Federal cases, Civil: Impact

Important cases where civil legal services has made a difference

A full list of key cases is beyond the current scope of this article. The following highlights several selected cases of interest.

One of the great accomplishments of the federal legal services program, during both the OEO and LSC eras, has been the quality and effectiveness of the legal representation provided by the program and its advocates. Legal services representation successfully created new legal rights through judicial decisions and representation before legislative and administrative bodies.

For example, legal services attorneys won landmark decisions, such as Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 638 (1969), which ensured that legal welfare recipients were not arbitrarily denied benefits. Perhaps the greatest victory was Goldberg v. Kelley, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), which led to the due process revolution. Goldberg required the government to follow due process when seeking to terminate benefits. A series of later cases expanded due process to large areas of public and private spheres. Escalera v. New York City Housing Authority, 425 F.2d 953 (2d Cir. 1970), required public housing authorities to provide hearings before evictions from public housing; and later decisions, such as Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67 (1972), ensured that private parties must follow due process when seeking to recover possessions, such as automobiles.

Equally significant were judicial decisions that expanded common law theories on retaliatory evictions and implied warranty of habitability. These decisions were stimulated by the creative advocacy of the lawyers involved. For example, legal services helped develop the theory that tenants could not be evicted in retaliation for asserting their legal rights. In Edwards v. Habib, 397 F.2d (D.C. Cir. 1968), the Court held that the landlord’s “right” to terminate a month-to-month tenancy “for any reason or no reason at all” did not include the “right” to terminate because the tenant complained of housing code violations. Today, the doctrine of retaliatory eviction is the rule in most states and is endorsed by the Restatement of American Law of Property. Similarly, legal services developed the doctrine of implied warranty of habitability in Javins v. First Nat’l Realty Corp., 428 F.2d 1071 (D.C. Cir. 1970). This doctrine is also the major rule, reflected in the Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, and is the rule of the Restatement of American Law of Property.

Legal services attorneys also effectively enforced rights that were theoretically in existence but honored only in the breach. Legal services representation ensured that federal law benefiting the poor was enforced on behalf of the poor. King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968), led to the enforcement of federal statutory law not only in the legal welfare area but also, until recently, set the framework for enforcement of federal law across the board. And legal services programs won Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990). Because of this case, hundreds of thousands of families with disabled children now receive Supplemental Security Income benefits. Another example is Olmstead v. L. C. , 527 U.S. 581 (1999) in which the Court found that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or “the ADA,” it is against the law for the state to discriminate against a person based on his or her disability.

People with disabilities had the right to receive support in the community rather than in institutions when three conditions were met: (1) the treating medical professionals determined that a community setting was appropriate; (2) the person with a disability did not object to living in the community; and (3) the provision of services in the community was a reasonable accommodation.

Perhaps most important, through sustained and effective legal services representation, public and private agencies and entities dealing with the poor were fundamentally changed. Legal services representation altered the court system by simplifying court procedures and rules so that they could be understood by, and made more accessible to, the poor. Legal services representation also forced the welfare and public housing bureaucracies, schools, and hospitals to act according to a set of rules and laws and to treat the poor equitably and in a manner sensitive to their needs. Legal services programs also have been on the forefront of the efforts to assist women who were victims of domestic violence.

See the list of key civil cases.