Lawyer grew into his strong suit: Protecting rights of disabled
Posted by Bob Braun/The Star-Ledger November 17, 2008 12:05AM
Hal Garwin has become New Jersey's most prominent legal advocate for the disabled. That's not what he intended.
"I never thought it would be the focus of my career," says Garwin, 60, president and director of the Community Health Law Project in South Orange, a private, nonprofit, public interest law firm that serves more than 5,000 clients a year.
The diminutive Garwin -- he wrestled in the 98-pound weight class at Columbia and the University of Bridgeport -- began as a legal services lawyer in Elizabeth.
The office received a call from a judge who demanded that one of the office's attorneys appear immediately in court to represent another lawyer facing involuntary commitment. This was the early -- and informal -- 1970s and Garwin was the only legal services staffer wearing a shirt that could take a tie. He didn't have a jacket, but quickly borrowed one from a friend. A tall, burly friend, a size 46.
"I figured I'd just throw it over my shoulder--but the judge wouldn't go for it."
So there was Garwin, a new Rutgers-Camden Law School graduate, in a jacket falling to his knees and beyond his hands, in a scene presaging Joe Pesce's "My Cousin Vinny."
"But, despite what I was wearing, I was successful and I learned a lot I didn't know about the rights of the disabled," says Garwin. He began to carve out an odd specialty for a legal services lawyer -- defending the rights of the disabled.
He caught the attention of the late state Sen. Alex Menza, then head of a joint executive-legislative state commission on mental health. Menza hired Garwin as the panel's chief counsel. His work there drew a request from the state bar association in 1976 to begin what would become the Community Health Law Project.
It has a budget of nearly $6 million a year -- some government, some foundation -- and a staff of 35 lawyers in seven offices throughout New Jersey. The project provides free legal services to the poor disabled and elderly; recently, it has begun accepting low-income clients on a sliding scale fee arrangement.
"The intent of what we're doing is to keep the disabled productive and in their homes, that's what we are working for," says Garwin, who is still involved in wrestling -- as the coach at Columbia.
The reach of the project goes beyond individual cases. It successfully pressed for legislation requiring townhouses built as affordable housing to be handicapped accessible -- they were exempted by New Jersey's otherwise stringent building codes.
That built on successes in individual lawsuits against some of the state's largest developers who somehow managed to build apartment complexes that were out of code.
"The code officers apparently were not aware of the requirements," says David Lazarus, the project's litigation director and a colleague from Garwin's days at legal services. "We have educated them."
The project's lawyers also are aggressive in helping the non-working disabled become eligible for federal Social Security assistance -- these clients otherwise would be on state-funded welfare and charity care.
"We estimate that we have saved New Jersey about $100 million by shifting the burden of care to the federal government," says Lazarus. He says the project has been able to overturn some 90 percent of administrative decisions denying Social Security to the disabled in New Jersey.
But Garwin, whose daughter is disabled, says the project is still focused on individuals. Men and women facing medical insurance problems, for example. Its employees will take calls at a toll-free number, (888) 838-3180.
With the economy in trouble, the law firm is bracing for a rush of new clients.
"We've already dealt with people facing foreclosure," says Garwin, noting it is a problem that haunts the elderly. "We're trying to keep them in their homes."
The law protects the disabled against job discrimination, but when businesses close, the disabled are as out of luck as their nondisabled colleagues.
"They have a much more difficult time finding employment," he says. The project can't help find jobs, but it can assist them getting public assistance if needed.
"The economy is tough on everyone -- but especially the disabled."