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A challenge to federal restrictions on the representation of poor clients by legal services programs has been filed by a private attorney who says that they unconstitutionally limit his pro bono work. David Dobbins of New York’s Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler claims the restrictions interfere with his First Amendment right to donate his services. They restrict his right to associate with the legal services office and its clients to pursue the litigation, he maintains. The suit brings together as plaintiffs Dobbins, a private foundation and several legal services programs that receive federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), including one called MFY in New York. Dobbins v. Legal Services Corporation, No. CV-01-8371 (E.D.N.Y.). The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction and have also filed a motion to consolidate the suit with another challenge to the law. David Udell of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which is bringing the case, says that it is meant to reduce barriers to attorneys willing to represent vulnerable people in need of legal help. THE LAW The federal law restricts federally funded lawyers for the poor from bringing certain kinds of cases, including those on behalf of certain immigrants and class action suits. It also prohibits the legal services offices for the poor from collecting attorney fees, even if the fees are ordered by a court. LSC distributes government money for the poor to legal services programs across the United States. It issued regulations in 1997 permitting its grantees to offer the prohibited services using private money if the program had an office housed in a separate physical facility for that kind of work. Dobbins challenges both the restrictions and the LSC’s rule that requires separate facilities to pursue work that is prohibited even if the programs are using private, state or city funds. Dobbins said that he brought the suit out of frustration at not being able to bring a class action on behalf of mentally disabled people against the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for its alleged discriminatory policy on discounted tickets. MFY, a New York legal office, receives about 30 percent of its money from the LSC. It has only one office, so it cannot participate in any class action, even using privately donated funds, because it does not have a separate facility for that work. Dobbins said that he did not think he could litigate the case alone since MFY has a better relationship and understanding of the needs of the client population. So although he drafted the transit complaint, neither he nor MFY filed it. LSC’s lawyer, Alan Levine of Kronish Lieb Weiner & Hellman in New York, deferred to his client to comment on Dobbins’ challenge to the law. “Our role at LSC continues to be to vigorously defend and enforce the will of Congress as it pertains to the expenditure of federal dollars on legal services,” said LSC Vice President Mauricio Vivero. “The courts of appeals for the 2nd and the 9th circuits have already upheld the constitutionality of the nonwelfare restrictions, and notably, the Supreme Court declined to review either of those decisions,” he said. Last February, the Supreme Court struck down one of the 1996 restrictions, which said that federal funds could not be used to challenge existing welfare laws. The Court found that the law was a violation of the First Amendment. LSC v. Velazquez, 69 U.S.L.W. 4157.

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