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Written by David Steib

May 03

2012

New Report Finds Continued Lack of Compliance with D.C. Language Access Act

David Steib, Staff Attorney

Last week, the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University Washington College of Law released a report concluding that many D.C. government entities are still incapable of reliably providing language access services in compliance with local law. The report, “Access Denied: The Unfilled Promise of the D.C. Language Access Act,” is based on information and data collected by the D.C. Language Access Coalition, of which Legal Aid is a member.  The release of the report was covered by several media outlets, including Univision/WFDC and DCentric/WAMU

The report’s findings offer insight into the measure of compliance by the District government with the D.C. Language Access Act of 2004, legislation that requires government entities to provide oral interpretation to all customers and translation of vital documents into languages spoken by populations that meet a certain threshold.  Unfortunately, eight years after the passage of the Act, the report finds that government entities are still not able to reliably provide the services required by law.  The report’s findings are based on over 250 community member surveys and over 80 tests of city agencies.  “Our surveys revealed that 58% of LEP [Limited-English Proficient] community members had experienced a language access difficulty at a D.C. government agency,” stated Michael Ramirez, a Student Attorney with the Immigrant Justice Clinic.    

The results of the report come as no surprise to the attorneys at Legal Aid, who are often confronted with clients who have lost their benefits or have been sued because of confusion regarding a language access violation at a D.C. government agency.  In the last several years, Legal Aid has helped multiple clients to file language access complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.  At Legal Aid, we are committed to helping limited-English proficient and non-English proficient members of the community bring these complaints in order to call for better enforcement of the Act.  Legal Aid also takes an active role as a member of the DC Language Access Coalition, and we stand behind all of the recommendations of the recent report, which include: 

1)      The D.C. Council should create a private right of action for violations of the Language Access Act, as well as a right for complainants to appeal unfavorable decisions, which is currently absent.

2)      The Office of Human Rights should report on its own compliance with the Act.

3)      Agencies should prioritize and incentivize the hiring of bilingual staff.  Such staff should then be trained in effective interpretation techniques.

4)       The Office of Human Rights should review Biennial Language Access Plans of each agency more carefully and hold each agency accountable for aspirational goals, which often never come to pass.

5)      Agencies should better flag customers who do not speak English and thereinafter consistently offer services in the appropriate language for each customer. 

6)      Agencies must develop a more robust internal monitoring system to ensure that employees are complying with the law.

7)      Each agency should comply with its legal requirement to annually determine the number or proportion of limited or no-English proficient persons served or encountered, or likely to be served or encountered, by the agency.    

For more information, or to obtain a printed copy of the report, please contact Tereguebode Goungou at Many Languages, One Voice.

 

Nov 01

2011

A Celebration of DC’s Immigrant Communities

David Steib, Staff Attorney

The DC Language Access Coalition, of which the Legal Aid Society of DC is a member organization, is helping to host Many Stories, One Night, an evening celebrating DC’s immigrant communities on Thursday, November 3 from 6-9pm at the Gala Theater in Columbia Heights (3333 14th Street, NW).  

The celebration will include the screening of a short documentary film entitled “Communities in Translation.” The film, created by documentarian Robert Winn, explores the impact of language barriers during emergencies, specifically focusing on the 2008 fire of an apartment building in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC.  The celebration will also include the release of preliminary findings of “The State of Language Access in D.C.,” a comprehensive report by the DC Language Access Coalition documenting immigrants’ experiences accessing programs, services, and benefits of the DC government. 

Legal Aid Housing Attorney David Steib will be one of the MCs for the evening. Please join us for an evening of food, film, and discussion.  Interpretation and child care will be provided, and we encourage you to spread the word of this event throughout the immigrant community.  The organizers are suggesting a $10 donation to attend the event, but the donation is entirely optional.  

Please come out and show your support for Language Access!

 

 

Sep 12

2011

Legal Aid Awarded a Flom Incubator Grant

David Steib, Staff Attorney

We are delighted to announce that the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia was recently awarded a Flom Incubator Grant to help realize the goal of providing specialized representation to tenants with difficult claims in the Housing Conditions Calendar at DC Superior Court. Legal Aid is one of eighteen organizations nationwide to be awarded a Flom Incubator Grant by the Skadden Fellowship Foundation in July 2011.  The Grants are made possible by a generous testamentary bequest of Mr. Joe Flom, the founding trustee of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, as well as significant donations in Mr. Flom’s memory by Skadden partners and others in the legal community.

Legal Aid’s Flom Incubator Grant allows the Housing Law Unit to focus special attention on litigating cases in the Housing Conditions Calendar in which tenants suffer from bedbug infestations  and mold . The Grant enables Legal Aid to hire expert witnesses, where necessary, to document the problems of mold and bedbugs in our clients’ homes and to testify about them in court. The Grant also allows Legal Aid both to take more of these cases — with the goal of assisting additional tenants — and, eventually, to create helpful precedent that will be useful to tenants throughout the District. 

If you are a tenant struggling to obtain mold remediation or bedbug extermination from your landlord, or if you know such a tenant, please contact Julie Becker (jbecker@legalaiddc.org; (202) 661-5946) or David Steib (dsteib@legalaiddc.org; (202) 386-6675) for more information.

Jul 12

2011

Language Access Victory For Legal Aid Client

David Steib, Staff Attorney

Legal Aid recently obtained an important victory under the DC Language Access Act of 2004  for one of its clients. The Act requires that District government agencies “provide oral language services to a person with limited or no-English proficiency who seeks to access or participate in the services, programs, or activities offered” by the agencies.  Under the Act and its implementing regulations, agencies are instructed when to use in-person interpretation and when to use telephone interpretation service.  In all instances, some form of interpretation must be provided to ensure that a person with limited or no-English proficiency may benefit from the agency’s programs at a level equal to English proficient individuals.  

In late 2009, Ms. Lopez was living in a rented apartment riddled with Housing Code violations that her landlord refused to fix.  Ms. Lopez wanted the city to conduct an inspection of her apartment, a service offered to all tenants in the District by the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).  On several occasions, DCRA sent a monolingual English-speaking inspector to Ms. Lopez’s home.  Although Ms. Lopez is a monolingual Spanish-speaker, the inspector did not use his cell phone to call a telephone interpretation service, as he should have done pursuant to DCRA’s stated policy. Rather, the inspector entered Ms. Lopez’s home and conducted the inspection without ever speaking to her in Spanish.  Later, Ms. Lopez called DCRA to request a copy of her Inspection Report, but the DCRA employee with whom she spoke stated, “No, we don’t speak Spanish,” and hung up. Only after Ms. Lopez reached out to representatives from the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs was she able to obtain a copy of her Inspection Report, and even then, it was entirely in English.  

Several months later, with the help of Legal Aid, Ms. Lopez filed a language access complaint in the Office of Human Rights against the DCRA in 2010.  After filing her language access complaint, but before the Office of Human Rights had been able to complete its investigation, Ms. Lopez found herself in need of another inspection by DCRA because of new problems in her rented apartment.  Ms. Lopez had trouble requesting the inspection in Spanish.  Ms. Lopez and her Legal Aid attorney called DCRA together to ensure that Ms. Lopez could access the services that she needed.  Ms. Lopez’s Legal Aid attorney asked the DCRA employee on the phone to use DCRA’s contracted telephone interpretation service to communicate with Ms. Lopez. The DCRA employee did not know how to use the service and asked the Legal Aid attorney for the number.  Ms. Lopez amended her language access complaint to include the details of this phone call as well. 

Last month, the Office of Human Rights found that DCRA violated the Language Access Act by not providing Ms. Lopez interpretation services in her native language (Spanish) during a series of housing inspections of her apartment between late 2009 and early 2010, and in various communications with DCRA in or around 2010. 

However, the Office of Human Rights found that DCRA did not violate the Language Access Act by failing to translate the Inspection Report into Spanish because the intended recipient of the Inspection Report is the landlord/property owner and not the tenant.  The Language Access Act would require DCRA to translate the Inspection Report into Spanish if Ms. Lopez were the intended recipient of the report. 

Legal Aid urges DCRA to amend its regulations so that both landlords and tenants are the intended recipients of Inspection Reports detailing Housing Code violations.  This important policy change will affect all tenants in the District of Columbia, regardless of the languages that they speak.  Tenants must have information regarding violations of the Housing Code in their rental units in order to assert their rights.  As explained in Robinson v. Diamond Housing Corp., 463 F.2d 853, 862 (D.C. Cir. 1972), “the City Council has made plain that the [Housing] code is to be enforced in large part through the actions of private tenants.”  This cannot occur if tenants are unable to gather information about the documented problems in their homes.  Furthermore, just last year, DC Superior Court created a new, expedited, and pro-se friendly forum for tenants to sue their landlords to force required repairs under the Housing Code to their units.  The District’s efforts to enforce the Housing Code are stifled by DCRA’s refusal to address Inspection Reports to tenants.  Without an Inspection Report from the city, a tenant may be unaware as to whether or not the conditions in the tenant’s unit rise to the level of a violation of the Housing Code.  Without such knowledge, tenants are less likely to serve their vital role as private enforcers of the DC Housing Code.    

Legal Aid congratulates Ms. Lopez for asserting her rights and for the steps that she has taken to improve language access in the District. Legal Aid will continue to monitor DCRA’s interactions with tenants to ensure that the agency complies with the Language Access Act and with the corrective actions that the Office of Human Rights has committed to issuing as a result of Ms. Lopez’s language access complaint. 

Victoria de Acceso Lingüístico para Cliente de La Sociedad de Asistencia Legal.  
Translation by Raquel Aguirre.

Raquel Aguirre, Legal Administrative Assistant

Mar 09

2011

Language Access: Good intentions, as yet unrealized.

David Steib, Staff Attorney

Seven years ago, the DC Council passed an innovative and necessary piece of legislation: The Language Access Act of 2004.  The Act was passed in order to ensure that each resident of the District, regardless of the language that the person speaks, is able to access public services.  The Act recognizes that the District government must be able to communicate effectively with those whom it serves in order to ensure public safety, compliance with licensing and permit requirements, and effective distribution of entitlements.  For example, the DC police must be able to serve a crime victim and investigate the crime effectively whether the victim is able to speak English or speaks only Amharic.

Three years before the passage of the DC Language Access Act, the city of Oakland, California passed a very similar ordinance.  The Oakland legislation, The Equal Access to Services Ordinance, requires that city departments translate key documents into languages that are spoken by a threshold number of city residents, just like the DC Language Access Act.  The two pieces of legislation both require that government entities complete regular reports regarding the numbers of limited-English speaking persons affected by the legislation and regarding the government entities’ degree of compliance with the legislation.

Last month, the city of Oakland settled two lawsuits which arose from the city’s failure to comply with the Equal Access to Services Ordinance. See http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/02/17/BAKM1HO6L1.DTL .  See also http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_17407096?nclick_check=1.  City departments in Oakland failed to comply with the ordinance by neglecting to turn in the annual reports that they were obligated to complete, failing to translate the documents that they were required to translate, and ignoring the hiring standards that the ordinance had created to increase the number of bilingual city employees.

Sadly, the similarities between the ordinance in Oakland and the Act in the District extend even into the realm of compliance.  DC government entities are not meeting their requirements under the Language Access Act.  Last week, the DC City Council held oversight hearings for the Office of Human Rights, the government office charged with coordinating implementation and enforcement of the Language Access Act.  Several advocates from the DC Language Access Coalition, of which Legal Aid is a member organization, presented testimony regarding ways in which the Office of Human Rights is failing to meet its obligations under the Language Access Act.  The testimony presented by the Legal Aid Society of DC focused on two serious problems that the Office of Human Rights is failing to address, as required by law: 1) DC government agencies are not collecting and reporting data concerning languages spoken by populations served or encountered, or likely to be served or encountered, by the agencies; and 2) DC government agencies are not translating vital documents into required non-English languages.  See testimony.

We hope the victory in Oakland will raise awareness of language access issues nationally and inspire other jurisdictions with language access laws (including the District) to take these issues seriously.  We look forward to working with the new Administration to make the promise of the Language Access Act real for our client community.

Jul 19

2010

Advice for Prospective Fellows

Skadden Fellow, Staff Attorney

Legal Aid’s own Skadden Fellow, David Steib, is a featured contributor on PSLawNet’ s July 16, 2010 blog.  He provides insight into the fellowship application process and how to approach project-based fellowship applications.  Great information for the prospective fellow!   Please check the blog HERE.