NLG Mass Litigation Committee Off to a Strong Start

Kristen Wekony

Since the Massachusetts chapter formed the Litigation Committee in the spring of 2011, we have actively pursued cases that promote social, political, and economic justice on the local level. The project has won great victories, effecting change in areas ranging from prisoners’ rights in Essex County to Boston police practices around tenants in foreclosed properties. For one of our first initiatives, the Litigation Committee, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, initiated an action against the Boston Police Department, which brought into question the activities of its “Boston Regional Intelligence Center” (BRIC). BRIC is a regional domestic surveillance center designed to investigate potentially terrorist activity. As a result of this lawsuit, we uncovered documents and video footage that demonstrates the unsettling extent to which the Boston Police Department, through BRIC, has been routinely monitoring, spying, and reporting on ordinary citizens who are engaging in peaceful demonstrations. We published a report summarizing our findings in October.

We also initiated a class action lawsuit against the Sheriff of Essex County for charging improper fees to inmates for routine medical screening. Since the lawsuit began, the Essex County Sheriff has stopped charging the fees. In addition, the sheriff has expressed his intention to settle the case and return the fees to the affected individuals that can be identified.

As part of the Litigation Committee, Massachusetts chapter attorneys currently represent two tenants living in foreclosed properties who were at one time at risk of eviction from their homes. Those members have successfully defeated the eviction actions against them by proving Fannie Mae’s failure to follow proper procedure under MGL c. 186A, which establishes rights for tenants in foreclosed properties. Each violation of this statute is supposed to be subject to a $5,000 penalty, but this penalty has never been enforced. These cases were no exception. In response, the same Guild lawyers have submitted motions to reconsider the decisions in both of these cases and will argue that the penalty should not only be imposed by the Housing Court, but should be awarded to the tenants directly. Uniform enforcement of this penalty will effectively deter banks from improperly evicting individuals and will provide monetary relief to the innocent victims of these violations.

Looking to the future, the Litigation Committee is planning several new projects. First, we are researching the possibility of challenging marriage as an institution that promotes the inequitable distribution of key public benefits and rights. For example, the federal government has identified 1,138 federal statutory provisions that use marital status as a determinative factor in qualifying for federal rights and benefits. This alone raises a number of issues for the unmarried, including Social Security survivorship rights, income tax deductions and credits, and the right to care for a loved one under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Second, we are examining a potential lawsuit against a residential management company that operates across the state of Massachusetts and has been engaging in what we believe are unfair and deceptive practices. The company has routinely used bait-and-switch advertising tactics to lock potential tenants into high-rent apartments and has a reputation of extremely aggressive eviction practices. Third, we are considering bringing an action on behalf of female prisoners to challenge the disturbing practice of shackling inmates during labor.

The Litigation Committee has had an active year and is looking forward to developing new projects in the year to come. Thank you to all of our members and supporters.

Reprinted from the December issue of the Massachusetts chapter newsletter, Mass Dissent.