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Central Standard

Three Decades Of Poverty Law In Kansas City: Highlights From Julie Levin's Career

Courtesy of Julie Levin.

Julie Levin has worked with Legal Aid of Western Missouri since 1977.

In that time, she's had some monumental cases, from a suit against the Kansas City Housing Authority in 1989 that changed the face of public housing, to a case on behalf of a client who lost her job while on maternity leave. That last case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Central Standard Thursday, as she embarked on her retirement, Levin talked about what it was like to work on those cases. She also shared her personal story, recounting the formative experiences that inspired her passion for poverty law.

Highlights from Levin's career

Tinsley v. Kemp, 1989:

Levin filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of tenants against the Kansas City Housing Authority. Several public housing residents had come to Legal Aid of Western Missouri describing rat, mouse and cockroach infestation, deteriorating plumbing and electrical systems and a pervasive environment of crime and drugs.

After much turmoil, the Housing Authority entered into a consent decree, agreeing to fix the problems of sanitation and safety. When, two years later, the Housing Authority had not complied with the terms of the consent decree, the Housing Authority was placed in receivership, meaning an outside body (in this case, located in Boston) took control of the situation. That receivership officially ended earlier this year.

All the public housing units that were demolished during the twenty years that elapsed were replaced one-for-one, making Kansas City an anomaly. Nationally, public housing units have decreased in number over the same period.

Wimberly v. Labor and Industrial Relations Commission of Missouri, 1986: 

Before the Family Medical Leave Act, a Kansas City woman took maternity leave and was told by her employer, upon returning, that she no longer had a job. She was denied unemployment benefits because she had left "voluntarily."

Levin defended her client's right to unemployment benefits. Her case was defeated at the Missouri Supreme Court because the state law did not protect the jobs of people leaving the workplace due to illness. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Missouri's decision because the law treated pregnant women the same as people leaving the workplace for, say, heart surgery. Press coverage of the case reflected poorly on the state, and the next year, the state of Missouri's legislature changed the law so that after that women who left jobs because of pregnancy and had no job to return to were given unemployment compensation. 

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
Matthew Long-Middleton has been a talk-show producer, community producer, Media Training Manager and now the Community Engagement Manager at KCUR. You can reach him at Matthew@kcur.org, or on Twitter @MLMIndustries.