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Case Against NYC Might Increase Access to Justice

January 15, 2015
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4min read

When New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) reduced the public assistance funds that Luz Solla received to pay her rent, she appealed the decision and won what is known in New York state as a Fair Hearing before the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).  In its decision, the OTDA ordered that Ms. Solla’s benefits be restored to the pre-reduction amounts. For five months after the order, HRA failed to comply.  With the assistance of a pro bono legal services attorney, Ms. Solla filed an Article 78 proceeding in court seeking to enforce OTDA’s order and receive attorney’s fees under the state’s Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).

The EAJA provides attorney’s fees and expenses for a party that prevails in a civil action against the state unless the court finds that the position of the state was “substantially justified” or that special circumstances made such an award unjust.  Only parties with a net worth of $50,000 or less may apply for attorney’s fees under the EAJA.

After Ms. Solla filed the Article 78 proceeding, HRA released to her all of the benefits she was owed and restored her housing allowance to pre-reduction levels. The court then dismissed her case as moot and denied her motion for attorney’s fees.

Ms. Solla appealed the decision to the appellate level court, which reversed the trial court’s decision.  The case is now before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.  The question before the court is whether a party is entitled to attorney’s fees under the EAJA when the party engages in litigation that prompts corrective action from the state, but does not end in a formal judgment.

When the parties engage in oral arguments before the court today, a lot will be at stake.  According to The Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, 1.9 million litigants navigated the state’s judicial system in 2014 without an attorney. In New York City alone, 99% of tenants are unrepresented in eviction proceedings, as well as 96% of defendants in consumer credit cases, and 91% in child custody proceedings. The demand for free civil legal services is high, and the lack of funding remains an impediment to meeting the need.

Peter Kemper of South Brooklyn Legal Services, counsel for Ms. Solla, told us that this case will hopefully restore the original legislative intent of the EAJA and provide “access to the courts for many low-income New Yorkers as possible”.  The Attorney General’s Office, counsel for Appellant, declined to comment for this article.

Several organizations submitted amicus briefs in the matter.  In one brief, The Legal Aid Society and several other legal services providers argued that if parties like Ms. Solla are not entitled to attorney’s fees under the EAJA, then the most meritorious of cases would be those least attractive to counsel because they would more likely to settle prior to judgment and therefore be ineligible for attorney’s fees. Given the current number of unrepresented individuals that are litigants in New York’s civil courts each year, any impediment to obtaining counsel is likely to have an impact on access to justice.

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