Spotlight on Douglas E. Gershuny, Esq., Executive Director of South Jersey Legal Services

LRRC and Community Partners Spotlight Series

How did you get to your current position?

I have always wanted to be a lawyer, and I have always wanted to be a lawyer to help people. After serving in the army, I went to college, worked as an organizer in Pittsburgh and New York, and eventually went to CUNY School of Law to get my law degree. I’ve never liked bullies, and from the start, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer for those who are the underdogs of society, people who are struggling financially or otherwise.

Can you tell us about South Jersey Legal Services?

We provide free legal aid and advice to income-eligible clients facing a wide range of legal difficulties. From the two counties we served when I came on board in 1991, we’ve expanded to serve nine, and we handle almost 10,000 cases each year – only 20% of the need out there! Some of the issues that we deal with include eviction and foreclosure, bankruptcy, domestic violence, Section 8, welfare and public benefits, consumer debt collection, and veterans’ rights. Have you been informed by a public service agency of your right to a fair hearing? We’re the people you want to contact.

What does the intake process look like here?

Potential clients call our centralized intake hotline, where they are screened for eligibility and case type. If the details add up to something we can take on, the case is sent to a local office and is assigned to one of our attorneys.

How might a case proceed from there?

Say a client was wrongfully denied benefits of some sort. We would file a request for a fair hearing, but before going down to the hearing, we like to look at the file and try to work things out. Often we find that the agency made a clerical error, or did some bad math. Sometimes there’s been a cross-cultural misunderstanding. If we see a recurring issue, we take a more strategic approach to try and change the decision-making process.

What would you like the public to know about your organization?

We do public outreach to get the word out about our services, and legal notices often list our contact information. People are cautious, though; they’re not sure whose side we’re on. Here’s what you need to know: we’re your lawyers and we’re here to work for you. My team of over 50 lawyers has a wide range of experience and excellent supervision, but the truth is that the nature of this work draws the go-getters, the self-starters, the advocates who can assert themselves on behalf of our clients. I’m also proud of the relationships we have with private attorneys. There are about 600 professionals in private practice, great people who want to help others, and they work with us by taking on cases pro bono. Our attorneys can also connect clients with social services and resources.

Can you share a memorable case?

We recently won two unemployment cases in the New Jersey Supreme Court. Here’s a question: A person leaves his job because he or she accepted another job offer, but the offer is withdrawn before the new job starts. Does this person qualify for unemployment benfits? We went to court on behalf of a woman, a teacher, who was in this position, and we won. It was a victory for a lot of working people.

We also deal with a lot of housing issues. I remember one family who lived in a Lakewood condo for 10 years. Unfortunately, they fell on hard times; job loss and the closure of a family business forced them into the process of foreclosure. We had an advocate contact the bank to see whether the clients would qualify for a loan modification based on their income, and after much back and forth, the clients were advised to seek a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Attorney to save their home. Based on our advice and advocacy, the clients are now in the process of restructuring their loan and saving their home.

Another case that came out of Lakewood involved a low-income family with five children whose father visited local food pantries and received weekly food delivery packages to supplement her SNAP benefits and feed his family. Upon recertifying for SNAP benefits, this client was told by the Board of Social Services that he did not qualify for future benefits due to the help from community organizations. The client was referred to us by The LRRC and contacted us for help appealing the termination. We pointed out that the regulations did not bar SNAP recipients from subsidizing their meager benefits with fresh food from pantries, and the Board rescinded their decision. Because of our advocacy, the client’s benefits were reinstated.

What’s your mission statement?

South Jersey Legal Services, Inc. is a non-profit organization created to provide quality legal representation and advocacy to low-income individuals. We seek to empower low-income individuals to access the judicial system so they will achieve the greatest possible measure of substantive, procedural, social and economic justice.