Last Fall, the Foundation of Federal Bar Association (FBA) awarded the association’s Chicago Chapter a grant for the “Legal Education in the Community: The Rights and Responsibilities of the Family Home” program, which was presented to the Bluhm Legal Clinic and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professors Juliet Sorensen and Sam Tenenbaum. After almost a year, the program launched this October.
The community-based education program is targeted at adult learners and covers the legal rights and responsibilities of home ownership. It launched online due to lingering concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Sorensen, clinical professor of law at the Bluhm Legal Clinic, says there’s a silver lining to the new online approach. “Many of our clients are older community members who, previously, faced a digital divide. During COVID they entered the world of the internet and digital communications,” she says. “The other [positive] is that we create an enduring resource.” The website is multi-media, including short modules about purchasing, owning, and transferring property, and a series of videos accompanied by printed materials, all of which will be guided by professionals in the field.
The Foundation’s Chapter Community Outreach Grants are designed to support community service and outreach projects that involve FBA chapter participation. “The Federal Bar Association and its Chicago Chapter remain interested in the welfare of communities across this country—and stand firmly against those who try to exploit vulnerable populations,” said Barry Fields, president of the Chicago Chapter, in the initial press release.
Northwestern Pritzker Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic faculty and students have helped design and carry out the program in partnership with Rev. Robin Hood, a North Lawndale community organizer, and Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere (MOVE), a community-based organization that has long worked with the Clinic on behalf of its clients and other elderly homeowners in North Lawndale. In addition to Rev. Hood, WGN-TV reporter Tonya Francisco has also contributed to the program material. She has reported on many of the mortgage fraud cases throughout the Chicagoland area for years. “The goal is really community-based financial literacy,” says Sorensen. “We want people to regard this as a trusted resource and to be drawn to it in the first place. These are familiar faces, these are trusted faces, and so it’s really setting up this site to be a useful resource.”
“Financial exploitation of vulnerable seniors is an epidemic.”
In January 2019, the Clinic announced a partnership with Rev. Hood and MOVE on behalf of victims of Mark Diamond, a Chicago man who has been charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois with defrauding more than 120 homeowners in a reverse mortgage scheme. In December, Sorensen and Tenenbaum filed a complaint on behalf of their 42 clients who were victims of the mortgage fraud scheme—seeking a declaratory judgment voiding all of the fraudulently obtained reverse mortgages. That case is still pending.
“Financial exploitation of vulnerable seniors is an epidemic,” said Sorensen in the initial grant press release. “The support of the Foundation of the Federal Bar Association allows us to design a program, consistent with our ongoing representation of victims of a predatory mortgage fraud scheme, that empowers community members to appreciate the rights and responsibilities of homeownership.”
“This work by Professor Sorensen, Professor Tenenbaum and dozens of Northwestern Pritzker Law students is exactly what clinical legal education is about. It’s an opportunity for law students, under the careful supervision of dedicated and creative professors, to understand the damage the law can do, and to experience the good the law can do,” says Robin Walker Sterling, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic. “Particularly now, when systemic racism is at the forefront of our national consciousness, it is critical that new lawyers learn tools to recognize systemic racism and tactics to combat it.”