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Clinics

ULC Stops Housing Loss Based on Guilt by Association and Flawed Hearing

This article appears in the Fall 2012 CLINIC NEWS.

Clinical Professor Jack Feinstein and Urban Legal Clinic (ULC) students successfully challenged a public housing authority’s attempt to terminate a Section 8 low-income housing voucher to a client based on vague allegations of “crime by family members.” In so doing, the ULC overturned a hearing officer’s decision after an unusually flawed hearing process.

In January 2011, the Bergen County Housing Authority sent a “Contract Termination Notice” to ULC client “R.J.” indicating its intent to terminate her Section 8 due to an alleged crime. The notice included no information about the crime or who committed it. The ULC later received the Authority’s investigative report, which concluded that R.J.’s nephew lived with her after his sex offense conviction, making her ineligible for Section 8. The conclusion was based solely on the NJ Sex Offender Registry listing the nephew’s address as R.J.’s.

At the administrative hearing, ULC student Kunal Shah ’11 cross-examined the Authority’s investigator and elicited an admission that the Registry information never had been verified. Shah also established the investigator’s conscious disregard of evidence of alternative addresses for the nephew, and the Registry website’s disclaimer stating, “You are cautioned that information provided on this site may not reflect the current residence . . . regarding an offender.”

Despite a paucity of evidence, the hearing officer ruled against R.J. Feinstein noted, “the hearing fell far short of what due process requires.” For example, while R.J. testified, the hearing officer whispered to the Authority’s representative that the nephew could not have listed his address as R.J.’s unless he actually lived with her, since he would not have known it otherwise. “Apart from the absurdity of that statement, it was completely improper for the hearing officer to have side conversations with her co-worker during [R.J.’s] testimony,” said Feinstein. The hearing officer also disregarded documents Shah presented, and asserted the right to consider documents that never were offered at the hearing.

The ULC filed a Superior Court complaint alleging violations of R.J.’s due process rights, and Shah obtained an injunction ensuring continuation of R.J.’s subsidy while the matter was pending. Subsequently, ULC student Sylvia “Bird” Thomas ’12 filed a motion for summary judgment. After reviewing Thomas’s brief, the Authority’s attorney vacated the decision, commenting that Thomas’s argument was “bullet-proof.” Today, R.J. continues to receive her rental subsidy.