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Low-Income Vermonters with Disabilities Sue State Over Benefit Cuts

Posted July 27, 2015

Low-income Vermonters with disabilities are fighting back against state mandated reductions to their household Reach Up benefits. Vermont Legal Aid filed a class action lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of affected Vermonters alleging that a new law is unconstitutional and discriminates against households with family members with a disabling condition.

The new law counts $125 of adult Supplemental Security Income (SSI) income against a household’s temporary cash assistance (or “Reach Up”) benefits. The plaintiffs are asking the court for an injunction to stop the cuts from taking effect, and to declare the reductions unconstitutional, discriminatory and illegal.

“I feel like I’m being punished for having a disability,” said Robin Wheeler of Williamstown, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Ms. Wheeler suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. She said she has to meet the needs of herself and her 15-year old daughter and cannot afford any reduction in benefits.

“The State of Vermont is picking the pockets of the poor and disabled to solve its budget problems,” said Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis, who brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “It’s unconscionable, it’s unfair, and it’s unlawful,” said Curtis.

Curtis said the benefit cuts are unnecessary pointing to recent news of a $21 million budget surplus. “Instead, the state has elected to levy a ‘poor tax’ on people with disabilities,” he said. “We cannot afford to have low-income families and children sacrificed on the altar of austerity,” said Curtis.

Notices were recently mailed to approximately 860 Vermont households advising them that their benefits would be reduced starting on August 1st. Many households were taken by surprise.

“I had no idea this was coming, and I think it is totally wrong,” said another plaintiff, Tina Bidwell of Johnson. Ms. Bidwell is blind and cares for her grandson. “I barely get by with my disability and I can’t afford the state taking away our benefits,” she said. Because she is blind, Ms. Bidwell has to pay for transportation to the grocery store, her doctor’s office, and other appointments.

Curtis pointed out that the state has told beneficiaries in its notice that the cuts will become effective immediately even if they appeal the decision reducing benefits starting August 1st. “Only the court has the power to stop these catastrophic reductions from taking place,” said Curtis. “So, we are asking for immediate relief to stop families from being harmed while the case is pending.”

The change in state statute relates to how benefits are computed. Currently, SSI beneficiaries are not considered part of a Reach Up assistance unit and their disability benefits are not counted in determining Reach Up grants. The new law set to go into effect August 1st seeks to count $125 of any adult SSI benefit received by a family member against the remaining family Reach Up grants resulting in a dollar-for-dollar reduction. The new law was part of a $1.6 million cut in the FY 2016 budget that passed over the objections of Vermont Legal Aid and other advocates.

The lawsuit alleges that the new policy deprives affected Vermonters of due process and equal protection because there is insufficient opportunity for pre- or post-termination relief and because it treats similarly situated families differently. It also alleges violations of federal and state law for treating certain households differently on the basis of disability status and for counting adult SSI income against the Reach Up grants, which Legal Aid contends violates Social Security law.

“It’s not enough that these families are already among the very poorest in Vermont. Now the state is singling out certain families with special needs resulting from disability for unequal treatment and benefit reductions,” said Curtis. “We will fight on behalf of low-income Vermont families with disabilities to stop these cuts from taking effect.”

Federal courts in Washington and West Virginia have issued injunctions in the past to stop similar cuts for children with SSI income whose households also receive temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) grants. Reach Up is Vermont’s TANF program. The proposed reductions in Vermont count adult SSI income, but do not count a child’s SSI income against a Reach Up grant.

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For more on this story, view the VT Digger coverage here and their original report on this reduction to Reach Up benefits here. To view this press release on the Vermont Legal Aid website, click here.

 



Save the Date: 2015 Guen Gifford Advocate Training, October 30th

Posted June 12, 2015

Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Law Line of Vermont are pleased to announce the 2015 Guen Gifford Advocate Training at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont:
Date: October 30, 2015
Time: 8:30am-4:00pm
Cost: TBD (includes materials, a light breakfast and lunch)

Seminar topics include basic housing, subsidized housing, diversity, basic health care changes and more! Look for registration information and dates and seminar descriptions to be released in August.

Please contact the Office Manager at bwells@lawlinevt.org in advance if you require an interpreter or any other accommodation.

 



$975K HUD Grant Supports Vermonters’ Access to Housing

Posted November 13, 2014

Vermont Legal Aid has received a three-year Fair Housing Initiatives Program Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue the Housing Discrimination Law Project’s work to ensure Vermonters’ access to housing and to challenge both individual and systemic discriminatory practices.

The $975,000 grant will be disbursed over three years to fund Vermont Legal Aid’s statewide systemic and complaint-based testing project, fair housing counseling, representation in enforcement actions, education, and land use planning and policy advocacy with state and local officials.

The Project’s most recent report on rental housing discrimination in Vermont, published in May 2014, found that discrimination was a factor in nearly half of the rental housing market tests conducted. The Project’s testing consistently shows high rates of discrimination in rental housing based on race, color, national origin, having minor children, and disability.

“The importance of the right to live where one chooses, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or the presence of minor children in the household cannot be overstated,” said Karen Richards, Executive Director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. “Where one lives affects every aspect of a person’s life from employment opportunities, to access to quality schools, to transportation and to affordable, quality goods and services. Grants like this one to Vermont Legal Aid that fund private investigation, testing and legal services are essential to ensuring that these rights are adequately protected.“

Vermont Legal Aid is a statewide, non-profit law firm that provides free civil legal information, advice and representation and works to promote fairness and justice in the civil legal system. Vermont Legal Aid partners with Legal Services Law Line of Vermont to maintain a website (www.vtlawhelp.org) that provides information and resources to help Vermonters resolve common civil legal problems.

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Burlington Free Press: Court: Tenants must get notice on water shutoffs

Posted July 19, 2012

Written By: Dave Gram, Associated Press

Sunday, July 15, 2012

MONTPELIER — A Barre woman who had to haul jugs of water while on crutches after her landlord’s failure to pay the water bill prompted a shutoff by the city is hailing a federal court decision saying she should have had a chance to appeal.

“I’m just so happy that finally someone has told the city what they are doing is wrong,” said Brenda Brown, who was recovering from foot surgery and using crutches when the water in her rented apartment was shut off for two weeks. “I went through hell without water for all that time and nobody at the city would listen to me.”

Vermont Legal Aid brought the class-action case for Brown and similarly situated tenants and got a mixed ruling from U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss.

Legal Aid lawyer Christopher Curtis called the ruling, issued Thursday, “a victory for all Vermonters. If you receive public water, you have rights. The city was essentially saying renters don’t have any due process rights when it comes to this basic necessity of life.”

He added, “The decision confirms that the public municipal water supply is meant to be available to all Vermonters, regardless of whether you own or rent your home and that access to the public water supply rises to the level of a protected property interest.”

The judge rejected Legal Aid’s claims that tenants should have been allowed to establish accounts in their own names when a landlord defaults on the water bill.

But the ruling did say the city must give the tenants notice and a chance to appeal.

Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon said he was disappointed the court did not give more explicit instructions for what the new appeal process the decision calls for should be like.

“It said we need to give the parties, the occupants of the property, the right to appeal to the City Council. But it didn’t describe what that process would be,” Lauzon said. He said the decision left open the possibility the City Council could simply reject such appeals.

Lauzon said the city told Brown she could resolve the issue by paying the $600 past-due water bill. But he said she lived in one of four apartments in the building and wanted to pay just a quarter of the bill. He said it would be difficult to impossible for the city to work out such deals with tenants when their buildings are on a single water meter.

The judge suggested such procedures may have to be worked out by the Legislature.

“Plaintiffs’ arguments regarding how and why the city’s refusal to provide water service to tenants should be addressed are thus generally left to the legislative process rather than the courts,” she wrote.

Link to Burlington Free Press Full Article

PDF of Full Burlington Free Press Article