Judge rules “Sunshine Act” case involving Berks Residential Center can go forward

For years, Berks County has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use a county detention facility to confine immigrant families and children. The arrangement has been lucrative for the County, but controversial among immigrants and immigrant advocates, who argue that secure detention of immigrant families is inappropriate and harmful.

Despite the controversy, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 in February to support an ICE proposal to expand bed space at the Center. (The Commissioners’ letter of support is here.) The Commissioners acted without public discussion and without revealing the content of the proposal that they had decided to support.

Make the Road PA and other plaintiffs, represented by the Sheller Center and co-counsel, sued the County for violating the Sunshine Act. That PA laws requires that public agencies hold their deliberations in public, and provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment on proposed action. How, the plaintiffs asked, could they provide meaningful comments on a proposal that was kept secret from them?

On June 7, at a hearing attended by Make the Road and community members, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas overruled the County’s preliminary objections and allowed the case to proceed. It is being handled by the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, along with partners at Syrena Law, Free Migration Project, Aldea, and Al Otro Lado.

For news reports on the ruling, see our News and Publications page.


Helping Philadelphia low-wage workers at a virtual clinic

  • By BK Katzmann (’22)

Despite COVID-19 impediments, we have been fortunate to stay engaged with the larger community through the networks built by the Sheller Center for Social Justice. My interest in low-wage workers got me connected to the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW). CREW is comprised of twelve different community organizations advocating for Philadelphians across various industries. In recent years, CREW has achieved significant victories for low wage workers, including most recently pushing for extended paid sick leave related to the pandemic.

In December, CREW held their first Zoom legal clinic. I worked to organize  students to help with intake. The goal of the clinic was to both educate workers and ensure enforcement against employers who are violating the laws. Before the clinic, OnePA and Community Legal Services led trainings to teach us specifically about Philadelphia’s worker protection laws and how to work with potential clients coming from CREW’s member organizations. The clinic Zoom was set up such that organizers from CREW held Know-Your-Rights trainings in the main room, while the law students and other organizers met with workers individually in breakout rooms. Volunteer lawyers were available to field questions from the individual meetings and plan out next steps.

Although getting to apply the skills I am learning in law school was valuable on its own, the most impactful part of this volunteer opportunity was the ability to participate in a system where everyone had value. There was no sense that the attorneys knew more than anyone else. Instead, the community valued each individual’s skills, capacities, and needs. This sentiment was particularly apparent at the end of the clinic where all those remaining in the Zoom session—workers, organizers, lawyers, and law students—shared what we were taking away from the evening. Despite the diversity of voices and roles within the meeting, everyone offered some message of gratitude and solidarity. Participating first-hand in a setting where lawyers and clients work together in the pursuit of justice was truly powerful. I am grateful to the Sheller Center for Social Justice for this kind of learning opportunity, and I hope that many other students get the chance to work with our surrounding community.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court

– Puja Upadhyay

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Family Court in Philadelphia transitioned to online in mid-2020 and has largely remained online since then. The group arguably most affected by the transition to online was unrepresented people, who constitute the majority of Family Court litigants.

Even before the pandemic, the process for bringing a case in Family Court was complex, but the complexity was intensified with the transition to online. While there were some benefits to the new format, there were also new barriers to successful participation, including having an adequate internet connection, a quiet space without distractions, the required technology, and so on.

However, some Family Court judges have indicated their interest in holding hearings online for some matters even after there is no longer a health risk. Given the new virtual environment, our work as part of the Access to Justice Clinic this semester was to better understand, and find ways to improve, the online Family Court experience for unrepresented litigants.

Most of our work this semester focused on gathering information about the shift to online – specifically, the biggest challenges unrepresented litigants (and practitioners) were facing, and the solutions that they hoped to see in response. Esteban Rodriguez, Ross Wiech and I felt it was important to gather a range of perspectives, and to do so with enough depth that we would be able to gain meaningful insights for our work. To that end, we relied primarily on one-on-one interviews with family law attorneys, Temple Law students participating in family law clinic, and of course, unrepresented litigants themselves. To get the fullest picture of navigating Family Court online, we also observed several Family Court hearings to see first-hand how unrepresented litigants were faring.

We also took stock of the guidance that is already available online for unrepresented litigants. For instance, Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) has several webpages about navigating online Family Court and explaining the relevant law. The Philadelphia Bar Association also developed several in-depth brochures on navigating each type of matter in Family Court during COVID-19. There were also many general resources about how to prepare for a court hearing online.

However, based on our interviews and court observations, we identified a gap in the resources that were available to pro se litigants. While there is a lot of useful information available, it is spread across multiple different websites and formats. Additionally, there is relatively little guidance about participating in an online Family Court hearing, specifically in Philadelphia. Our conversations revealed that there were several tips and tricks for navigating Family Court in Philadelphia that were well known to people familiar with the system, but that were not clearly articulated in public resources.

Our goal became to create resources that would give pro se litigants a sense of what to expect at online Family Court hearings in Philadelphia. Unrepresented litigants are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Without a grasp on what to expect at an online Family Court hearing on a very basic level, they are already one step behind.  Focusing on practical guidance rather than legal arguments, we consolidated the advice from our conversations, observations, and the various resources spread across multiple channels, into two “portable” PDF flyers that could easily be attached to an email or even used as a physical handout. Additionally, to dispel any confusion over what it looks like to participate in an online hearing, we created two short explainer videos that demonstrate what it looks like to join a Family Court hearing on the Court’s chosen video conferencing platform, RingCentral.

We hope that these resources will help to level the playing field for unrepresented litigants. While the transition to online has improved access to justice in some ways, it has also severely limited it in others. With luck, our contribution will help unrepresented litigants feel at least somewhat more confident when they click into their Family Court hearing link.


Environmental justice series begins this week

Together with 14 student organizations and the National Resources Defense Council, the Center is sponsoring a 3-part series of presentations and conversations on environmental justice. The events, organized by a phenomenal student team, kick off this week with Environmental Justice in Philadelphia: Race & the Climate Crisis (March 19). This discussion, designed especially for Temple Law students and faculty (but open to others), will include lawyers from Community Legal Services and the Public Interest Law Center, as well as the Climate Director of POWER.

The next two events are aimed at the public as well as the Temple Law community. On March 26, The Green New Deal Decade: From Platform to Policy brings together a distinguished group of policy experts and elected officials to discuss how to transform the Green New Deal into federal, state and local policies.

The final event (April 9), Environmental Justice Under a New Administration, features Shalanda Baker. Prof. Baker, longtime energy justice advocate and professor at Northeastern University Law School, is the newly appointed Deputy Director for Energy Justice and the Secretary’s Advisor on Equity at the U.S. Department of Energy.

All of the events will be online; you can follow the links for more information and to register for any or all sessions. We’re excited about the Center’s first venture into the area of environmental law and justice, and hope you’ll join us!

Strengthening the Office of the Montco Public Defender

The Systemic Justice Project at the Sheller Center for Social Justice has released a preliminary report on indigent defense in Montgomery County, entitled “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender.” The report provides specific guidance and recommendations for implementing best practices for the governance and operation of the county’s Public Defender Office. We welcome community and stakeholder input on this draft report at a public Town Hall to be held on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24 from 6-7 pm.  You can register for the Town Hall here  and/or provide written feedback here.

PA Law Professors Urge Limits on Admissibility of Information on Immigration Status

If evidence of immigration status can freely be revealed during court proceedings, immigrants or witnesses may choose to forego going to court. This fear can be a potent weapon against immigrants who need protection from abuse, seek unpaid wages from an employer, or have other legal problems. Allowing immigration information to be used in court proceedings on unrelated issues undermines the public interest and interferes with the obligations of the courts to vindicate the legal rights of parties. For this reason, the issue of when immigration status may be revealed should be strictly regulated.

The good news is that the Rules Committee of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has proposed a new rule of evidence concerning immigration status. The Sheller Center, in conjunction with law professors across Pennsylvania, has submitted a letter commenting on this new rule. While the letter applauds the creation of a rule, it urges the Committee to make additional changes to ensure that the rights of immigrants are adequately protected.

This letter, which is a follow up from the first letter from Pennsylvania Law Professors, suggests further narrowing of the situations in which immigration status can be considered in civil proceedings. It also requests that a more explicit procedure be put in place for litigants who wish to introduce evidence of immigration status, such as requiring an advance written motion and in camera review. Not only are these suggestions comparable to what states like Washington and California are doing, but they also serve the important purpose of allowing courts to maintain open access to the courts for all Pennsylvanians.

The Free Library and access to justice

Many Philadelphians are unable to get help with legal questions involving housing, health, access to benefits, family matters, and other basic needs. A new report from the Sheller Center suggests that the Free Library could play a significant role in narrowing this “justice gap,” which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.

In A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice, students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic report on innovative ways in which libraries around the country are helping patrons connect with legal information, forms, apps, court web sites, “help centers” and nonprofit organizations, and other sources of assistance. The report suggests ways in which the Free Library could provide a similar service here.

As the report notes, the Library is well suited to perform this role. It has branches across the city as well as a user-friendly website to which legal information could easily be added. Much of the information that patrons need, moreover, is now available electronically. While there’s work to be done to sort out what’s useful from what’s not, the Library would not need to buy expensive new books or subscriptions; instead, the task would be to assemble and curate existing resources, and to provide training and guidance to library staff.  Philadelphia has a strong public-interest and pro bono legal community that could partner in such an effort (and perhaps in creating a more extensive “lawyer in the library” program as well).

The report was developed by Access to Justice Clinic students Alex Burns, David Frias and Basmah Raja.

Students file tort claims for families separated at the border

By Elizabeth Castillo ‘22 & Emily Alvarez ‘21

The Trump administration has engaged in a policy of family separation, which it ramped up in 2018. Under that policy, families apprehended for crossing the border outside of a port of entry were forcibly separated. Parents were placed in adult detention while their children were sent to shelters for unaccompanied minors. They were frequently subjected to cruel conditions of confinement, including overcrowding and the inability to obtain adequate nutrition, hygiene, medical care or mental health services. Notably, the administration expressly announced its family separation policy as a tactic to deter Central American migrants from seeking safety in the United States.

In these facilities, parents and children endured weeks or even months without contact with one another. Parents and their children did not know when or if they would be reunited because immigration officials would not provide any information. The separation of parents from their children has predictably caused significant and long-lasting trauma to these families who had sought refuge in the United States.

Through the Sheller Center for Social Justice, we represented eight families in administrative claims against the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), and other government agencies responsible for this inhumane policy. These claims are brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), which allows individuals to hold the federal government accountable for personal injury. Filing these claims is a required step to preserve these families’ right to file a federal lawsuit to obtain relief for the unspeakable harm they suffered.

Our work began by interviewing each family. Question by question, we pieced together their experiences under the family separation policy. We then drafted detailed narratives for each family beginning with their entry into the United States until their reunification and release from detention. Details included detention center conditions, interactions with immigration officers, and most importantly, the emotional and physical impact on the families. This narrative became the central part of the administrative claim.

This effort to assist families in preserving their rights under the FTCA has allowed us to practice important lawyering skills. We talked through the relevant law and scope of representation with clients and answered their questions. We practiced the art of interviewing: how to build trust, sort through facts, and develop a cohesive narrative. As a group, we discussed at length and had the opportunity to engage in trauma-informed interviewing, a skill that few classes cover. We also researched the applicable tort law in the relevant jurisdictions in anticipation of filing federal litigation.

Beyond these skills, these families have taught us so much. Discussing immigration laws and policies and seeing their impact on the news does not prepare one to hear the stories first-hand. After speaking with these families, who have endured so much at the hands of our government, we have a deeper understanding of what a migrant experiences after he or she crosses into the United States. Their courage is remarkable and has inspired us as future lawyers. They fled to the United States to escape unimaginable abuse and even threats to their life and families. Even after that trauma, they incredibly still had the courage to share their experiences under the family separation policy. One client explained to us that she is motivated to share her experience, although it is very painful to recall, to raise awareness and prevent others from enduring it. In drafting these claims, we developed an appreciation of the meaningful role an attorney can play in people’s lives. We can help to provide a remedy, in the form of compensatory damages, and even support our clients in their healing processes.

The following students participated in this effort to obtain relief for families harmed by the government’s family separation policy: Erin Agnew, ‘21; Mana Aliabadi, ‘22; Emily Alvarez, ‘21; Elizabeth Castillo, ‘22; Stephanie Curl, ‘21; Dan Davis, ‘21; Laura DiGiulio, ‘21; Daniela Florido, ‘22; Theresa Glinski, ‘21; Sarah Hampton, ‘22; Lauren Leiggi, ‘21; Maya Lucyshyn, ‘22; Pretty Martinez, ‘20; Reena Naik, ‘21; Brittany Petrillo, ‘21; Natalia Ruggiero, ‘20; Kate Sears, ‘21; and Maria Thomson, ‘22. Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales created the project with the support of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Professors Jennifer Lee and Mary Levy also supervised student teams.

Access to justice in the time of COVID-19

The Center’s Access to Justice Clinic focuses on the civil justice gap – the fact that so many people who need help with important legal problems can’t get it. This spring, students examined a variety of innovative efforts to deliver help to unrepresented people, and also worked on two Philadelphia-based projects. (More on those projects, one of which looked at default judgments in eviction court, the other at public libraries as sources of legal information, in subsequent posts.)

But this also turned out to be the semester of COVID-19, which unexpectedly reinforced some of the clinic’s lessons. As state and federal courts issued order after order announcing special arrangements for urgent matters and postponing everything else, the limitations of our justice system stood out in bold relief. It is, after all, a system that’s heavy on personal appearances, crowded spaces, traditional but inefficient scheduling practices, and — still — a great deal of paper. And since it was simply impossible to continue normal operations under current circumstances, courts and administrative agencies ground to a quick and massive slowdown.

That would be a problem at any time, but it’s more so now, since the virus is producing a considerable increase in the numbers of people needing help with legal matters — unemployment, health care, housing, domestic violence, and more. The combination of backlogged courts and agencies, and an already underresourced legal aid system that could easily become further overwhelmed, creates a frightening prospect.

Yet there may also be seeds of hope here. For example, remote systems put in place during the pandemic may demonstrate their value and prove to be worth keeping in more normal times. While remote services must be carefully designed and are not appropriate for all situations, they can, as the National Center for State Courts argues, make court operations significantly more efficient and consumer-friendly — and, in some circumstances, navigable by litigants who lack access to full representation. Similarly, newly-improvised systems for handling urgent matters – such as new access points and modified procedures for people seeking protection from abuse orders – may turn out to be worth further development even after the pandemic has passed.

In this way, as students in the clinic were quick to note, the virus may be forcing reinvention in a field usually known for its strong adherence to tradition. And amid all the losses and sadness, that, at least, could turn out to be a good thing.

For more information on the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, click here.