New York asks court to allow state to police nonprofit’s legal advice program

LEGAL

  • Nonprofit Upsolve won preliminary injunction bid in May
  • New York Attorney General’s Office asks appeals court to reverse ruling
  • Upsolve seeks to train non-lawyer volunteers to offer limited legal advice to debt collection defendants

(Reuters) – New York’s attorney general has asked an appeals court to overturn a ruling that blocked the state from enforcing rules against the unauthorized practice of law against a nonprofit that wants to provide limited legal advice to poor New Yorkers.

A Manhattan federal judge was wrong to rule in May that Upsolve Inc had standing to sue and that the state’s attorney-licensing requirement should be held to a heightened standard of review under the 1st Amendment, Letitia James’ office told the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

US District Judge Paul Crotty’s May decision barred James’s office from enforcing the rules against Upsolve’s planned program, which aims to train people who are not lawyers to provide free, limited legal advice to low-income New Yorkers facing debt-collection lawsuits.

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Crotty held that the state unauthorized practice of law rules cannot be applied to Upsolve’s program “because the First Amendment protects their legal advice as speech, and the UPL rules are not narrowly tailored to satisfy strict scrutiny in this context.”

Upsolve CEO Rohan Pavuluri said in an email Thursday that the May court ruling “did something that no court in the history of the United States has ever done” in its 1st Amendment holding. Upsolve believes its win will be upheld “and we look forward to our day in the Second Circuit,” he said.

On the 1st Amendment issue, the Attorney General’s Office argued in its filing that the unauthorized law statutes are not subject to strict scrutiny because the rules “regulate the conduct of practicing law, and have at most an incidental and content-neutral effect on nonlawyers ‘ speech.”

Even so, the rules are likely to survive any level of 1st Amendment review applied because they serve the government’s interests in regulating the practice of law, the office said.

The office also took issue with Upsolve’s training materials and argued that stopping the “unauthorized practice of law is the only way to ensure that plaintiffs do not expose low-income New Yorkers to the dangers of unauthorized law practice.”

The lower court case, filed by Upsolve and co-plaintiff Reverend John Udo-Okon, a pastor in the South Bronx, generated support for Upsolve from civil rights groups and law professors and opposition to the group’s efforts by New York civil legal services organizations and others.

The case is Upsolve Inc v. James, 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-1345

For Upsolve and Udo-Okon: Robert Niles-Weed, Greg Silbert and Zachary Tripp of Weil, Gotshal & Manges

For James: Cleland Welton of the New York State Office of the Attorney General

Read more:

NY nonprofit may help debtors without breaking legal practice rules, judge says

NY legal orgs oppose nonprofit’s plan to give debt collection law advice

NAACP, profs seek to back nonprofit in lawsuit over free legal advice program

Nonprofit sues NY AG over practice rules in bid to provide free legal advice

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