Alston & Bird Attorneys Help Mother and Child Escape Abuse

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a dedicated team from Alston & Bird LLP who obtained an order of protection and a negotiated joint custody agreement for a survivor of domestic violence with a young child.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a dedicated team of pro bono attorneys from Alston & Bird LLP who obtained an order of protection and a negotiated joint custody agreement for a survivor of domestic violence and a mother of a young child. The team includes associates Kristen Kuan, Elizabeth Buckel, and Jenna Jones. Associate Ravi Shah also provided assistance to the team.

The client is a survivor of physical and emotional domestic violence at the hands of her ex-boyfriend. On repeated occasions, the client’s strength allowed her to escape her abuser. Her abuser’s status and wealth, however, enabled him to engage in campaigns of harassment and terror that made it almost impossible for the client to extricate herself from the relationship without fear of losing custody of her child. Ultimately, the client and her daughter fled, moving to a confidential location.

Two and half years ago, the intrepid Alston & Bird team got involved to assist the client. The client’s abuser proved quite litigious, contesting Alston & Bird’s efforts at every step. The Alston & Bird team wrote countless oppositions to meritless Orders to Show Cause, including ones that sought changes in custody and another requesting the client’s mental health records. Numerous hours were spent negotiating with opposing counsel over issues relating to visitation and childcare. The parties litigated everything from drug testing protocols to production of data. The Alston & Bird team witnessed first-hand how uneven the playing field can sometimes be when one of the parties is a victim of domestic violence and has suffered emotional abuse.

One of the most difficult challenges that the Alston & Bird team faced was a damaging forensic evaluation. The Alston & Bird team hired a respected expert who meticulously rebutted the report and highlighted its deficiencies. The expert’s work helped in ultimately leading to the successful resolution of the case.

Although Alston & Bird’s litigation skills excelled in this matter, it was their compassion and patience with the client that make them most deserving of this award. The client had endured so much, and the team did not want to victimize her again, so they worked to be as sensitive to the client’s feelings as possible, empathizing with her and attempting to humanize the process throughout. The client and the Alston & Bird team worked together for hours and hours in preparation for her testimony at trial, with the team taking care to step back when needed to allow the client to process her trauma. With Alston & Bird’s continuing counseling and support, the client became prepared to testify.

In January 2021, Alston & Bird settled the case that served the client and avoided the trauma and risk of a trial. Alston & Bird recognized this case as an example where “the client had nowhere to go” and “Sanctuary provided that necessary support for [the client].”

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Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Alston & Bird’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.

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Amy Barton is Counsel in the New York office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

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.”

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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.

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

Take Action This Domestic Violence Awareness Month

The tragic and sensationalized murder of Gabby Petito put a national spotlight on the issue of domestic violence last month — Take action to support survivors and keep the conversation going through October and beyond.

The tragic and sensationalized murder of Gabby Petito put a national spotlight on the issue of domestic violence last month — the racial disparities in resources and attention afforded to Black and brown missing persons, the limitations of our country’s domestic violence laws, and the role of the police officers who enforce them.
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Yet as the weeks have passed and the search for Petito’s alleged murderer continues, what was becoming a fruitful conversation about abuse and femicide has unsurprisingly stalled just when it should be picking up.
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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). Join advocates and survivors here in New York and across the country in educating yourself and your communities about the dynamics of abuse, and raise awareness about resources available to victims. Here are a few ways you can get involved:
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Attend a Virtual Event

Join Sanctuary, fellow service providers, advocates, and supporters during the month of October.

  • October 14,  Moving Through Trauma and Beyond @ 6:00 PM via Zoom – Hosted by Sanctuary’s Survivor Leadership Coalition, this survivor-led panel will explore the connection between mind and body, and how different modalities build pathways towards healing. RSVP here.
  • October 26, Above & Beyond Virtual Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit @ 6:30 PM via Zoom – Join us as we honor members of the legal community who have gone “above and beyond” by providing outstanding pro bono representation and advocacy to survivors of gender violence. RSVP here.
  • October 26, Vicarious Trauma and Resilience: Creating Space to Care for Yourself and Your Clients @ 1:00 PM via PLI – Learn from current and former Sanctuary staff and advocates how to identify vicarious trauma and the steps you and your organizations can take to address it. Register here.

Request a Training

Our staff and survivor leaders are available to lead virtual trainings for community members and groups – including schools, hospitals, law enforcement, courts and judges, faith communities, and cultural groups – who are interested in learning how to identify and support survivors. Learn more.
 

Wear Purple and Speak Out on Social Media on Thursday, Oct. 21

On NYC Go Purple Day, wear purple as a way to spark conversation and awareness about domestic violence. You can participate by taking a photo of yourself wearing purple. Send your photo to Info@sffny.org and answer the prompt: Today, I wear purple [for/because/to] _________.

We’ll share your photos on Go Purple Day. You can also post on your own social media accounts and tag us on Instagram and Twitter @SFFNY or on Facebook and LinkedIn @sanctuaryforfamilies.
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Donate to Sanctuary

Your support ensures our ability to deliver counseling services, legal representation, career-readiness training, and shelter to thousands of immigrant and low-income survivors and families every year.

    MAKE A GIFT   
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Take action to keep the conversation about domestic violence going through Domestic Violence Awareness Month and beyond.

RED FLAGS: A one woman play about domestic violence

RED FLAGS traces my experience as a survivor of domestic violence and helps viewers identify the signs of abuse.

Have you seen the headlines? Have you heard news stories about the rise in domestic abuse due to COVID-19? I have too, and I realized there may be a way to help. Very often the first step to getting out of an abusive relationship is recognizing that you are in one! However, breaking free is only the first step. The steps that follow can be very difficult and because of that difficulty, many victims give up and return to their abusive partners, again and again, continuing the cycle of violence and all too often losing their lives.

I have written a one-woman show called “RED FLAGS” based on my own experience in living with and surviving domestic violence. My journey, like many victims, was a search for the dream of perfect love. The reality of my relationship eventually proved to be a horror of physical and psychological abuse.

In the play “RED FLAGS” I used my real-life experiences to tell the audience about the warning signs that can make the difference between years of abuse, or even death, and a lifetime of freedom.

Sanctuary for Families played a big part in my recovery and return to a “normal” life after I escaped from my abusive husband. The counseling, the support groups, and the pro-bono legal assistance were invaluable to me! I gained self-confidence and strength from the knowledge that other women’s experiences were very similar to mine – some were even identical down to the exact words used. As a result, I realized I was not going crazy! Some of the characters in “RED FLAGS” are based on the people I met at Sanctuary for Families and they speak volumes about the good work Sanctuary is doing.

I recently had the opportunity to produce a full-length video of “RED FLAGS” (:55 min.) and it is now available to share with the world! You could be a part of this mission to find a way to make the video available to those who need it most. My hope is to share “RED FLAGS” as a free resource so survivors can have access to its valuable lessons and information. “RED FLAGS” helps viewers learn about the warning signs, know what to look for in a healthy relationship, and give viewers tools for survival after breaking free.

Watch my play and go to my website, redflagstheplay.com to learn more.