Women’s History Month Spotlight: Robust Civil Legal Services for Women

           Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge, Civil Practice

          Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge, Civil Practice

Women are disproportionately on the frontline of the intersecting structural dynamics negatively impacting vulnerable people across our City. Over 71% of Civil Practice clients are women, who often act on behalf of their families and are responsible for coordinating various aspects of the day-to-day lives of their household members. Whether it be representing an undocumented domestic worker experiencing wage theft by an exploitative employer, defending a family facing eviction by an unscrupulous landlord, or supporting a single-parent struggling to manage the complex health needs of different family members while holding down multiple jobs - to speak of civil legal issues is to ultimately speak of women’s issues.  
 
The Employment Law Unit (ELU) represents low-wage women workers who, among others, have been subject to workplace discrimination, have been subjected to violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and New York City’s Paid Sick Leave Law, and who have been victims of trafficking. Through the new Case Closed Project, Society staff also support New Yorkers in sealing their past criminal records, enabling them to move forward with their lives and support their families through accessing increased employment opportunities. ELU staff has been at the forefront of obtaining U Visas for workers who have been victims of crimes by their employers. The Society recently represented a group of immigrant workers who were waitresses at a Manhattan restaurant. The restaurant had instructed the workers to lie about their wages and hours worked during an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor. ELU represented the workers before the Department of Labor for their unpaid wage claims, and in collaboration with the Immigration Law Unit, successfully argued that the workers were victims of the crime of witness tampering and were therefore eligible for U Visas.
 
Through class action litigation, the Government Benefits Practice, the Housing Practice and the Civil Law Reform Unit created a new housing subsidy – the Family Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS) – that will assist families, many of them led by women, that are facing homelessness as a result of an eviction proceeding or domestic violence. This class action settlement in the case of Tejada v. Roberts, originally filed on behalf of four women single-parents, helps address the large gap between the State’s basic shelter allowance – which is only $400 per month for a family of three – and the actual cost of housing in New York City. This result built upon a lawsuit the Society brought over 30 years ago, Jiggets v. Dowling, that led to the State establishing a basic rent subsidy for poor families with minor children to help prevent homelessness in the first place. In December 2017, the City rolled out a pilot program that resulted in 9,000 low-income New Yorkers, many of them women, getting additional support to pay their rent and other expenses. Ultimately, approximately 200,000 people will benefit from the Tejada litigation, enabling countless families to stabilize their living situations across the City.
 
The Society’s Family Law and Domestic Violence Project recently assisted Ms. M, an undocumented single mother from Jamaica and survivor of domestic violence. She had recently separated from her abusive husband, a lawful permanent resident (LPR), after obtaining an order or protection from Family Court. The couple had an infant U.S. citizen son together, and Ms. M had two children from prior relationships. The younger of these children was also a U.S. citizen, while her eldest son had Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. During their marriage, Mr. M had been financially and emotionally abusive towards Ms. M and her two older children. This had intensified once she had stopped working following the birth of their son, and he regularly threatened to call the police and have her arrested and deported. He eventually followed through on this threat and tried to have Ms. M deported, even falsely claiming that Ms. M had threatened him with a knife in an effort to get the police to come more quickly. When the police eventually arrived and Mr. M admitted that she had not threatened him, the police forced him to leave and threatened him with arrest if he made another such claim. The police also provided Ms. M with the contact details of a local domestic violence organization, and they assisted her in obtaining a family court order of protection. Following the separation, Ms. M faced the possibility of homelessness stemming from eviction proceedings as a result of her ex-husbands financial abuse. The Society assisted Ms. M in filing a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petition, including her oldest son as a derivative beneficiary, which is still pending. This pending status has enabled her to qualify for public assistance, Medicaid, and other essential benefits required for survivors of domestic violence seeking to stabilize their lives. In light of the termination of the DACA program, it also provides a path for her son to obtain permanent status in the U.S.
 
A common thread across all of the Civil Practice’s work is defending vulnerable and marginalized New Yorkers against the exploitative practices and systemic injustices threatening individual and family stability. Working with women lies at the heart of all the work our staff does to counteract these structural forces and ensure that no clients across our City are denied access to justice.