ensure these essential workers benefit from this basic worker protection.  
  • Unemployment Insurance – The unemployment system needs to work for those who find themselves without work to sustain their families. Changes must be made in multiple areas, from overpayment collection to timely employer participation.  
  • Worker Heat Stress – Virginia’s workers have no enforceable protections against heat illness. We must adopt comprehensive heat stress regulations with a private right of action to protect Virginian workers from heat illness that every year causes serious workplace illness, injuries, and fatalities.  

Youth Justice and Education Reform

  • Equitable Public Education – Virginia has under-resourced its PK-12 education system for decades, creating vast gaps in access to opportunity for our children. The School Equity and Staffing Act would create a more equitable school funding structure, directing more state dollars to under-resourced school divisions. The Act would also provide more student support staffing and additional mentorship and supports for teachers.  
  • ”Pay to Stay” in Youth Prison – Our juvenile justice system should support the welfare and stability of all youth and families, but current Virginia law requires collection of payments from the families of youth who are committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice. The system is counter-productive, extractive, and exacerbates existing racial and ethnic gaps. Virginia must end this pernicious practice.  
  • Youth Decarceration – A hallmark of our juvenile justice system is the power of courts to assess each youth’s progress and amend sentences as appropriate. In cases around the state, prosecutors have pursued plea agreements that seek to waive a youth’s opportunity to these important “release and review” due process hearings. Virginia must protect the rights of youth to these hearings and clarify that they are not waivable or subject to restriction through plea agreements.  
  • Budget Amendment: Divest SRO Grant Fund, Invest in Resource Equity – Virginia incentivizes school policing in local school divisions with state funding for grants to hire School Resource and School Security Officers. Given the loss of instruction and support for students during our unprecedented public education crisis, we must instead direct this state funding to the At-Risk Add-On program to further support all local school divisions’ ability to more directly and flexibly tailor staffing and support needs for economically disadvantaged students.

Virginia Eviction Stories – Adolfo

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After suffering a serious illness, Adolfo and his family found themselves facing eviction. Fortunately, he found help. 

If you are concerned about keeping your home during the COVID-19 pandemic click here to learn more about your rights through federal and state policies.  

Letter to Gov. Northam re: Vaccine Distribution

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Download a pdf version here

December 21, 2020
The Honorable Ralph Northam
Governor of Virginia
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218

RE:  Ensuring Accurate Information, Access, Safeguards, and Fair Processes: Marginalized Groups and Virginia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plans


Dear Governor Northam,

On behalf of the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), I write to urge your administration to ensure Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan explicitly includes and accounts for vaccine protocols that protect marginalized and vulnerable Virginia individuals and communities. The Legal Aid Justice Center serves such clients and client communities across the Commonwealth, and we are deeply aware of the barriers to vaccine access likely to be faced by groups like farmworkers, incarcerated individuals, and low-income Virginians. We are also keenly sensitive to the fact that healthcare access, especially for these communities, is not just about the ability to receive a treatment, but also the critical need to receive transparent, thoughtful, comprehensive care that seeks to strengthen and improve the relationships between systems and the communities they serve. We urge your team to proactively prioritize and plan for vaccine distribution access, in the fullest sense of the term, to these people and communities.

Farm and Migrant Workers

As COVID-19 began to ravage the United States earlier this year, many Virginians were fortunate to be able to shelter themselves indoors for safety and isolation. The Commonwealth’s agricultural industry, however—which relies on this historically marginalized and vulnerable migrant workforce—continued to bring in thousands of workers from abroad to ensure that Virginians and the rest of the world had food on their plates during a dangerous and challenging time.

At the same time, while the Commonwealth did begin to create emergency workplace safety standards that include farm and migrant workers, these standards are difficult to enforce, should be strengthened for farm and migrant workers’ particular circumstances, and are set to expire in mid-January 2021. In large part, through much of the pandemic, farm and migrant workers continued to live, cook, and bathe in common facilities on labor camps that did not conform to health recommendations. They were transported to and from work daily in tightly packed buses or vans and worked side by side in the fields. Workers were not systematically tested for COVID-19 prior to entry (some employers, in fact, actively resisted testing), and lived on isolated, rural farms in packed housing, without access to reliable information about the volatile disease. Many workers told our team they did not want to be tested for COVID-19; they were afraid if they tested positive, they would not be paid for work during their quarantine, and feared retaliation or eviction.

As predicted, there have been multiple outbreaks at farms across the Commonwealth, and single cases have cropped up at many others. Farmworker communities often exist outside of the mainstream spotlight, but our COVID-19 response to them cannot. We implore the Commonwealth to adequately prepare for farm and migrant worker vaccine distribution. Workers will start to arrive in March, with rapidly increasing numbers into the late spring and through the summer. To protect these essential workers, we ask for:

  • Advanced access to culturally sensitive informational materials in all relevant languages
  • Provision of vaccine distribution sites that are free from employer interference and influence
  • Early interagency coordination with local health districts, federal agencies, and international authorities
  • Key timing considerations to ensure multiple doses are easily attainable; and
  • Assurances that all farm and migrant workers in Virginia receive access to the vaccine


Incarcerated and Detained Individuals

Incarcerated people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, not only because they are held in crowded congregate settings, but also because they are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that increase the risk of complications from the disease. They also face additional barriers to accessing and receiving appropriate, timely medical care. As of December 20, 2020, at least 6,504 imprisoned people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) facilities with 1,349 currently active cases; 38 of these people have died.[1] Due to a lack of uniform reporting, it is unclear exactly what the COVID-19 infection rate looks like in local and regional jails, but based on information released by some jails, as well as local news reports,[2] we know there are numerous outbreaks in those facilities statewide. Thousands of other individuals in Virginia (including immigrants in detention, detained youth, and individuals under involuntary commitment) also face the risks inherent in congregate settings—especially during a pandemic—though policy concerns around congregate care often focus solely on elderly and adult long-term care centers.

Incarcerated and detained people in Virginia must have meaningful access to vaccines and COVID-19 healthcare—in addition to planning logistics of dose acquisition and administration, it is essential that distribution plans include meaningful patient education and the opportunity for patients to consult with a doctor prior to vaccine administration. Five states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nebraska and New Mexico—have already included incarcerated people in phase one of their COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans. Others are still deliberating, but Virginia should not have to think twice about joining those five.

We are aware that VDOC is surveying prisoners on whether they are willing to be vaccinated, we assume to estimate the number of doses likely needed. Given skyrocketing case numbers, if it is not happening already, similar basic planning steps must immediately be taken by local and regional jails, immigrant detention centers, and youth detention facilities. We have learned the VDOC survey gave prisoners a deadline of December 20, 2020, to state whether they intended to be vaccinated. Though VDOC may only intend to use this information for dose estimate purposes, many incarcerated individuals are afraid of what their responses may mean in terms of future, medically informed access to the vaccine or how they will be treated by facility staff. Failures in education and communication like these will decrease overall adoption of the vaccine and delay herd immunity.

Additionally, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) needs to proactively engage with Farmville, Caroline, and ICE so every person in Virginia’s immigrant detention facilities has proper access to culturally sensitive COVID-19 vaccine information and care—given in their language—and can make informed decisions about vaccination. Virginia’s Farmville detention center, managed by Immigration Centers of America, endured a massive outbreak this summer, which culminated in one death and hundreds of positive cases among immigrants and staff—what was then the largest COVID-19 outbreak in any immigrant detention facility in the nation. Caroline Detention Facility, administered by the Caroline County government, has gone through multiple COVID-19 outbreaks even as they continue to accept people detained by ICE, and as of December 16, 2020, has 23 positive cases—about 10 percent of its total detainee population. VDH is responsible for ensuring oversight over vaccine protocols at Farmville and Caroline, even if those detained are in federal proceedings. Moreover, as of March 1st, 2021, the Commonwealth will be responsible by statute for the health and wellbeing of those detained at immigrant detention centers in Virginia.


Immigrant Workers and Families

LAJC has a long history of partnering with the large immigrant communities residing in Virginia, including on healthcare outreach efforts. Since the initial COVID-19 outbreak, we have been working with these communities providing emergency relief, as well as supporting virus prevention and education measures and helping to publicize free and low-cost testing sites. Our experience with this work has made clear the urgent need to fund and develop community education campaigns targeted to immigrant communities that clearly detail the vaccination process, safety of the vaccine, and importance of getting vaccinated. Planning and publicizing public events alone is not sufficient and will need to be accompanied by a strong, comprehensive community education and outreach campaign to ensure community participation in the vaccination process.

LAJC also strongly encourages your administration and state public health officials to limit unnecessary data collection of private information in its COVID-19 response, as this could have a chilling effect on some immigrant populations participating in the vaccination process. Immigrants in Virginia who lack lawful status are often fearful of providing private information to state officials over concerns that they could be shared for non-public health purposes such as immigration enforcement. As such, we urge state officials to make clear as part of any public health vaccination campaign that any information will be kept private and not shared outside the public health context.

We also urge state public officials to prioritize low-income immigrant communities for early vaccination, as this population often works in essential jobs including the food sector, childcare, and the provision of cleaning services in buildings, much of which has continued to operate in-person during the pandemic. Many of these same front-line workers also have multi-family and/or multi-generational living situations that make social distancing difficult; vaccinating this population earlier would help to stem the spread of the virus including to elderly and other vulnerable groups.


Public School Employees

The spring’s extended school closure and the virtual reopening of most of Virginia’s school divisions has devastated children and families across the Commonwealth—economically, socially, and educationally. Despite heroic efforts from educators to quickly adapt to a new distance learning model, our students are suffering from mental health challenges, learning loss, and food instability. Reopening schools safely must be a top priority for the health and well-being of Virginia’s children, but in-person schooling depends on rapid and comprehensive distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to educators and public school employees. Our students cannot safely return to face-to-face instruction without prioritizing vaccinations for educators.


Low-Wage, Low-Income Virginians

Even beyond discrete populations such as those in carceral facilities, farmworker camps, or immigrant communities: wage- and income-insecure Virginians in general have experienced increased health and financial precarity as a result of the pandemic. While many have lost their jobs altogether, others have been forced to work despite their well-founded fears of contracting COVID-19. Our clients who work as home health aides, custodians, and cooks, among other professions, have not had the luxury of working from home or taking leave to mitigate their exposure to the virus. Their families depend on income from these jobs to pay for rent, food, hospital bills, and other necessities. Many of these clients live in multi-generational housing or otherwise congregate living spaces. Consequently, they continue to face heightened risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19. Many have expressed confusion about their eligibility for the vaccine, fear of associated financial costs of receiving it, and skepticism about its efficacy and safety.

Virginia must create clear and comprehensive guidance materials about the vaccine, addressing issues including but not limited to: how to access the vaccine, data and information on safety and efficacy, and information on patients’ right to receive or refuse the treatment. We ask you to prioritize distribution of this information in public housing complexes, homeless shelters, community services board offices, community centers, and low-income neighborhoods. The best way to do this is to build trust with communities by employing community members themselves to assist with outreach and education.

As Virginia plans for vaccine distribution and administration, we must avoid the mistakes of the past and meaningfully address the systemic disparities and dysfunction still widely experienced by Black, brown, and economically disadvantaged Virginians seeking healthcare. We must acknowledge the ways COVID-19 has both ravaged the health and security of these communities and exacerbated distrust of medical professionals and establishments. And we must proactively plan for these communities to receive meaningful vaccine access, care, and information. At LAJC, we are committed to ensuring our clients and client communities are not overlooked by the Commonwealth and can make informed choices about their care. But to do so, your administration must ensure access to vaccine and COVID-19 care that proactively includes, appropriately prioritizes, and seeks to build trust with the people and communities we serve. We are available to meet and discuss the issues we have raised in this letter with your office and any other relevant officials, and we will continue to advocate on behalf of our clients and client communities on this matter as the process unfolds.


Sincerely,

Amy L. Woolard
Director of Policy
Legal Aid Justice Center
Amy@justice4all.org
C: 804.647.3553


Cc by email:

Chief of Staff Clark Mercer

Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Janice Underwood

Va. Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball

Va. Secretary of Education Atif Qarni

Va. Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, M.D.

Va. Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran

Va. Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver

[1] https://vadoc.virginia.gov/news-press-releases/2020/covid-19-updates/

[2] Middle River Regional Jail has reported that 401 inmates of their 816-person population have tested positive since November 25, 2020. Verona jail, Augusta County prisons all dealing with COVID outbreaks (newsleader.com)

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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Follow Legal Aid Justice Center on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and find us on Facebook.

www.justice4all.org

 

 

                                             

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.

 

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Critical Protections Passed Protecting Workers

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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.

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