Browse the latest Pro Bono Opportunities at The Legal Aid Society.
NOTE: These opportunities are only available to attorneys affiliated with firms that have an established pro bono relationship with The Legal Aid Society.
If you are interested in working on one of these matters, please contact the Pro Bono Counsel at your law firm to receive authorization and check conflicts.
Protecting the Rights of Workers
Litigation Assistance Needed in New York State Supreme Court on Behalf of Janitor Fired in Retaliation for Filing Unpaid Wages Claim
After over 20 years of working as a janitor for prominent University in New York, our client was eligible to take a four week paid vacation, and he did. However, his supervisor believed that our client was only entitled to 3 weeks of vacation instead of the 4 and therefore, deducted one week of wages at the end of the calendar year which left our client with a paycheck of net $0 in the last week of the year. This caused tremendous hardship on our client who lives paycheck by paycheck to pay for rent, groceries, etc. Our client complained to his supervisors but they would not listen so he filed an unpaid wages claim at the New York State Department of Labor (DOL). Immediately, the DOL ordered the employer to pay for the one week of wages that was unlawfully deducted. As soon as the DOL provided notice to the employer that they were required to pay, our client immediately experienced retaliation, which included his job duties dramatically changing. The president of the company also wanted our client to return the money to the company. New responsibilities were added to his job description which he could not realistically complete during his work hours. He also received threatening statements from his supervisor.
Our client was ultimately fired for performance issues, which we believe is pretextual. We contend that he was actually fired for refusing to pay back the money the DOL ordered his employer to pay to him.
We had originally filed our client’s retaliation case at the DOL in 2015. We cooperated with their investigation every step of the way. They issued a determination in January 2020 favorable to our client. However, they made a mistake in their calculations of lost wages. Our attorney has been trying to get the DOL to correct the damages calculations, but they are taking their time and it doesn’t seem like they will take the next step of issuing an Order to Comply anytime soon. This may be because our client’s employer has threatened to sue them for various reasons including changing their initial determination amount.
We believe our client will be best served if we file a retaliation claim directly against the employer, and think that the DOL’s findings of fact would be helpful in this case. We are seeking pro bono assistance to file a complaint in New York State Supreme Court in order to resolve this matter and help our client receive monetary damages.
Pro Bono Assistance for Deli Worker Recovering Unpaid Wages
On the day he arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic, our client began working at a Deli. He came to the United States in search of a better future, and relied on a loan from his brother-in-law to get here. The loan was not given directly to our client, but rather the brother-in-law paid directly for our clients travel costs. He informed our client that the loan could be repaid through discounts from his weekly earnings, essentially placing our client into a debt bondage.
During our client’s first year of employment, he worked 70 hours per week. He was told that he would be paid $4.29 per hour, however he received no compensation because his full earnings were deducted for repayment of his “loan.” During his second year of employment, our client worked 60 hours per week. All but $30 per week was taken in repayment of the “loan.” By January 2020, our client believed his loan to be paid in full and asked to be paid his full salary. Instead, he was told that his debt was not yet paid, an argument followed and he was fired.
The Legal Aid Society plans to draft and file a complaint in the Southern District of New York on behalf of our client, and we are seeking pro bono assistance. The case will involve client interviewing, complaint drafting, settlement negotiations, including participation in anticipated court-ordered mediation, court appearances and discovery, including drafting demands and defending depositions.
Group of Three Workers Seeks Pro Bono Assistance Recovering Unpaid Wages
A contractor hired our clients, three construction workers, to repair the roof of a building for him. The workers completed the work, but the employer never paid them. Our clients reached out to a nonprofit organization in Queens that focuses on the rights of immigration workers, and through that outreach learned that their employers is a serial violator of labor laws who has previously been sued for failure to pay wages. While the amount owed to our clients is not high, they are interested in holding the employer accountable, especially given his pattern of violations.
We are seeking pro bono assistance to litigate this case. Our plan is to draft and file a complaint in the Eastern District of New York. The case will involve client interviewing, complaint drafting, settlement negotiations, including participation in anticipated court-ordered mediation, court appearances and discovery, including drafting demands and taking and defending depositions.
Assistance Needed in Second Circuit Appeal
Our client is a sixty-three year old lawful permanent resident (LPR) who came here from Guyana nearly fifty years ago as a teenager, and has lived in the United States since then. He has significant family ties in the United States and until 2004 maintained a stable job and paid his required taxes. He faces removal due to a single charge of removability based on a conviction for child endangerment.
Although statutorily eligible for a form of discretionary relief called cancellation of removal, he was denied this relief in Immigration Court. His testimony in this case was consistent with, and indicative of, mental illness that impairs a person’s thought process and ability to communicate coherently. The record demonstrates that our client was unable to stay on topic, inclined towards provided meandering and tangential answers, and incapable of directly responding to questions. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) recognized that our client presented “strong equities and humanitarian factors,” and it also noted that “he has significant medical issues which require ongoing care.” However, it affirmed the immigration judge’s (IJ) denial of relief because it found that our client “has not established a genuine level of rehabilitation as there is no evidence of remorse of acknowledgment of guilt.” Specifically, the BIA explained that our client had been “provided with a reasonable opportunity to explain the criminal misconduct which served as the basis for his conviction [but] in lieu of admitting guilt, he unpersuasively denied any culpability.” In ordering our client removed, neither the BIA nor the IJ considered the indicia of incompetency that he presented throughout his testimony at trial.
Following the denial of cancellation of removal, and the BIA’s issuance of a final removal order, The Legal Aid Society (LAS) was retained as new counsel. We have filed a petition for review (PFR) of this decision. In addition, we arranged for two psychologists to separately evaluate our clients, and they both determined that he is impaired by schizotypal personality disorder and is not competent for purposes of immigration proceedings. We moved to reopen the removal proceedings based on these reports and on the indicia of incompetence demonstrated during proceedings. The BIA denied the motion to reopen, finding that our client effectively participated in his removal proceedings and that the evidence of his mental health issues would not have affected the agency’s decision. This subsequent adverse decision is now being appealed to the Second Circuit through the PFR at issue here, and will be consolidated with the first PFR.
We are seeking pro bono assistance with the appeal to the Second Circuit. The main issue on appeal is whether our client was afforded a full, fair, and individualized hearing when he was required to proceed before the IJ even though he was not competent to do so, and whether the BIA erred in concluding that newly-discovered evidence of his mental illness was irrelevant to the agency’s decision-making process. Other issues are (1) whether the agency erred in declining without explanation to reopen proceedings on his fear-based claim in light of his mental health issues; and (2) whether the BIA may retroactively apply a recent, broadened definition of “crime of child abuse” to a child endangerment conviction from 2008, even though BIA case law interpreted “child abuse” more narrowly at that time. We anticipate that the opening brief for this case will be due early next year, and the case may involve oral argument.
Young Man with Physical and Intellectual Disabilities Seeks Assistance with Asylum Application
Our client is an 18 year old from Mexico seeking asylum before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Asylum Office. He is applying for asylum because his family fears that he will be targeted and harmed because of his disabilities, and that the Mexican government is unable and unwilling to fully protect him.
Our client entered the United States via the US/Mexico border when he was 1 year old. Since then, he has been living with his parents and siblings in New York City. He has severe physical and intellectual disabilities, and has been diagnosed with severe static encephalopathy, epilepsy, microcephaly, non-verbal intellectual disability, and spastic quadriparesis due to hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy; as a result of his medical conditions, he is non-verbal, wheelchair-bound, and is unable to provide for himself without constant support from his family, doctors, and a team of physical, occupational, and speech therapists.
Currently, our client has been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but this limited immigration benefit allows him no permanent status in the United States. While he is protected from deportation for the time being with DACA, DACA is at risk of being eliminated completely and is that happens, he will have no legal means to remain in the United States and would be at risk of being deported back to Mexico.
One legal issue that will also need to be addressed is our client’s failure to apply for asylum within one year of his 2002 entry to the United States. Generally, one is required to apply for asylum within one year of their last entry to the United States in order qualify for asylum protection, with some limited exceptions. Most relevant here is an exception that allows for minors to apply for asylum within 6 months of their turning 18 years old; here, our client attempted to file within 6 months of his 18th birthday. Unfortunately, due to administrative rejections regarding the completeness of the asylum application form, his asylum application was only formally accepted by USCIS more than 6 months from his 18th birthday.
The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit is looking for pro bono assistance in representing our client at his asylum interview, which has not yet been scheduled. Legal Aid filed his asylum application in June 2020, and we anticipate that this interview may be scheduled in the next 6 months, as USCIS has slowly begun to resume its interview schedule for asylum applicants during the COVID-19 pandemic. As our client is intellectually limited and non-verbal, he is not able to testify on his own behalf. His parents are the main source of contact.
The pro bono team will need to assist in preparing a brief and evidence in support of our client’s claim for asylum and preparing any witnesses to testify at the Asylum Office. Legal Aid has already secured an expert who has prepared a report regarding our client’s prospects if he were forced to return to Mexico. Additionally, his treating physician has already submitted a letter in support of his on-going medical needs. Finally, given this unusual circumstance of the asylum applicant here being non-verbal, the pro bono team would need to research and propose appropriate accommodations to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, including under federal disabilities rights-related laws.
Young Man Fearing Persecution Because of LGBTQ Identity in Guatemala Seeks Assistance with Asylum Application
The Legal Aid Society represents a 25 year old Guatemalan person of indigenous Ki’che descent. He is seeking asylum before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Asylum Office because he fears being targeted for persecution based on his LGBTQ identity in his native Guatemala. Our client identifies as male and recently entered into a same-sex marriage here in New York. He is sincerely fearful of returning to Guatemala, where he knows that LGTBQ individuals are routinely at risk of harm and death. He has no faith that the Guatemalan government is able or willing to protect him from this persecution.
Our client entered the United States via the US/Mexico border in 2016, when he was 21 years old. Since then, he has been living in New York City. In recent years, he has explored and become more comfortable in his identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He has begun dressing in drag, and has posted pictures on social media when in drag. As a result of these social media posts, fellow Guatemalans have threatened him if he returns to Guatemala. In August 2019, our client married his boyfriend, now husband, in New York City.
The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit is looking for pro bono assistance in representing our client at his asylum interview, which has not yet been scheduled. We filed his asylum application with USCIS in June 2020. Legal Aid anticipates that his interview may be scheduled in the next 6 months, as USCIS has slowly begun to resume its interview schedule for asylum applicants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pro bono team will need to assist in preparing our client for his testimony during his asylum interview with USCIS, as well as in the evidentiary and brief submissions in support of his claim for asylum. Legal Aid has already secured a country conditions expert to explain more fully the persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Guatemala and to address how this persecution may be uniquely stark in his indigenous Ki’che community.
One legal issue that will also need to be addressed is our client’s failure to apply for asylum within one year of his 2016 entry to the United States, which is generally required to qualify for asylum protection, with some limited exceptions. A possible exception would be our client’s changed personal circumstances, given his developing sexual identity and same-sex marriage in August 2019.
Haitian Immigrant Seeks Pro Bono Assistance to File Second Circuit Petition for Review
Legal Aid’s client is a 32-year-old Haitian national who sought asylum, statutory withholding of removal, and relief under the UN Convention Against Torture before the Immigration Court. He was abandoned by his parents when he was a child and was raised by members of a powerful and violent Haitian gang known as Baz Pilate. As a result, he was forced to witness horrific violence starting a very young age, and was later forced to assist the gang in various criminal dealings. When he was about 16 years old, he attempted to escape the gang, however Baz Pilate found him and kidnapped him about six months later. He was told that he would be killed if he ever left again. Two years later, he was able to obtain a green card, and he escaped Haiti without the knowledge of Baz Pilate members. Our client, who suffers from PTSD as a result of longstanding trauma, fears that if he is removed to Haiti, he will be murdered by members of Baz Pilate as retribution for fleeing the gang’s control.
This client was arrested several times in Suffolk County in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, seven years ago, he pleaded guilty to one count of attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree and two counts of attempted assault in the second degree, both of which make our client deportable. Unhappily, our client was not advised of the immigration consequences that would result from pleading guilty to the above charges, and because he pleaded to all three offenses on the same date in 2013, Legal Aid is in the process of seeking post-conviction relief based on the failure of our client’s then attorneys to advise him of the deportation consequences.
The Immigration Judge (IJ) denied our client’s claims in a written decision dated November 14, 2019. The IJ found that our client was not credible based on minor inconsistencies between his testimony and his statements made in prior proceedings. The IJ also found him statutorily ineligible for asylum and withholding of removal based upon his conviction for attempted second degree assault. Finally, his claim for relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) was denied on the basis that he had not established that he would, more likely than not, be tortured upon removal to Haiti.
The Board of Immigration Appeals recently dismissed our client’s appeal, rendering his removal order final. Legal Aid is seeking a pro bono team to assist with a petition for review in the Second Circuit. The volunteer attorneys would draft Second Circuit opening and reply briefs, and make oral argument (if granted by the Court.) The pro bono team would also potentially assist with the Motion to Reopen the case before the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Clients Held Beyond Release Dates Without SARA Compliant Housing
The Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau (CAB) and Special Litigation Unit (SLU) is seeking a pro bono partner to bring an action on behalf of between three and five Sex Assault Reform Act (SARA) restricted clients who are stuck in correctional facilities because they are unable to find SARA compliant housing (i.e., housing not within 1000 feet of a school). These clients are high risk for COVID and have been held for many months—upward of a year—past the dates they were scheduled to enter community supervision.
DOCCS will not release these clients to the shelter system, contending that to do so would overwhelm the system. Rather, DOCCS is using a slow waitlist that extends confinement for months and months. The Legal Aid Society believes that these clients have a legal right to shelter and DOCCS must transport them to shelter intake in order to trigger that right. It is our position that by ignoring shelter addresses and keeping the homeless incarcerated, while releasing those that can afford housing, is a violation of their constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive due process under the 14th Amendment and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. This is a critical and reoccurring issue for a large number of CAB clients. We believe that by bringing a targeted case on behalf of a handful of clients we will be able to test this important issue and secure release of these vulnerable clients at risk of contracting COVID.
Assistance for Organzations
Pro Bono Counsel Needed to Advise and Assist Private NYC High School Black Alumni Group
Legal Aid represents a Black Alumni group (operating as an unassociated association) that is made up of graduates of a private all-girls school in Manhattan that prepares a diverse community of girls and young women for the lifelong transformation of self and the world with purpose, passion and perspective. The Black Alumni have created a community responding to the schools Anti-Racism task force and commitment to diversity, inclusion & equity. Student, alumni and parents have created a social media page that address concerns and provides testimonies of the student (some parent) experiences of racism. The group accepts statements from the school’s alumni about racism and before posting anything on the social media page, the group edits and screens the posts to remove identifying details.
The Group is seeking pro bono assistance for the following issues:
- Legal advice re how to protect the group if individual testimony posted on the social media page includes someone’s name. The group wants to be able to remove names – the group will post a disclosure to readers that testimonials may be edited to remove identifying information.
- Legal advice re the possibility of creating a NPO to engage discourse around race, activism and unity.
- The group would like to provide stipends for individuals providing conversations around activism through Zoom seminars and in order to do so, the members would like to create a GO-FUND-ME page to pay for administrative costs and stipends. The group is seeking pro bono counsel to assist them in negotiations with the private school in the hopes of persuading the school to reallocate some of the school’s annual fund income to this group for projects.
Trusts & Estates
Estate Assistance Needed to Help Client Resolve Foreclosure
When our client’s mother passed away she had an outstanding loan for her home. The home is now in foreclosure. The Legal Aid Society has been attempting to assist our client in assuming her mother’s loan or to get a loan of her own to pay off the existing loan to resolve the foreclosure case.
Our client’s mother left a will, but there were complications in the administration of it. We have been able to assist our client in resolving some issues, but are now seeking assistance with an outstanding issue. Our client’s father was not an owner of the home in question, but he was still married to our client’s mother at the time of his death. In addition to this, we encountered trouble finding a nephew of the mother in order to complete the estate administration process.
At this time we are seeking assistance with putting the property in our client’s name in order for her to move forward with either obtaining her own loan for the home or to assume her mother’s loan and resolve the foreclosure case.
Research on Available Resources to Report Racist and Sexist Behavior by Attorneys & Judges
Recently, in a well-publicized incident (NY Daily News article & New York Law Journal article), members of the staff of The Legal Aid Society were subjected to reprehensible racist language and comments made by a private attorney on a list serve set up by the Bronx Housing Court. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is not unheard of in Housing Court and in other courts where clients from communities of color are frequently litigants. Both overt and subtle sexist behavior by attorneys has also been observed and experienced by our staff. Often there is little or no response by Judges or other court officials. Our Civil Law Reform Unit is seeking assistance in researching the avenues available for Legal Aid to file complaints when these situations arise. Specifically, we are looking for information on the agencies available to receive these complaints (both judicial and extra-judicial), the deadlines for filing, the investigative processes and the potential outcomes if the complaints are substantiated.