Fair housing nonprofit withdraws lawsuit after R.I. Supreme Court’s rule revision

PROVIDENCE – The R.I. Supreme Court has revised a rule that resolves objections that had been raised in a federal lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island on behalf of SouthCoast Fair Housing, which had been prevented by the rule from providing legal help to victims of housing discrimination in Rhode Island.

SouthCoast Fair Housing is dismissing its lawsuit because of the revisions, according to the ACLU.

As the rule, known as Rule 11, had been written, nonprofits could not obtain a license to practice law in the state unless they served only “indigent” clients, the ACLU said.

The revised rule, entered on Oct. 17, eliminates that requirement.

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SouthCoast Fair Housing said it is a nonprofit organization that promotes fair housing practices and works to ensure affordable housing opportunities for all.

It has expertise in handling claims under the Fair Housing Act, including families who are denied housing because they have young children. Some of those complainants are not indigent but cannot afford private counsel either or are otherwise interested in relying on the organization’s expertise for their legal matters, the ACLU said. SCFH provides assistance regardless of income status.

In May 2017, SouthCoast Fair Housing applied for a license to practice law in Rhode Island but was rejected because its assistance to victims of housing discrimination was not limited to those who are indigent.

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys Mark W. Freel and Jeffrey Ankrom of Locke Lord LLP, argued that “the requirement in Rule 11 that nonprofits restrict their client base to ‘indigent’ clients is unreasonable, arbitrary and not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.”

The lawsuit claimed the rule violated the rights of SouthCoast Fair Housing and its potential clients under the First Amendment to freely associate and to seek redress of grievances.

The suit noted that other rules of the court recognized that it is not just the poor, but “sometimes persons who are not poor” who are unable to afford adequate legal assistance. The revised rule also eliminates a second challenged provision that required the nonprofits, unlike other legal entities, to be incorporated in Rhode Island.

“We are pleased that the court has modified this rule,” Kristina da Fonseca, executive director of SouthCoast Fair Housing, said in a news release. “We expect this change will lead to increased access to legal services, both for those who are low-income and for those who are not. SCFH looks forward to applying for a license under this modified Rule, and hopes to soon offer legal services in Rhode Island to individuals who have experienced housing discrimination.”