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Attorneys ensure COVID relief reaches the neediest

North Carolina’s Department of Revenue has extended an application deadline for coronavirus relief grants in response to a pro bono lawsuit filed on behalf of families who would have otherwise gone without dearly-needed support this winter because their incomes were low enough that they didn’t need to file tax returns last year.

The state has $440 million to distribute to qualified families burdened with remote learning expenses caused by COVID-19. Checks are being automatically mailed to qualifying middle- and high-income families, but parents whose incomes didn’t trigger tax-filing requirements ($10,000 for single individuals and $20,000 if married) must apply for the grant.

But a suit filed Oct. 28 in Wake County Superior Court contended that the families most in need of the $335 Extra Credit Grant, predominantly families of color, were the least likely to receive it because the DOR didn’t provide adequate notice. The DOR has now extended the application deadline to Dec. 7.

The original deadline had been Oct. 15, less than a month after the DOR made the application form publicly available, according to court documents. But Adam Doerr, one of several Robinson Bradshaw attorneys who filed the suit pro bono, said that most low-income families had no idea the grants were available.

“We saw that there was issue with the law and way it was structured,” Doerr said. “It just seems really wrong for people with higher incomes to get checks automatically, and lower-income people not getting anything when they are the ones who need it the most.”

Of more than 200,000 low-income families eligible for the grants, just 15,000 applied in time.

One named plaintiff, a Charlotte woman with four children, works at a fast-food restaurant and lives in a hotel. She earned less than $10,000 in 2019, and her oldest child, 8-year-old “J.C.,” uses a school-issued laptop and the hotel’s free internet service.

In Halifax County, a man who cares for his 17-year-old daughter was involved in a 2018 car accident that severely limits his ability to work and also made less than $10,000 last year. His daughter works from a borrowed laptop and uses internet service paid in part by family and friends.

“E.E.,” a Mecklenburg County woman, has two daughters. Her husband works as a landscaper, but work is unsteady. Her children qualify for free or subsidized lunches, but only one lunch is delivered to their home. The school requires the other to be picked up by car, but the family doesn’t own one, and E.E.’s offer to walk to the pickup location was denied due to social distancing rules.

None of the three plaintiffs, whose financial situations parallel many families that could benefit from the grant, was aware of the extra credit program, but all are eligible for it. (To qualify, an individual must have lived in North Carolina all of 2019 and have at least one child 16 years old or younger.)

The DOR also agreed to deposit $650,000 in an account controlled by a third-party administrator chosen by the organizational plaintiffs, to be used to advertise the grants, notify low-income families of their availability and requirements, and assist eligible families in demonstrating that they’re entitled to them.

The DOR will also add a prominent notice to its website directing eligible families to contact the plaintiffs’ administrator, give the administrator information about partially completed or abandoned applications so it can follow up with those families, and cooperate with the administrator and plaintiffs in identifying, through other agencies, additional eligible families.

Where it stands now is that we’re working with [the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina] to help implement the application and outreach program in the order,” Doerr said.

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