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Hogan Lovells Pro Bono Team Secures Victory for Washington, D.C.-area Homeless Families

18 December 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. 18 December 2014 – Hogan Lovells proudly announces that a pro bono team has secured a victory for homeless families in the District of Columbia. Today, the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed the D.C. Superior Court’s preliminary injunction against the District of Columbia’s illegal and unsafe communal placement of homeless families in gymnasiums on freezing nights. The decision marks a critical victory for D.C.’s homeless family population.

Under D.C. law, homeless families are entitled to shelter when the temperature drops below freezing. To protect the families’ health and safety, the shelter must be apartment-style housing or private rooms. Despite this explicit legal requirement, last winter the District Government began housing homeless families on cots in gymnasiums, with inadequate safety precautions and no privacy or access to bathing facilities. In response, a team of pro bono lawyers from Hogan Lovells, with assistance from the Washington Legal Clinic from the Homeless, filed a class action lawsuit against the District.

At an initial hearing, members of the class action provided testimony on the unsafe and unsanitary conditions to which their children were exposed in the recreation center and an expert testified as to the short- and long-term trauma that the children would suffer as a result. Following that hearing, D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Okun ruled in favor of the families, issuing a preliminary injunction. The District appealed that injunction to the D.C. Court of Appeals, and oral argument took place on 26 September 2014. During the oral argument, the District of Columbia did not dispute that it has a statutory obligation to place homeless families in apartment-style or private room shelter. Instead, the District argued that the plaintiff families have no right under the Homeless Services Reform Act to sue the District to enforce the law. The District also set forth additional attacks on the Superior Court’s decision regarding the District’s alleged inability to comply and the admission of expert testimony. The Court of Appeals rejected all of the District’s arguments. Most importantly, the Court concluded that “the plaintiff families were empowered to sue in severe weather for the full measure of the statutory protections afforded them – protections which are an integral part of the Council’s continuing effort to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of homeless families in the District.”

As the frigid temperatures continue this winter, homeless families can rest assured: D.C.’s Homeless Services Reform Act is no empty promise. Families are entitled to protect their right to safe and private shelter during hypothermic conditions.

Washington, D.C. associate Allison Holt led the Hogan Lovells pro bono team that included Washington D.C. of counsel Jonathan Abram, and Washington, D.C. associates Lance Murashige, Jennifer Brechbill, and Robert Toll.

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