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A Halifax woman whose income assistance was yanked after the province learned she had amassed $20,000 by selling the now defunct Street Feat newspaper won’t get to see her case against the North End Community Health Centre go to trial for sharing the information about how much money she’d socked away.
Judith Margaret Deal launched a lawsuit against the Department of Community Services and the North End Community Health Centre after her income assistance payments were cut off
“Judith Margaret Deal was a client of the North End Community Health Centre for many years,” Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Diane Rowe said in a written decision released Tuesday.
Social workers at the centre helped Deal with her personal matters, including managing her finances and her claim to income assistance benefits, said the judge, noting the centre is a non-profit organization that provides community health services as well as primary health care and social work services.
‘Strength and resolve’
“Ms. Deal struggles with physical and mental illness, and with poverty,” Rowe said.
“She is also a person of great strength and resolve. Despite her personal challenges, over decades she has continued to work and be an active member of the community in downtown Halifax, to the extent that she is able.”
Deal was involved for years with a community group that published the Street Feat newspaper, “which advocated for the poor who live in downtown Halifax,” the judge said.
“Ms. Deal was one of several people who volunteered with and distributed Street Feat, offering it for sale to the public on the streets of Halifax. The court is aware that people could buy it for a nominal amount or choose to give the seller a larger amount of money as an ‘at will’ donation.”
Saved the money
Deal told the court she got 50 cents for every paper she sold.
“She states that she sold the Street Feat newspaper over the course of a decade or more in downtown Halifax. Rather than spend the amount earned as extra income at the time it was earned on either coffee or some other small comforts, she chose to save the money instead,” Rowe said.
“Ms. Deal opened a savings account many years ago. She steadily deposited her savings from the money earned by selling Street Feat in this account. Ms. Deal’s notice of claim states that she amassed at least $20,000 in the savings account over the years.”
After the paper closed, Deal worked as a crossing guard starting in 2016, “as part of the supported employment program via the Department of Community Services,” said the judge, noting that the same department administers the province’s income assistance program.
Deal asked for the North End Community Health Centre’s help managing the money she made as a crossing guard, Rowe said.
“She alleges that, in late 2019, she was cut off from income assistance supports because a social worker with (the health centre) informed (Community Services) about her savings account. Ms. Deal also claims that the (health centre’s) worker was dismissive of her, and inappropriate in her communication concerning this serious event, causing her significant mental distress.”
Without income assistance, Deal “had to draw on her savings account to pay her rent and expenses until it was exhausted,” said the judge.
Rowe identified Deal’s “two primary causes of action against (the health centre). They are that the termination of her income assistance was unlawful and that the defendants either intentionally or negligently inflicted mental suffering resulting in damages.”
Deal tried suing the health centre and the province to recoup the $20,000 she’d spent on living expenses, “plus damages of $20,000 for psychological or emotional distress,” the judge said.
The health centre denied the claim entirely, and asked the judge to dismiss the case before it even got to trial.
Community Services ‘not served’
“DCS was not served with the appropriate notice of the action,” Rowe said, noting Deal was informed about her mistake but never addressed the problem.
The health centre produced its relevant documents in the case and asked Deal for similar disclosure in May 2022.
“Nothing was received, and (the health centre) filed the motion for summary judgment,” the judge said.
When she appeared in court to address the motion last November, Deal said she hadn’t received the documents from the health centre, even though it produced an affidavit of service that was filed with the court.
The judge gave her time to be served with the same documents again, and the health centre did so by registered mail.
“Further, at this initial appearance, the court outlined to Ms. Deal the process for filing legible, possibly typed, materials and the meaning of the motion that was before the court,” Rowe said. “The court stressed to Ms. Deal that she should obtain legal information or assistance with her matter, and identified possible sources. Counsel for (the health centre) also canvassed, orally, the written submission and the law it had filed in order to inform her more fully about the position (it) had taken on its motion.”
The case was slated to return to court last December.
“At this second appearance, Ms. Deal appeared in court with undifferentiated documents, including a coil bound notebook with handwritten entries concerning her feelings. The court did not have an affidavit from the plaintiff. Ms. Deal did file a 49-page handwritten submission that was largely unreadable. Ms. Deal, in response to the (health centre’s) motion, relied upon her pleadings and the handwritten submission.”
She told the court she’d received and read information about the health centre’s motion, but didn’t understand what it meant, said the judge.
Deal then “became emotional, requiring a brief recess,” Rowe said.
The health centre asked the court to consider the money it was shelling out to defend itself against her claims.
The judge went ahead with the hearing.
The health centre told the court that Deal received income assistance even though people with more than $2,000 in assets are ineligible for the payments.
The centre also said one of its social workers helped Deal make her claim for income assistance, but that it “does not have statutory authority to decide on the start or termination of income assistance benefits.”
In 2019, when Community Services investigated Deal’s eligibility for income assistance, she twice told the department she didn’t have more than $2,000 in assets.
‘No longer eligible’
That December, Deal got a letter from Community Services informing her she “was no longer eligible to receive income assistance as it had discovered that she owned a bank account with more than $20,000 in it.”
Deal was “very upset about the termination of benefits,” said the judge, noting she blamed the health centre and its social worker specifically for the loss.
When the two sides sat down in February 2020, the social worker, Megan MacBride, “attempted to ‘lighten the mood’ by observing that Ms. Deal had more money in her bank account than she did,” said the decision released Tuesday.
“She also expressed concern for Ms. Deal’s health based on her observations at the time.”
Deal told the court that MacBride’s predecessor at the health centre knew about her savings account but hadn’t told Community Services about it.
‘Set me up’
“She relied on this silence continuing, and the termination of benefits coincided upon Ms. MacBride’s tenure as her social worker,” said the judge. “Ms. Deal interpreted a meeting with a representative of (Community Services), investigating the claim, and as arranged by Ms. MacBride, as the social worker having ‘set me up.’”
Deal’s claims don’t “require a determination of law or of mixed fact and law,” Rowe said.
The health centre “did not cause Ms. Deal’s loss of income assistance,” the judge said.
‘No real chance’
“Further, there is no evidence before the court from Ms. Deal to support the possible claim of a compensable psychiatric injury, caused by (the health centre), that may require a determination of mixed fact and law.”
Deal’s claims had “no real chance at success,” said Rowe, who dismissed her case.
The health centre wasn’t responsible for Community Services’ decision to cut off Deal’s benefits, said the judge, noting “it was bound to communicate with (the department) concerning its clients’ circumstances.”