The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP has asked the court for leave to file as amicus curiae in opposing DMV Commissioner Holcomb’s motion to dismiss the complaint in Stinnie v. Holcomb.Stinnie v. Holcomb is our lawsuit challenging Virginia’s system of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt without inquiring into the debtor’s financial circumstances.
Today, the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a Memorandum of Opposition on behalf of the Plaintiffs in response to the Commissioner’s Oct. 3 Motion to Dismiss in Stinnie v. Holcomb. In the Opposition, we argue that (1) legal technicalities do not prevent the court from hearing this lawsuit, and (2) the Commissioner is wrong in his position that the Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that Virginia’s license-for-repayment scheme violates the United States Constitution in the following ways:
It violates due process and fundamental fairness by setting up a justice system that punishes those who owe money to the state for sheer inability to pay.
It strips Plaintiffs of a constitutionally protected property interest – their driver’s licenses – without the guaranteed safeguards of notice and a hearing.
It violates equal protection by treating those who are willing but unable to pay more harshly than those who are willing and able to pay, when the only difference between them is the amount of money they have.
Suspending licenses for court debt fails even the most minimum constitutional standards because it is not rationally related to legitimate state interests – indeed, by siphoning away law enforcement resources and preventing debtors from earning a living, it undermines the state’s asserted interests in advancing highway safety and prompting repayment.
It subjects Plaintiffs to harsher collection practices than those for civil debtors, in violation of equal protection.
In support of our Opposition, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP has asked the court for leave to file an amicus brief arguing that Virginia’s driver’s license suspension system for unpaid court debt disproportionately harms black Virginians, violates constitutional rights, and fails even the most basic sense of fairness. In its brief, the NAACP points to data showing “[b]lack people make up only 20% of Virginia’s population, but receive nearly half of the orders of suspension for unpaid court debt,” and “nearly 60% of convictions for driving while suspended wherein court debt was imposed but is ‘past due’ are associated with blacks.” Full Amicus Brief (PDF)
The Legal Aid Justice Center believes that Virginia’s automatic license-for-payment system exposes hundreds of thousands of people to indefinite driver’s license suspension, spiraling debt, and incarceration for driving while suspended, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee that no one shall be punished for their poverty.
TENANTS ALLEGE DECEPTIVE NOTICES AND HIGH FEES IN CLASS ACTION COMPLAINT
Charlottesville, Virginia, October 5, 2016 – Five tenants from Richmond, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg have filed a class-action lawsuit in the Charlottesville federal court against Senex Law, P.C., a debt collection firm hired by the plaintiffs’ and many other Virginia landlords. The plaintiffs, represented pro bono by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm of MichieHamlett, allege that Senex uses deceptive practices to collect alleged delinquent rent and other fees from tenants, in violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Senex’s practices harm tenants through costly additional charges and for some, lengthy eviction records. The five plaintiffs have brought the case on behalf of a statewide class of tenants who suffered at the hands of Senex’s unlawful practices.
“Senex sells its system as an easy time-saver for landlords, but it’s anything but easy for tenants,” said Bryan Slaughter, MichieHamlett senior counsel. “Once they are behind on rent, the high extra fees charged by Senex make it difficult for our clients to ever get back on track.”
The suit alleges that Senex violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by sending notices purporting to come from landlords, but which were actually drafted and mailed by Senex. The notices do not contain federally-mandated language disclosing Senex’s identity as a debt collector, or describing the procedure that recipients can use to challenge their accuracy. This business practice hurts tenants, costs them substantial money, and puts them at unnecessary and repeated risk of eviction.
Senex then quickly files eviction actions in bulk, generating more costs to tenants and relying on sometimes outdated or inaccurate information from landlords. “This practice goes beyond a simple technical violation of the law. It has real costs to our clients, financial and otherwise, because it can ruin their rental record and their chances to find other housing in the future,” said Kim Rolla, Legal Aid Justice Center’s lead attorney on the case
“It’s been really hard for my family to keep up with all these extra charges,” said Teri Crawford, a named plaintiff in the class-action suit. “I just want stability, to keep a roof over my kids’ heads. I pay my rent. But it seems like every time we’re even a little late, we get hit with a bunch of fees.”
Stinnie v. Holcomb: Plaintiffs’ Statement in Response to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss
Last evening, the Attorney General’s office filed a motion to dismiss in Stinnie v. Holcomb, a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s practice of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt without inquiring into the debtor’s financial circumstances.
The Plaintiffs are disappointed that the Attorney General’s office would attempt to rely on procedural technicalities to close the courthouse doors to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who just want a chance to present their case to the court. “The state is defending the indefensible,” said Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at LAJC. “Since the complaint was filed, the Legal Aid Justice Center has received an outpouring of calls from people who can’t get out of the court debt trap. We’ve heard the strain and desperation in their voices as they describe how they have to choose between paying the court and paying rent, how they can’t find or keep jobs because of unreliable transportation, and how they have had to go to jail just for driving to work.”
Filed on behalf of four individually named plaintiffs, the lawsuit seeks to vindicate the rights of a class consisting of all persons whose Virginia driver’s licenses are suspended due to unpaid court debt and who, at the time of the suspension, were not able to pay due to their financial circumstances. The complaint was filed on July 6, 2016, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. It asks the federal court to strike down the license-for-repayment law as unconstitutional, order the Defendant DMV Commissioner to stop suspending licenses, and to reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay.
Nearly 1 million Virginia drivers currently have suspended licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work, forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.
The complaint argues that these practices trap low-income Virginians in a vicious cycle, depriving them of reliable lawful transportation to take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, and “paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts.” By contrast, the lawsuit notes that wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court costs and retaining their licenses.
The Plaintiffs are confident in their legal claims and are eager for the case to move forward and provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of people have suffered at the mercy of the license-for-payment system.
Immigrant Tenants To Protest Offensive Remarks by Major Real Estate Developer “The lack of affordable housing is a crisis. We need solutions, not stereotypes.”
On Thursday, September 1, 2016, at 11:00am, immigrant tenants from Northern Virginia will join together in protest of offensive and stereotypical comments made by David Hillman, chairman and CEO of Southern Management Corporation. The protest will take place in front of the offices of Southern Management, at 1950 Old Gallows Road, Vienna VA 22182.
In responding to a tragic apartment explosion in Silver Spring that killed seven immigrant tenants including two children, Mr. Hillman said, “They’re not as poor as people think. Immigrants have different needs than native-born Americans. To them, living three to four to a room is not an inconvenience.” (Story) These comments, by a major real estate developer who manages many predominately immigrant apartment complexes, embody a pernicious stereotype about immigrant families that they are undeserving of just and dignified housing conditions.
“When I heard about what Mr. Hillman said, I felt offended, like he was calling me something less than human,” said Everth Sanchez, an immigrant tenant in Falls Church. “Does he think my children don’t deserve a quiet place to do their homework in the evening? Does he think our community enjoys living with three families to a two-bedroom apartment?”
“The lack of affordable housing is a crisis. We need solutions, not stereotypes,” said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, Organizing Coordinator of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Apartments in some of the worst-maintained complexes in Annandale and Falls Church cost around $2000/mo. But the minimum wage in Virginia is still $7.25/hr., and many immigrant workers are paid even less than that. Housing is a right, and it is being denied to our community.”
“The wait list for affordable housing is a mile long, and many immigrants—even legal immigrants with statuses like TPS or DACA—don’t even qualify,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, Legal Director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “Immigrant families, even with two parents working full-time jobs in restaurants or construction, are paying most of their income in rent. If they get sick and miss work, they don’t get paid, they fall behind on rent, and they can find themselves evicted so quickly it leaves their head spinning. I can’t count the number of tenants I’ve represented who paid their base rent in full, but were still placed in eviction proceedings for missing a utility payment or some other junk fee of as little as $250, which balloons to $1000 with all the late fees and legal fees that the landlords add on.”
“Mr. Hillman should keep in mind that the protection of the federal Fair Housing Act extends to all tenants, even immigrants,” said Mary Bauer, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Such statements can send immigrants the message that they are not wanted here. That can violate the law.” Immigrant tenants and their supporters will be protesting in front of the offices of Southern Management to demand that David Hillman apologize and retract his comments, and instead of peddling in stereotypes, work together with immigrant community leaders to find a solution to the affordable housing crisis for immigrants in Northern Virginia, such as committing to offer a greater percentage of apartments in every development he manages for families below 40 percent of the area median income.
Federal civil rights complaint asserts that RPS discipline policies discriminate against African-American students and students with disabilities.
RICHMOND, VA – Two students and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have filed an anti-discrimination complaint against Richmond Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
RPS’ discipline policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers, the complaint asserts. During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely than white students without disabilities to be short-term suspended, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Education.
“These disparities cannot be explained by differences in student behavior,” said Rachael Deane, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that the school division’s discipline policies are excessively punitive and lack clear standards for application, leading to subjective interpretation and selective enforcement.”
Complainants allege that the student code fails to clearly define misconduct and prescribes overly harsh consequences for relatively minor misbehavior. “The ACLU is concerned about the wide disparities in the application of student discipline based on race and disability,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Leslie Mehta. “Overly punitive discipline policies damage the learning environment, deny African-American students and students with disabilities of their right to an education and push children into the school-to-prison pipeline.”
During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students made up about 76 percent of the total student population in RPS but were issued 93 percent of short-term suspensions, 98 percent of long-term suspensions, and 97 percent of expulsions. African-American students were 5.69 times more likely than white students to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities were 2.77 times more likely than students without disabilities to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities made up 16 percent of the student population but were issued 31 percent of short-term suspensions, 30 percent of long-term suspensions, and 63 percent of expulsions.
“The school division must conduct an unflinching examination of these disparities and adopt strategies to improve school climate and ensure that discipline policies are fair for all students,” said Lynetta Thompson, president of the Richmond NAACP.
The complaint calls for alternative approaches to discipline that would address instances of student misconduct while improving overall school climate. It argues that that Richmond Public Schools could eliminate discrimination and more effectively ensure safe and orderly schools through the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, social and emotional learning programs and restorative justice processes.
“Suspensions hurt everyone. Students who are removed from school are at a greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Deane. “We hope this complaint leads to a positive transformation within the city schools.”
Settlement requires reforms to Richmond’s maintenance code enforcement, fair housing practices, and services to limited English proficient residents.
A civil rights complaint filed last year with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) by Latino mobile home park residents against the city of Richmond was resolved last week by agreement between HUD and the parties. The agreement ends a year-long investigation by HUD into allegations that Richmond unfairly targeted the largely Latino-occupied mobile home communities for unprecedented, intensive maintenance code enforcement and that the city refused to offer interpretation or translation as required by federal law. Under the agreement, Richmond will pay $30,000 in damages to the complainants and will take numerous steps to ensure future compliance with the federal Fair Housing Act, to provide meaningful access to city services in Spanish and other languages, and to provide assistance to mobile home park residents affected by its code enforcement activities.
“We are very pleased with this resolution to the HUD complaint,” according to Phil Storey, attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, who represented the residents along with the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C. “The agreement has teeth, so we are confident that it will make a real difference in the way the city deals with mobile home park residents, immigrants, and other minorities going forward in terms of fair housing rights and language access.”
The agreement will remain in force for four years, during which the city of Richmond will be subject to HUD oversight and must submit regular compliance reports to the agency. Some of Richmond’s obligations under the agreement include: performing a new analysis of impediments to fair-housing choice and ensuring that its use of funding from HUD addresses those impediments, including in mobile home parks; regularly training the staff of key departments to protect fair-housing rights and to provide interpretation and translation services to city residents free of charge; posting notices in city offices informing people of the availability of free interpretation upon request; ensuring that city websites and telephone voice response systems are available in Spanish as well as English; appointing a Fair Housing Compliance Officer and a Language Access Coordinator, who will oversee and report regularly to HUD on the city’s compliance with the terms of the agreement.
“The reach of the HUD agreement is very good for the residents of mobile home parks, but also for immigrants and other vulnerable people throughout Richmond,” says Cliff Zatz, partner with Crowell & Moring, which provided pro bono representation on the case. “This is a good example of how federal agencies like HUD work to protect people’s civil rights.”
Lawsuit Challenges Virginia’s Unconstitutional System of Suspending Licenses of Low-Income Drivers Who Are Unable to Pay Court Debts
Commonwealth Fails to Consider Debtor’s Financial Circumstances or Offer Alternatives to Hundreds of Thousands of Virginians Who Can’t Pay Costs and Fines
Virginia is trapping hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay unreasonable court costs and fines, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) against the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
The complaint asserts that Virginia fails to inquire into the reason for non-payment or consider debtors’ financial circumstances before suspending their licenses. It calls these “severe and coercive” policies discriminatory and in violation of the “fundamental principles of due process equal protection” of the laws embedded in the United States Constitution.
Nearly 1 million Virginia drivers currently have suspended licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work, forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, argues that these practices trap low-income Virginians in a vicious cycle, depriving them of reliable lawful transportation to take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, and “paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts.” By contrast, the lawsuit notes that wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court debt and retaining their licenses.
The filing follows the release of an analysis last month by LAJC that found most Virginia General District Courts are disregarding recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court costs and fines.
Virginia makes it particularly difficult for debtors to have their licenses reinstated. A person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite suspension, often lasting years. In FY2015 alone, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of which (38%) were for offenses unrelated to driving.
“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” said Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at LAJC. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”
The case of Robert Taylor, a National Guard veteran and one of four named plaintiffs in the case, is typical of the challenges faced by low-income debtors with suspended licenses. Taylor, 28, owes money to at least four different Virginia courts, none of which assessed his ability to pay before levying court costs and fines and suspending his license. Since his offense of running a red light in April 2014, Taylor’s license has been suspended repeatedly for non-payment. Taylor, who struggles with health issues, lost his job and also faces thousands of dollars in medical and student loan debt. Without a driver’s license, he has been unable to guarantee prospective employers that he will have reliable transportation if hired. His suspended license led at least one employer to rescind a job offer.
“I don’t understand why the system was so quick to punish me for something I was eager to fix,” said Taylor, who has spent multiple days in jail for driving with a suspended license. “All I want to do is drive to work, make a decent living, and pay my debts.”
The complaint charges that the state has steadily increased court fees in order to fund its basic operations, and authorized localities to do the same. In 1989, court costs for all misdemeanor or traffic violations were $20. Now they can run more than $100, including local option fees, before adding in any charges for specific “services” such as blood withdrawal, jail admission or even reimbursement of fees paid to attorneys appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one.
The complaint calls for an injunction against the DMV, preventing it from entering orders of suspension against the licenses of low-income drivers until Virginia implements a system that properly assesses drivers’ ability to pay court debt. It also calls for the DMV to immediately reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay. The lawsuit comes as the Virginia Supreme Court considers new rules regarding payment plans and the Virginia General Assembly prepares to hold a legislative study commission on the issue.
“We applaud the efforts of the Virginia Supreme Court and General Assembly to tackle court debt, and aim to complement those efforts with this lawsuit,” said Ciolfi. “When private creditors go to collect a debt, the law prevents them from depriving people of the means to meet the basic needs of their families and earn a livelihood; why should the Commonwealth be able to use such an extreme measure that effectively does just that? Low-income debtors deserve a path to self-sufficiency and self-respect. We hope this lawsuit gives them that path.”
Virginia schools have a crisis on their hands. Waves of students are being pushed out of school though the widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspension and expulsion.
Suspended Progress, a new report released today by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center reveals that, last school year, Virginia schools issued over 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 students. The report details disturbing findings from the 2014-15 school year, including:
One-fifth of all suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students;
The majority of suspensions were for relatively minor, non-violent, subjective misbehavior like “disruption,” “defiance,” and “disrespect;”
African American students and students with disabilities were suspended at hugely disparate rates; and
Statewide suspension rates flattened out after years of steady progress.
“Suspension hurts everyone. Suspended students are at a significantly greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Angela Ciolfi, JustChildren’s Legal Director and co-author of the report. “Worse yet, suspension damages school climate, public safety, and the economy.” The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have been pushing states across the country to reduce school exclusion, and many states have made tremendous strides in limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, investing in prevention and alternatives, and holding districts accountable.
JustChildren’s report also provides information about proven behavioral interventions and alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including MyTeachingPartner, social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, threat assessments, and restorative practices. These programs and frameworks have been shown to both improve school safety and climate and reduce suspensions and disparities. “What’s so sad is that we know what works,” said Jason Langberg, a JustChildren attorney and co-author of the report. “We just haven’t had the political will to abandon the failed ‘zero tolerance’ mentality and to begin providing educators with the resources they need to ensure schools are safe and supportive.”
The report concludes with common sense recommendations for lawmakers and policymakers. JustChildren calls upon the General Assembly, Virginia Board of Education, and local school board members to act with a sense of urgency in promoting positive school climate and keeping students in school and on a path toward graduation and success in adulthood.
Future code enforcement to be more responsive to vulnerable residents’ needs; language access plan to help City residents access services.
Thirty-three current and former mobile home park residents have reached a negotiated settlement to their housing discrimination lawsuit against the City of Richmond. The residents, represented pro bono by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, had alleged that an aggressive housing code enforcement campaign violated their civil rights. Under the terms of the settlement, the City of Richmond will institute policies that will help minimize the displacement of mobile home residents in future enforcement activities and will better serve residents who are not fluent in English.
“This settlement is a positive outcome for our clients and for all mobile home park residents in the City of Richmond,” said Marie Diveley, Crowell & Moring senior counsel. “The City has agreed to take important steps that will not only benefit vulnerable mobile home park residents, but will also ensure that limited English speakers can access City services without unnecessary language barriers.”
The suit, which was filed in federal court in Richmond last August, alleged that the City violated the civil rights of the residents by targeting mobile home parks, where residents are mainly Latino, for aggressive code enforcement with the expectation that scores of vulnerable families would likely be displaced. According to the lawsuit, the City also refused to provide adequate interpretation and translation services for the limited English proficient residents, in violation of federal civil rights laws.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement the City will: work with a non-profit partner organization to assist mobile home park residents in addressing maintenance code violations prior to park-wide inspections; provide notices of code violations and appeal forms in Spanish to residents who are proficient in Spanish but not English; institute a language-access plan pursuant to federal civil rights guidelines and train City employees on their obligations under the plan; arrange for Fair Housing Act training for certain departments of City government; and provide modest monetary assistance to the plaintiffs, for repair or relocation, and to assist more generally with repairs in mobile home parks. With the agreement, the City also acknowledges that mobile homes play an important role in the affordable housing supply of Richmond.
“This settlement is the culmination of a long process of negotiation to address serious concerns on both sides,” according to Phil Storey, the Legal Aid Justice Center’s lead attorney on the case. “We are pleased that the City and the residents were able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution, thanks to assistance from Mark Rubin and VCU’s Center for Consensus Building.”
The majority of Virginia General District Courts have either disregarded or fallen significantly short of recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia, the state’s top judicial policy making body, aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court fines and costs, according to an analysis released today by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC).
As a result, hundreds of thousands of low-income residents have their driver’s licenses suspended when they are unable to cover court costs. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work and forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.
LAJC calls on Virginia courts to do
much more to ensure that state residents who are unable to pay their court debts aren’t trapped by ill-conceived payment policies that are unrealistic and counter-productive. It also notes that indigent Virginians should receive extra consideration, such as foregoing driver’s license suspension when poverty precludes payment. “These individuals should be afforded a way to maintain licenses, and their livelihood, despite their poverty,” the analysis states.