TRLA’s September-October Work in Brief

Among other activities in the past six weeks, TRLA staff, in some cases with collaborators, have filed suit against FEMA, won a jury verdict in a labor suit, formed a financial crimes task, and trained nearly 20 lawyers. Here are some of the details:

Between new attorneys and longer-term TRLA staff, nearly 80 people participated in new attorney training sessions held over two weeks in Mercedes. Seminars in the old Palm Aire hotel covered virtually everything that TRLA does — litigation involving guardianship, housing, tenant-landlord issues, environmental justice, special education, public benefits, disaster relief, health law, employment discrimination, disability rights, victims’ rights, sexual assault, immigration, family law, juvenile justice, criminal justice, Native Americans and colonias. Most of TRLA’s 19 new and recently hired attorneys are now working around the state at offices in the Rio Grande Valley, Corpus Christi, Austin, El Paso, and Dallas.

Jerome Wesevich (EL PASO) and Tracy Figueroa (CORPUS CHRISTI) filed suit against FEMA on behalf of Gulf Coast residents who were denied home repair assistance even though their houses were devastated by a series of severe storms in 2015 and 2016. Along with helping the residents, the suit seeks to force FEMA to disclose the rules and standards it uses to decide who does and doesn’t get disaster relief aid. Under Congressional mandates in place since Oct. 15 2002, FEMA is supposed to make those standards available to the public but has not done so. All of the plaintiffs in the suit were denied assistance, even though FEMA had not advised them of either the legal standards it applied or the facts upon which the agency relied. The suit, on behalf of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) as well as other Gulf Coast residents, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on Sept. 15.

Maricarmen Garza (HOUSTON) collaborated with SafePlace to get a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which was awarded in September. The grant will be used to create an Intimate Partner Sexual Assault Protection Unit within the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. The grant will provide funding for one prosecutor and a senior office specialist who will directly handle intimate partner/acquaintance sexual assault cases. According to ADA Dana Nelson, the unit is being formed, because “victims of intimate partner sexual assault need more support in order to hold offenders accountable.” TRLA, which does not get funding from the grant, will provide civil legal services for sexual assault survivors who need help with related problems, such as emergency lease terminations and lawsuits affecting parent/child relationships.Domestic violence deaths in Texas climbed to a new high in 2015; 157 women were killed, which reflects a 19 percent increase over 2014.

Shoshana Krieger, Stephanie Trinh, Andy Escobar, and Victoria Jara (AUSTIN) worked with East Austin tenants and city officials to modify an eviction order that would have forced residents from their homes with less than a month notice. The owner of the building at 5020 Manor in Austin plans to renovate it for much higher-paying tenants. At issue was whether a new city ordinance aimed at protecting tenants from sudden eviction would apply to the tenants, given that it was passed on Sept. 1 and was not operating. But after two weeks of protests — which were organized by tenants, attended by city and school district officials, including Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Councilmember Greg Casar, and heavily covered by city media — the representatives of the building  agreed to give the tenants 90 more days to move. It was an important concession for families who needed time to find new homes in the area so their children would not have to change schools.

K-Sue Park and Veronica Carbajal (EL PASO) collaborated with numerous state and federal agencies to form a financial crimes task force aimed at “wraparound” mortgage scams  in El Paso. Typically in the scams, people acting as middlemen in home sales take down payments from buyers but then don’t apply them to mortgages, instead letting homes foreclose. The victims lose an average $30,000 each. State Senator Jose Rodriguez  — who is collaborating in the task force with the FBI, El Paso police, the country District Attorney’s Office, the Better Business Bureau, TRLA and other agencies — says El Paso has been targeted because its residents include many military families, who need to sell homes quickly and cheaply, and numerous first-time homebuyers, who often can’t get traditional bank loans.

With Celebrate Pro Bono Week scheduled for Oct. 23-29, Pablo Almaguer (EDINBURG), Graciela Macias (MERCEDES), Renee Trevino (SAN ANTONIO), and others collaborated with the Young Lawyers Committee of the Bankruptcy Section of the Texas State Bar and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Eduardo V. Rodriguez to hold a bankruptcy clinic for veterans in McAllen. The clinic, held on Oct. 21, may be repeated during the week running up to Veterans Day on Nov. 11. TRLA’s El PASO office collaborated with the El Paso Bar to hold the annual free legal assistance fair on Oct. 29 at El Paso Community College.

Katy Youker (BROWNSVILLE), with co-counsel Julie Balovich (ALPINE) won a jury verdict in their suit on behalf of Del Rio resident Irma Perez, who was fired from a local daycare center because she reported what she thought was child abuse; they were assisted by Tony Rodriguez, Alpha Guzman, Ellie Gonzalez, Anna Topete and Nicole Bucheri. The suit was filed on the basis of section 261.110 of the Texas Family Code, which provides specific protection from employer retaliation for teachers, daycare employees and other professionals who report child abuse “in good faith” or cooperate in investigations of it. The jury awarded Perez $35,000 in back pay and $50,000 in punitive damages. However, the jury verdict also has broader significance, because relatively few cases have been brought in the courts under this law, which is akin to whistleblower protection for employees who report child abuse.