Bet Tzedek Legal Services – The House of Justice

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Bet Tzedek
Founded1974, Los Angeles, CA, United States
FocusCivil Rights Humanitarian Aid
Websitewww.bettzedek.org/

Bet Tzedek is an American non-profit human and poverty rights organization, internationally recognized for its work in providing unique advocacy and support for people living in poverty, and for communities victimized by discrimination and civil rights abuses.

One of the United States' leading centers for social justice, Bet Tzedek is based in Los Angeles, California. It was founded in 1974 by a group of Jewish attorneys determined to address the human rights issues and humanitarian needs endemic to Los Angeles. Their social justice philosophy was rooted in a central tenet of Jewish law and teaching: "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue."

Bet Tzedek embraces the fundamental commitment of achieving full and equal access to justice for all people. The United States legal system was created to fairly serve all citizens, yet without equal access to the justice system, low-income citizens are disproportionately victimized by unjust and illegal practices such as coercive labor practices, abuse and neglect of developmentally disabled people, unlawful debt collection and racially targeted victimization.

In a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, Bet Tzedek offers support to the nearly two million residents of L.A. who live in poverty. Bet Tzedek has taken on widespread systemic injustices taking place in nursing homes, slum housing, and garment factories — identifying and investigating the problems, and winning victories that have directly and measurably expanded equal access to justice for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Today, many of Bet Tzedek's initiatives are the only programs of their kind in existence. Its free legal representation helps low-income people of every race and religion in Los Angeles, and directly empowers people with knowledge and tools needed to protect their rights.

History[edit]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists throughout the nation began to systemically address the roots of injustice by fighting poverty, disenfranchisement, and discrimination. The City of Los Angeles faced overwhelming crises with devastatingly entrenched areas of urban blight, deteriorating living conditions in slums and ghettos, and an increasingly disempowered population of low-income people.

Bet Tzedek's volunteer attorneys provided free legal representation to Angelenos who would never otherwise gain access to the justice system. As the need skyrocketed throughout the mid-1970s, Bet Tzedek rapidly evolved from a part-time, volunteer-run organization into a comprehensive, full-service center providing free legal aid to all of Los Angeles.

By 1977, Bet Tzedek’s lawyers had won several landmark cases that brought hope and empowerment to thousands of the most vulnerable citizens in the rapidly growing metropolis, including successfully blocking the illegal evictions of low-income elderly residents of Venice, California's Cadillac Hotel. Bet Tzedek's victory won health and safety renovations, and guaranteed the residents' right to remain in a for the rest of their lives, at their current low rents.

In 1984, Bet Tzedek affirmed its growing reputation as the leading agency offering free services to Holocaust survivors by winning a landmark decision that provided vital support and justice to thousands of low-income, elderly Holocaust survivors. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of Felicia Grunfeder, a Bet Tzedek client and Holocaust survivor who had been denied disability benefits because she received a small survivors’ reparations payment. After multiple appeals, the federal courts ruled that Holocaust reparations payments cannot preclude disability payments—state and federal legislation subsequently codified the decision.

Bet Tzedek provided emergency legal services during and in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. The issues central to the riots – racial profiling, civil rights abuses, endemic poverty, poor housing conditions, and unemployment – were also central to Bet Tzedek's work. L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley commended Bet Tzedek for providing services during and after civil unrest. Advocates continue to see clients at senior centers in the central city during the riots.

In the early 1990s, Bet Tzedek sued a national HMO alleging fraud and deceptive sales practices in the HMO’s racially targeted victimization of elderly Spanish-speaking enrollees. Ensuing media coverage prompted a federal investigation and a stockholder suit against the company and Bet Tzedek successfully settled the underlying case.

Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Bet Tzedek provided emergency assistance to earthquake victims with housing issues, home improvement fraud, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims. For low-income victims, Bet Tzedek was the sole source of free advocacy.

In 1995, Bet Tzedek initiatives revealed disturbingly negligent conditions in Los Angeles area nursing homes. To address this, Bet Tzedek sponsored major state legislation that provided new standards and protections for low-income elderly residents who were most at risk for elder abuse. In 1999, Bet Tzedek's lawsuit against Hillhaven, one of the largest nursing home chains in the country, resulted in the company agreeing to change business practices that violate state and federal law and led to financial hardship for residents and their families.

In 1998, Bet Tzedek brought a major class-action suit with pro bono counsel against 16 European-based insurance companies who refused to honor insurance policies purchased by Jews who perished in the Holocaust. With up to 60% of all survivors living in poverty, this advocacy provided desperately needed resources. This advocacy continues to this day, as Bet Tzedek assists survivors with issues centered in the governments of former Nazi nations.

In 2001, when 61% of Los Angeles apparel contractors were violating wage and hour laws,[1] Bet Tzedek opens the Employment Rights Project in the San Fernando Valley in response to the growing numbers of “working poor” in Los Angeles, who remain in poverty despite working full-time as garment workers, day laborers, domestics, carwash employees, and gardeners.

In 2002, Bet Tzedek investigated the city’s most-convicted slumlord, unraveling a complex web of fraudulent practices. After filing a lawsuit, Bet Tzedek obtained a major settlement requiring the slumlord to pay $1 million to the City of L.A. and submit to ongoing monitoring of his business practices by Bet Tzedek.

In 2004, Bet Tzedek helped pass a new state law and established a new legal precedent protecting garment workers, ensuring the safety and proper treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers in L.A. alone.

In 2012, Bet Tzedek moved from its longtime headquarters in Los Angeles' historically Jewish Fairfax District to a new headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown. The move was motivated in part because Bet Tzedek's services are now provided mainly to non-Jews, and because the organization desired a more centralized location.[2]

Services and programs[edit]

Bet Tzedek's services include advice, counseling and representation at trials, administrative hearings, and appeals.[3] Bet Tzedek also offers educational programs to clients and other service providers. Services at Bet Tzedek are provided through the following programs:

Consumer fraud[edit]

Bet Tzedek's Consumer Protection Unit litigates consumer fraud cases in a variety of areas, including home equity fraud, telemarketing, automobile financing, and health care marketing, and door-to-door sales. Additionally the Consumer Protection Unit provides educational programs throughout Los Angeles County to help residents recognize and avoid fraud. Bet Tzedek also collaborates with various law enforcement agencies and legal services providers to target the most notorious scam artists.[4]

Employment rights[edit]

Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project advocates on behalf of a variety of low-wage workers, including Day Laborers, domestic workers, and those working in the garment, construction, car wash, restaurant and janitorial industries. The Project represents low-wage workers, regardless of their immigration status, who have been illegally denied wages that they have earned.[5] Client services range from brief advice, counseling and informal advocacy, to representation in hearings before the California Labor Commissioner and litigation in state and federal courts.[5]

Family Caregiver Project[edit]

Janet Morris provides essential services to family caregivers.

AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving estimate that 4.3 million adults in the State of California provide unpaid care to an adult relative or friend.[6] The total value of familycaregiving is estimated at $276 billion. Caregivers usually do not quit their jobs, or leave their personal relationships, to offer care to their relatives. The Family Caregiving Project at Bet Tzedek responds by providing expert legal counsel, advice and representation to English, Spanish and Chinese speaking adults who care for a loved-one afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease, Dementia or other debilitating illnesses.

Director of the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Family Caregiver Project, Janet Moris, serves caregivers throughout Los Angeles County with essential education, referrals and legal services. Serving over 300 clients each year Morris is nationally regarded as one of the outstanding advocates and educators in this area of practice. Bet Tzedek Legal Services staff make presentations to over 2,000 family members, social workers, and service professionals annually.[6]

Government benefits[edit]

Bet Tzedek represents clients on a range of state and federal government benefits, including Social Security, Medi-Cal, Medicare, SSI/SSDI (Disability), in-home supportive services, veterans' benefits, CalWORKS, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), WIC, and Adoption Assistance, KinGAP.[7] Bet Tzedek represents clients in appeals, helps clients to apply for benefits, and identifies appropriate programs.

Holocaust reparations[edit]

Bet Tzedek Legal Services is the only agency in the world that offers free assistance to Holocaust survivors applying for reparations, pensions and other benefits from Germany and other European countries. Bet Tzedek also has been at the forefront on issues affecting all survivors, including Holocaust-era insurance coverage, the effect of reparations on eligibility for public benefits, and the waiver of wire transfer fees for survivors who receive reparations.[8]

Housing[edit]

The Housing Law Project provides legal assistance to tenants in Los Angeles County facing eviction actions and illegal housing conditions. The elderly and persons with disabilities are the focus of much of the service because they are often targeted for eviction in order to circumvent the rent stabilization laws and bring in new tenants at higher rents. The project’s attorney represents these clients, develops solutions to systematic housing legal problems, and recruits, trains, and supervises a network of volunteer attorneys.[9]

Sydney M. Irmas Housing Conditions Project[edit]

Bet Tzedek's Sydney M. Irmas Housing Conditions Project is underwritten by a grant from the Irmas Family Foundation to help low-income families secure safe, affordable housing. In 2001, the Irmas Project brought landmark litigation on behalf of tenants' rights group Inquilinos Unidos against one of the most notorious landlords in Los Angeles. The lawsuit was later joined by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, and the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher served as pro bono counsel on the suit. This case represented a landmark victory in the battle against landlords who subject their tenants to substandard health and safety conditions and set a significant precedent in the ability of tenants' groups to successfully prosecute owners attempting to hide behind a web of business identities.[10]

Eviction Defense Project[edit]

The Eviction Defense Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Servicesprovides expert advice, counsel and representation those in need of assistance. Bet Tzedek accepts eviction cases on an individual basis, and screens all cases for merit. Annually, Bet Tzedek serves as counsel for 100 families who face illegal eviction from their apartments, with a success rate of over 90 percent.[10]

Kinship care[edit]

Kinship Care Program clients

When parents are unavailable or unable to care for their children, grandparents often step in to provide a loving home and to keep their loved ones safe from the emotional turmoil of foster care placements. Bet Tzedek Legal Services created the Kinship Care Project in 2002 to address the needs of the more than 88,000 children in Los Angeles County who live with their grandparents. The Kinship Care Project offers a variety of services to grandparents and others who are raising their young family members.[11] For the last five years, Bet Tzedek has offered free and expert legal services to these families, who are poor and struggle to provide decent housing, education, and health care for these forgotten or abandoned young children.[11]

Bet Tzedek’s Kinship Care Project is unique in Los Angeles County, as no other service provider focuses on this population. The assistance offered by Bet Tzedek Legal Services keeps children out of the foster care system, and ensures that all available government benefits are accessed, that health care is provided, and that rights to decent and safe housing are preserved. Additionally, Bet Tzedek Legal Services published Southern California’s first comprehensive guide for relative caregivers, Caring for a Relative’s Child.[12] The guide is available in both English and Spanish, and is the primary resource of its kind used by social workers throughout Los Angeles County.[11]

Nursing Home Advocacy Project[edit]

The Nursing Home Advocacy Project (NHAP) has been a signature program that has shaped the development of Bet Tzedek’s nationally regarded elderlaw practice. The project was established in response to a critical need for effective legal assistance for frail, elderly residents of nursing homes.[13] Today, Bet Tzedek aggressively works to improve the quality of care for the institutionalized elderly and provides legal protection against abuse and neglect through advice, education, advocacy, and litigation. Among the many milestones in NHAP’s history are:

  • Comprehensive legislation to reform admissions and discharge practices and financial responsibility and billing practices by nursing homes.[13]
  • A landmark study of Los Angeles County nursing homes, which brought to light serious noncompliance with state and federal regulations and prompted the passage of reform legislation
  • Major litigation against a national nursing home chain for fraudulent admissions contracts, resulting in sweeping national changes.

NHAP has published the following consumer guides: "The Nursing Home Companion" (in English and Spanish); "If Only I Had Known: Misrepresentations Made by Nursing Homes" (published with a grant from the Archstone Foundation), and "How to Get Care From a Residential Care Facility".[14] Over 200,000 copies of these guides have been distributed nationally, and they remain the first resource consulted by ombudspersons throughout California.[13]

Senior legal services[edit]

For more than two decades, Bet Tzedek has comprehensively served the legal needs of low-income seniors in Los Angeles. Because of their expertise, Bet Tzedek is the exclusive provider of free legal services to low-income seniors through contracts with the City and County of Los Angeles.[15] Bet Tzedek staff includes specialists on the legal issues that affect seniors – consumer fraud and elder abuse, nursing homes and residential care facilities, public benefits, family and kinship caregiver needs, and housing — and Bet Tzedek staff regularly meets with clients at more than 30 senior centers in Greater Los Angeles County. In addition to providing one-on-one services, Bet Tzedek has developed four new legal clinics designed to help seniors help themselves. Each clinic provides an overview of a particular legal issue and guides seniors in the preparation of the appropriate legal documents.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lobaco, Gina. Thirtieth Annual Report Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. (PDF). Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  2. ^ Nita Lelyveld, "Legal aid group Bet Tzedek graduates to new headquarters", Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2012.
  3. ^ Bet Tzedek Programs Archived June 7, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  4. ^ Consumer Fraud Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  5. ^ a b Employment Rights Project Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  6. ^ a b Family Caregiver Project Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  7. ^ Public Benefits Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  8. ^ Holocaust Reparations Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  9. ^ Equal Access Fund Projects. Retrieved on June 5, 2007.
  10. ^ a b Housing Archived May 21, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 4, 2007.
  11. ^ a b c Kinship Care Program Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved June 5, 2007.
  12. ^ Bettzedek.org Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ a b c Nursing Home Advocacy Project Archived June 7, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 5, 2007.
  14. ^ Bettzedek.org Archived April 7, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ Free Legal Services for Seniors in Los Angeles County Archived May 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on June 5, 2007.