The Proskauer corporate social responsibility and pro bono blog

Ukraine Refugee Crisis: An Interview with a Ukrainian-American Pro Bono Client

More than 10 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion. Yet we are still awaiting the designation of Ukraine for Temporary Protected Status to take effect upon the publication of a forthcoming Federal Register, and relevant U.S. agencies have not yet produced the logistical and operational plans necessary to carry out the government’s commitment to resettle in the United States up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine.

In the meanwhile, I had the privilege of representing a Ukrainian-American pro bono client in filing a family-based petition for his mother, who fled Ukraine to a neighboring country just days before her home was destroyed by Russian air strikes.

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services granted our request for expedited processing and granted the I-130 petition this week. We hope that the National Visa Center and consular processing will be completed soon because each day that passes is another day in which our client’s mother lives at risk of danger in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

In this interview, our client shares his story.

Erin: Your immigration journey began in 2014, when we filed your application for asylum. Why did you come to the United States?

Andriy*: I fled to the United States because I suffered anti-gay violence due to my sexual orientation. It was not safe to be out as a gay man in Ukraine. There were underground gay clubs in Kyiv, but homophobic people would find out about them and wait outside to attack gay men leaving the club at night. I tried to hide my relationships and my gay identity, but after being outed and attacked, I had to escape.

Erin: You recently became a U.S. citizen. What was it like to navigate the U.S. immigration system?

Andriy: The journey took seven years! I was fortunate to have found Immigration Equality at the beginning, and they connected me to you for pro bono legal assistance with my asylum case. Applying for asylum was emotionally difficult because it required me to talk about traumatic experiences from my past. Winning asylum was bittersweet because it saved my life, but it also meant that I would not be able to see my mother and grandmother again for many years because for legal and safety reasons asylees cannot return to the countries in which they were persecuted.

After I won asylum, Immigration Equality and Proskauer assisted me in becoming a Legal Permanent Resident and, several years later, a U.S. citizen. The first time I held my U.S. passport in my hands, I cried tears of joy. It’s still hard to believe it’s real.

Erin: As a U.S. citizen, you were able to file a Form I-130 petition for your mother, and USCIS has just approved this petition. Why is it so important that the consular processing be completed as soon as possible?

Andriy: I am very worried about my mother’s safety. In February, she was in Ukraine with my grandmother, who had contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized. The hospital sent my grandmother home because it was overcrowded with COVID-19 patients and there were frightening rumors that Russia was going to launch an attack on Ukraine. My grandmother passed away from COVID, but there was no time for my mother to arrange a proper funeral for her – my mother had to escape Ukraine.

Three days after my grandmother passed away, my mother fled to a neighboring country. Three days after my mother fled Ukraine, Russia invaded. Soon after that, we found out that Russia had dropped bombs on residential areas in my mother’s hometown, and there were dozens of civilian casualties.

The death of my grandma combined with the destruction of our family home in Ukraine has been emotionally devastating for my mother and me, but I know we are tremendously blessed because my mother made it out alive. I hope my mother will receive an immigrant visa interview soon because her situation is still dangerous and unstable. If we can be reunited in the United States, my mother will be safe and I can help her as she heals from her tremendous grief and loss.

I am grateful to Proskauer, and to you and Kosta Karamanakis, especially, for supporting my mother and me in this process and for obtaining approval of my I-130 petition so quickly. It has given us a reason to be hopeful even in very sad times.

 

*Client’s name has been changed.

Class Action Lawsuit Seeking Relief for D.C. Tenants Facing Egregious and Unlawful Living Conditions

Earlier this week, Proskauer and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of tenants of the Meridian Heights apartment building (“Meridian Heights” or the “Property”), against the owner and associated property managers for their failure to maintain the Property in habitable condition.  Meridian Heights is home to a mostly Spanish-speaking community of working-class tenants located in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of the District of Columbia.

As detailed in the complaint, the property owner and managers have repeatedly and systematically refused to make necessary repairs to the apartments and common spaces of the Property, despite repeated requests from tenants. As a result, the Property is riddled with deficiencies, including

  • significant infestations of rodents, cockroaches, and bedbugs;
  • excessive mold on the walls and ceilings caused by, among other things, interior dampness and inadequate ventilation in apartment units;
  • lack of heat in winter months and air conditioning in summer months;
  • no hot water for significant periods of time;
  • persistent plumbing problems and leaks;
  • improperly sealed doors and windows that allow water, cold air in the winter, hot air in the summer, and insects to enter the apartment;
  • significant structural issues, including holes in walls, doors that will not properly close and broken floor boards;
  • broken and unusable major appliances;
  • broken and dangerous electrical outlets; and
  • an accumulation of garbage that aggravates many of the issues set out above and allows a stench to permeate the Property.

The harms that tenants of Meridian Heights have experienced as a result of these conditions were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic, which forced tenants and their children to spend the majority of the day in their apartments.

Moreover, as detailed in the complaint, the property owner and managers have also interfered with the tenants’ ability to address the conditions at Meridian Heights through the tenant association, including calling the police when tenants acted collectively to protest the dire conditions at Meridian Heights.

The complaint alleges that the conduct of the property owner and managers violate tenants’ lease agreements, implied warranties of habitability and quiet enjoyment, the D.C. housing code, the D.C. Consumer Procedures Protection Act, and the D.C. Right of Tenants to Organize Act of 2006.

The complaint seeks damages and injunctive and declaratory relief, requesting, among other things, immediate repairs so that tenants can reside in their homes without jeopardizing their health, safety, and welfare, as well as that of their minor children.  Landlords and property owners must be held accountable for their conduct, and their continuous dismissal of tenants’ concerns and complaints and blatant violations of D.C. laws.

The Proskauer team includes Ann Ashton, Wilderness Castillo-Dobson, Benjamin Eisenberg, Amy Gordon, Shannon McGowan, Corey Rogoff, Raven Wells-Scott, Allison Witt, and Jessica Cohen.

Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against New York State for Failure to Provide Legally Required Mental Health Services to Medicaid-Eligible Children

Proskauer, in conjunction with attorneys from Children’s Rights, Disability Rights New York, and the National Health Law Program, have filed a class action lawsuit against New York officials in response to the mental health crisis arising from New York’s failure to provide, in sufficient quantity, frequency, and duration, home and community-based mental health services that are medically necessary to permit children with mental health issues to remain safely at home in their communities.

The complaint is brought on behalf of Medicaid-eligible children under the age of 21 with mental health conditions for whom intensive home and community-based mental and behavioral health services are medically necessary. In New York, more than two million children and adolescents are enrolled in Medicaid, with thousands of children requiring home and community-based mental health services.

As detailed in the complaint, the mental health treatment needs of New York’s Medicaid-eligible youth have long been at crisis levels, with more than 1 in 10 teenagers suffering a major depressive episode, surges of youth visiting emergency rooms due to mental health crises, and suicide being a leading cause of death for youth aged 5-19.

There are tens of thousands of Medicaid-eligible children in New York who require intensive home and community-based services, but only a fraction actually receive the services they need.  And for the few children who do receive these medically necessary services, they often have to wait weeks or months before being seen by a mental health professional in violation of applicable law.

Without these services, families often have to rely on hospital emergency rooms to provide short-term care that fails to address children’s underlying conditions. Too often, police officers are the only available emergency responders to children in mental distress.

The complaint asserts that New York’s failure to provide such mental health services violates the Medicaid Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and, as a result, Medicaid-eligible children are unnecessarily segregated or placed at serious risk of institutionalization, which significantly disrupts their lives and harms their mental health, education, families and relationships.

The class representatives are New York children who have suffered the consequences of inadequate access to intensive home and community-based mental health services, and, consequently, have cycled in an out of institutions, hospitals and residential facilities as an inadequate alternative to address their ongoing mental health issues.

The complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief requiring New York to establish and implement policies and practices to ensure the timely provision of intensive home and community-based mental health services for children for whom such services are medically necessary; to promptly make available such services to Medicaid-eligible children; and that New York provide the class members with such medically necessary services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

As reflected in the complaint, the benefits of home and community-based mental health services have been borne out by expert medical opinion and court decisions across the country. Such services result in the best long-term outcomes for children, including significant improvement in their quality of life, improved school attendance and performance, increases in emotional and behavioral strength, more stable living situations, reduced suicide attempts, and fewer contacts with law enforcement.

The Proskauer team, which is led by Steven H. Holinstat, Co-Head of the Fiduciary Litigation Group, includes Antonieta P. Lefebvre, Shiva Pedram, and Jacob E. Wonn.

Proskauer Combats Food Insecurity

Hunger and poverty have been key areas of focus in our corporate social responsibility efforts since I joined the Firm nearly eight years ago. We established partnerships with soup kitchens, pantries, veteran organizations and non-profits across the country and in London to help people in need.

According to the U.N. World Food Program, the global pandemic doubled the number of severely hungry people around the world and exposed weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of so many. In our communities, COVID-19 lockdown measures have disproportionately affected vulnerable households, including people who were food insecure before the pandemic. It has also had extreme consequences on the health and well-being of many schoolchildren and their families. A school meal may be a student’s only nutritious meal during the day and we all know that good nutrition is critical to good health.

The following video highlights Proskauer’s ongoing commitment to combatting food insecurity.

Proskauer Secures Class Certification for Visually Impaired Chicagoans

Earlier this month, Proskauer – along with co-counsel Disability Rights Advocates (“DRA”), a nationwide nonprofit disability rights legal center – obtained class certification in an important litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, brought on behalf of pedestrians with visual disabilities in the metropolitan Chicago area.

Proskauer and DRA filed their complaint in September 2019 on behalf of three individual plaintiffs and the American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago (“ACBMC”).  The suit challenges the City of Chicago’s systemic failure to provide accessible crosswalk signals (known as accessible or audible pedestrian signals, or “APS”) for people who have vision impairments – a failure which violates both Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.  As of February 2022, only about 20 of the City’s approximately 2,800 signalized intersections were accessible to pedestrians with visual disabilities.  In other words, of the intersections that the City deemed unsafe for pedestrians absent a crossing signal, only about half of one percent are accessible for visually-disabled persons.

In September 2021, Plaintiffs moved to certify a class composed of individuals who are (a) blind or who have low-vision within the meaning of the ADA and Section 504, and (b) use the City’s signalized pedestrian intersections.  On March 4, 2022, District Court Judge Elaine E. Bucklo granted the motion and certified the class as defined.  In a memorandum opinion issued in connection with that order, Judge Bucklo considered and rejected the City’s chief arguments in opposition to class certification—that ACBMC is an inadequate class representative for various reasons, and that plaintiffs failed to establish the element of commonality necessary for class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.

As to adequacy, the Court rejected the City’s assertions that ACBMC “lacks the capabilities and organization necessary to serve as a class representative,” has an “inconsistent and minimal history of APS advocacy prior to this lawsuit,” and improperly filed this suit without first obtaining its membership’s approval by means of a vote.  The Court noted that “none of these arguments articulates a legally relevant basis for denying class certification,” given that the adequacy inquiry “focuses on whether the named plaintiffs: 1) have interests that conflict with the class as a whole, 2) are sufficiently interested in the case outcome to ensure vigorous advocacy, and 3) have class counsel that is competent and willing to vigorously litigate the case.”

With respect to commonality, the Court held that “[t]he City offered no authority or compelling argument to suggest that Plaintiffs’ claims are inappropriate for class certification because the common questions they identify are insufficiently specific.”  The Court further noted that the common questions Plaintiffs highlight in this case are defined at levels of generality similar to those in other cases where class certification has been granted.

Accordingly, Judge Bucklo concluded that the Plaintiffs had met their burden under Rule 23 for class certification.

This determination is an important first step toward obtaining much-needed relief for all blind or low-vision pedestrians who use the City of Chicago’s signalized pedestrian intersections.  Proskauer is proud to work alongside DRA to represent visually-impaired pedestrians of Chicago to promote equal access throughout the City.

[This is a follow-up to our September 26, 2019 blog post.]

Constitutional Reform of New York Court System Advances

Last week, court reform took a giant step forward in New York State when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman and Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles D. Lavine introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to simplify New York’s complicated court structure.

The proposal would streamline the court system by consolidating New York’s 11 separate trial courts into three tiers: Supreme Court, Municipal Court, and Justice Courts (which would remain unchanged).  The proposed amendment would also remove the existing constitutional cap on Supreme Court judgeships and, as a result, the court system would be able to allocate resources where they are most needed, as opposed to where they are constitutionally (and arbitrarily) apportioned.  This would reduce backlogs in high-volume courts, such as the Family Court, and also result in an enlarged and more diverse pool of judges for the Appellate Division (which would continue to draw from the Supreme Court).

Of significance, this reform would benefit low-income and unrepresented litigants most immediately and substantially. The convenience and importance of pursuing multiple claims in a single forum before a single judge, abiding by a uniform set of rules, while maintaining the same counsel (to the extent one is appointed) cannot be understated.  The Family Court, for example, does not have jurisdiction to hear divorce proceedings, thereby forcing many individuals of limited means to maintain parallel actions in the Supreme and Family Courts.  Under the proposed amendment, the Family Court would become part of the Supreme Court so there would no longer be the need for wasteful parallel proceedings.

Although this much-needed reform has been sought for decades, there are two main reasons to believe that this effort now has a real chance of success.  First, there is increasing awareness of the need to advance racial and social equity in our court system, a need underscored by two recent reports: former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s report examining institutional racism in the court system, and a report by the New York City Bar Association and The Fund for Modern Courts examining how COVID-19 laid bare inequities in the New York City Family Court. As the Chair of Modern Courts, I had the privilege of working on that report, and I spoke with dozens of practitioners, advocates and litigants all of whom recognized the critical need for court reform to ensure equal access to justice.

Second, there is strong support from Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, legislative leaders, and a coalition of over 100 organizations. Although change, especially constitutional change, is never easy, there is a growing sense that it is now time for court reform. As Senator Hoylman told The New York Times, “My colleagues in both houses think that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restructure the courts.”

Proskauer Advances Racial Justice Through Fellowship

In 2020, Proskauer announced that it would establish a fellowship opportunity in partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) as part of its “Collaborate for Change” initiative to help fight racial injustice.  In 2021, Austin McLeod, a labor and employment associate in Proskauer’s New York office, served as Proskauer’s inaugural Racial Justice Fellow, working at LDF for six months. Austin reflects below on his experience.

The Fellowship

Around late 2019, I really wanted to challenge myself to engage in pro bono work beyond my normal practice.  The highly publicized displays of racial violence and unrest throughout the country in 2020 pushed me toward joining the fight for racial justice.

Proskauer announced a partnership with LDF for a fellowship opportunity for one associate.  I jumped at the chance to work with LDF because 60 years ago they represented my grandmother and other families against a local school board refusing to integrate.  I knew that this fellowship would be my chance to give back to an organization that had done so much for my family.

The Work

I primarily worked on various litigation teams.  One team represented the Baltimore City Public Schools System, pertaining to the ongoing challenge of Maryland State Board of Education’s funding formula and the inadequate funding provided to Baltimore City Public Schools System.

Another team represented two incredible young men and one of their mothers in a lawsuit against a Texas school district, seeking relief from its grooming policy on the grounds that the policy’s construction and enforcement is unconstitutional race and sex discrimination and violates students’ rights to freedom of expression.  The lawsuit alleges that students were unfairly disciplined due to their locs and that, after one student’s mother spoke up about the discrimination, the school district retaliated against her. This case was especially topical as legislation is being enacted throughout the country seeking to protect ethnic hairstyles.  Our team interacted with legislators, agencies, and various organizations regarding protection against this form of discrimination.

I also researched various issues for the LDF Policy team.

Experience

I was inspired by the courage exhibited by our clients willing to take a stand.  I couldn’t help but believe their courage mirrored that of my grandmother, who bravely led my family’s legal fight.  I was also inspired by the LDF community, which I found to be very collaborative and made it a point to celebrate victories, provide support during setbacks, and highlight individual efforts.

Coming from Big Law, I had to quickly get up to speed on these cases and while I was afforded independence, I was expected to yield strong results.  The confidence I gained from my experiences will benefit me as I continue to practice law.

The fellowship was not without its challenges, however.  In light of the fellowship coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, my experience was 100% remote.  I was unable to physically meet with my clients and colleagues.  This took away from my individual experience, but didn’t decrease the importance or necessity of our work.

Advice to Others

To associates interested in the Fellowship: don’t shy away from applying to this and similar opportunities, even if not a traditional litigator.  This opportunity is for people who are interested in helping others and willing to learn and LDF does a great job providing resources and guidance.

To our broader community: seek out civil rights pro bono opportunities.  Fighting for racial justice should not be the responsibility of civil rights organizations alone. Proskauer is committed to engaging in this fight, but will continue to need willing individuals to move these efforts forward.

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