Groups sue MVD for denying non-REAL ID licenses & ID cards to eligible New Mexicans

SANTA FE, NM – Today, civil rights groups and homeless advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department (TRD) and the Motor Vehicles Division (MVD) on behalf of New Mexicans who were illegally denied Driver’s Authorizations Cards (DACs) and non-REAL ID identification cards, charging that the state has failed to fully and correctly implement its two-tiered driver’s license law.

The requirement of unnecessary documentation for DAC’s and non-federally compliant ID cards has caused chaos at local MVDs and major confusion and frustration for applicants across New Mexico. The lawsuit challenges MVD’s onerous and illegal regulations governing the issuance of non-REAL ID licenses and identification cards, including the illegal practices of requiring proof of identification number and not providing adequate due process to applicants who are denied.

The lead plaintiff, Santa Fe’s former Mayor David Coss, was denied a DAC four times at his local MVD because he lost his social security card, which is not a requirement under the law.  Coss, whose long-held driver’s license has since expired, was also not provided an adequate process to appeal the denial.

“A driver’s license and ID card are not luxuries,” said Coss at Monday’s press conference. “I’m the primary childcare provider to my toddler grandchildren, and I drive them around town. I’m also the guardian of my 86-year-old father who suffered a stroke last year. I need my license to carry out my daily responsibilities. I followed the law and took my paperwork into MVD before my license expired but was turned away every time. I know I’m not the only New Mexican dealing with this nightmare.”

Individual plaintiffs denied licenses and ID cards are joined by organizational plaintiffs, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, and Somos Un Pueblo Unido (Somos) in the lawsuit. David Urias of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, P.A. is the lead counsel on the legal team that includes attorneys from Somos, ACLU-NM, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The plaintiffs include senior citizen, immigrant, and homeless individuals who need a license or ID to go to work or school, obtain housing, medical care or other necessities, but were illegally denied an MVD credential without written notice detailing the reasons for the denial or information about how to appeal it.

“It is quite common for people to lose their ID and other paperwork when they become homeless,” said Hank Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “Getting a new ID is essential for them as they get back on their feet. You cannot rent an apartment or even a motel room without an ID. We are asking MVD to follow the law and make it possible for people to replace lost or stolen IDs quickly.”

In 2016, Republican and Democratic legislators came together and created a two-tiered driver’s license system that gives New Mexicans the choice to opt in or out of the federal REAL ID Act. According to the law, the state must provide a REAL ID-compliant license or ID card to eligible residents who want it and can meet the federal government’s onerous requirements. An alternative non-REAL ID license or ID card for otherwise eligible applicants who do not meet the federal requirements or simply do not want a REAL ID, must also be made available.

“REAL ID was always a bad idea,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM.  “The spirit of the 2016 bipartisan fix is not being honored. The Legislature understood just how difficult getting a REAL ID license would be for many New Mexicans. That is why legislators worked hard to ensure people had an alternative, especially vulnerable New Mexicans like people experiencing homelessness, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, senior citizens and people living in in rural communities.”

“After a protracted six-year battle on driver’s licenses, the New Mexico Legislature voted to create an alternative to the REAL ID Act for all New Mexicans, not just immigrants,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. “For over a year, we worked with allied groups throughout the state to educate the public about its rights and advocate for a better process at MVD. Everyone has done their job except this administration. Our goal with this lawsuit is to help resolve these issues quickly for all New Mexicans.”

“An identification card is a basic necessity to function in everyday life, but the MVD is illegally requiring unnecessary and overly burdensome documentation that most folks simply cannot come up with. The harm caused by the illegal requirements is compounded by the MVD’s failure to provide a way for New Mexicans to challenge an erroneous denial of driver’s license or ID card.” said Sovereign Hager, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The MVD should follow the law rather than wrecking the lives of people who need an ID to drive, support their families, and find housing.”

The defendants in the lawsuit are the TRD, acting Cabinet Secretary John Monforte, MVD, and acting director Alicia Ortiz.

Click here to view a copy of the complaint: http://nmpovertylaw.org/coss-v-monforte-january-2018/

Click here to view plaintif profiles: http://nmpovertylaw.org/plaintiff-stories-coss-v-manforte-lawsuit/

Community Organizations Ask Court to Protect Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Ballot Initiative

By Elizabeth Wagoner, Supervising Attorney for Workers’ Rights

NMCLP Staff Attorney Tim Davis speaks at the May 4 press conference. Photo Credit: OLÉ

On May 4, 2017, several community organizations filed motions to intervene and motions to dismiss in a lawsuit that corporate and industry groups filed to attempt to overturn the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance (MWO) and keep the Albuquerque Healthy Workforce Ordinance off the 2017 ballot. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty represents the intervenors in this case.

The increases to the Albuquerque minimum wage passed in 2012 with the overwhelming support of Albuquerque voters. Now, almost five years later, corporate business interests seek to undercut the democratic process and invalidate the Albuquerque Minimum Wage, cutting the wages of hard working people across Albuquerque by $1.30 – from $8.80 per hour to $7.50 per hour. The corporate interests’ legal challenge to the Healthy Workforce Ordinance ballot initiative is a similarly undemocratic effort by corporations to keep Albuquerque voters, as is their right, from deciding whether workers should have the right to earn sick leave to recover from illness or care for ill family members. The corporate plaintiffs in the lawsuit do not stop there, however. They also ask this Court to take away the voters’ democratic right to propose and vote on ballot initiatives ever again.

The community organizations that fought successfully to put these important workplace rights on the ballot are now fighting once again to protect these laws. The first Motion to Dismiss asks the court to dismiss all of the challenges to the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance, and a second Motion to Dismiss asks the court to dismiss the Healthy Workforce Ordinance challenges. Both motions argue that the industry claims are flimsy, without merit, and are wholly without respect for the democratic process. 

Find the motions to dismiss here and here.

Find the motions to intervene here and here.

Judge Holds NM Human Services Chief in Contempt

human-services-departmentOriginally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
https://www.abqjournal.com/854783/judge-finds-contempt-in-hsd-legal-case.html

SANTA FE – A federal judge held New Mexico’s top human services official in contempt Tuesday for failing to comply with court orders aimed at improving the administration of food aid and Medicaid health care benefits.

The contempt order against Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales upheld findings that the cabinet secretary did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.

The judge, in his Tuesday order, also said objections filed by the agency were without merit and that the overall direction of the case was troubling.

“It remains clear that HSD and its officials have failed to exercise the leadership, control and managerial oversight to effectively come into compliance with the court orders,” Gonzales wrote.

However, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, which runs the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, took issue with at least part of the judge’s order.

“We strongly disagree with the judge’s characterization of the department, which doesn’t take into account all of our efforts to resolve long-standing issues – some of which are three decades old and occurred under several administrations,” HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison said. “However, we are pleased that the court has agreed with us to bring in an outside monitor to help resolve those issues.”

“Regardless, we are going to continue providing services to New Mexicans who need it the most,” he added.

The contempt finding accompanies the judge’s earlier approval of plans for a court-appointed special master to help ensure federally funded benefits are administered properly amid internal investigations by state and federal agencies into allegations that food aid applications were falsified.

The civil contempt order carries no additional sanctions or penalties.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and advocate for aid beneficiaries in the litigation, said the order sends a strong message nonetheless.

“I think this is a message that if things don’t work out with a special master and the state doesn’t come into compliance, the court will look to harsher remedies,” she said.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and there were more than 536,000 New Mexicans receiving food assistance benefits under SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps, as of July, according to HSD. That figure was up by more than 7 percent – or nearly 36,000 people – from a year earlier.

The judge’s contempt order is the latest twist in a 1988 lawsuit. Earlier this year, a series of hearings were conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza, who had been tasked with monitoring compliance with a consent decree in the lawsuit and previous court orders.

Those hearings showed potential problems with the SNAP program, including testimony that state intake workers had been ordered to falsify income for some applicants, effectively denying them emergency benefits.

The testimony prompted criticism of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration by top legislative Democrats and party officials, including a call from Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the chairman of the interim Health and Human Services Committee, for Earnest to resign.

Earnest took over as HSD secretary – after Martinez picked him for the job – in December 2014 after the agency’s former secretary stepped down.

Read the Order from Judge Gonzales here.

Op-Ed: Underfunding Medicaid is a Foolish Decision

shutterstock baby with doctor for website -2015-12-17by Abuko Estrada & Sireesha Manne

Originally published in the Albuquerque Journal, September 26, 2016. https://www.abqjournal.com/852766/underfunding-medicaid-is-a-foolish-decision.html

As taxpayers, we expect that when government spends our money it will be leveraged toward the best investments that provide the most benefits to our state.

Currently, New Mexico receives four dollars in federal funds for every state dollar invested in Medicaid. This money goes directly into patient care and supports over 50,000 mostly private-sector jobs in the state.

Rather than maximizing this $4 to $1 return on investment, New Mexico underfunded the Medicaid budget in the 2016 legislative session.

For fiscal year 2017, New Mexico is losing over $265 million in federal matching funds for Medicaid by failing to come up with $67 million to meet Medicaid’s minimum budget needs. Our health care system is taking a massive financial loss of over $330 million this year — or nearly $1 million a day!

This is a budgeting disaster for New Mexico that is expected to result in thousands of jobs being lost and, worse yet, a reduction in care to patients. Health care had been one of the only growing job sectors in the state because of the expansion of Medicaid that has added over 4,800 jobs in 2014 alone. However, due to budget shortfalls, the state has decided to reduce Medicaid payment levels for hospitals, doctors and other medical practitioners.

In response, health care providers have issued serious warnings that the low Medicaid rates will force them to downsize staff and potentially even close entire facilities.

The decision to cut Medicaid is self-defeating because New Mexico desperately needs jobs and a stronger health care system.

Nearly every county in the state – 32 out of 33 counties – has shortages for primary care, dental care and mental health care. The problems are most severe for patients in rural areas, where over 30 percent of residents live.

A prime example of health care workforce shortages is the closing of the obstetrics department at Alta Vista Regional Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M. Since 2010, three other hospitals have ceased their obstetric services, forcing expectant mothers to travel unreasonable distances for prenatal care.

Medicaid patients face the most serious consequences of these shortages. The Legislative Finance Committee recently found that up to half of providers in some areas in New Mexico are refusing to take new Medicaid patients.

Another report has found that a quarter of Dona Aña County residents needing hospitalization are going to Texas to get services. However, as illustrated in a recent news article, many doctors in Texas now refuse to see these patients because our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low.

This is just the beginning.

Medicaid provides health care coverage to two out of three children in New Mexico, as well as seniors, people with disabilities and low-income families. However, due to Medicaid budget shortfalls, the state next plans to cut health care benefits and charge higher patient fees.

Studies have shown that these changes are likely to result in massive losses of coverage for low-income families and will prevent patients from accessing needed services, only deepening New Mexico’s health care crisis.

New Mexico needs to responsibly maximize Medicaid matching funds. The first step is to fix the state’s revenue system. New Mexico is losing needed dollars to tax cuts and loopholes created in the last 15 years for large corporations and the highest-income earners, which have not proven to produce jobs or benefit the state.

There are several ways to raise revenues without hurting working families, such as freezing corporate tax rates at their current levels, which are now on par with other states and further reductions are not needed, taxing capital gains and investment income at the same rate as earned income and targeting products that are undertaxed and that are not necessities, such as new vehicles, alcohol and tobacco.

By not acting, New Mexico is losing precious resources that our state needs to spur job growth and support our health care infrastructure. Let’s put our money into our wisest investments – Medicaid is certainly one of the best.

Editorial: Shortchanging the Poor

Republished from the Las Vegas Optic. See the original column here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm (Updated: July 19, 6:42 pm)

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has concluded that the New Mexico Human Services Department should have someone looking over its shoulder to help ensure that it complies with court orders and federal law in the administration of federally funded benefits.

According to The Associated Press, Garza is also recommending a contempt finding against the agency, which oversees the distribution of federal food aid and Medicaid health care benefits to the poor.

To be sure, those are merely proposals at this point; the department has 14 days to file its objections, and the department is already saying that it doesn’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision.

Still, it’s unfortunate — though not surprising — that such extreme measures are necessary to get the department to follow the law and to finally comply with court orders that have gone unfulfilled.

The harsh measures being recommended are not surprising because of the striking testimony presented during the court proceedings in the case.

“Caseworkers’ sworn testimony that they were instructed by managers to fraudulently alter applicant information has essentially not been refuted,” Garza said. According to The Associated Press, Garza also noted that managers overseeing supplemental nutrition benefits invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the proceedings.

The Human Services Department’s office of inspector general and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating that part of the case.

We don’t doubt that the state Human Services Department has a difficult job with tight deadlines and large caseloads.

But it’s also important to remember that the agency exists to serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents.

The aid this agency provides helps our state’s poor put food on the table for their families and get medical care for them. Playing games with that aid is unconscionable and wrong.

If it takes a special master looking over the agency’s shoulder to force it to do the right thing, then so be it.

According to The Associated Press, the special master would have expertise in determining eligibility for Medicaid and food aid. That individual would also be knowledgeable with the organizational and computer systems used to manage the state’s caseload.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which brought forth the federal lawsuit on behalf of aid beneficiaries, was pleased with Garza’s decision, which was issued Monday.

“The things we have been asking for are very simple,” attorney Sovereign Hager told AP. “Train your workers on what the law requires, make sure the IT system does what it’s supposed to, make sure notices are intelligible and make sense.”

That seems reasonable to us.

NM Human Services Department Found in Contempt, Federal Magistrate Recommends Special Master

SNAP Logo

Las Cruces, NM – On Friday, July 15, 2016, Federal Magistrate Carmen Garza entered proposed findings that the NM Human Services Department (HSD) be held in contempt for failure to comply with multiple Court Orders and federal law concerning administration of food and medical assistance to eligible families. Judge Garza found that “it is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders.” Judge recommended the appointment of a Special Master with expertise in food and medical assistance be appointed to facilitate HSD’s compliance with federal law and Court Orders.

The Order comes after three days of evidentiary hearings about HSD’s failure to provide food and medical assistance to families as required by federal law. Judge Garza noted numerous violations of federal law and Court Orders by HSD, finding that worker trainings and notices to families applying for food and medical assistance are “replete with repeated mistakes” and that HSD had not brought state regulations and policies into compliance with federal law. Nor could HSD tell the Court when compliance would be achieved. The Court further noted that testimony by HSD employees that HSD staff have been altering application in order to deny eligible applicants emergency food benefits and improve HSD’s timeliness statistics “was essentially not refuted.”
In entering a finding that the Secretary Brent Earnest should be held in Contempt, Judge Garza noted the Department’s recent willingness to seek expert assistance, stating “While the Court appreciates this acknowledgement, the Court is troubled it took over thirty hours of status conferences, over five hundred pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, three days of evidentiary hearings on its Order to Show Cause, and testimony by HSD employees alleging fraud on the part of HSD, to which high level officials responded by pleading the fifth, for Defendant to discuss making these types of changes. For the question before the Court, Defendant’s realization has come entirely too late.”

As a remedy for contempt, Judge Garza recommends that the Court appoint and supervise a Special Master to act as a full time advisor and consultant to HSD. The Special Master will have expertise in food and medical assistance programs and will report to the Court on the extent of the Department’s compliance.

Judge Garza stated “Defendant’s inability to fully bring his application processing practices into compliance with the Court Orders has profound effects on the citizens of New Mexico. Indeed, when an eligible SNAP or Medicaid applicant is denied or delayed in receiving benefits, that individual loses benefits he or she may rely on to eat, feed his or her children, or to receive essential medical coverage . . . It is essential for this Court to acknowledge the need for these services to be effectively, efficiently and properly rendered to those who are eligible in this state.”

Attorneys at the Center and Law and Poverty, along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Jane Yohalem, represent the class of plaintiff applicants for food and medical assistance in the case. Gail Evans, Legal Director at the NM Center on Law and Poverty stated, “We are pleased that the Court will appoint and supervise an expert to oversee HSD’s compliance with federal law in providing food and medical assistance. The Department needs expert assistance with important changes that will help the state provide benefits accurately and efficiently. This includes IT changes, the creation of a manual and effective training for state workers and comprehensible notices to families participating in the programs. We look forward to working with the special master to bring the Department into compliance with the law.”

For more information contact Gail Evans at (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5299 or Sovereign Hager (505) 417-2084.

Read the full press release here.

Read Justice Garza’s recommendation here: Part 1 Part 2

NM Supreme Court Rules that Exclusion of Farm and Ranch Laborers from Workers’ Compensation is Unconstitutional

workers' rights option 1

Santa Fe, NM – Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the New Mexico Constitution prohibits the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the protections of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act (Act). In holding for the workers who challenged the Act, the Court said that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers “is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.” Opinion at 2.

In its review of the history and purpose of the Act, the Court concluded that “there is no unique characteristic that distinguishes injured farm and ranch laborers from other employees of agricultural employers, and such a distinction is not essential to the Act’s purposes.” Opinion at 15.

New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers are among the poorest of the working poor in our state, and consequently they cannot afford private health insurance. Their work is also very hazardous. Farm and ranch laborers work with heavy machinery, unpredictable animals and encounter harsh environmental conditions. In fact, the parties to the case agreed that farm laborers engage in dangerous work. “[A]s the parties observed at oral argument, farm and ranch laborers are engaged in a risky profession where workplace accidents frequently result from inherently unpredictable working conditions.” Opinion at 43.

Reacting to the decision the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s Legal Director Gail Evans remarked, “We are thrilled that New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers have the same right to workers’ compensation as all other workers in our state.”

For more information contact: Gail Evans (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5293 Elizabeth Wagoner (505) 255-2840 or Tim Davis (505) 255-2840

Download the full press release here.

Read the opinion from the NM Supreme Court here.