S&C Attorneys Obtain a Groundbreaking Appellate Victory for Domestic Violence Survivors

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring an extraordinary team of attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP who achieved a ground-breaking appellate victory for their pro bono client Nicole Addimando and survivors of domestic violence across New York state.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring an extraordinary team of attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP who achieved a ground-breaking appellate victory for their pro bono client Nicole Addimando and survivors of domestic violence across New York state. The S&C team includes Garrard Beeney, Amanda Davidoff, Kamil Shields, Tim Weinstein, James Browne, Samantha Briggs, Alexander Self, and Jennifer Lee.

Nicole’s Case

In 2017, Nicole, a loving and proud mother of two young children from Poughkeepsie, NY, was enduring unspeakable violence at the hands of her children’s father, Chris. The two had begun dating when Nicole was 19 years old, and Chris became increasingly abusive over the course of their nine-year relationship.  He regularly subjected Nicole to sadistic sexual and physical violence, threats, and psychological and emotional abuse. One night in 2017, Chris brandished a gun and threatened to kill Nicole then himself, leaving their children without parents. Nicole used the gun against Chris, killing him.

The Trial Court Proceedings

In April 2020, a jury convicted Nicole of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. During the sentencing phase, Nicole’s trial counsel requested application of the Domestic Violence Survivor Justice Act (the “DVSJA”), which allows judges to impose a reduced sentence if the defendant was “a victim of domestic violence subjected to substantial physical, sexual or psychological abuse inflicted by a member of the same family or household,” the abuse was “a significant contributing factor” to the crime, and, taking all of the circumstances into a count, a standard sentence would be “unduly harsh.”

Opposing the application of the DVSJA to Nicole, the prosecution presented various purported explanations to minimize the documented evidence of extreme abuse that Nicole survived—including photographs and medical documentation that she had been beaten, burned, sodomized by objects, and had her head slammed against countertops, among other abuse. Indeed, lawyers at Sanctuary for Families who assisted in the case have described Nicole’s history of abuse as among the most extreme that they have ever seen. In the face of this overwhelming evidence, the prosecutor relied on abhorrent, outdated, and fundamentally incorrect notions about the realities of domestic violence. She argued that, if Nicole was abused at all, it must have been self-inflicted or at the hands of someone other than her domestic partner; or if this extreme violence was perpetrated by Chris, it must have been consensual; or if it was not consensual, Nicole could have simply left him.

Based on a deeply flawed understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, the judge concluded that the DVSJA should not apply and sentenced Nicole to an indeterminate sentence of 19 years to life in prison. 

S&C’s Representation of Nicole on Appeal

By the time Nicole was sentenced, Sanctuary had approached S&C about representing Nicole on appeal. Garrard Beeney, an S&C partner and Sanctuary Board member, was undaunted by the multi-thousand-page trial transcript and lengthy pre-trial and pre-DVSJA-hearing history. “I looked through the opening statements and closing arguments,” Beeney recalled. “I think that made clear to us at a point before sentencing that there had been, in many respects, a miscarriage of justice in the way that the case had been presented to the jury, at least in the sense of ignoring what we know about survivors of domestic violence and the science of domestic violence.”

The S&C team formed a coalition of advocates including Sanctuary, the Legal Aid Society, and Nicole’s trial counsel to challenge Nicole’s conviction and the court’s refusal to apply the DVSJA at her sentencing. Working with this coalition, Sanctuary coordinated the filing of two amicus briefs—a brief on behalf of domestic violence service providers on the impact of trauma on domestic violence survivors’ memories and decisions, and a brief on behalf of certain  New York state legislators who drafted and passed the DVSJA detailing the statute’s legislative history and intent. An amicus also was filed by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

Meanwhile, the S&C team worked tirelessly on the appeal, strategizing on the legal issues most likely to achieve the best result for Nicole, researching and briefing the legal arguments, and ultimately arguing the appeal before a panel of the New York Appellate Division, Second Department. During an extraordinary oral argument that lasted nearly two hours (and can be viewed here), the Appellate Division panel lobbed question after question at Beeney to probe the contours of the DVSJA.

As Nicole Fidler, director of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Program, and Ross Kramer, Director of Sanctuary’s Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivor Initiative, described it:

“The appeal demonstrated that the trial judge’s refusal to apply the DVSJA reflected deeply flawed understandings of the dynamics of abuse, the impact on survivors’ memories, the risk assessment survivors make when determining life or death situations, and the application of the DVSJA—views that unfortunately pervade our justice system.”

The Appellate Division’s Ruling

On July 14, 2021, the Appellate Division ruled on Nicole’s appeal, marking the first appellate decision to interpret the DVSJA. Although the panel upheld Nicole’s conviction, it rejected the trial court’s decision not to apply the DVSJA and reduced Nicole’s sentence to a determinate term of 7.5 years. Nicole is expected to be eligible for release in two years. 

In its opinion (available here), the panel strongly criticized the trial court’s reliance on antiquated attitudes about the impact of domestic violence, its misinterpretation of the legislative intent of the DVSJA, and its inexplicable determination that the record of Nicole’s abuse by Chris was “undetermined.” The panel forcefully rejected the trial court’s reliance “on a presumption or notion that [Nicole] could have avoided further abuse at the hands of [Chris],” and concluded that “[t]he evidence, which included a detailed history of repeated sexual, physical, and psychological abuse by [Chris] against [Nicole], expert testimony regarding the impact of that abuse on the defendant, and [Nicole’s] testimony regarding the events prior to the subject shooting, established that the abuse was a significant contributing factor to the defendant’s criminal behavior.”

Nicole felt vindicated by the Appellate Division’s recognition that Chris had, in fact, inflicted horrific abuse upon her. She also felt gratified that the opinion will help other survivors in similar circumstances. “She is a remarkable person,” Beeney said of his client. “She has the ability to focus on how she can help other people avoid the abuse she suffered at the hands of her abuser as well as the abuse she suffered in the judicial system. It’s a remarkable fortitude and strength.”

After the Appellate Division’s decision came down, several members of the S&C team including Beeney visited Nicole. “On the drive back to the City,” Beeney recalled, “we were remarking to each other that you can’t describe to other lawyers the feeling, the satisfaction, that you get from knowing that as a result of the team’s effort and the efforts of many others in the community, [Nicole] will be going home when her kids are still in middle school—rather than potentially spending the rest of her life [in prison].”  Working on a case like Nicole’s, Beeney said, gives him “faith in the profession, and recognition of the power that we all have with a law degree.”

“I and every member of the board and others who support Sanctuary’s mission feel the same way—[domestic violence] survivors are an underserved community, many of whom, because of economic and other reasons, don’t have a voice or a position that allows them access to the services and support they need to get out from under domestic violence. The organization is wonderful. The cause is something that everyone needs to know about.” — Garrard Beeney, S&C Partner

Kramer praised the S&C team’s work, saying the team “went Above and Beyond for Nicole by any measure.  The compassion, diligence, and skill they brought to the case were inspirational. And the result they achieved profoundly impacted both Nicole and her family.  Beyond that, the appellate court’s ruling in Nicole’s case – which would never have come about but for the passionate advocacy of the Sullivan & Cromwell team – will have a broad and deep impact on the way courts and advocates approach survivors’ cases going forward.  In both their hard work and the tremendous result they achieved, the Addimando case team went far Above and Beyond, and richly deserves this recognition.”


Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Sullivan & Cromwell’s outstanding pro bono work. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.


Sharon L. Barbour is co-chair of Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Council.

Paul Weiss Helps Domestic Violence Survivor Overturn Court Order, Remain in Apartment

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Paul Weiss for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Lisa,” a survivor of domestic violence facing court-ordered exclusion from her apartment.

Sharon Barbour is an associate at Cohen & Gresser and co-chair of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Paul Weiss for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Lisa,” a survivor of domestic violence facing court-ordered exclusion from her apartment. The team consisted of partner Dave Brown; associates Sofia Reive, Katarina Broeksmit, and Luke Phillips; former associates Mahalia Boyd and Lance Polivy; and former paralegal Erin Nunes. 

For years, Sanctuary’s client Lisa endured an unimaginable situation in her own home, a rent-controlled apartment where she had lived since childhood.  Her family had been fractured by domestic violence.  As children, Lisa and her siblings witnessed their father violently abuse their mother, which left lasting trauma on the entire family.  Lisa’s sister, Nina, who was in an extremely abusive relationship, ultimately killed her batterer and was sentenced to two decades in prison.  Lisa left college to care for Nina’s children.  Back in her childhood home, Lisa faced psychological abuse by her brother, who had learned how to abuse from their father.

By 2017, Lisa was in poor health and unable to work.  Her brother had his own home but, seeking a buy-out from the building’s management, launched a vicious campaign to force Lisa out of hers.  He installed cameras in the apartment to monitor Lisa’s every move and left menacing notes, threatening her and disparaging her with racist and misogynistic names.  He even went so far as to install a roommate in the apartment without Lisa’s permission to monitor and harass her.  He eventually obtained an order of protection based on spurious claims that Lisa abused him and that the apartment was his only residence.  Claiming that Lisa violated the order of protection, he sought a court order excluding her from the apartment.

In July 2017, after Sanctuary successfully advocated for parole on behalf of Lisa’s sister Nina, Lisa approached Sanctuary for legal assistance.  Sanctuary contacted Paul, Weiss about representing Lisa pro bono.  Mahalia Boyd, then a Paul, Weiss associate, jumped at the opportunity.  Because domestic violence is often understood to involve romantic partners rather than siblings, “that made me want to learn more about those issues and how to protect someone in that space because I don’t think it gets enough attention,” Mahalia said.

The Paul, Weiss team, which included Mahalia, partner Dave Brown, associate Sofia Reive, former associate Lance Polivy, associate Katarina Broeksmit, associate Luke Phillips, and former paralegal Erin Nunes, fought for over two years to keep Lisa in her home.  For the team, Lisa’s success felt personal.  As Sofia put it, “the stakes could not have been higher, since she was in such fragile health and was at risk of becoming homeless.”  “We felt that pressure personally,” Lance said.

The team worked tirelessly with Lisa to prepare for trial.  The team prepared Lisa to testify about years of abuse by her brother and undertook thorough investigative work to expose the brother’s lies.  “It was really important for us to establish trust with Lisa at the beginning,” said Mahalia.  “Lisa started to feel like she was really heard and could contribute to the success of her case.”

During the highly contested year-long trial, as a result of careful preparation and skillful direct examination, the team exposed the brother’s abusive behavior and undermined his credibility.  Yet inexplicably, the court found in favor of Lisa’s brother and ordered Lisa’s exclusion.  The team immediately sought an emergency stay of the exclusion order from the Appellate Division, which was denied.  Undeterred, the team filed an emergency appeal of the denial of the stay, which a full panel of the Appellate Division granted.  The team then briefed an appeal of the family court order on the merits.  After oral argument in September 2019, the Appellate Division overturned the portion of the family court order that excluded Lisa from the apartment.  Finally, after years of hard work, Lisa’s right to stay in her home was secured.

“I am forever grateful to this extraordinary group of lawyers. Their skill and dedication kept me in my home and gave me hope.” — Lisa, survivor.

The team likewise expressed great admiration for Lisa.  “Lisa is a fighter,” said Lance, who praised Lisa for attending school and volunteering at a senior center while coping with an extremely difficult home situation and working on her litigation defense.  “Each time she left [the apartment], she was taking a risk that her belongings would be thrown out in the street, as they had in the past.  On top of this, she spent many long days meeting with the Paul, Weiss team to go over everything and prepare for her trial.” As Dave observed, “We had a better outcome because she was so invested in this process.”  Sofia added, “During several years working closely with Lisa, I was astounded by her courage and resilience – never more so than in the days following an exclusion order by the lower court.”  Mahalia agreed, noting that “despite everything that happened to her, she tried to be positive and . . . make the best of her situation.  It was really inspiring to see that come out and shine through her.”

Reflecting on the successful outcome—the result of intensive factual development, trial preparation, direct examination, motion practice, post-trial submissions, and multiple appellate briefs—Dave said that the case “really highlighted the broad base of skills that Paul, Weiss can bring to bear.  Fortunately, we had the ability to bring all of that to the table to help Lisa.”  He added that he was “really happy to continue the legacy of Paul, Weiss’s support of Sanctuary.” 

For Sofia, “It was invaluable to work on this matter from start to finish: through trial, an emergency stays, and, finally, to a successful appeal.  Ultimately, though, keeping Lisa in her home and turning back her abuser was far and away the most rewarding aspect of the case.  This experience was only possible through our firm’s commitment to pro bono representation and longstanding partnership with Sanctuary for Families.”  Lance echoed these sentiments, noting, “There’s nothing more gratifying than using our legal training to help those in need.  That was what this case was all about.”

“The team never stopped fighting.  We didn’t give up.  This was a case of perseverance.” — Dave Brown, partner, Paul Weiss.

Dorchen Leidholdt, Director of Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, said “It was perseverance coupled with strategic brilliance and top-notch lawyering skills that [the Paul Weiss team] used every step of the way.” She praised each member of the team for being “committed, hardworking, and talented,” calling their work on Lisa’s behalf “extraordinary.”  Dorchen further noted that, because Lisa suffers from multiple chronic illnesses and would have been rendered homeless in the midst of the ongoing COVID pandemic, “They prevented a catastrophe for the client.  It was life-saving.”

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Dave, Mahalia, Sofia, Lance, Katarina, Luke, and Erin. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.