Civil Rights Panel to Examine Housing Discrimination in Vermont

Despite laws banning housing discrimination, Vermont housing analysts say it is an ongoing issue in Vermont and that discrimination is sometimes subtle. In 2014, Vermont Legal Aid released the results of a two-year study it undertook to look at housing discrimination in Vermont. According to Vermont Legal Aid, the testing results demonstrate "preferential treatment toward white testers of U.S. origin without children and without an apparent disability.

The Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Committee) will convene a public meeting to examine the persistence of housing discrimination in Vermont.

What: Briefing of the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. When: Monday, August 10, 2015 10:00 a.m. Where: Vermont State House 115 State Street Montpelier, VT 05633-5301

Vermont Legal Aid Housing Discrimination Law Project's Testing Coordinator Marsha Curtis and Staff Attorney Rebecca Plummer will present on the first panel from 10 - 11:15 a.m. along with Karen Richards, Executive Director, Human Rights Commission and Ted Wimpey, Project Director, Fair Housing Project, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

Low-Income Vermonters with Disabilities Sue State Over Benefit Cuts: Attorney calls new law unconstitutional, discriminatory

BURLINGTON – 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.

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Vermont Legal Aid Suit Aims to Halt Cuts to Low-income Cash Benefits

Vermont Legal Aid filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday seeking to halt implementation of a $125 reduction in the monthly Reach Up benefit for hundreds of Vermont families.

The class-action lawsuit alleges that the reduction, which the Legislature approved in the fiscal year 2016 state budget, is unconstitutional and that it discriminates against households with family members with a disability.Christopher Curtis, the Vermont Legal Aid attorney who filed the suit, has been a vocal opponent of the new Reach Up policy, categorizing it as a “poor tax.”

“Low-income people should not be targeted just because they happen to have a disability for a cut in their benefits,” Curtis said Thursday.

Curtis said the issues in the case are primarily related to laws and benefits at a federal level — including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security policy.

According to a statement issued by Legal Aid, courts have halted similar cuts to temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) grant programs in other states.

State drops in U.S. rank for children’s well-being, report shows

Vermont was ranked fifth in the nation in an annual report on child well-being Tuesday, down three spots from its second-place ranking in 2014.

“I think the takeaway is that the effects of the recession are not only lingering, they’re getting worse for some children,” said Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and co-chair of the Governor’s Council on Pathways Out of Poverty. “My fear is that low income families are falling farther and farther behind.”
“We have to stop attacking the social safety net,” Curtis said. For a decade or more, budget cuts or reductions have undermined Vermont’s social safety net, destabilizing families that rely on them, he said.

“I don’t think it’s surprising when we live in an era of austerity,” Curtis said.

Read more: VT Digger | July 22, 2015

The ACA, the Service, and the Indian Health Care Delivery System

An article co-authored by Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney Christine Speidel was published on the front page of the American Bar Association Section of Taxation's NewsQuarterly.

State notifies Reach Up recipients of $125 a month reduction in benefits

Christopher Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, is concerned that recipients will not have enough time to prepare for the cut.

“My concern is that many low income Vermonters will not see this coming,” Curtis said. “They’re going to be put in positions where they don’t have time to adapt to what is a very detrimental cut to their income.”

According to Curtis, the SSI reduction amounts to a “tax” on Vermonters who have already fallen on hard financial times. Taking a percentage of someone’s unearned income is akin to a tax, Curtis said.

“A lot of families are really struggling and we cannot afford to sacrifice the poorest families on the altar of austerity,” Curtis said.

Curtis urged people who receive notices that their Reach Up will be reduced to appeal the determination, in case the notice was sent in error or in case they are exempt for some reason.

State looks at inequity in school discipline of disabled, minority students

A report issued earlier this year by Vermont Legal Aid, called “Kicked Out!, What’s Happening, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Stop It” found that minority and disabled students were banished from school two to three times more often than their peers.

Jay Diaz, a Legal Aid attorney and the lead author of the report, who also chairs the Vermont Dignity in Schools Coalition, said the coalition has brought together school administrators to address the problem.

"We have a broad group, a wide coalition that works with kids that are most likely to be kicked out of school," said Diaz. "Members have spoken to many schools across the state from Burlington to Brattleboro about school discipline issues, and how they can reform their own policies to be more fair, more equitable, and make sure they're not kicking kids out of school unnecessarily.”

Steps need to be taken to ensure that expelled students continue to receive an education, even if they are out of school for valid disciplinary reasons, said Diaz.

State Looks To Reduce Number Of Drivers Operating With Suspended Licenses

Transportation officials and advocates for low-income Vermonters are looking for ways to reduce the number of Vermonters who have had their licenses suspended, often for offenses that have nothing to do with highway safety. Chris Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, says about two-thirds of all license suspensions stem from failure to pay fines.

Curtis says middle- and upper-income Vermonters aren’t going to let a several hundred dollar fine get in the way of their driving privileges.

“But if you’re living on Reach Up in the state of Vermont, and your total income is only $640 a month, which is the average benefit amount for a family of three, a $200 fine may as well be $2,000. It’s a third of their monthly income,” Curtis says.

Curtis is among the people Minter has assembled for a driver restoration task force, which will push for legislative reforms to solve the problem.

Board Puts UVM Medical Center Tower Project on Slow Track

The Health Care Advocate questioned the hospital’s ability to find efficiencies without affecting patient care and predicted the projected $16 million increased cost to operate the new tower would end up passed on to patients.

The advocate’s office has the right to appeal the decision, but Kaili Kuiper, staff attorney, said late Wednesday, “We aren’t anticipating appealing.” She added, “We are pleased the board is keeping an eye on the possibility the project could increase rates and has imposed conditions.”

Regulators approve UVM Medical Center’s $187 million inpatient facility

The decision concludes a regulatory review that started more than two years ago. There is a 30-day appeal window, but Vermont Legal Aid, which represented consumers in the review, doesn’t plan to appeal the decision, one of its attorneys said Wednesday.

Applying conditions to the project’s approval shows the board is “aware” of its potential to impact health care costs for consumers, and it appears the board will closely monitor any cost overruns, said Legal Aid’s Kaili Kuiper. Hospital officials have said the project won’t increase what people pay for medical care....

Kuiper, the Legal Aid attorney, also said UVMMC’s assumptions about what government health care programs will pay in the future are problematic.

She pointed to a report from Deloitte, a firm hired by the board to review UVMMC’s application, which says the hospital’s financing assumes the same 3 percent rate increase from government programs as it does from private insurers — despite historical increases to Medicare and Medicaid rates that hover between 0 percent and 2 percent.