By ALFREDO ALVARADO
Sept. 15 marked the 39th anniversary of the Municipal Employees Legal Services, one of District Council 37’s most successful programs.
Established in 1977, MELS is one of the few pre-paid legal services offered to union members in the country.
“When DC 37 started, I thought more unions would follow suit,” said MELS Chief Counsel and Director Joan Beranbaum, who was one of the first attorneys hired by MELS. “But that hasn’t been the case.”
After starting as a pilot program, MELS is still going strong, offering eligible union members free legal services to assist them in a variety of issues from help with filing for a divorce, writing a will and becoming a citizen. The plan does not handle criminal cases.
Members who are going up against an unscrupulous landlord can get assistance and be represented by a MELS attorney in Housing Court.
Buying a home for the first time can be confusing and intimidating. But an attorney from the MELS Real Estate Unit, the largest of seven units, will take his or her clients through the initial steps all the way to the closing.
MELS has 65 lawyers, 19 legal assistants and seven social workers. “Our staff work solely for our members,” Beranbaum said.
The Matrimonial and Family Court units offer services for members who are going through a divorce, custody issues and other family issues. Maxine Newkirk is one of the many members who has gotten help from MELS.
Newkirk lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and has seen old friends move away as the rents have shot up. Looking to capitalize on the neighborhood’s trendy status, landlords look for ways to push long-time residents like Newkirk out so they can increase the rent.
In Newkirk’s building, adjacent to Medgar Evers College, the landlord neglected her numerous requests for repairs to her apartment. A persistent water leak, a defective stove, holes in the floor all went unattended for months until Newkirk decided to take matters into her own hands and withhold her rent.
“The landlord sued me for back rent,” Newkirk said. She contacted MELS for help and was assigned an attorney, Christina Bernardo, to represent her. Every time she had a hearing at Housing Court, she had a MELS attorney at her side. “That’s what they’re there for, to help members like me,” said the now retired member of Local 1549.
Newkirk’s attorney reached an agreement with the landlord and she got a rent abatement of $2, 385 for two months’ rent and a commitment to make the repairs she asked for.
Newkirk’s daughter is also a member of DC 37 and she knows about all the services MELS provides.
“When she started to work for the city that’s one of the first things I told her about,” Newkirk said.
Eva Ozoria has lived and worked in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood for more than 30 years. She recently retired from her job at PS 98 as a School Aide. When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Ozoria left the apartment where she had been living and moved into her mother’s apartment to help take care of her.
When her mother died, Ozoria wanted to stay in the apartment, but the landlord quickly moved to have her evicted. “When I got the eviction notice I was shocked,” recalled the Local 372 member. “I was worried because I had nowhere to go.”
The MELS Real Estate Unit intervened on her behalf and presented her case to the landlord, pointing out that being in the apartment for more than two years and being 62 gave Ozoria succession rights to live there. “She’s the best,” said Ozoria of Admarie Llewellyn, the attorney who represented her. “I couldn’t have had better representation.”
MELS has seen an increase of members who have been victims of identity theft, which can result in fraudulent charges on a credit card. Local 2906 member William Bailey was surprised when he received his Macy’s credit card statement with $1,600 in fraudulent charges. He contacted Macy’s to report the mistake, but the iconic department store refused to remove the charges and instead kept calling and sending statements to collect the money.
His wife reached out to MELS for help and the program’s Consumer Unit quickly filed a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Board. Within a couple of days, the charges for items the couple never purchased were removed from their credit card.
MELS reaches out to members
Throughout its history MELS has reached out to thousands of members to make them aware of the many types of legal services the program provides at no cost. Staffers have organized forums on debt and financial management, warning members against applying for payday loans, which charge exorbitant interest rates and fees. They’ve presented forums with the union’s Citizenship Committee, the Civic Participation Project and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to help put members, like Local 420 member Lassey Mensah, on the path to citizenship.
A coworker told Mensah MELS would help take him through the process for becoming an American citizen. “They took care of everything so fast,” said Mensah, who is from West Africa. “Within 90 days I was a citizen!”
School Lunch Helper Jorge Julio Jara was reluctant to apply for citizenship because he didn’t speak English well. When he contacted MELS, he learned he was eligible to take the exam in Spanish because he was more than 50 years old and had a green card for more than 20 years.
“If you don’t have the right information you can waste a lot of time and money,” said the Local 372 member. “I’m lucky because I had the union’s help.”
Members always look forward to “Ask a Lawyer Night,” the most popular forum MELS offers. On that night, members have the opportunity to sit down with a union attorney for a free private consultation. These sessions are held several times a year, usually at union headquarters, and sometimes in communities around the city.
“The legal services MELS provides can save members hundreds sometimes thousands of dollars. But you can’t put a price tag on the peace of mind and sense of relief MELS brings to members and their families,” said DC 73 Executive Director Henry Garrido. ”