GREAT BARRINGTON — Eve Schatz knows what she’s thankful for.
Every day in her job as director of the Berkshire Center for Justice, Schatz helps the poorest, most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us to get the legal support that they’re due. She helps in matters of eviction, divorce, debt, job loss or any civil case that comes before the county courts.
COVID-19 has increased the number of calls she’s getting for legal assistance, says Schatz. Without the center, most of her Berkshire clients would go unserved, awash in a system in which they’re often disrespected and rarely heard.
Because of the pandemic, by October 2020, the center already has eclipsed its client count for all of 2019.
“Now, we are at 263 cases, with more than another month till the end of the year,” says Schatz. She says the upward trend began in earnest in 2019, with 126 new clients.
Many people have lost jobs during the pandemic, and it’s also a time of year when expenses run high, from gifts to food and heat.
Formerly, about 25 percent of her clients were at or below the federal poverty level; these days, she says it’s closer to 40.
Fighting systemic racism
Her most egregious case is one she can say little about, as potential criminal charges are pending, and Schatz can’t sully the judicial process with extra press.
What Schatz can say is this: She has represented, on a pro bono basis, a person of color who was sexually assaulted. Working together, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, the center and the NAACP are producing a successful outcome for Schatz’s client while also strengthening the social safety net in the community.
“Everywhere this individual went, they were striking out in terms of the legal community and medical organizations. I was able to achieve a five-way meeting, which included the DA and a special ADA, and got the case reopened. They found enough evidence to press charges against the perpetrator,” says Schatz. “Because every system failed the victim, that’s a clear example of systemic racism. It’s the definition of it.”
COVID-19, debt, wills and fraud cases
COVID-related cases are frequent, with sick employees being rushed back to work too soon, as well as medically vulnerable people whose employers insist that they report to a workplace. Schatz even had a client who was arrested and jailed; he went into lockup COVID-free, but was put into a cell with a coronavirus-positive person and now has COVID.
Debt also has been running high for Berkshire residents, at home more with plenty of time to buy things online with easy credit.
“We’ve helped a lot of people deal with Chapter 7 bankruptcy. People shouldn’t feel ashamed in the situation that they're in. Anyone can fall on hard times. We will welcome you and take your case seriously, and get you back on track with your life,” says Schatz.
Successful people can be debt-addled, too
While most of her clients are recognizable as poverty-stricken, there are still others who were “successful people who found themselves with insurmountable debt, and they come to us in a very untenable circumstance,” says Schatz.
Because of COVID-19, more people are calling her office to update their wills and file medical proxy documents.
Schatz also warns residents against fraud and get-rich-quick schemes, as “these are times when people feel vulnerable emotionally. They might get a business or investment offer from a source that’s appealing, because they're not making their money through regular work. They might be vulnerable to bad investments. You take money out, but you never get it back.”
In one debt case, the center is helping a woman from South America whose husband passed away recently and left her with more than $100,000 in medical debt.
“We’re working to parse that out,” says Schatz.
When creditors lien on an elderly woman
Another recent debt case involved an elderly low-income woman who discovered a 10-year-old lien on her house while she was midway through selling her home. “I started to do some research, and she was not properly served by the plaintiff who sued her over a debt.”
Somebody has sued her over debt without her knowledge, and her address in court documents was listed incorrectly. She defaulted, without knowing there had ever been a case or judgment against her,” says Schatz. “What’s more is we don't even know if she’s the honest owner of the debt.”
Schatz is working on getting the lien removed, so the standing judgment against her won’t harm much-needed earnings from a sale.
Many eviction cases
Evictions are another matter that constantly arises for center clients, both landlords and tenants. A statewide moratorium on evictions just lapsed Oct. 17.
“We've definitely observed an uptick, just as we predicted, in people being evicted. Now they can be served with an eviction, but there are some ways to prevent or delay the eviction. People should feel free to call us for help,” says Schatz.
With lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on travel, people have been home more and under pressure. Likewise has the center experienced an increase in divorce cases.
“If you make it through the pandemic, you may have a really good marriage there,” says Schatz.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Schatz makes sure she asks a lot of questions in all her cases.
“What I have discovered is that frequently the reason why someone comes in, is the tip of the iceberg. There can be numerous factors and conditions that bring them here,” notes Schatz.
For instance, the person of color who Schatz is helping, he came to her office initially to help him with a job loss; he had been terminated after missing work because he had been victimized. “If I just had dealt with the employment issue, it would have been a disservice,” says Schatz.
With so many human problems crossing her doorstep, Schatz also helps clients by referring them to partner agencies in the Berkshires that can help people with food insecurity, homelessness, and mental and physical health care. Domestic violence referrals and cases also have seen an increase with the pandemic.
Identity theft a common problem
Identity theft crimes are also up. “It’s usually someone they know, which is the kicker. It’s one thing if a major corporation is hacked, but we’ve seen a number of cases, where someone in their circle of family or friends, steals a credit card or Social Security number and then uses it for their own purposes,” says Schatz.
If she can’t take the case on herself, sometimes the center will get help from a different legal organization or from other lawyers she contracts with on a cases by case basis.
Because most of her regular cadre of lawyers have been consumed with pandemic-related work, Schatz is now in the position of having to hire staff to help manage the growing caseload.
‘This is a time for giving’
“This is a time for giving, and it’s also a time when our calls are still tripled because of COVID. We have increased staff to manage the increase, but the more resources we have, the more we can offset the cost to help the community,” says Schatz. “It’s really important during this time.”
Clients aren’t charged in billable hours like a traditional law firm. Rather, center clients pay on a sliding scale.
A $1,000 donation would go a long way to subsidize some of the free legal work the center provides to indigent people, says Schatz.
“Our generated income from clients has dropped at the same time that demand has increased, with no sign of stopping. Because we have limited resources, we are limited in the amount of pro bono that we can take on. We could take on more pro bono, with those kinds of donations,” says Schatz.
Demand is not letting up
Prior to COVID-19, the center offered free legal clinics to individuals and groups in the Berkshires, such as drop-in clinics held at the Guthrie Center. These days, it’s done all remotely via video conferencing.
To meet the current demand, the center needs financial help now. All donations are welcome, she says, noting that even the $5 she receives from a low-income client every month still helps. “ No donation is too small for the BCJ,” she adds.
Large donations from philanthropic residents of the Berkshires who are interested in social justice are welcome, too, and Schatz encourages individuals or businesses to step forward to sponsor the agency’s pro bono work. Berkshire change agents can also name the center as a beneficiary in their estates, which would help ensure the center’s long-term sustainability.
A plan to grow to better serve the 413
Schatz has goals to add another lawyer to her current team of herself and two part-time assistants, and also envisions a sister center office in the North County.
“The phone keeps ringing with incidents of injustice. It just doesn't stop, and I don't see it stopping anytime soon,” says Schatz. “A lot of people make serious decisions about whether to pay for food, rent or medicine. We want people to look into their hearts, count their blessings and help those who are less fortunate by helping our pro bono program.”
For help, or to offer financial assistance to the center, call 413-854-1955 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to meet remotely via telephonic or zoom conference.