MFY Continues To Seek Justice For New York’s Most Underserved Populations

Saturday, June 23, 2012 - 11:48

The Editor interviews Jeanette Zelhof, Executive Director, MFY Legal Services.

Editor: Would you give us a brief background on MFY for our readers who may be unfamiliar with your organization?

Zelhof: MFY Legal Services was created in 1963 as the legal arm of Mobilization for Youth, one of the first anti-poverty programs in the country. Social workers and organizers worked with the Lower East Side community in Manhattan to address basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter, and attorneys represented community members to achieve these goals. It was from this movement that MFY brought Goldberg v. Kelly, the seminal U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the principle that a state could not terminate public assistance benefits without notice and an opportunity to be heard.

Currently, MFY serves some of the poorest people living in New York in a host of legal matters to ensure they maintain their housing, income and benefits. We also represent low-income New Yorkers and the working poor -- these are the hardworking New Yorkers who barely make ends meet in low-wage jobs. We focus much of our resources on the most vulnerable -- people with mental illness, the elderly and immigrants.  Our Consumer Rights Project challenges improper judgments in consumer cases, advocates for legislative reform and brings impact litigation. Our foreclosure project defends individuals in foreclosure proceedings and also advocates for legislative reform and brings impact litigation. Our consumer, disability and foreclosure work has had a national impact. For more on our litigation and legislative advocacy efforts, visit www.mfy.org.

Editor: Please tell us about the case MFY and CIAD won in the New York State Court of Appeals in November.

Zelhof: Adult homes are large congregate facilities where hundreds of people with mental illness can be housed under one roof. Our Adult Home Advocacy practice works to reform this practice of housing people with mental illness in these facilities, where they are frequently subjected to neglect and even abuse and stigmatized because of being defined as people with psychiatric disabilities. Because the residents are so isolated, New York State law gives us access to the homes to conduct outreach to and training of the residents about their rights. In December 2007, the industry representing the adult home operators sued MFY to obtain an order limiting our access to residents in a bold attempt to keep us from shining a spotlight on abusive and illegal practices in the homes. They sought to impose “guidelines” on us that would have made it virtually impossible to do our work effectively and would have chilled the efforts of residents to obtain advice and counsel. After an adverse decision by the trial court on summary judgment, the appellate division reversed and the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed our access to these isolated and disabled residents, sending a resounding signal that efforts by private operators to keep residents as a captive audience without recourse to counsel will not be tolerated.

Editor: I imagine there are many other opportunities for attorneys looking for pro bono work. In which of your many project areas are you witnessing an increased need?

Zelhof: We have three pro bono projects. One is our Kinship Caregiver Project that assists families caring for relatives outside of the formal foster care system in adoption, guardianship and custody proceedings so they can make legal decisions in education, health and other matters for the family members for whom they are caring and to bring permanency to the relationship. Pro bono attorneys working on this project prepare adoption papers and appear at hearings in family court. Attorneys who have done this work report how good it feels to bring stability to the lives of these families. Our SSI/SSD project assists clients with mental and physical disabilities obtain disability benefits. After filing for disability benefits, a large percentage of applicants are denied and applicants must request an administrative hearing to review the decision where they present evidence of their disabilities and inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. Attorneys interview clients, review medical records, draft pre-hearing memoranda of law and conduct hearings. Winning these appeals means disabled clients obtain a stable source of income until such time as the disability abates.

Our third and most recent pro bono project is our Re-Entry Project wherein we represent people with criminal backgrounds at the Department of State and other state agencies to challenge denial of licenses required for certain jobs, such as security guards and home health aides. Attorneys assist clients in documenting rehabilitation and then represent them at the hearings. Victories at the hearings result in an immediate and tangible result: an applicant for a license, for example, to become a security guard can get a paying job.

Attorneys participating in any of the projects are first trained in the subject matter area. After they accept a case, they are mentored and supported throughout the representation.

With respect to class action or impact litigation, we frequently, although not always, co-counsel with law firms who have many more resources than MFY does and can be very helpful during big litigations. We currently have several class action lawsuits that we are co-counseling with major law firms. We have two class actions challenging practices in so-called three-quarter houses where a hidden population of people trying to get back on their feet after bouts with alcoholism, addiction or homelessness are subjected to harassment, illegal evictions and deplorable conditions by those purporting to help them. We are doing one of the cases with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler and the other with Weil, Gotshal & Manges. We have two separate class action lawsuits seeking unpaid wages for large groups of home health workers. One suit is being co-counseled with Abbey Spanier Rodd & Abrams and the other with Debevoise & Plimpton. We are also co-counseling a case with Harwood Feffer on behalf of New York State homeowners against the state’s largest foreclosure firm for unfair debt collection practices, and we have been co-counseling with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison on a landmark case seeking to give 4,500 adult home residents with mental illness the right to live in supported housing in the community.

Editor: How can interested attorneys and law firms contact you?

Zelhof: People interested in doing pro bono work at MFY should contact Ramonita Cordero, MFY’s Pro Bono Coordinator, at rcordero@mfy.org or (212) 417-3774. 

Please visit www.mfy.org for more information.