Donna Spinner was married to her husband for over 30 years, when one day, he disappeared. Complicating the situation was the fact that the couple was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings. Donna, middle-aged and with little work experience, was now on her own. Donna’s husband had worked for many years as a licensed petroleum product site developer and eventually the couple did well enough to open their own business in the field. Donna took on the role of bookkeeper for the company, but her husband was elusive about the state of their finances and by 2008 the company was bankrupt. This is when Donna’s husband took off – with customer payments in tow. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Donna retained an attorney and filed for divorce and spousal support, but her husband was evasive and they were unable to track him down. Donna says, “At this time, I was approximately 50 years of age. I had no employment, no income, and the home I had lived in with my children was being foreclosed upon.” She continues, “I also realized at this time that by working unpaid for my husband, I had no employment history, and no earnings for Social Security purposes.”
Donna moved back home with her elderly mother and due to health problems, applied for public assistance. Through her children, Donna learned that her husband was gainfully employed, but tracking him down proved to be fruitless. In 2014, when she was at her lowest point financially and health-wise, her husband served her with divorce papers. On the recommendation of a friend, Donna sought the help of Legal Aid and staff attorney Gerry Schafer was assigned to her case.
Gerry explains, “When he thought she was low enough, he decided to file for divorce, thinking she wouldn’t be able to seek representation and fight back. However, once Donna acquired representation, he didn’t want a divorce anymore.” Gerry says Donna’s husband could see the writing on the wall — he knew he’d be required to provide maintenance. Donna’s husband retained counsel, making court proceedings a bit easier, but he was uncooperative when it came to disclosing financial information. But Gerry says, “Donna was a great record keeper; she had all of his old tax returns and licenses so we could prove his income potential.” Thanks to the information that Donna and Gerry presented in court, Donna’s husband ultimately agreed to pay maintenance each month. Gerry explains it was a tough balance, “Based on some of his work history, we could have pushed for higher maintenance, but he’s on the cusp of retirement, and I wanted to be sure he would pay.”
To date, Donna’s husband has obeyed the court order and Donna’s quality of life has increased exponentially. She says, “I wake up in the morning free of the anxiety, stress, and depression that I endured for so many years of my marriage. I am no longer controlled emotionally or financially.” She continues, “I no longer have to reside with family members, nor do I receive public assistance.” With improved health and a more stable financial situation, Donna is ready to enter the next stage of her life. As of press time, she intends to enroll in college and enter the work force; something her husband had prevented her from doing. Because her husband was so uncooperative during the divorce process, legal representation was a necessity. And thankfully, Legal Aid was there to help.
FROM THE executive director
Achievements and Goals
2016 has gone so quickly. It was a remarkable year for the Legal Aid Society. Around the program, we hired new, gifted staff and reached our 100th employee in October 2016. We successfully launched our innovative Closing the Gap (CTG) program, providing urban pro bono legal services to rural housing and consumer clients. While we continue to learn more about how the program works on the ground in our rural counties, we’re happy to report several important victories, including outright dismissals of evictions and positive money judgments for debtor clients. If you are an attorney in the Capital District, I hope you will check out our Closing the Gap program which allows you to use interactive interviews to develop a pro se answer for our clients. Email Melody Harkness at [email protected] to sign up.
We are also thrilled to launch our community lawyering and re-entry projects. We were awarded one of only 18 grants nationwide to launch a Juvenile Re-Entry Assistance Project in partnership with the Albany Housing Authority. In addition, with generous support from the New York Bar Foundation, we will provide re-entry legal services to adult ex-offenders living in the Capital Region.
Based on our strong and successful performance, our flagship Disability Advocacy Program received additional funding after a new round of competitive bidding. Our Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project was reinvigorated with new staff and we were invited to make a presentation at the national Legal Assistance to Victims Conference. LASNNY staff attorneys Zoe Paolantonio and Michaela Sarofeen, along with Kristin Beattie from Community Action of Greene County, Inc and Jeanne Noordsy from Catholic Charities of Saratoga, Warren and Washington Counties presented on “The Power of Three” to about 80 LAV grantees. In Albany, our plans for a new location at 95 Central Avenue have solidified. We expect to close on the site of the new Civil Legal Services Center in January 2017. Your help in shaping this search and funding the needed renovations will be deeply appreciated.
While our 2016 statistics have not yet been completed, I anticipate serving even more people with extended service, that is, representation in court or before an administrative agency, than ever before. Our staff, a healthy mix of experienced legal services advocates and new and enthusiastic lawyers, is a team that will work to truly change our clients’ lives. We recognized two staff with our inaugural “Bull Dog Award” in October 2016. Kudos to Debra Collura in our Albany office and Stephan Andersson in our Amsterdam office. Their bulldogged pursuit of justice for our clients is gratefully acknowledged. Best wishes for the holiday season. If you have ideas of ways to build and support our programs, please email me at [email protected] or call me at 518-689-6304.
Thank you for all you do for the Legal Aid Society and our clients.
2016 Justice for All Campaign Kickoff
September 29, 2016 Sponsored by the firm of E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy.
LASNNY’s Annual Fund Event thanks law firms, companies and individuals who raised over $270,000 for the Justice for All Campaign. See the slideshow here.
PROFILE: PAI volunteer
Working for win-win
Veronica Reed is a LASNNY volunteer attorney who heads up a successful family-focused law firm in Schenectady. Prior to entering private practice, Veronica represented corporations like General Electric, Kawasaki, Booz Allen Hamilton, and MTA New York City Transit. She also spent time in New York City as a litigator for Fisher & Fisher and Traub, Lieberman, Straus & Shrewsberry, LLP. In that role, she represented public, private, and parochial schools, religious institutions, non-profits, and commercial clients throughout downstate New York counties as well as the Eastern and Southern U.S. District Courts.
Although she spent a portion of her career in New York City, the upstate region has always held a special place in her heart. Veronica grew up in Wilton, New York and has resided in Schenectady for nearly a decade. She is the mom of three children (plus a pet mom to two cats and one fish!) and is active in the Schenectady County Bar Association and New York State Bar Association, a board member of the De Blasiis Music Series, and a member of the Ellis Medicine Patient and Family Advisory Council. And she always finds time to donate her expertise to LASNNY clients.
This past summer, Donnell Berry sought help from LASNNY for a landlord-tenant matter. After being incarcerated, Donnell learned that his landlord had petitioned the Town of Greenfield Center for an order of eviction. While Donnell owned his mobile home, the landlord controlled the land underneath, a common scenario, but one that made the case more complicated. Donnell’s initial intake interview was for pro se help through the Closing the Gap program, but since his situation was not a traditional landlord-tenant case, Veronica agreed to take the case on pro bono.
From the outset, Donnell and Veronica faced challenges. Veronica says, “The landlord and his opposing counsel just behaved badly.” She continues, “The opposing counsel had decided that I was this out of town attorney that he would never see again. He thought that I was budging in to a local matter.” And Veronica was alarmed by the opposition’ s lack of respect for her client. She says, “The opposing counsel presumed that Donnell was not within his rights to ask for justice. They didn’t even want to give him a voice.” But Veronica made it her mission to make sure Donnell’s voice was heard.
Veronica was able to get the previous proceeding (that ruled in the landlord’s favor) dismissed because of several errors in the petition as well as a jurisdiction error that was catastrophic to maintaining an eviction. When she pointed out the errors, she says the Judge didn’t take it personally. He acknowledged the mistake and said he’d work to fix things. Veronica says, “The process of law is a collaborative effort and I truly believe that everyone is sincerely trying to uphold the constitution and work toward justice.”
Because of Veronica’s work to dismiss the case, Donnell he was able to return to his home. Furthermore, he was able to procure a lease, something he hadn’t had in the past. And Donnell says his neighbors in the mobile home park were also granted leases, a win-win for everyone. Veronica explains, “We helped get him the lease, but Donnell did most of the work when it came to negotiating.” Donnell says, “I feel more secure with a lease because it protects my rights.” He continues, “The landlord thought I would just pack up my stuff and leave – he wasn’t expecting me to fight back, but Veronica did her thing, and I’m so happy that I’m back in my home.”
PAI Program Update
As 2016 comes to a close, the PAI Program is gearing up to end the year on a strong note. We remain busy staffing clinics, organizing and co-sponsoring trainings, recruiting new volunteers, and screening clients for our programs and referrals. We also said goodbye to longtime PAI Coordinator, Cheryl Dedes, who you’ve likely met over the years. While we were sad to see her leave, we wish her well in her new endeavors, working for the great state of New York! As you may know, the massive justice gap in New York, and all over the country, leaves approximately 70% of low income litigants without counsel to ensure that their legal interests are protected. With the dedication and service of our pro bono volunteers, we are able to narrow that gap. Each year, our pro bono attorneys collectively volunteer hundreds of hours of their time on matters for our clients which include housing issues, divorce (often involving domestic violence), bankruptcy, name changes, child support and custody, wills and other advance directives, guardianship, unemployment, among others. We are also always open to ideas for new projects. There are still clients who, unfortunately, are unable to obtain services due to limited resources, but we would like to decrease that number. This is where you come in. The PAI Program offers a wide range of opportunities so that attorneys can be involved in a capacity which best fits their schedules. Options range from teaching pro se divorce clinics to up to 10 clients at a time, or drafting a will and power of attorney for a client, to full representation of a client with their divorce or Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Although our volunteers seek nothing in return, their efforts do not go unrewarded. For every 2.0 hours of pro bono service that an attorney provides to our clients, he or she receives 1.0 CLE credit, up to a maximum of 10.0 CLE credits in a single biennial registration period. Additionally, our volunteers can attend trainings which are co-sponsored by Legal Aid, free of charge if you agree to take pro bono cases. My goal for the coming year is to continue to build on our current panel of volunteers by encouraging others to join, and to adapt our program to best meet the changing needs of our clients. If you’re interested in registering as a volunteer, or have any questions, I am eager to speak with you. Cheers to the end of 2016, and I sincerely thank all of our current volunteers who selflessly give of their time to our clients!
Thanks to the following attorneys who took cases: July through October 2016
Byrgen Finkelman (2)
Albert Hessberg, III (3)
Chelsey Lester (2)
Michael O’Connor (8)
Arthur Siegel (2)
G. Kimball Williams
Joel Peller (6)
Lisa Mills (4)
Amanda Rose (4)
Sharon Couch Debonis
Marc Ehrlich (2)
James Gross (8)
Mary Louise Stanford
Joseph Nichols Warren
Albany/Rensselaer County Assigned Counsel Program
Many Ways to Help Others
LASNNY Board Member Bethany Schumann-McGhee has a long history of service in the public interest. After college at the University of Chicago, Bethany worked as a legislative staffer for Congressman Paul Tonko, where she became familiar with LASNNY. She explains, “Legal Aid would come in to Congressman Tonko’s office and lobby for funding.” While working for Tonko, Bethany also attended Albany Law School and eventually opened her own private civil practice with a focus on real estate and family law.
Bethany became involved with pro bono work a few years ago when she met a woman who had paid a document preparation company to assist with a divorce filing. Unfortunately, the court kept rejecting the filing due to problems with the documents. Since LASNNY was not able to help, Bethany took on the case pro bono and asked Legal Aid if she could serve as a pro bono attorney moving forward. Around this time, Bethany began holding pro se divorce clinics for clients in need. The workshops, which generally include 6-10 people, provide assistance with document packages. “They meet with us twice,” Bethany says. “We help them prepare their own documents with paralegal and attorney supervision.”
Bethany was particularly interested in pro bono divorce cases because as she explains, “There is such a need. Uncontested divorces with a private attorney can cost $1,500-2,000, which is unreachable for a lot of our population.” She continues, “Many turn to document preparation services, but this option doesn’t provide much supervision.” Bethany also interacts with Legal Aid in her private practice, which puts her in a unique situation. She often represents landlords in eviction cases and many times the opposing counsel is a LASNNY attorney. She says, “I’m always impressed with their training and hard work. They give a very vigorous defense, working tirelessly to prevent homelessness.” She adds, “They don’t cut me any breaks!” LASNNY Executive Direction Lillian Moy notes, “It’s great to have a board member so dedicated to pro bono.”
Bethany, her husband Wesley, and their three children Danielle (7), Victoria (6), and Thomas (5) reside in Amsterdam, New York. Although not originally from the region, Bethany’s family relocated to the Fonda area in middle school, and it’s been home ever since. While in college, Bethany met her husband, a police lieutenant for the City of Schenectady. Bethany gives major props to Wesley for working the night shift and then caring for the children while Bethany logs time in the office. “He make it possible to do everything I do,” Bethany says.
In addition to the LASNNY Board of Directors, Bethany serves on the Executive Finance Committee and the Private Attorney Involvement (PAI) Advisory Committee. She is also the chairwoman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, a member of the New York State Democratic Committee, a member of the Montgomery County SPCA board of directors, and a member of the Fulton, Montgomery, and Schoharie Counties Private Industry Council. And she is the 2011 winner of the New York State Bar Association President’s pro bono award. Despite her full plate, Bethany’s dedication to Legal Aid is unwavering. And she has the track record to prove it!
Funding: The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York is funded by grants from the Legal Services Corporation, the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund of the State of New York, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, United States Department of Justice, New York State Legislature, New York State Office of the Attorney General, NYS Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance, NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services, Albany County Department for Aging, Fulton County Office for Aging, St. Lawrence County Office for the Aging, Washington County Office for the Aging, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Office for the Aging, City of Saratoga Springs, New York State Bar Foundation, Albany Law School, Hunger Solutions New York, NYS Unified Court System Judiciary Civil Legal Services, Warren County, Albany County Department of Social Services, Schenectady Community Action Program, Joseph’s House, City of Schenectady, City of Albany, City of Troy, New York State Attorney General Homeowner Protection Program, Internal Revenue Service, Southern Adirondack Independent Living, Albany Housing Authority, law firms, corporations and individuals through the Justice for All Campaign. LASNNY is a fair housing/equal housing opportunity provider of legal services.