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The Greens are by no means a perfect family. Norris Green Jr. has a criminal record that includes arrests for theft and drug possession. His wife, Dontieia, says she smokes marijuana to quiet the voices in her head. The family, which includes Norris’ two children, has spent more than two years in a D.C. homeless shelter program that was intended to last just 90 days. Over the past eight months, the Greens racked up nearly 60 alleged violations of shelter rules. In August, the shelter told the Greens they had to go. To keep from being tossed out, the family filed a claim with the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, a nine-month-old court that handles appeals from residents challenging city agency decisions. The court was intended to be a much fairer forum for such cases to be heard, while remaining easy for the general public to use. The Greens are like a lot of people who use the court. They didn’t have a lawyer, were unfamiliar with the court’s 40-page manual of rules and procedures, and have no legal training to interpret a judge’s decision. To make matters worse, they showed up 15 minutes late to their Oct. 22 hearing. When they did arrive, they found their case had already been heard by the judge. Later that day, they were handed a letter from shelter operators stating their case had been dismissed and that they had to vacate the shelter within three days. On Oct. 25, the day the Greens were to be ejected, the judge issued a five-page order outlining steps the Greens could take to have their case reinstated. But by the time the family figured that out, they were out of the shelter and most of their possessions were thrown in the trash. Advocates for the poor say the Greens’ case is a prime example of what’s wrong with the new Office of Administrative Hearings. In their view, it’s too bureaucratic and inflexible in dealing with a poor and often troubled clientele. The court, they say, creates confusion for nonlawyers that is leading to unfavorable decisions made on technicalities rather than on the merits of a case. “It’s a very legalese-riddled process that pro se people can’t comply with,” says Sczerina Perot, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who represents the Green family. “They can’t understand the language being used. Even I have trouble reading some of this.” But court officials say they are simply attempting to build a system that doles out justice fairly. They face a dilemma in creating a court that is user-friendly, while still retaining the structure needed to effectively administer cases. Lisa Coleman, general counsel of the Office of Administrative Hearings, says the court is aware that a large portion of its users are people who cannot afford lawyers and that the court has taken steps to help them navigate the process. Specifically, Coleman says, a two-page sheet explaining hearing procedures is given to claimants, and clerks are available to explain how to use the court. At the hearing, judges also walk pro se litigants through the process. In addition, she says, judges are trained to give litigants leeway when they don’t use precise legal terminology in their filings. Still, Coleman says formal rules and procedures are necessary to ensure all parties receive fair treatment. “The rules are there for everyone’s protection,” she says. AN INDEPENDENT OFFICE D.C.’s Office of Administrative Hearings was opened in late March. It handles nearly all litigation stemming from D.C. agency decisions. Thirteen judges preside over roughly 85,000 cases ranging from trash violations to tax matters to professional license issues. About 6 percent of its caseload involves public benefits matters stemming from the Department of Human Services. Prior to its creation, challenges to agency decisions were handled by administrative judges within the agencies themselves. By placing administrative judges within their own independent office, city leaders strove to create a system that was not beholden to the whims of any D.C. agency. The court has also committed to being a relatively simple place for D.C. residents to resolve issues. “We want to make [the court] easy to use. Our mission statement includes that, as well as impartiality and fairness,” Coleman says. But since its inception, the hearings office has been petitioned by advocacy organizations, led by D.C.’s Legal Aid Society, who complain that the court’s rules are too complex for the poor and uneducated. They point out that such people are usually without lawyers and use the court when life-sustaining benefits such as housing, food stamps, and Medicaid, are at risk. Eric Angel, legal director of the Legal Aid Society, says his organization is currently representing a woman whose case was dismissed this summer after she failed to appear for a hearing. The woman, who was contesting an agency decision regarding her food stamps, had called the D.C. Department of Human Services to tell them she couldn’t make the hearing because her sister had died. According to Angel, agency officials told her that they would file “the necessary paperwork.” The agency did file papers informing the judge that the woman had requested a continuance and that the government did not object. In dismissing the petition, the judge ruled that the woman never filed a motion herself explaining why she could not appear. “It’s absurd,” Angel says. “No court in the world would not accept this continuance.” Coleman says she cannot comment on Legal Aid’s case because it is pending, but adds that the court requires all motions � besides those requested in open court � to be filed in writing to ensure fairness. The advocacy groups also turned to D.C. Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, who represents Ward 3 and chairs the Judiciary Committee. In October, Patterson sent a letter to Tyrone Butler, chief judge of the administrative court, requesting that he meet with the advocacy groups. The parties are scheduled to meet on Dec. 13. “What concerns me is all of us have a responsibility to meet the needs of our vulnerable population. If we have inadvertently set up procedures that are harmful to them, we have to fix that,” Patterson says. A TROUBLED HISTORY It probably should come as no surprise that the Greens faced trouble with the hearing system. The family history is, to put it mildly, troubled. Dontieia Green says she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and manic depression at age 9 after she tried to commit suicide. She says she constantly hears voices and takes a variety of prescribed drugs to keep her calm. But “nothing has worked except marijuana,” Dontieia says. The 36-year-old has three children from earlier relationships. The children are cared for by others. Norris Green, 39, has always had trouble finding steady work. He has also had his problems with the law. Since 1985, he has been arrested by D.C. police six times for crimes ranging from possession of PCP to failure to pay bus fare, according to court records. Nearly all of his criminal cases resulted in dismissals, and his most recent arrest was in 2000 for allegedly violating a protective order. Norris has four children from other relationships. His two daughters � 13-year-old Chantel and 10-year-old Jazmine � live with him and Dontieia. Norris says most of his work consists of part-time construction jobs that pay, at most, $400 a week. Since they were married two and a half years ago, the Greens have lived in D.C. shelters. At first, the family was at D.C. Village, a large communal facility in Southwest Washington. In the summer of 2002, the Greens moved to the Spring Road Family Apartments shelter in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where they currently reside. The Greens overstayed their welcome. The Spring Road shelter is intended to be a temporary program with the goal of moving families into affordable housing. The Greens have been living there for two years and four months. Shelter residents must sign a contract with shelter operators that requires them to comply with a series of rules, such as obeying a curfew, making weekly searches for housing, meeting regularly with social workers, and placing 30 percent of any income into an escrow account. Shelter manager Nola Dixon claims that, since March, the Greens have violated the terms of their contract 58 times, according to papers filed in the administrative case. The violations include failure to meet with their case manager, failure to attend drug awareness meetings, failure to search for housing, not meeting curfew, not placing money in escrow, and refusing to sign a 30-day behavioral contract. In August, the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless � the nonprofit that contracts with the city to run the shelter � told the Greens they were being expelled. “They have not put any effort into moving on,” shelter manager Dixon said last week. Dixon declined to discuss the Greens’ case further, saying she needed approval from the coalition’s director. Michael Ferrell, the coalition’s executive director, says he can’t talk about the Green case because of confidentiality rules. Norris Green claims the shelter rules were just too hard to follow and did not take into account his family’s particular situation. For example, he says the shelter required that both he and his wife be present at meetings with the social worker. But most of these meetings were scheduled, he says, during the day when he was working. Norris says he was also required to show that he made 10 searches a week for housing. Many apartments, however, charge unrefundable application fees ranging from $10 to $30, which Norris says he couldn’t afford. “We both have bad credit,” he says. “Some places would not even give us an application because of our income.” GOING TO COURT In a Sept. 14 letter, Dixon told the Greens that they could appeal the expulsion decision to the administrative court. They did just that. On the day of their hearing, Norris says, he thought they had plenty of time to reach the court by 2:30 p.m. as they boarded a D.C. bus at the Petworth Metro station and headed to 1 Judiciary Square, N.W. The bus, however, ran into heavy traffic when it reached Chinatown that Friday afternoon, Norris says. By the time they arrived, the Greens were nearly 15 minutes late, and the hearing had already ended. Norris says court officials told him the case could not be called before the judge without the presence of the shelter operator, who had already left. Norris says the clerks also told him that the court was closing early for the weekend and to come back on Monday. At that point, Norris says, he didn’t know what to do. The administrative court’s Coleman says the hearings office remained open until at least 5 p.m. on Oct. 22. Later that afternoon, shelter manager Dixon wrote a letter to the Greens stating that Judge Paul Handy had dismissed their case and that they had to leave the premises by 4 p.m. on Oct. 25. In her letter, Dixon also stated that the Greens could file an appeal with the D.C. Court of Appeals and provided the court’s telephone number. Coleman says confidentiality rules prevent her from discussing the Greens’ case, but that, generally, judges give parties ample time to arrive for their hearing. “Our general practice is to wait at least 10 minutes even before going on the record, and a lot of judges wait longer,” Coleman says. “We do give them time to show, but with so many cases, we do try to have a schedule set.” On the morning of Oct. 25, Norris filed a one-sentence motion to the administrative court saying he would like to appeal Handy’s ruling. Court records show the document was filed with the administrative court at 9:01 a.m. Two hours later, Handy issued a four-page final order dismissing the Greens’ petition because they had failed to appear. Advocates say the judge’s order highlights the problems pro se litigants are having with the court. For one, they say it contains conflicting information. On the third page, Handy noted that the Greens could file a request for reconsideration by Nov. 5. However, the next page contained an explanation of how parties had the right to challenge decisions by filing an appeal with the D.C. Court of Appeals. Additionally, advocates contend nonlawyers cannot understand the difference between legal terms such as reconsideration and appeal. “No one who is pro se should be expected to understand language of this intricacy,” says Perot, the Greens’ lawyer. At 4 p.m. on the 25th, the police were called, and the Greens were ejected from the shelter. With nowhere to go, most of their possessions and clothing remained behind. The Greens spent the next three nights at a Budget Inn, spending the few dollars they had left. Norris returned to the administrative court on Oct. 28 to file a second appeal. He also filed one at the D.C. Court of Appeals. A day later, the Greens found help from Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which appeared on their behalf in the administrative court and asked the judge to consider the appeals as a request for reconsideration. That same day, Handy ruled that they could return to the shelter and eventually reinstated their case. In court papers, Perot argues that many of the alleged violations cited by the shelter are duplicative, vague, and untimely. Still, the confusion over procedure continues. On Nov. 24, Judge Handy noted that the D.C. Court of Appeals had decided to accept the Greens’ earlier appeal. That move, the judge noted, removed the case from the administrative court’s jurisdiction. On Nov. 30, the parties agreed to a mediation session in the administrative court in an attempt to settle the case. And while it appears the Greens are getting a second chance to argue their case � this time with a lawyer at their side � they could still be ejected. Perot acknowledges, “It’s a pretty dicey case. There’s a pretty low standard to be evicted from a shelter.”

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