Arnold & Porter Pro Bono Team Win Contempt of Court Order for Child Support

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Arnold & Porter for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Jane”, a single mother seeking help in a child support case.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Arnold & Porter for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Jane”, a single mother seeking help in a child support case. The incredible team, consisting of Judge Rosalyn Richter and Mindy Gorin, was successful in helping Jane prevail in a contempt of court order for child support during a time when Covid-19 made access to the courts seem almost impossible.

A New Idea Is the Spark That Lights an Eternal Flame

When Lisa Vara, Director of the Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project at Sanctuary, was tasked with nominating a pro bono team for this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono award without hesitation she named Arnold & Porter’s Pro Bono’s Team. Lisa was truly inspired by the passion, hard work, and dedication that this team showed when handling such a complex case during a time when the entire world was in lockdown.  In fact, Lisa shared that working closely with Judge Rosalyn Richter was her “biggest privilege.”

Rosalyn Richter, Senior Counsel at Arnold & Porter and Director of a Pro Bono Externship at Columbia University Law School, was the gem who led her pro bono team to a true victory. Prior to joining Arnold & Porter, Judge Richter was an Associate Judge in the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court where she ruled over an array of cases, some that involved divorces. Lisa would often send financial enforcement cases to Judge Richter for her legal clinic to handle and this case just happened to be one of those cases. When Judge Richter received this case, she pulled it from the legal clinic and brought it to Arnold & Porter’s Pro Bono Team because she “felt it needed the resources and attention a large law firm could provide.”

“Jane,” a single mother, is involved in ongoing litigation with a former partner, who has a long history of nonpayment of child support, delinquent payments, and hidden assets. She was urgently seeking legal representation to help her enforce the existing child support order so she could pay for her daughter’s education, extracurricular activities, and make sure her daughter’s health care premiums were paid. Due to the nonpayment of her school tuition, her daughter faced a significant risk of being forced out of her school, which she had attended since kindergarten.

Judge Richter acknowledged early on that because “Jane” and her former partner were not married “the path into court because of Covid was not so clear.” She recognized the challenges early on, especially since the father was pro se and she knew as a former Judge the “responsibility the court has when dealing with self-represented litigants.” Judge Richter knew that for her client “it was a lot of money” and the “level of concern to not have this decided the right way” was pivotal.  Ultimately, the tuition arrears were finally paid when the Court was prepared to incarcerate Jane’s former partner for nonpayment of child support after a money judgment issued against him did not lead to any payment being made.

“Creative lawyering” is what Arnold & Porter accomplished, Lisa shared, when they filed a Contempt of Child Support Order in Supreme as opposed to Family Court. Generally, unmarried parents have to proceed in Family Court under these circumstances; however, during the first several months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Family Court was not calendaring, let alone deciding, support cases. As Judge Richter explains she did two things: 1) focused on what was most immediate and most significant in the case and it was the immediate health coverage and continuity of education; and 2) she filed several other motions before the contempt order in Supreme Court for an opportunity to be heard expeditiously. It is important to note that the parties were already in the Integrated Domestic Violence Court (IDV), and this filing was consistent with the purpose of IDV, which is to ensure that if at all possible one judge hears all issues involving that family.

Judge Richter humbly notes that she knew the courts very well, so her team focused on filing the contempt order in Supreme Court, and through their hard work and dedication, they were successful in securing a win for their client. When asked to describe Judge Richter in three words, Lisa proudly shared “brilliant, compassionate, and determined.”

True Strength is Internal

“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.” – Barbara Kingsolver

The strength of a mother is what Judge Richter so humbly learned during her time working with “Jane”. Judge Richter shares that she witnessed firsthand the sacrifices her client was willing to make for her daughter. As an attorney, Judge Richter believed that she grew tremendously from this experience. In the end, Judge Richter’s deep relationship with Sanctuary and dedication to affording zealous advocacy to those in need is what makes the work of Sanctuary so effortless and self-rewarding.

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Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Arnold & Porter’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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Melissa D. James is an Associate at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP and an Adjunct Professor at LIM College.  She has been a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council since 2016

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.

Davis Polk & Wardwell Secures Release of a Survivor Under New York’s DVSJA

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a compassionate team of pro bono attorneys from Davis Polk who employed New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act to secure the release of Chloe, a survivor of severe domestic abuse and trafficking.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a compassionate and perseverant team of pro bono attorneys from Davis Polk who employed New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (“DVSJA”) to secure the release of “Chloe,” a survivor of severe domestic abuse and sex trafficking. The team includes Pro Bono Counsel Dara L. Sheinfeld, Counsel Denis J. McInerney, associates Don Levavi and Stephanie Mazursky, and former associates Timothy Horley and Patrick Moroney. 

The DVSJA, which was passed in 2019, provides judges greater discretion in sentencing when domestic abuse significantly contributed to the crime for which the person was convicted. The Act also allows for re-sentencing of incarcerated survivors like Chloe.

Chloe is a survivor of terrible abuse at the hands of her trafficker. Under the guise of a loving boyfriend, her trafficker convinced her to travel with him from upstate NY to the Bronx, leaving her young child behind with her family. Once in the Bronx, her trafficker cut her off from her family and friends, prevented her from having access to a cellphone of her own, and surveilled her minute-by-minute, even going so far as to sit outside the bathroom while she showered. Her trafficker abused her physically on a daily basis and also abused her psychologically and emotionally. He forced her into prostitution and even made her get a tattoo of his name across her neck – a common branding technique used by traffickers.

In a tragic incident, Chloe’s trafficker killed a buyer who had paid to have sex with Chloe. When Davis Polk began working with Chloe, she was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery, a crime related to the buyer’s death. Remarkably, after four months of intensive work in partnership with the Legal Aid Society and Sanctuary for Families, the Davis Polk team was able to successfully secure Chloe’s release under the DVSJA.

The Davis Polk team recognized that key to the case was highlighting the psychological factors that undermined Chloe’s lack of agency in connection with her crime of conviction. To that end, Davis Polk engaged a recognized expert psychologist to meet with Chloe, explore the nature of her relationship with her trafficker, and evaluate her agency at the time. The psychologist concluded that Chloe suffered from “trauma bonding,” a phenomenon in which there is a powerful emotional attachment to an abusive partner which often remains even after the relationship ends.

Trauma bonds are formed when three main conditions are met:

  1. The existence of an imbalance of power between the abuser and victim
  2. The use of coercive control tactics, and
  3. The intermittent reward and punishment that the abuser metes out in the course of the relationship.

These factors, combined with isolation, gaslight the abused into an almost worshipful dependence on the abuser. The DVSJA permitted the court to take these psychological factors into consideration in connection with Chloe’s re-sentencing.

The case was highly challenging. One difficulty in employing the DVSJA for re-sentencing, as team member and former Davis Polk attorney Patrick Moroney remarked, is that “you go before the same judge who initially imposed the sentence” and who might be reluctant to disturb that previous decision. In Chloe’s case, securing the support of the District Attorney’s Office proved crucial. While the Davis Polk team worked tirelessly with Chloe to prepare and submit her DVSJA application, engaged in extensive communications with the DA’s Office regarding the merits of the application and arranged for Chloe to be interviewed by the DA’s Office for several hours, all of which resulted in the DA’s Office joining in the application, the Court still required the District Attorney’s Office to submit a full written response to the petition. As a true testament to their commitment to re-sentencing, the DA’s Office promptly submitted a detailed set of papers explaining their reasoning for joining in the application within just hours of the Court’s order.

The prosecution’s willingness to support the DVSJA application was facilitated by the collaborative, open approach that both defense counsel and the DA’s Office took in handling this case. Davis Polk team leader, Counsel Denis McInerney, who serves as President of Sanctuary’s Board and supervises many DVSJA matters at the firm, noted that the defense team’s history with the DA’s Office in a prior similarly successful DVSJA application — which also centered on open lines of communications in which the defense provided the prosecutors with a thorough and candid evaluation of the facts and legal issues in the case – undoubtedly helped to establish the trust one wants in order to have an effective dialogue with the DA’s Office. In Moroney’s words, the team “gave them access to Chloe [and] the documents,” and answered all of their questions. McInerney believes that this approach of being rigorous in one’s factual and legal analysis while at the same time treating the prosecution as “allies” helps tremendously in persuading DA’s Offices to respond rapidly and sympathetically to meritorious DVSJA applications.

Davis Polk demonstrated not only legal acumen but humanity in their representation of Chloe. In anticipation of her release, the team sought therapy services for Chloe, and even provided a car service for her five-plus hour drive home from prison—with a stop at Walmart included! Davis Polk team member Stephanie Mazursky said that she learned patience, compassion, and the power of positive reinforcement from her relationship with Chloe – a relationship that was difficult to build, not only because it required Chloe to revisit traumatic memories, but because conversations took place almost exclusively over the phone due to COVID restrictions at the prison. Now, with the benefit of her early release and without the burden of any post-release supervision, Chloe has emerged from her incarceration with the unfettered freedom to participate in her child’s growth and to spend time with her loved ones.

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Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Davis Polk’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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Dr. Devin Jane Buckley holds a Ph.D. from Duke University where she studied philosophy and literature while doing title IX advocacy and policy work. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and serves on the Education Committee for World Without Exploitation.