With legal assistance from the ACLU of Rhode Island, SouthCoast Fair Housing (SCFH) today filed a federal lawsuit against the RI Supreme Court over a court rule that is preventing the organization from providing legal help to victims of housing discrimination in RI. As the rule is currently written, non-profit organizations cannot obtain a license to practice law in the state unless they serve only “indigent” clients. This is despite the fact that the Court’s own rules recognize that it is not just the poor, but “sometimes persons who are not poor” who are unable to afford adequate legal assistance.

SCFH is a non-profit organization that promotes fair housing practices and works to ensure affordable housing opportunities for all.  It has particular expertise in handling claims under the Fair Housing Act. The agency is officially incorporated in Massachusetts and serves clients in both MA and RI.  Some of the agency’s clients are poor, while others are above the poverty level but have limited means. Many of the housing discrimination complaints the agency receives, for example, are from families who are denied housing because they have young children. Some of those complainants are not indigent, but cannot afford private counsel either. SCFH provides them assistance regardless of income status.

In May 2017, the SCFH applied for a license to practice law in RI, but was rejected because it seeks to help all victims of housing discrimination in RI and not just those who are poor.  As a result, although the agency presently provides legal help to clients based in southeastern MA, SCFH is barred from assisting similarly situated individuals who live in RI.

Today’s lawsuit was filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Mark W. Freel and Jeffrey Ankrom of Locke Lord LLP against the Clerk of the RI Supreme Court, the official responsible for the enforcement of rules governing the practice of law in RI.  The lawsuit argues that “the requirement in Rule 11 that nonprofits restrict their client base to ‘indigent’ clients is unreasonable, arbitrary and not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” The suit claims that the Rule violates the rights of SCFH and its potential clients under the First Amendment to freely associate and to seek redress of grievances, and also violates due process and equal protection of the laws.

The lawsuit further challenges another provision in the Rule that also disqualified the agency from eligibility to practice law here: a requirement that SCFH be incorporated in the State of RI, even though that requirement does not apply to for-profit legal organizations.

Kristina da Fonseca, executive director of SCFH, said today: “Housing discrimination that violates our state and federal fair housing laws can impact anyone, regardless of income. Victims of discrimination face numerous obstacles to enforcing their civil rights, not the least of which is securing affordable legal counsel. SCFH is uniquely positioned to provide comprehensive fair housing services to Rhode Island families and residents, and is eager to add legal representation to its existing advocacy.”

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Mark Freel added: “As the Rhode Island Supreme Court recognizes elsewhere in its own rules, the cost of legal services is not just an impediment to people who are defined as ‘poor.’  It is a barrier to many average people whose rights are at stake.  In that context, any attempt to limit the critical services of non-profit legal organizations to only certain people identified as ‘indigent’ is not only a violation of multiple constitutional rights, but it is a disservice to the people who rely on those organizations.”

More information on the lawsuit, SouthCoast Fair Housing v. Saunders, can be found here.