The 18th Annual Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Awards Celebration of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid was held Sept. 19.
By Kathy Para
The JBA Pro Bono Committee chair
The 18th Annual Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Awards Celebration of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid was held Sept. 19, after overcoming location and scheduling hurdles caused by Hurricane Irma.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge LaBarga was the keynote speaker. The award recipients were William “Bill” Sheppard and Samuel S. Jacobson.
In addition, the pro bono contributions of hundreds of attorneys in the 4th Judicial Circuit were applauded and recognized. Ten attorneys and two firms received special recognition for their volunteer service.
Howard Dale, Lisa Dasher, Valerie Faltemier, William Graessle, Jay Grife, Kathleen Krak, Maxine Long, Donato Rinaldi, Ann Shorstein, and Barry Zisser were recognized.
The Smith, Gambrell & Russell law firm and the CSX Corp. Law Department also were recognized.
Circuit Judge Hugh Carithers, chair of the 4th Circuit Pro Bono Committee, presented the awards.
Pro bono efforts cross international borders
The pro bono team that agreed to represent a Japanese-speaking mother included Barry Zisser (Zisser Law), Kathleen Meagher Krak (Shutts & Bowen, Orlando office) Maxine Master Long (Shutts & Bowen, Coral Gables office) William Stephen Graessle (William S. Graessle PA).
In spite of significant hurdles, this team reunited a mother and child across international borders.
At the start of the case, JALA family attorney, Jennifer Jerome, was involved with a motion to change custody in an emergency pickup order with the grandmother. Zisser and Graessle offered their services to assist in getting a rehearing and possibly appealing the case.
During the time of their work, the mother returned to Japan and the client relationship ended. However, the Japanese attorneys whom Jerome had contacted assisted the client in filing a petition with the Hague Convention. Krak and Long offered their pro bono services to the client through the Hague Convention Network.
The challenges of this case included language barriers and great geographic distances. Armed with the protections of Florida law and the Hague Convention, Krak and Long prevailed at trial and the baby and mother were reunited in Japan earlier this year.
The work of this pro bono team is an inspiring example of collaboration in our local, state and global legal communities on behalf of the vulnerable and voiceless.
Lobbying efforts impact health, safety of tenants at Eureka Garden
When JALA began working with tenants of the Eureka Garden Apartments low-income housing complex in 2016 to ensure safe habitability, it wasn’t difficult to enlist the assistance of attorneys Howard Dale and Ann Shorstein.
A problem many tenants faced was a lack of air flow as most live without air conditioning, ceiling fans or screen doors.
Dale proposed a simple amendment to the city’s Housing Code to require screen doors in rental housing to create an inexpensive solution to the lack of air flow while limiting entry of mosquitoes and other insects.
After Shorstein joined the effort, the team consulted with City Council members and was able to secure a legislative sponsor for the proposed amendment.
Shorstein’s and Dale’s expertise in working with city government and their commitment to low-income clients provided the formula for success. Jacksonville’s Housing Code was amended and now, all tenants of rental housing living without air conditioning will have a screen door to let in fresh air.
The pro bono work of Shorstein and Dale has improved the quality of life of hundreds of families in our community.
Clay, Nassau initiatives impact hundreds
Shortly after JALA started family law group information clinics in Duval County, Lisa Dasher (Clay County) and Valerie Faltemier (Nassau County) spearheaded efforts in their respective counties to provide the service in venues accessible to residents in their areas.
The information clinics are offered monthly and serve people faced with filing their own family law matters with information and forms.
Dasher and Faltemier started their respective clinics five years ago and continue to serve as the administrators of the resource, making arrangements with the venues, ensuring packets are available, recruiting other volunteer attorneys and serving as the attorney presenters on clinic nights.
In addition, they accept clients for representation and serve as expert resources for new pro bono attorneys. The impact of Dasher and Faltemier in Clay and Nassau counties has far reaching positive impact on many families.
Consumer Pro Bono Program attorneys protect the rule of law
Jay Grife and Donato Joseph Rinaldi have served as part of the volunteer backbone at the St. Johns County Consumer Pro Bono Program for years. They interview clients, participate in group case review sessions and accept cases for full representation every month.
In addition, they mentor members of the Bar who are interested in accepting consumer cases, but who may not have the experience necessary to handle the case on their own. The efforts of these two attorneys have resulted in significant victories for their clients both at the trial and appellate levels.
One example is Rinaldi’s recent 5th District Court of Appeal victory protecting the rights of veterans in foreclosure cases.
Their volunteer efforts are invaluable to other consumer advocates statewide and across the country who are fighting to protect their clients’ rights.
Support for NFMLP focuses on people with special needs
In 2012, the CSX Corp. Law Department responded to a request to consider assisting with the increase in guardian advocacy cases being referred to the Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership, a project of JALA.
The clients were family members of young people with special needs.
The CSX attorneys responded with enthusiasm to the request. Some corporate legal departments focus only on the barriers to offering pro bono assistance in their communities such as attorneys being licensed only in other states and practice areas outside their areas of expertise. CSX Law Department overcame those barriers by pairing Florida licensed attorneys with out-of-state attorneys.
Leading the effort were Erin O’Brien and Cathy Hilf. The staff in the Law Department requested training in guardian advocacy and ongoing support as needed. The simple steps enabled the CSX staff attorneys and support staff to begin assisting families in need of guardian advocacy assistance.
For five years, the CSX Law Department has accepted cases and provided stability for families in need. For families faced with the challenges of caring for a loved one with disabilities these attorneys have eliminated one source of stress.
Landlord/tenant project results in assistance and training for attorneys
In spring 2016, Steve Brust and James Cummings of the Jacksonville office of the Smith, Gambrell & Russell law firm came to JALA to brainstorm ways that the firm could be more involved in assisting low-income people with civil legal matters.
Their goal was to offer their attorneys and particularly newer associates an opportunity in which they could help fill a gap in existing legal services, assist clients and provide representation experience that could involve appearances in court.
What developed was the Landlord/Tenant Pro Bono Project. The attorneys received two training sessions covering landlord/tenant intake and resolving common landlord/tenant legal matters.
The firm committed to staffing intake for one afternoon every month and to identifying one or two pro bono cases for full assistance and representation.
“We are finding that the program has been invaluable in teaching our young lawyers how to interact with members of the community and assist with solving problems. We hope to be able to perform this service for years to come,” said Brust.
The need for landlord/tenant assistance is immense, but often difficult because of time-sensitive matters. The participation of the attorneys in intake means that more meritorious cases will receive representation.
Families are more likely to avoid a wrongful eviction, children avoid the possibility of changing schools and credit reports aren’t damaged. The positive impacts on the family and on the community are immeasurable and a direct result of the work of Smith, Gambrell & Russell.