South Carolina Legal Services > Articles by: South Carolina Legal Services

Operation of Trial Courts

The South Carolina Supreme Court updated its Order regarding Operation of Trial Courts during the Coronavirus Emergency on December 16, 2020. The specific Order may be found at Supreme Court Order December 2020.

A few pertinent points about the Court’s Order are as follows:

  • Non-jury trial and motions may be conducted using remote technology.
  • In person trials and hearings may be conducted if a judge determines it is appropriate and it can be safely conducted.
    • trials will be staggered to decrease the number of people;
    • generally, only the attorneys, parties and witness may attend;
    • remote testimony may be allowed;
    • masks must be worn;
    • remote administration of oaths is allowed.
  • Courthouses should remain open to accept filings and payments
    • drop boxes are allowed and the public will have specific instructions and notification;
    • all persons will be screened for fever and must wear a mask.
  • Family Court
    • uncontested divorces may be granted without holding a hearing;
    • approval of settlement agreements and consent orders may be done without a hearing;
    • contested hearings in Family Court will be conducted remotely or in person as ordered by the Judge.
  • Bench warrants for non-payment of child support and alimony may be executed by law enforcement. The of suspension of those warrants has expired.

Social Security: Online Video Hearings

SSA has finalized its Online Video Hearing program and sent out letters on December 21st to every person who has a pending hearing request. These hearings will be conducted using Microsoft Teams; a platform similar to Zoom. Participants in this program must have an email address; a smartphone, tablet or computer with a camera and microphone; stable internet access; and a private area in their home. SSA does not require an individual to agree to online video or telephone hearings and you retain the right to an in-person hearing. You should contact an attorney or authorized representative before making a decision.  

We Are Better Together

On November 7, 2020, South Carolina Legal Services collaborated with National Expungement Week, a national nonprofit that provides funding to pay fees associated with expungements, pardons and pretrial intervention, and Path2Redemption, a nonprofit group that provides training and mentorship programs for ex-offenders transitioning back into society. These like-minded organizations came together for an expungement and pardon clinic, “Pardon My Behavior” at the Colony Apartments in Columbia, S.C.  South Carolina Legal Services provided attorneys and paralegals to assist over 50 people in applying to have with their criminal records expunged or offenses pardoned. National Expungement Week provided funding to South Carolina Legal Services’ applicants and clients to pay the cost of SLED checks, expungement, pardon, and court fees.  Path2Redemption provided re-entry mentorship and counseling at the event.

On December 5, 2020, South Carolina Legal Services collaborated with National Expungement Week, Communiversity, a nonprofit that hosts presentations on legal and wrap around serves for ex-offenders, and The Black Liberation Fund, a nonprofit that provides bail and incarceration support to formerly incarcerated persons. Together the organizations facilitated an expungement and pardon clinic, “The Gift of Freedom” at Center Station in Charleston, S.C. South Carolina Legal Services, with 7 attorneys and 2 paralegals onsite for the event, assisted over 120 attendees with applications to have their criminal records pardoned or expunged.

Both of these events highlight the immense need for strategic and targeted collaborations. These collaborations created a “one stop shop”, where qualifying participants received free legal assistance, including free legal screening for additional civil legal issues, payment for expungement and pardon fees and information about mentorship, training and wrap-around services for ex-offenders. These events have created a “referral boomerang”. South Carolina Legal Services is still receiving applicants from both events following these collaborations.

South Carolina Legal Services is seeking to maintain current collaborations and develop new ones that will create a communal network of services to assist a common client base.

To inquire about a possible collaboration, please contact Andrea Loney, Executive Director of South Carolina Legal Services at andrealoney@sclegal.org.

Supplemental Security Income and Unemployment Benefits

The COVID-19 pandemic may have a devastating impact on individuals who are receiving SSI disability benefits.  SSI beneficiaries who were working and lost their jobs because of COVID-19 may have been eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits; including the expanded federal UI benefits that were available through the CARES Act.

SSI benefits will be reduced or suspended if a participant has earned or unearned income. SSI is reduced $1 for every $1 of UI benefits after the first $20. By comparison, earned income reduces SSI by $1 for every $2 that is earned after the first $85. The enhanced federal UI benefit would have reduced an SSI participant’s benefits to $0.00 when it was $600 a week or $2400 a month, far greater than the $783 SSI monthly payment. The enhanced UI benefit stopped on July 26, 2020 but state UI benefits continued and may have been low enough that it would not result in a loss of all SSI income. The newly passed COVID-19 Relief Act provides for a federal UI enhancement at a rate of $300 per week or approximately $1200 a month. This will also result in a suspension of SSI benefits for anyone receiving it. SSI suspensions for 12 consecutive months could result in the need for the individual to reapply for disability benefits which could be a long process if the individual has to prove that they are still disabled. There is also the possibility that SSI beneficiaries will receive notices that they were overpaid SSI because SSA suspended most overpayment actions from March through September 2020. Individuals who receive notice of an overpayment because of UI income should file a waiver to avoid collection. Finally, Medicaid benefits should not be stopped because of the loss of SSI benefits during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The receipt of UI benefits should not have an impact on SSDI benefits because SSDI is not reduced for unearned income.

Evictions Update

With time running out on the eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Congress approved, and the President signed into law on December 27, 2020, an extension of the CDC’s moratorium through January 31, 2021.

The new law did not change the requirement for tenants to provide a declaration to their landlord under penalty of perjury that they meet the criteria for invoking the protection of the CDC’s order.  However, anyone wishing to invoke that protection under the new law should update the declaration to indicate that it extends through January 31, 2021 instead of December 31, 2020. 

Also included in the legislative package was an additional $25 billion for rental assistance.  It remains to be seen whether that assistance will be up and running in time to help people who are protected under the moratorium only until January 31st.  There is concern that the funds will not be available in only one month.   

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that South Carolina counties and localities will receive $342,731,000. 

The funds are available only for low-income tenants.  This means tenants at or below 80% of the Area Median Income, with a priority for households at or below 50% AMI.  Eligible households also need to be receiving unemployment benefits or have experienced a COVID-19-related hardship (loss of income, significant expenses, etc.).  And finally, an eligible household must demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

The maximum assistance period is 12 months, with an additional 3-month extension, subject to availability of funds, if necessary to ensure housing stability.  Also, three months of prospective rent payments can be paid in addition to past due payments.  Households that need more than three months of prospective rent payments can re-apply and receive additional assistance if funds are available.

Another innovation in the new law is that it allows landlords to apply for rental assistance on a tenant’s behalf.  The landlord must get the tenant’s signature on the rental assistance application, must provide documentation of the rental assistance application to the tenant and must actually apply the funds to the tenant’s rent owed. 

Foreclosure Update

All the main federal entities that own or insure mortgages announced extensions of their single-family mortgage loan foreclosure moratoriums that were set to expire December 31, 2020.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac extended the foreclosure moratorium on their single family loans through January 31, 2021, while those insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture have been extended through the end of February. 

COVID-19 Restrictions Make It More Difficult for Veterans to Get Records

SCLS has veteran accredited attorneys who can assist low-income veterans and their families navigate through the record request process for VA compensation and VA pension benefits claims. These attorneys are available to share legal information on the benefits process to VA offices and others who serve veterans and accept referrals.

Veteran claims, especially VA Compensation Claims, can be a very record intensive process. An Official Military Personnel File and treatment records can prove a service connection for a veteran’s disabling condition which may be dismissed without those records, particularly in cases where a veteran is applying for benefits long after their separation from service. Applying for assistance early in the claim process can improve odds of success by allowing a representative to help develop a record and present a clear case for the claims. Even with some limits on record processing in place, it is better to make referrals or apply for assistance early.

COVID-19 Increases Need for Advance Directives – Looking for Partners

COVID-19 seems to continue to have a disproportionate effect on the low-income communities served by South Carolina Legal Services(SCLS). This is especially true for elderly and people of color who live in rural communities. Unfortunately, these are also the demographics, that are least likely to understand the value of and how to locate resources to prepare end of life documents.  These documents let family members know loved ones’ wishes about providing medical treatment, deciding who will handle necessary affairs and determining ownership of property at death.

SCLS is looking for and is eager to partner with faith-based organizations, non-profits, civic and social groups and other agencies to educate low-income communities about the value of advance directives and preparation of these documents. To help SCLS help people who need these documents you can:

  1. Agree to partner with us.
  2. Distribute educational materials to the targeted communities.
  3. Assist applicants in contacting SCLS for an intake.
  4. Provide a COVID-19 safe location to meet with applicants.
  5. Publicize events that will be held in your community.
  6. Refer applicants to SCLS.

Partnership and Participation with Homeless Connect Help Man Get Birth Certificate

The Florence Office of SCLS has partnered with and attended The Homeless Connect Event since 2012. This event, with participation from several other groups, provides a one stop shop for services to the low income and homeless community.  The idea behind the event is to have enough services to attract attendees to the event and to make it easier for them to avail themselves of all the services (thereby eliminating obstacles to getting needed help). Intakes for potential clients are done at the event with interviews scheduled shortly thereafter. Because this event was a great success, SCLS wants to participate in and accept referrals from your homeless shelter.

Here is an example of the kind of help SCLS can provide to you. John came to us through our monthly homeless event for help to get his birth certificate. He was born in Taiwan. His parents worked at the embassy.  Because of serious legal troubles, he was estranged from his parents and had been for years. He did not have a valid state ID and could not get his birth record.  He was working very hard on becoming employed and getting services including rehabilitation.  John was born abroad, therefore, the application had to be made through the State Department (DC Consular U.S. Citizens born abroad). This made the process to get the birth certificate much more complicated.  We waited for months and due to the COVID-19 shutdown, it seemed to be hopeless.  As diligent SCLS staff, we continued to work with the Consular over an extended period of time and were able to obtain John’s birth certificate. Our partnership and participation with Homeless Connect allowed John to gain employment and housing.

COVID-19 Impact on Special Education Services

We have listed some questions and answers to commonly expressed concerns of parents with children in need of special education services.

Question:  What about kids with an IEP who, in a normal, non-COVID world, are required to receive supportive services? Are those services gone?  Or can those students somehow receive physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy virtually?

Answer: Those students CAN and SHOULD receive those services virtually.

Turns out, physical therapy and speech therapy have been happening virtually or via tele-medicine for years. Physical therapists in some areas have been reaching out to clients with smart phones and internet connections well before COVID-19 made such a thing seem “normal.”

The occupational therapists (and the insurance companies) took some time, but they have now swallowed the bitter COVID-19 pill and embraced virtual appointments.

Question: Can the school deny a student special services because of COVID-19?

Answer: No.

The IEP is a contract that requires the school to provide those services. Parents should certainly be somewhat flexible with schools given the unique nature of these COVID-19 times. However, now that we are 10 months in, schools need to have found a way to provide those services.  

Furthermore, any service time your child did not receive because of COVID-19 should be made-up by the school at some point soon. We call this make-up time “compensatory education/services.”

Question: Can the school require a student to come physically to school in order to receive special ed services?

Answer: Yes.

In some cases, a school might deem is appropriate for a student to come physically to school to get their services, instead of providing a virtual option. You do not necessarily have to send your child to school, if you believe it to be unsafe. However, the school offering this option fulfills their obligations under the IEP contract.

Question: Due to my student’s disability, they are unable to get an appropriate education at home via virtual school. The school is 100% virtual. What can I do?

Answer: This is a hard one (and a fact-pattern from an actual case). The child is eligible for compensatory services in the future. That’s easy. However, that does not do much to help with the opportunities the student is missing right now. To force a special exception for in-person schooling, you would likely have to retain an attorney and file a Due Process Hearing Request. Even then, I do not know that it is a very strong case, as the school has a legitimate obligation to protect the health and safety of students and staff.