Pro Bono Success Stories

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  • | 12:00 p.m. October 19, 2009
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by Kathy Para

JBA Pro Bono Committee Chair

Pro Bono Spotlight

These are just three of the hundreds of low-income clients for whom pro bono attorneys have achieved positive outcomes. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA) staff and clients gratefully acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of each and every pro bono attorney. Attorneys in northeast Florida are encouraged to represent a low-income clients in a civil legal matters. It’s pro bono that’s manageable. It’s pro bono that matters.

Facts, truth finally win out in elderly man’s debt collection case

The 75-year-old man had proof that he was in the hospital when his credit card was used by an unauthorized relative for a $2,700 purchase. The credit card bill said $5,700 instead of $2,700. Process was served several months after the collection agency filed suit, and somehow it went conveniently unnoticed that a the three-year statute of limitations had run out. Yet somehow, this elderly man lost this case in summary judgment. This is what makes Jim Kowalski Jr. angry. And that anger is why the Mandarin solo practitioner works on dozens of such pro bono cases at any one time. It’s why he took on this case and eventually won it, and it’s why he was recently awarded The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award.

“These cases can move very, very quickly through the courts,” says Kowalski. “And, unfortunately, it’s a very sad part of this world that the judges — as they should — rely on the collection agency lawyers to do things right. And they don’t always do that. If I, as a lawyer, tell something to the judge, I’m required to be candid and tell everything — there are ethical rules.”

In this case, Kowalski says, those rules were not followed. For this one victory, there are hundreds of others who go without legal representation and fall victim to what Kowalski calls the debt-collection conveyor belt.

“Their lawyers are set on a default processing system,” he says. “The reality of the case is not allowed to interfere with the mechanism of the collection. The mechanism of the collection is going to keep moving forward. The conveyor belt is going to keep moving forward. Nothing is going to stop the conveyor belt. Including the truth.”

Except for maybe the truth and a devoted attorney.

Successful pro bono guardianship case opens new area of law to attorney

With years as an assistant public defender and a short stint as a sole practitioner under her belt, Ruth Ann Hepler understands the needs of those who cannot afford to hire counsel. That is why she jumped at the chance to take advantage of JALA’s free CLE “lunch and learn” seminars. The only catch: handle one pro bono case for each class taken.

“It seemed like a great deal to me,” Hepler said. “I got to finish my hours, learn a new area of the law, and participate in the pro bono program all at the same time!”

She learned the ropes of guardianship law from attorney, and JALA Board member, Rebeccah Beller. That gave her enough of a jump-start to be able to help a JALA client obtain a guardian advocateship for her 19-year-old autistic son. Now the client can make the health care and legal decisions for her son that he is not capable of handling on his own.

“The family was just delightful, and they were so appreciative,” Hepler said. “They couldn’t afford to hire an attorney on their own, but it didn’t take much of my time at all, and I learned a lot in the process.”

Hepler, a partner at with Sullivan & Hepler, enjoyed the experience so much that she hopes to expand her Social Security disability and criminal defense practice to include guardianship law as well. And she is already working on another pro bono guardianship case for JALA.

“I feel good about using my legal skills to give back to the community, and I love meeting and working with the clients,” she said.

Suzanne Judas provides stability and support for GAL clients

Much of Suzanne Judas’ passion is the result of her ability to see how many lives she has touched as an advocate for children in the dependency system. The children involved have been victimized by abusive and/or neglectful parents or caregivers. Judas, a partner with Holland & Knight LLP, gives these children a reason to believe that someone cares about them through her presence and compassion. Hilary Creary, Managing Attorney for Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), observes, “Ms. Judas has served many children. In one case, specifically, a child desperately needed some assistance before she turned 18 years old and aged out of the dependency system. Judas’ determination to get the child the help she needed was displayed by her attendance at every hearing. Not only did she ensure that the child received the needed services, but she was also able to help correct credit, educational, and housing problems faced by the teen.”

Creary explains further that after aging out of the system, many children no longer maintain relationships with caregivers, and social workers. Creary concludes, “However, Ms. Judas was also able to extend the court’s jurisdiction over the child for an additional year so that she is will be able to continue to help the child as needed. The child is now doing well, and is currently enrolled at Florida State College at Jacksonville. They have continued to keep in contact.”

A few words cannot begin to explain the impact that Judas has had on the lives of children in the dependency system through her work as a pro bono attorney with the Guardian ad Litem Program. The entire GAL staff congratulates and thanks her for the amazing work she does as a child advocate.

Requests for civil legal assistance at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and Guardian Ad Litem have never been greater. Attorneys are needed in all areas of civil law for pro bono representation. Contact Kathy Para, Chairperson, JBA Pro Bono Committee, for information on areas of greatest need, volunteer opportunities, and support for pro bono attorneys at [email protected] or 356-8371, ext. 363.



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