Seeing it Through
Adam Doerr led the charge to get COVID relief to overlooked families in need
Published in 2023 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on January 19, 2023
Adam Doerr was just sitting down to his morning cup of coffee and the day’s September 2020 edition of The Charlotte Observer, when a story caught his eye. It would become one of the largest pro bono cases of the Robinson Bradshaw business litigator’s career.
The state’s Extra Credit Grant program divvied up $440 million of federal coronavirus relief funding under Session Law 2020-97 and the Equal Protection Clause, allocating $335 checks to families for childcare and remote schooling supplies during the pandemic. But the way in which North Carolinians automatically received the grant was faulty from the start, says Doerr. The grants weren’t targeted to the neediest.
“At first, I was thinking, ‘Well, surely, they’re not just going to send these to everybody.’ I looked at the statute and saw that there was sort of a cap, but it was very high. So, they were going to be sending a lot of these grants to high-income people,” he says.
The main problem, Doerr says, was that many low-income people weren’t required to file income tax returns, so the Department of Revenue didn’t have the data needed to automatically send them a check. Instead, low-income residents were required to apply within a short window of time in order to receive the COVID-19 relief.
“Basically, if you filed a tax return and said you were a resident and you reported a child, you got the money automatically,” he says. “But people who are earning minimum wage are not spending a lot of time on the Department of Revenue website, especially when they don’t have to file state taxes in the first place.”
So, while setting up a collections and redistribution system for his colleagues’ checks in his office, Doerr and some of his associates started planting the seed for a larger project.
“Eighteen different attorneys and staff members dedicated over 600 hours,” he says.
Together, they found families who would benefit from the funds but weren’t in the original round of automatic payments. A colleague, Demi Lorant Bostian, connected with Teach for America, and its teachers spread the word with students’ families, helping them locate plaintiffs represented in the eventual complaint, including a Charlotte mother who worked at a fast-food restaurant.
“They were actually staying in a hotel because they didn’t have internet service and this was a way that they could have internet service so that the kids could do remote school during COVID,” says Doerr. “And she was one of the people that we alleged would not have gotten the grant.”
They filed the official complaint on Oct. 28, 2020. It alleged the program violated the state constitution, and requested a preliminary injunction to make sure the relief funds were attainable for people who needed them.
“Our argument was, ‘Well, the state has a lot of information about low-income people from other programs, like the Aid to Families with Dependent Children.’ But they were really concerned about whether that would be workable,” he says. The complaint, however, did what Doerr hoped it would do: make it possible for families to apply under a new timeframe and with a much larger outreach effort.
North Carolinians had a new six-week window to turn in applications. Doerr and company worked with nonprofits, which took over the outreach campaign. They, in turn, hired a PR firm and set up a website and call center where potential applicants could get information about the grants and apply.
“The goal was to try and get the word out to as many people as possible and then also have them have a way to apply,” he says. “[It was] a huge effort to run this giant application campaign in a very short period of time which had a significant budget. I think it was $650,000. But very, very minimal time to make all of that happen and be effective.”
Overall, the outreach campaign was a success, and more than 15,000 families were able to apply within the new deadline.
“It was a really interesting and unusual project to work on,” says Doerr. “[It was] such a clear opportunity to have a really large impact across the whole state with a lot of money. You know, once we got things started, we just needed to see it through.”