Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti and City Attorney Mike Feuer assembled a coalition of law firms, bar associations and attorneys to provide pro bono legal assistance for COVID-19-related issues in a program called “LA Represents.” Attorneys are helping vulnerable tenants, domestic violence victims and low-income individuals with employment, consumer debt, and bankruptcy matters, according to the program’s website.
Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. President and CEO of Public Counsel, Margaret Morrow, explained the importance of this new legal aid program in the City of L.A.
“There are people who have lost their housing. There are people who have lost their jobs. They need this assistance that they never probably ever thought about before,” she said. “LA Represents is just a fabulous way of getting the word out to Angelenos that our organizations exist, private law firms partner with us, and we're there to help them.”
When Mayor Garcetti announced the establishment of LA Represents, Public Counsel received a significant amount of calls for help.
“We are the only bankruptcy provider among the group that's part of LA Represents. Our bankruptcy intake line saw a surge of either triple or quadruple the number of people calling for assistance that we had seen the day before LA Represents was announced. We're also one of a handful of groups that do provide services to consumers. We saw again a huge surge in the number of consumers calling us and these are people who typically need help with either foreclosure issues, predatory lending, some kind of fraud in services,” Morrow said.
Public Counsel is one of two LA Represents partners that assists small businesses.
“Small businesses are not only devastated and hurting, but they are desperate for help in terms of how can we reopen, what is our legal liability once we do reopen to customers, to employees, how can we navigate the paycheck protection program, just a myriad of new questions and issues that they haven’t been facing before,” Morrow said.
Small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of small businesses have never been in the position before of having to lay off or furlough workers. Those are relatively straightforward employment law questions that we can assist with and that we do assist with on an ongoing basis before the pandemic, after the pandemic, in the middle of the pandemic,” Morrow said.
“The Paycheck Protection Program has been really confusing for businesses. First, how to access it. Many small businesses had great trouble finding a bank that would deal with them around the PPP loans, and many that banked with very large financial institutions got shut out entirely, which is why Congress then came back and did the second round of money in that program.”
Business owners have a myriad of questions about how to reopen safely.
“There are federal provisions, there are state provisions, there are local provisions, there's Cal/OSHA, there’s Fed OSHA, there’s the NLRB. And it is a web. It is a complicated web for even an attorney to navigate,” Morrow said. “Right now the liability rests on the employer for making a mistake, and that is making people even more nervous about what they should be doing right.”
Morrow suggests reopening businesses in stages.
“Some people are desperate to come back, other people are afraid, so I think you just have to take it slow and take as much information and areas of concern into account as you possibly can before you make decisions,” she said.
Tenants and landlords have also struggled during the pandemic. If tenants can’t pay their rent, landlords can’t pay their mortgages.
“A very large percentage of our staff works in the landlord tenant space, and under normal circumstances, we would be going to court and litigating unlawful detainer cases. What's happening now, with the courts closed and the eviction moratorium in place, is that we are seeing many landlords… having conversations with tenants, which misrepresent what the tenant’s legal rights are, asking them, for example, to sign a repayment agreement after the moratorium is lifted, which they do not have to do as a condition of staying in the property, or signing over their $1,200 federal stimulus check, again something that they do not have to do in order to stay in that property.”
Public Counsel advocated for an eviction moratorium to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the L.A. City Council. Mayor Garcetti announced a $100 million rental assistance program for Angelenos that will go into effect in July. Any tenant who can’t pay their rent can apply, and the money will be given directly to their landlord.
“There are conversations frankly across the state about rent forgiveness at this point, which would have to come with corresponding provisions to help the landlords out. I think everybody understands that. But there is much to be done, the space is very agitated and anxious, especially in the wake of a pandemic when we’re told that where we're going to be safer is at home,” Morrow said.
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