For more than 100 years, Legal Aid has provided access to the legal system for Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens. With the support of thousands of Minnesotans like you, we’ve stood with them to defend their basic rights for safety, shelter, food, health care, and education. Together, we are changing lives.
Beginnings: 1913 – 1966
Opening for business on April 15, 1913, Legal Aid quickly experienced a significant caseload. In this time period, Legal Aid handled a range of cases, especially wage disputes, divorce and custody, and housing. Legal Aid received its first federal grant in 1966, in the amount of $42,030.
The Legal Aid Department opens for business on April 15, 1913, in Minneapolis with John Benson(Co-founder of Faegre & Benson, now Faegre Baker Daniels LLP) as its full-time attorney. Contributors included Gustav Bachman, John Crosby, George P. Flannery, Cyrus Northrup, A.F. Pillsbury, Charles Pillsbury, and C.J. Winton.
Legal Aid handles 3,029 cases. Half of the cases were related to wages.
Legal Aid successfully advocates for creation of a Conciliation Court in Minneapolis for matters not exceeding $50.
Maynard Pirsig becomes the Executive Director, serving until 1931. (Mr. Pirsig served on the Minnesota Supreme Court and became Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.)Everett Fraser, Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, is on the LASM Board.
Board members include Sumner McKnight, J.B Faegre, and James Dorsey.
George B. Leonard joins the Board. The Legal Aid budget is about $8,500.
The Legal Aid Department is formally incorporated as the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. The first Board of Directors includes: Sumner T. McKnight, Wilbur Cherry, J.B. Faegre, Daniel F. Foley, and George B. Leonard.
Board Member Wilbur Cherry also incorporates the Hennepin County Bar Association.
The Board minutes note an increase of divorce and custody cases.
John Pillsbury, Jr., joins the Board.
The Board minutes note an acute housing shortage which “has resulted in this society’s representation of many tenants in these matters.”
A Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune poll for the Minnesota State Bar Association shows that 52 percent of Minnesotans do not think there is a place a low-income person can go for free legal advice.
John D. Dorsey joins the Legal Aid Board.
Delores Orey is hired as a staff attorney.
Don Fraser joins the Board.
The National Legal Aid Association reports that between 1950 and 1960 the number of legal aid offices nationally went from 87 to 210.
An international legal aid organization is formed.
The Ford Foundation funds the National Council on Legal Aid clinics to build support for law school clinics.
Susanne Sedgwick is hired as a staff attorney.
The federal Office of Economic Opportunity gives Legal Aid its first federal grant in the amount of $42,030.
Expansion: 1967 – 1980
Continued building and growth characterized this period, with Legal Aid enjoying significant staff, program, and funding expansion. Key victories were also achieved in areas such as equal access to justice for the poor, race discrimination, and protections for people with developmental disabilities and people with mental illness.
Bernard Becker becomes litigation director for Legal Aid.
Luther A. Granquist and Steve Parsons are assigned as Legal Aid’s first Reginald Heber Smith Fellows.
Legal Aid initiates litigation to enforce implementation of the In Forma Pauperis process which waives court filing fees and some costs for people with low incomes.
Legal Aid files Carter v. Gallagher, a federal class action challenging race discrimination in employment by the Minneapolis Fire Department.
Legal Aid files Welsch v. Likins, a federal class action successfully challenging the unacceptable living conditions and lack of treatment of persons with mental retardation in Minnesota’s state hospitals.
Federal funding begins for Legal Aid’s Developmental Disability Law Project.
Eric Janus, Steve Swanson, and Edward Wilson become Legal Aid staff attorneys.
Legal Aid wins Bennett v. Butz, a federal class action challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s failure to spend $278 million of appropriated funds on the food stamp program.
The federal Legal Services Corporation Act is signed by President Nixon.
St. Cloud Area Legal Services (SCALS) is incorporated to serve Stearns, Sherburne, and Benton Counties.
Legal aid wins Hoehle v. Likins, a class action challenging the incorrect calculation of Federal Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grants received by persons having a shared household with Social Security Insurance (SSI) recipients.
The regional legal aid programs in Minnesota create the Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP). LSAP advocates with the legislature and state agencies on the impact of existing and proposed laws and regulations on low-income and other vulnerable populations.
Western Minnesota Legal Services (WMLS) is formed.
Strengthening: 1980 – present
Important funding sources were established, including The Fund for the Legal Aid Society and funding from the state of Minnesota, interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), and more. Significant legal victories continue to be achieved, along with organizational progress with the merging of previous member corporations into one corporation.
The Minneapolis Legal Aid Board approves creation of a separately incorporated funding arm called The Fund for the Legal Aid Society.
Legal Aid is formally designated as the Protection & Advocacy organization in Minnesota for people with developmental disabilities. The designation was subsequently amended to add advocacy for people with mental illness and physical disabilities, among others. Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center does this work for people with disabilities statewide. Legal Aid is formally designated as the Protection & Advocacy organization in Minnesota for people with developmental disabilities.
The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition is formed by the regional legal services programs that together provide comprehensive civil legal services to people with low incomes in all 87 Minnesota counties.
Jerry Lane becomes Executive Director of MMLA.
The Fund for the Legal Aid Society holds its initial Law Day Testimonial Dinner, honoring John C. Benson.
With the support of the Minnesota State Bar Association and a number of banking institutions, the Minnesota Supreme Court amends the Rules of Professional Conduct to create the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program.
Pursuant to this rule, lawyers with small or short-term deposits of client funds deposit them in a joint interest-bearing account.The interest is turned over to the Supreme Court, primarily to support civil legal assistance to low-income persons. The Minnesota Legislature provides the first state funding for civil legal services in Minnesota, supported by a $10 surcharge on most civil court filing fees. (The Legislature later changed the funding to a specific appropriation out of the General Fund.)
Proposed restrictions on the use of federal Legal Services Corporation funds prompts the Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and Western organizations to create a new, non-LSC funded corporation, Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance (MMLA).
Legal Aid files Coleman v. Block and Gamradt v. Block, successful class actions challenging the federal government’s foreclosure practices regarding family farms in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Legislature passes new state funding for legal assistance to financially distressed family farmers. Some of these funds will be subcontracted by Legal Aid to Farmers Legal Action Group, formed and led by former Legal Aid Litigation Director Jim Massey.
Legal Aid files Murray and Houle v. Lyng, a class action challenging rules that reduced food stamps for low-income foster families. After losses in district court and before the 8th Circuit, the USDA adopted regulations that increased food stamp payments to low income foster families by 20 million dollars a year.
Legal Aid, working with private co-counsel, files Hawkins v. Thorp Loan and Thrift, companion consumer class actions in state and federal court challenging defendant’s sale of costly credit life insurance in conjunction with its loans. The Minnesota Supreme Court held this practice unlawful. The case then settled with payments to the consumer class and an injunction regulating the defendant’s sales practices when making these loans. The defendant stopped making the loans.
Legal Aid brings Hollman v. Cisneros, a federal class action on behalf of a group of African American and Southeast Asian families, challenging historical patterns of race discrimination in the siting of public housing in Minneapolis. A consent decree in 1995 provided for the demolition and reconstruction of public housing, a community planning process, and new Section 8 vouchers to provide broader geographic choice and better living conditions for class members.
Legal Aid, working with private co-counsel, files Miller v. Colortyme, a state court class action on behalf of thousands of low-income consumers who entered “Rent to Own (RTO)” contracts to purchase goods at extremely high interest rates. The Minnesota Supreme Court held the contracts were subject to the caps on interest rates.
Working with private counsel, Legal Aid files Fogie v. Rent-A-Center, a federal class action challenging defendant’s RTO sales. The federal court held the contracts usurious, ordering refund of all payments of principal, interest, and fees. In 1999, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s damage awards in excess of $30 million.
Legal Aid objects to the settlement in Buchet v. ITT Financial Services, a federal class action, on the grounds that the settlement did not provide any money damages to the plaintiff class, but only provided coupons that could be used to make certain purchases – and half of the class members would not be eligible to use the coupons. The court rejected the settlement, and Legal Aid negotiated a new settlement providing for approximately $6.5 million for the plaintiff class.
The Minnesota Supreme Court, with the support of the MSBA, increases the annual registration fee of most lawyers by $50, and the revenue is used to support civil legal services programs. Minnesota is the first state in the U.S. to do this.
Legal Aid brings Yang v. Department of Human Services, successfully challenging the publication by DHS of the application for various low income health care programs in English only, thus violating federal law requiring access to information in services in multiple languages.
Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center files Masterman v. Goodno, challenging the state’s plan for massive cuts to the Medicaid waiver program serving people with developmental disabilities. As a result, the state restored over $50 million to the waiver program and provided protection against future cuts.
Starting with Perish v. Allina-Abbott Northwestern, Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center brings and settles actions against 8 major hospitals over the next few years, challenging their failure to provide American Sign Language interpreters for deaf patients. All of the cases settled with defendants agreeing to detailed, systemic corrective action.
Legal Aid files Dahl v. Department of Human Services, successfully challenging a state Medical Assistance statute that allowed medical providers to refuse services to persons who couldn’t afford co-payments.
Legal Aid files Brayton v. Pawlenty, challenging the Governor’s use of the unallotment statute to balance the budget, which included elimination of the Special Diet Program used by low-income Minnesotans to meet medically-required diet needs. The Minnesota Supreme Court held the Governor’s action exceeded his authority, and the special diet funds were reinstated.
Long-time MMLA Executive Director Jerry Lane retires. Cathy Haukedahl become MMLA’s first female Executive Director.
Two Legal Aid attorneys are appointed to the bench: Sarah Hennesy is appointed as a judge in the Seventh Judicial District; and Kristin Siegesmund is appointed as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District.
Legal Aid’s member corporations (Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, St. Cloud Area Legal Services, and Western Minnesota Legal Services) dissolve and formally merge into Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid to form one corporation with one board of directors.
Legal Aid celebrates its centennial year and begins its second century of service.
MMLA’s Board of Directors unveils a bold strategic plan, calling for strengthened pro bono partnerships in the legal community, enhanced efforts at increasing individual giving in the non-legal community, and deepened investments in public relations and messaging to tell the story of MMLA’s critical work on behalf of people in the communities MMLA serves.
Cathy Haukedahl retires after leading a successful effort during the 2017 legislative session to secure an increase in funding to support civil legal aid offices statewide. Drew Schaffer becomes MMLA’s Executive Director.
In the 2019 legislative session, MMLA’s Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP) secures the first increase in Minnesota family welfare grants in over thirty years. In the same session, LSAP works with a coalition of elder justice-focused organizations to secure safety protections and due process protections for seniors and vulnerable adults in assisted living facilities.
After many years of service to MMLA, including his leadership of MMLA's housing group and as Executive Director, Drew Schaffer leaves MMLA to continue his legal career. Danielle Shelton Walczak becomes MMLA's Executive Director, and the organization's first woman of color to lead the organization.
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