Legal Aid Society

Reforming the Law Through Impact Litigation

Keeping ICE Out of Courts

On September 25, 2019, The Legal Aid Society and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, and New York Attorney General Letitia James and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez filed two separate lawsuits in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, challenging the legality of the agency’s practice of making civil immigration arrests without a judicial warrant or court order in and around New York State courthouses.

The first lawsuit, filed by The Legal Aid Society and Clearly Gottlieb, seeks a permanent injunction ordering the halt of ICE courthouse enforcement on behalf of an individual plaintiff — a noncitizen domestic violence survivor who needed to appear in court for an order of protection, but feared the risk of an ICE arrest coming to a courthouse. Other plaintiffs include Make the Road New York, Urban Justice Center, Sanctuary for Families, The Door, and the New York Immigration Coalition.

“New York State is home to more than 4 million noncitizens who are vulnerable to deportation. In order for our judicial system — a pillar of our democracy — to operate effectively, it is fundamental that they have equal access to courts,” said Janet Sabel, CEO and Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society. “ICE’s courthouse enforcement blatantly violates the constitutional rights of our clients, as well as all immigrant New Yorkers, and we look forward to addressing this injustice in court.”

Blocking the Trump Administration From Denying Permanent Status to Immigrants Who Rely On Certain Public Benefits

On August 27, 2019, community organizations filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) seeking to block the Trump administration’s proposed “public charge” rule before it takes effect on October 15, 2019. The organizations, Make the Road New York, African Services Committee, Asian American Federation, Catholic Charities Community Services, and Catholic Legal Immigration Network (“CLINIC”), are represented by The Legal Aid Society, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. If the rule takes effect, it will vastly expand the government’s ability to deny permanent status to immigrants who have relied on certain public benefits.

The rule is the Trump administration’s attempt to illegally upend legal immigration in this country. The rule will not only tear families apart but will also result in broad community consequences as people forgo critical benefits, such as healthcare, out of fear of jeopardizing their long-term ability to remain in the country.

The lawsuit argues that the rule, violates the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Constitution because it is motivated by animus towards immigrants of color and is intended to disproportionately affect immigrants from countries with primarily non-white populations. The complaint cites numerous comments by Mr. Trump and administration officials involved in drafting the rule demonizing immigrants of color and arguing that they should be denied assistance.

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Victory

Since 2016, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has denied the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status petitions of abused, abandoned, and neglected youth in New York who were between the ages of 18-21 years old at the time they applied. The Legal Aid Society, in partnership with Latham & Watkins, LLP, filed a federal class action law suit known as R.F.M. challenging this “Over-18 Denial Policy.”

On March 15, 2019, the Court issued an Opinion & Order in R.F.M. certifying the class and finding the Over-18 Denial Policy unlawful.

“This order is a huge step for our clients and others who were unlawfully and arbitrarily denied vital humanitarian status,” said Beth Krause, supervising attorney of the Immigrant Youth Project at The Legal Aid Society. “Immigrant youth who reside in New York State and who survived abuse, abandonment, or neglect will now be put on a path towards securing a green card.” Learn more.

Fighting for the Rights of NYCHA Tenants

On January 21, 2020, The Legal Aid Society and co-counsel Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP scored a huge victory for tenants of the New York City Housing Authority who suffered through freezing weather during the winter of 2018 without heat or hot water.  Reversing the trial court, which had granted NYCHA’s motion to dismiss, the Appellate Division unanimously vacated the trial court’s judgment, reinstated the cause of action for breach of the warranty of habitability, and granted plaintiffs’ motion for certification of a “damages class.”  The First Department noted that “NYCHA conceded that 80% of its housing units experienced heat and/or hot water outages during the relevant period, which demonstrates that the problems that affected each class member were system-wide,” and that “class action treatment is the most efficient method for adjudicating the claims of class members who lack the resources to bring individual actions for the small recovery they might obtain.”  Learn more.

Challenging Jail Brutality

For decades, the Prisoners’ Rights Project has been fighting to end the rampant brutality by staff against people incarcerated in New York City jails and mandate reforms to prevent abuse. Our successive class action litigations challenging staff brutality in individual jails lead to the landmark decision in Sheppard v. Phoenix, ended the reign of terror in New York City’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit. When the City failed in its obligations, PRP brought system wide class action litigation in Ingles v. Toro, which revised the use of force policy and piloted camera surveillance in the jails. When the excessive force problem persisted despite policies and promises by the Department of Corrections, PRP brought once again went back to federal Court in the hallmark litigation of  Nunez v. City of New York,  winning a historic comprehensive remedial court order which, if implemented properly, should significantly reduce the physical abuse in the City jail. As the problem has not been solved, PRP continues to monitor and responds to reports of brutality and abuse. For the latest report of the independent monitor, click here.

Ensuring Mental Health Treatment in Prisons

In Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health, PRP challenged the inadequate mental health care in the state prison system. Incarcerated people were being kept in 23-hour solitary confinement for behavior caused or aggravated by their mental illness, and a “revolving door” syndrome in which people who decompensated in isolated confinement were psychiatrically committed but then returned to solitary. Together with Disability Advocates, Inc. and Davis, Polk & Wardwell, we crafted a settlement that expanded treatment programs and mitigated the use and severity of isolated confinement for people with mental illness. Many of the protections of the settlement agreement have been incorporated into state statutes.