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New CBJC Pro Bono “Recoupment Project” Brings Thousands of Dollars in Relief to Family with Mounting Utility Bills

by Lisa Pearlstein, Esq. December 21, 2021

Lisa Pearlstein is the Project Director for the Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

*Disclaimer: Please note that pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of CBJC program recipients and to preserve attorney-client confidentiality.

*Monica Velez is a single mother in New York City unable to work due to medical conditions and physical limitations. Her resiliency and consistent advocacy helped her family overcome significant obstacles including homelessness and health issues. Monica and her two teenage daughters routinely use nebulizers, air purifiers, air conditioners, and other equipment to manage symptoms of severe asthma – a condition that has been documented to disproportionately affect families experiencing poverty. The use of this life saving equipment contributed to electric bills the family could not afford to pay. Additionally, Monica recently started using machines to do in-home physical therapy with a medical attendant – critical treatment that will surely increase her electricity bill.

Monica submitted applications to the City’s welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration (HRA), for a “utility advance” to help pay for electricity bills. While the agency paid the bills, State regulations required HRA to recoup the money it paid out to Con Edison from the family’s already limited Cash Assistance welfare grant at the rate of 10%. The family of three was left with only about $250 a month to spend on life essentials including clothing, transportation, hygiene products, and cell phone fees. Additionally, Monica faced over $9,000 in pending recoupment actions for utility advances she had received over several years from HRA.  This meant her benefits would remain at that very low level indefinitely as she paid off arrears.

When Monica contacted the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless (LCH) about her recoupment and utility arrears struggles, LCH had just launched a new pro bono “Recoupment Project” to help families in her situation.

A cohort of pro bono attorneys from O’Melveny & Myers and lawyers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who volunteered to work on their cases in an individual capacity, collaborated with LCH, to support the launch of the initiative. Two teams of pro bono lawyers represented 9 families and requested State administrative hearings to contest a total of 44 recoupment actions on their clients’ cases. The lawyers argued that the City sent inadequate recoupment notices to their clients that did not comply with State regulations. In each successful pro bono victory, the City agreed with the pro bono lawyers’ notice arguments and settled all of the cases prior to hearing. HRA issued a total of $6,627 in previously recouped monies back to the clients and deleted thousands of dollars in pending recoupment actions. In Monica’s case, the agency restored $3,124 it had recouped from her cash assistance grant, cancelled over $9,000 in future recoupments, and increased her monthly allowance.

After learning about her pro bono lawyers’ success in settling her case, Monica exclaimed, “Thank you so much! I am so happy… There are no words to describe how much I appreciate their hard work and dedication… I cannot thank you enough. My daughter is going to college and she really needs clothes, a computer, and I need to save to move. This is going to help us more than you can imagine. It is such a blessing.”

One of the pro bono lawyers that represented Monica, Alex Leonard, said, “There is no better way to spend some time than working with the City Bar Justice Center to help a client navigate complex processes to get financial relief. In the work we did for Ms. Velez, the benefit to her was enormous, and seeing that impact is what makes the work so fulfilling.”

James Rothstein from O’Melveny & Myers, who represented two LCH clients, said the following about his volunteer experience, “Working with the City Bar Justice Center was extremely rewarding. LCH staff are welcoming and helpful, and my clients have all been grateful for the assistance. I would recommend volunteering for LCH if you would like to make a meaningful impact on your clients’ lives.”

For more information about volunteering for the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless, please contact Kyara Martinez at kmartinez@nycbar.org. For assistance with payment of utility arrears, contact the NYC Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration/ HEAP unit at 212-331-3126.

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