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TCL > January 2001 Issue > In Forma Pauperis

January 2001       Vol. 30, No. 1       Page  23
Legal Services News

In Forma Pauperis
by Barbara L. Hughes

Editor’s Note: Excerpts of the experiences of a former legal services attorney printed below are part of a winning essay written for the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice legal services writing competition.

A Snapple and a Mounds bar were all I wanted—a temporary sugar sojourn to the convenience store. After nine years at legal aid, I was a bit beleaguered. I think a cumulative stress hits you one day and this was the day; the reluctant debutante at the burned-out advocate ball. I reflected on my seminal VISTA experience working with the poor and being inspired by dedicated legal aid attorneys with their protest t-shirts, faded jeans, and vision. I remembered the commitment of the private bar that offered help with the deluge of cases. Such dedicated staff attorneys and outside attorney volunteers make all the difference.

It had been another hectic Friday. I had put the word out to staff to be especially vigilant for Christmas holiday evictions—to make sure that anything that "smelled" of a potential lock-out or an imminent eviction would not be placed on our now six-week general waiting list. The dedicated paralegals and support staff were under constant stress to do more. That morning, I met Mary, a distraught mother of two teenage boys (one child disabled) for the first time. I had just received the case that Friday, and her Answer in defense of the eviction was due the next Monday at 10:00 a.m.

Mary lived in a rural farm town in the eastern part of the county—a small town where cattle kicked up the burnt orange dust that rose and fell every year from the ever-pervasive winds and where "public" housing was virtually nonexistent. What few private rentals that were available were coveted. I mustered what I perceived as palpable legal defenses and tried to explain over her panicked objections why "no attorney was available to go to court that day." Fear and fatigue from Mary’s hurt places of the past welled up, turned to tears, which transformed to that long hollow look of resignation that I had seen so many times before. "It was all so unfair," she whispered.

After Mary’s eviction case came a case involving a Motion to Stay enjoining the enforcement of an order that would have had our client, Ashley, deliver her baby directly from the womb into the hands of the putative father—a father long ago out of the picture during the pregnancy and concomitant prenatal care, but who rose from the beyond to claim his child. Ashley’s main problem was indigence and innocence of legal maneuvering. When I had completed the Motion, I got up, walked down the hall, signed out "on break" and headed in my truck to the store. It was only three blocks from the Legal Aid office and the Colorado sky was its usual defiant blue, but the air that blew down from the Rocky Mountains was a mean-spirited cold. So I drove.

As I walked into the store, I noticed three figures huddled inside near the newspaper stand at the front of the store. I grabbed my sugar items and stood in the check-out line. I looked over at the three strangers, teenagers with heads low, eyes averted and with the body posture of shame. They lingered a bit, undoubtedly to avoid embarking again into that bitter wind. Their winter jackets had seen hard times and their shoes even harder times. As I waited in line with my cash, leather gloves, and Patagonia jacket, I could not keep from staring—particularly at the young mother.

Oh, I’d seen . . . "the poor" before in sad permutations at the office, but there was something haunting here—something riveting—perhaps the horror of the banal acceptance of the plight of this young mother and child. The cash registers kept ringing, the gas pumps kept pumping, the customers kept grabbing Marlboros, gum, and donuts—and time froze for me. Nothing else mattered as I was focused on this mother and baby. Pale, silent with willowy brown hair, cut to hide her face, she stood with the baby in the stroller. The coat, short-waisted charcoal grey, was too small for her. She had no hat or gloves, and the threadbare lime-green cotton skirt covered bare legs. No socks, just cheap hightop sneakers with no shoestrings. The baby, a boy not more than a year old, was wearing a dingy winter coat, but mom had made sure he had a hood, blue mittens, and little black boots. It was the sadness that set itself on her face that moved me.

They left the store and started walking toward the back alley. I purchased my items, and as I drove back to the office, I saw them again walking down the alley toward Legal Aid’s parking lot. "Please," I thought, "come into the office." I knew I couldn’t solicit clients and had plenty already, but I hoped she had a legal issue or that I could refer her to an appropriate resource agency. So I stood, like a lighthouse-keeper, at the back window, ready to alert the receptionist to make sure this "walk-in" did not leave without talking with me. But she did not stop, nor even pause; she just kept walking with singular purpose through that damn bitter wind.

It is those moments that rekindle my dedication to Legal Aid. There are those cases that hold you, that move you, that make you feel that you actually accomplished something. One day, a tall, attractive woman in her mid-thirties came into the office. She was being evicted for a variety of alleged "breaches," most notably "noise" violations at her federally subsidized house. Donna’s sole income was $435 per month from Supplemental Security Income. Donna’s disability was manic-depressive disorder, but its uniqueness lay in the temporal manifestation of her disability—she could go from a manic phase to a depressive state within a twenty-four-hour period.

Donna had two young children—twins, a boy and a girl. The family used to have a dog, Venus. Venus’ suspicious demise precipitated Donna’s frustration and anger, causing a manic state that inevitably resulted in a "noise" violation. I think I wanted to litigate the case not only for Donna and her children, but posthumously for Venus. I remember the first informal meeting with the Housing Authority; it was essentially my client versus Neighborhood Watch. I swear, every neighbor within a three-mile radius had appeared and with such vehement recitations that, had we been in court, I could have at least wielded an objection based on cumulative testimony.

That informal meeting did not resolve the issues, so litigation ensued. I filed the requisite Answer and counterclaims asserting, inter alia, violations of the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and due process violations. I kept the case in state court largely because my client did not want to drive the hour to the federal district court and sit in unfamiliar surroundings. Donna’s manic-depressive swings were easily triggered. I subpoenaed Donna’s therapist for trial to establish the nexus between her disabling condition and the grounds for the eviction, and, thank heaven, the therapist waived her fees. Although expert testimony is not required under the law, try telling that to a judge. At trial, it was established that no reasonable accommodation had been made for her mental illness, and the Housing Authority’s contention that any accommodation would be financially oppressive was wholly without merit. In the end, the judge ruled in favor of my $435 per month mother and ordered the Housing Authority to move her to a new house in a new neighborhood. Maybe, just maybe, she got a fresh start on her life.

Evictions can be tough, especially when you have clients who have no legal defenses; their plight is economic. The toughest cases, however, are the permanent restraining order cases (domestic violence cases where the victims seek to restrain their lover or spouse from harming them further). . . . Cases like Marian who fled her husband, Richard, and went to a safe-house with her two young children but whose husband could not stand losing her and attacked her at work. He broke into her place of employment, a restaurant supply company, and stowed away in the false ceiling, awaiting her usual early and solitary entry. As Marian headed to her inside office her husband broke through the ceiling, hunted her down, and proceeded to slash her with a box-cutter knife. . . .

Marian can still be a mother to her two young children because a UPS driver, late for deliveries, happened to hear her screams and called the police. I distinctly remember the day I interviewed Marian for assistance with her permanent restraining order—she had a gaping eight-inch black-stitched slash across her throat. Brett, a tan third-year law student intern from California and a neophyte in "client contact," turned ashen as he sat in on the interview. Of course, the difficult cases are punctuated occasionally by humanity’s full panoply of delightful design. . . .

There are those clients whose innocence leaves a imprint on your heart forever. Like Nell, physically diminutive and mentally challenged and who refers to me as "her lawyer." I’ve been working with Nell for about six years, and every few months she appears with a new legal problem. I’ve helped her with two divorces, two evictions, three public benefit issues, and one "psychological pregnancy." Then there’s Candice, mentally challenged, whose "service dog" sign, handwritten in crayon on cardboard and attached with twine to her disheveled yet dutiful mutt, Frank, probably paved the way for more accommodation than any pristine order for injunctive relief could provide.

The cases keep rolling in and, without additional money and the generous local bar, we would be doing triage on legal triage. Thank God for the great pro bono attorneys in our jurisdiction who help with the deluge. Thank God for the other grants and donations that supplement our Legal Services Corporation money. This morning I staffed two new cases with a volunteer. They’re home solicitation cases where a door-to-door salesperson just sold two clients each an $1,800 vacuum. One client is elderly and legally blind, the other paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Neither of them has carpeting. And so it goes . . .

Barbara L. Hughes is a district court magistrate in the Fourth Judicial District in Colorado Springs and was formerly with Colorado Legal Services. Legal Services News is published bimonthly to apprise members of the Bar of legal services projects, issues, and pro bono opportunities. Readers are encouraged to submit article and topic ideas to Sally Maresh, Department Editor, (970) 356-9221; e-mail: sally.

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