CSU C|M|LAW’s Community Advocacy Law Clinic Springs to Action During COVID-19 Crisis
Over the past month, every industry in the world has been dramatically altered by the COVID-19 crisis and the legal industry is no exception. Caseloads are rising as the scope and nature of legal issues expands. Cleveland State University Cleveland-Marshall College of Law’s Community Advocacy Law Clinic has sprung into action and taken a major supportive and leadership role to help individuals, lawyers, businesses and the greater community in this time of need.
“The goal with all of this work is to do our part as a Clinic to help ‘flatten the (legal) curve’,” said Zach Germaniuk ’12, Slavic Village Development’s Director of Neighborhood Stabilization and Adjunct Professor with the CSU C|M|LAW Community Advocacy Law Clinic. “There are so many legal issues caught up in this (COVID-19) crisis that the fear is it will overwhelm our judicial system.”
The Community Advocacy Law Clinic (CALC) is an experiential learning course where students use their legal training to develop legal skills while addressing the unmet legal issues of the most vulnerable populations: low-income families, children, the elderly, the homeless, and people suffering from physical and mental illness.
While the response to COVID-19 has affected everyone, low to moderate income individuals that the CALC intends to serve have particularly been negatively impacted by a tidal wave of social and legal issues created by unexpected job loss, increased childcare responsibilities and difficulty meeting rent, mortgage and bill obligations, among other matters.
Housing is a particularly important essential that is being impacted in this time of crisis and an urgent matter for individuals with payments typically due monthly. Housing was already an area of expertise for the CALC as students were working on a presentation and manual on landlord-tenant legal issues. Responding to the COVID-19 crisis, clinic students have created a tenant hardship affidavit to assist tenants in need with documenting their situations while proactively anticipating potential eviction litigation. This work has occurred in coordination with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and other non-profit organizations, after these organizations responded with a “resounding yes” when Clinic professors inquired if such a document would be beneficial.
“There are going to be so many people that need help (with landlord tenant law) and not nearly enough lawyers to handle everyone,” explained CSU C|M|LAW Clinical Professor and Pro Bono Program Director Pamela Daiker-Middaugh. “If we can help by empowering people with widely available and easy to understand documents, it is a huge benefit.”
The Clinic professors view this tenant hardship affidavit as a potential Exhibit A in an answer to a landlord’s claim of eviction. With timely documentation, a tenant has a greater chance of having their legal rights protected than if they arrive to court with only a backdated explanation. Being able to review this concise information will also be helpful for judges and housing courts at a time where dockets will be backlogged with cases.
The affidavit is posted on the CSU C|M|LAW website, has been distributed though several non-profit organizations and community development corporations, and is available through contacting the clinic. A COVID-19 CLE webinar is scheduled for Thursday, April 9, hosted by the Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association in partnership with Cleveland-Metropolitan Bar Association, where the CALC students’ research will be prominently featured.
The last time the CALC worked on such widespread housing issues was in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis. It was during the time of the aftermath of that crisis that Germaniuk was partaking in the Clinic as a CSU Cleveland-Marshall student.
“It may be a sobering parallel, but this housing situation does remind me of when I was a clinical student and C|M|LAW students were on the front lines of the response,” Germaniuk said. “Coming out of the experience during the 2008 crisis, we recognize the great value of being proactive in responding to the forthcoming issues. The reactive response in 2008 only exacerbated the issues of vacancy and abandonment that developed.”
Clinic students are also working on several areas beyond housing that are impacted by the crisis. Students have been researching and compiling the latest data on the local, county, state and Federal response to unemployment issues and synthesizing that work into easy-to-read pamphlets by local municipality for the general public.
Students have also begun researching and drafting memoranda on the emerging legal issues surrounding how COVID-19 shelter orders are impacting the Domestic Relations Court and visitation rights of non-custodial parents. Additionally, they are diving into the commercial questions posed by force majeure clauses and their impact on small businesses. Resources are produced by students and vetted by licensed practitioners with the goal of saving time for attorneys who are swamped with caseloads and would not be efficiently using their time by researching the responses in each jurisdiction individually.
Clinic students have been conducting their research and work amongst each other and with clients remotely. Daiker-Middaugh notes that the clinic set up mirrors that of law firms and that the students are experiencing the same situation as law firms that have adapted to working remotely in the past several weeks.
Another aspect of the training that CALC students receive that is being further emphasized in this time of emergency is the need for compassionate advocates. During the first few weeks of the semester, the CALC professors conduct empathy exercises to instill the importance of understanding a client’s perspective. In times of great unrest and uncertainty, the importance of being able to understand a client’s emotions is further emphasized.
“The best litigators and attorneys I know in general, and at a time like this, are those who are able to so fully understand where their client is coming from that they can stand in their shoes and then understand how to navigate the complex legal issues in a manner that corresponds,” Germaniuk said.
The firm-like training and compassionate advocacy skills are just a part of what makes experiential clinic learning so important anytime, and especially at a time where legal needs are evolving the most. The responsive nature of the Clinical learning allows students to gain expertise on topics such as unemployment issues and force majeure clauses that are not just major focuses of the legal industry currently, but will continue to be important subjects in the years to come.
“Cleveland-Marshall’s motto is ‘Learn Law. Live Justice.’ and the law school’s clinics–specifically the Community Advocacy Law Clinic–are really excelling in both aspects of that motto during this time of need,” Daiker-Middaugh said. “Our (Clinic) students are learning the practice of law while having the opportunity to help the community and make people’s lives better in an expedient fashion.”