When the novel coronavirus became a pandemic, Professor Ray Brescia anticipated a major rise in people needing free legal help. He had worked with the Urban Justice Center in New York City, helped people who were affected and economically displaced by 9/11, and predicted that COVID-19 would have a similar impact.
UPSTATE, THE LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF NORTHEASTERN NEW YORK provides civil legal services to those who cannot afford them. Expecting that Legal Aid was going to be inundated with cases, Brescia reached out to executive director Lillian Moy about increasing Albany Law School’s support.
Typically, up to five Albany Law students work with Legal Aid over the summer as interns or law clerks. This summer, Legal Aid took on 20 full-time interns from Albany Law to serve as law clerks and added a cadre of part-time positions to help with COVID-19–related research. They called the 36 students the COVID Response Corps.
The fact that the virus necessitated all work to be done virtually also presented opportunities, said Moy, such as utilizing more students as clerks working remotely. “This was an organized way to respond to the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.”
When Brescia sent an email to the student body seeking applicants, the response was strong. “Students were eager for ways to get involved since COVID hit,” he said.
“I was looking for a way to use the legal skills I’ve learned at Albany Law to help those most affected by the pandemic,” said intern Raymond Leggett. “The email from Professor Brescia was serendipitous.”
Other students were scrambling to replace summer legal jobs and internships canceled because of the pandemic. The COVID Response Corps was one solution for displaced students “while putting them to good work,” said Moy.
Even students who still had summer employment could help with COVID-19 legal efforts by contributing about 10 hours a week of research.
“We have the ability to provide interesting work at different levels of commitment,” said Moy. And students benefited greatly from working directly with Legal Aid attorneys—many of whom are Albany Law alumni.
Leggett assisted several Legal Aid attorneys from his home outside Detroit. He helped clients whose employment situations were hurt by COVID-19 file for unemployment insurance benefits and prepare for their hearings. “We did our best to make sure these individuals received their benefits.”
He added, “The attorneys at Legal Aid are some of the most dedicated and compassionate individuals I’ve met. They are helping those most marginalized in society, and in my opinion, that is the best application of legal skills.”
Individuals with disabilities suddenly found their financial futures uncertain when New York State hit the “pause” button. Legal Aid attorney Michael Telfer ’11, who works on the Disability Advocacy Project (DAP), described the first couple of weeks of the shutdown as chaos as they navigated working remotely, obtaining medical records during quarantine, and transitioning to phone hearings. Their clients, who are unable to work due to physical or mental conditions, are applying for or appealing Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or both. Decisions to determine these benefits were delayed, and hearings were adjourned or conducted by phone.
Intern Michele Di Franco did legal research for hearings and appeals, called and drafted letters to clients, gathered all necessary information to calculate benefits, drafted requests for records, and followed up with providers—all from his home in Ontario, Canada. Normally, Di Franco would have attended hearings; instead, Telfer had him sit in on the phone calls preparing clients for their hearings. “Michele provided me with questions he thought of as he listened, which were valuable to me in preparing for the hearings,” Telfer said.
Intern Ashley Hong also worked on DAP cases for Telfer and attorney Allison Zaloba ’15. “In the beginning [of the shutdown] it was difficult to get medical records from doctors’ offices and hospitals, but Ashley was persistent,” Zaloba said.
“I spoke with providers who didn’t understand why their clients’ disability benefits were denied or terminated; they were clearly unable to work,” said Hong, from Westchester, N.Y. “Within a few weeks of working with these clients and learning from Allison, I realized the importance of this work. These benefits mean money that these clients need to maintain their livelihood.”
Zaloba also had returning intern Eileen Tchao researching specific issues, including the fate of benefits claims when a client passes away during the appeals process. While Zaloba does not know if her clients’ deaths have been COVID-19 related, most of their clients are immunocompromised or have comorbidities. “There are substitute parties that can take over SSDI claims, but SSI is a lot more restrictive,” she said. “It gets complicated, so her research has been very helpful.”
COVID-19 economic-impact payments, which were very important to Legal Aid’s clients, were also complicated in many cases. “Early on, we had the interns help us with other tasks while we figured out how to handle notifying our clients about stimulus payments,” Zaloba said. Because many DAP clients do not file taxes every year, payments were not automatic; an extra step was required, for which they had to get on a computer—usually with someone’s assistance.
Internet access—or lack thereof—was among the many issues the stimulus checks posed, and not just for DAP clients. Intern Ruchi Patel worked with Legal Aid’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, and although the IRS suspended most audits and collections due to COVID-19, they instead had stimulus check issues to deal with. Some people filed late tax returns so they could get their stimulus payment—but with the IRS backed up with unprocessed returns, “[clients] are going to be out of luck for a very long time,” Patel said.
Also out of luck: people married to noncitizens—they were not eligible for the payment. “The immigration cases have been sad,” said Patel, as have cases involving domestic violence or domestic relations in which one spouse would not release the other’s money—“a really tricky situation,” she said.
“Students are really learning from these issues and how complex they are,” Brescia said.
When New York State passed the Emergency Rent Relief Act of 2020, intern Teagan Dolan wrote a summary of the lengthy and complex state legislation, which her supervising attorney, David Crossman ’17, said gave him a head start on reaching out to clients who could benefit.
“It was sometimes challenging because many of our clients don’t have income, so they’re lacking a ‘documented change in income’ related to COVID that would make them eligible,” explained Dolan. She worked exclusively on housing cases, which exploded due to COVID-19’s painful effects on the economy.
Much of her work involved supporting tenants facing wrongful eviction. Despite the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act providing a moratorium on evictions, Dolan spoke with two to three clients a week whose landlords were trying to illegally evict them. She reviewed their rights and reassured them that they did not, in fact, have to be out in seven days—even if the landlord claimed a code violation warranted an immediate eviction.
“I keep comparing the law right now to the Wild West: nobody really knows what’s going on,” Dolan said. “It’s fun to be a law student during this time and see it all evolve.”
Originally from Kentucky but living in Albany to attend law school, Dolan took a summer class online taught by President and Dean Alicia Ouellette on “Law in a Time of Pandemic,” which examined in depth COVID-19’s impacts on the law. “It helped inform a lot of the work I did this summer,” she said.
One case in particular—of a tenant who was unable to move out by the agreed-upon date because of COVID-19 complications— required a lot of research to form a potential breach of contract defense.
“[Dolan] was especially helpful with this client and did a lot of writing as far as what her options were,” Crossman said. “She helped work out the details so that the client could recover her belongings and potentially avoid any money judgment.”
Before COVID-19, Dolan would have been able to go to court and see these cases play out, so instead Crossman had her review case notes and write the summaries to help close as many cases as possible.
Not only did this add to her learning, it helped set Crossman up for the flood of eviction cases they are expecting when the moratorium expires. The National Housing Law Project is estimating 20,000 evictions in New York State and 20 to 28 million nationwide. Fortunately, New York State’s Tenant Safe Harbor Act was extended until January 1, 2021.
When Legal Aid asked Dolan to stay on for the fall semester, she accepted. “It will be good to see how a lot of this plays out and offer as much support as I can.”