New York Appellate Court issues landmark ruling on DVSJA in the case of Nicole Addimando

On July 14, 2021, Sanctuary for Families and the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative were

On July 14, 2021, Sanctuary for Families and the Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative were part of a legal team that achieved a remarkable, ground-breaking result for domestic violence survivors in New York State. On that day, a New York appellate court dramatically reduced the sentence of defendant Nicole Addimando—by more than a decade—because she had demonstrated that her crime was directly related to the severe abuse she had suffered for years at the hands of her domestic partner. For the first time, an appellate court applied New York’s revolutionary Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act to ensure that a survivor’s experiences were credited and that she received a compassionate sentence in line with a modern understanding of the effects of prolonged abuse.

The Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative

What does it take to change systems that have historically been stacked against survivors of abuse, particularly women of color? The answer to this question was the foundation of our Incarcerated Gender Violence Survivors Initiative. Formed in 2017 by Sanctuary attorneys and pro bono partners, the Initiative seeks to secure the release of gender violence survivors who have been imprisoned in New York State for crimes committed as a result of domestic abuse, through a comprehensive approach: legislation, legal representation, training, and education. 

In 2019, the Initiative, along with survivors and advocates across New York, achieved a major success when New York enacted the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (“DVSJA”) after nearly a decade of hard-fought advocacy.

The DVSJA affords judges the discretion to impose reduced sentences if a 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 account, a standard sentence would be “unduly harsh.” The DVSJA allows defendants to seek a reduced sentence after conviction, and it also allows defendants who were sentenced before the DVSJA’s enactment the opportunity to apply for re-sentencing. 

In New York, the passage of the DVSJA was hailed as a major victory by advocates of criminal justice reform and the movement to end gender violence. To be effective, however, laws must be applied. Since 2019, Initiative members have worked to educate practitioners and courts on the DVSJA, but until the Nicole Addimando case, there was no clear legal precedent on how it should be properly applied. 

Nicole Addimando

Nicole Addimando is the proud mother of two young children who was living in Poughkeepsie, NY. At the age of 19, she began dating the father of her children. Throughout their 9-year relationship, Nicole’s partner became increasingly abusive, including sadistic sexual and physical violence, threats, and psychological and emotional manipulation. One night in 2017, he brandished a gun and threatened to kill both Nicole and himself, leaving their children to grow up parent-less. That night, Nicole used the gun to kill him.

In April 2020, following a jury trial, Nicole was convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Despite detailed testimony and evidence outlining one of the most extreme histories of abuse we at Sanctuary and many others in the field have seen, the trial judge ruled that the DVSJA should not apply in her case, and she should not receive a reduced sentence. Using a badly outdated understanding of the effects of prolonged domestic abuse, the judge concluded, among other things, that the history of abuse was somehow unclear, and that Nicole could have easily and safely escaped from her abusive home and relationship. Nicole was shockingly given a prison term of 19 years to life.

For advocates in New York State and across the country, the sentencing decision was disheartening. Nicole Addimando was precisely the kind of survivor for whom the DVSJA was written and enacted.

The Appeal

Sanctuary Board Member and Sullivan & Cromwell partner Garrard Beeney took on the massive undertaking of filing an appeal on Nicole’s behalf. He and his team moved quickly, forming a powerful coalition including, among others, Sanctuary, The Legal Aid Society, and Nicole’s trial attorneys, to challenge both the conviction and the judge’s failure to apply the DVSJA at sentencing.

One of the roles Sanctuary took on was to coordinate the filing of amicus briefs (supplemental legal briefs submitted by third parties to provide judges with additional background or information on the potential impacts of a decision). The trial judge’s decision 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.

First, a team of deeply trauma-informed attorneys at the firm of Davis Polk drafted an amicus brief about the impact of trauma on survivors’ memories and the way trauma informs survivors’ decisions, to be filed on behalf of a group of domestic violence service providers. Second, a devoted team of attorneys at the firm of Duane Morris drafted a highly insightful amicus brief detailing the legislative history of the DVSJA and its intended application, to be filed on behalf of the very New York State legislators who drafted and passed the statute.  

On April 22, 2021, Garrard Beeney argued the case before a panel of four judges from the Appellate Division – Second Department.  Oral argument lasted approximately two hours and can be viewed here. 

On July 14, 2021, the appellate court issued its decision. Much to the disappointment of Nicole, her legal team, family, and friends, the judges upheld Nicole’s conviction. In a blistering rebuke of the trial court’s sentencing, however, the appellate court held that the trial judge misinterpreted the legislative intent of the DVSJA and the circumstances of the case. Though not overturned as we hoped, Nicole Addimando’s sentence was reduced from 19 years to life to a term of 7 ½ years. The full decision can be viewed here.

The Silver Lining: A Precedent for New York

As the first DVSJA decision to be issued by a New York appellate court, the Nicole Addimando decision is precedent-setting and should pave the way for more compassionate treatment for survivors throughout the state.

First, after reviewing the record, the court held that “through her lengthy testimony, photographs, and other evidence,” Nicole had shown that her domestic partner had “repeatedly abused her physically and sexually.” Second, the court held that the evidence, “which included a detailed history of repeated sexual, physical, and psychological abuse … expert testimony regarding the impact of that abuse on the defendant, and the defendant’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.” Third, the court held that in determining a sentence, the trial court “failed to fully take into account the impact of physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse on the defendant as a domestic violence survivor.”  The court concluded that “[t]his approach simply runs afoul of the spirit and intent of the statute. It is unacceptable that, in reflecting the views of a more enlightened society, the Legislature saw fit to enact the DV Survivor’s Act, only to have the court frustrate that legislative intent by applying outdated notions regarding domestic violence issues.”

The court’s decision adopted the arguments made by the Sullivan & Cromwell team in its briefs and Garrard’s oral argument, as well as the arguments in the amicus briefs submitted by Davis Polk and Duane Morris. In sum, the decision in Nicole Addimando’s case, beyond reducing her sentence dramatically, should have a profound impact on how prosecutors and courts apply the DVSJA, and how the criminal justice system views and treats survivors moving forward. 

New York Leads the Way

As the United States reckons with the ways racism, misogyny, and poverty have fueled mass incarceration and the incarceration of abuse survivors, New York is setting an example that other states will hopefully choose to follow. The passage of the DVSJA and the correct application in Nicole’s case, sets a high bar for the compassionate treatment of survivors in the criminal justice system.

But our work is far from over. The appellate court’s decision not to overturn Nicole’s conviction reflects the need for continued education and advocacy from experts in gender-based violence. Survivors should not be criminalized, incarcerated, and separated from their children for the years of abuse they experience and what they must do in order to protect or free themselves.

Thanks to the advocacy and training by Initiative members, our outstanding pro bono partners, and advocates across New York, however, abuse survivors have a beacon of hope for the future.

Latham & Watkins Attorneys Obtain Unconditional Permanent Residency for Survivor

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a dedicated team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP for their culturally sensitive and compassionate pro bono representation of  “Anam”, a survivor whom they helped to obtain unconditional permanent residency in the United States.

Amy Abramson is a former Sanctuary staff member and current Senior Development Director at AJC. She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a dedicated team of attorneys from Latham & Watkins LLP for their culturally sensitive and compassionate pro bono representation of  “Anam”, a survivor whom they helped to obtain unconditional permanent residency in the United States.

Anam was an independent young woman living in Pakistan. Shortly after graduating from college, her parents arranged her marriage to a local young man who was the son of a family friend. The couple moved to the United States and Anam, full of dreams, started making plans to build a family and continue her education. Very soon though, she discovered that her husband had different plans.

Anam’s husband forced her to stay in the house, forbade her to call her family and friends, and perpetrated incredible physical violence against her. After seeking help for her injuries due to his abuse, the local District Attorney opened a criminal investigation. Anam found shelter at the home of local distant relatives, but her husband tracked her down and blackmailed her into returning to his house by threatening her widowed, elderly mother living alone in Pakistan.

With local police making regular visits due to the DA’s open case, her husband’s family recognized that Anam could not stay in the U.S. They kidnapped her, made her travel back to Pakistan, and kept her locked up in a relative’s compound under around-the-clock surveillance. Months later, Anam escaped, and with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, she returned to New York City.

The Latham & Watkins pro bono team consisting of Loren N. Finegold, Irina Y. Sivachenko, Sohom Datta, Omar R. Jooma, Abhinaya Swaminathan, and Danielle E. Sekerak showed great compassion and support for Anam from their first meeting together. Due to the deep trauma she had endured, Anam found it hard to trust others with her story and found that certain cultural aspects of her experience were difficult for her to talk about with a mixed-gender team. Because of this, Sohom thoughtfully stepped out of the room during their early meetings, ensuring a female-only environment, and the team spoke with her in her native Urdu as necessary to make Anam more comfortable.

The Latham & Watkins team worked on the case for nearly three years, from June 2017 until they received the decision in May 2020. In that time, they researched cultural matrimonial practices in Pakistan to produce a detailed memorandum, compiled the petition, and included a supporting affidavit from an interview conducted in Urdu with a Pakistani contact. Anam was anxious at points throughout the case that her husband would try to interfere, even physically, to prevent her from achieving legal status. The pro bono team continuously monitored Anam’s well-being and assisted whenever she felt she was being followed or at risk of another kidnapping.

Anam’s resilience is astounding. While the Latham & Watkins team was working on her case, she completed another degree at a local community college and is now gainfully employed as an IT professional. Seeing Anam’s determination over the years, from the day she walked in the door as an intelligent, educated, yet deeply traumatized young woman to seeing her grow, make friends, build a life and further her education was incredible for the Latham & Watkins team. The team is deeply proud of this case and continues working with Anam on her citizenship application.

On the pro bono team, Anam says:

“I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for all the care and concern you have shown me, and for working tirelessly to ensure that the immigration law worked in our favor… I feel lucky to work with Latham & Watkins LLP, each and every person I work with.” — Anam.

This case was a true partnership between Sanctuary for Families and the Latham & Watkins team.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Loren, Irina, Sohom, Omar, Abhinaya, and Danielle. 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.

Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project: Helping Survivors Get Orders of Protection During COVID-19

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a group of dedicated volunteer attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals who provided virtual pro se assistance to survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection during COVID-19.

Tushna is Of Counsel at Morrison & Foerster LLP and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

One of the unfortunate and dangerous effects of the Coronavirus pandemic has been that the frequency and intensity of domestic violence has escalated during this challenging time. With Family Courts physically closed and operating at reduced capacity as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis, those experiencing domestic violence were not able to receive in-person pro se assistance in preparing and filing family offense petitions against their abuser in order to obtain orders of protection for themselves and their children.

To address this serious gap in services, Sanctuary for Families worked quickly to create a new pro bono project called the Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project (or VCAP), which provided virtual pro se assistance to survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection from abuse and violence.  A group of six firms promptly agreed to staff the VCAP program and a group of dedicated volunteer attorneys, summer associates and paralegals from Cahill, Gordon & Reindel LLP, Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP, Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Simpson Thacher & Barlett LLP, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and Schulte, Roth &  Zabel LLP made a huge commitment to help these brave survivors. Volunteers from each of these firms immediately began staffing the VCAP program five days a week starting in April 2020. By the time VCAP ended on September 1, 2020, VCAP volunteers had drafted nearly 200 family offense petitions on behalf of victims of domestic violence seeking orders of protection.  Nearly 180 of those petitions were filed with the court, with almost all of the petitioners being granted an order of protection and other requested relief.

Each of the volunteers focused their time, energy, and efforts to help their clients prepare and file their petitions and to serve the Temporary Order of Protection on the respondent. VCAP attorneys were tenacious and skilled in their quest to help the clients obtain full stay away Temporary Orders of Protection. In addition, they were able to achieve hard to obtain additional relief to meet the needs of survivors of domestic violence, such as stay away orders for petitioner’s children and pets, child support orders, and orders preventing the electronic dissemination of intimate images and videos of the petitioner.

Each pro bono attorney was compassionate and patient in assisting these courageous survivors to get protection from their abusers and offered empathetic and trauma-informed support, empowering petitioners to find their own path to safety and justice. For example, one pro bono attorney worked for over a week with a petitioner who was afraid to file her family offense petition, patiently supporting the client and empowering the client to make her own decision regarding whether to file the petition. Ultimately, the client decided to move forward with filing the petition and obtained the protection she needed.

As a long-standing member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Sanctuary supporter, I am deeply grateful to each of the caring pro bono attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals for their fierce advocacy combined with kindness and deep empathy, and the law firms that supported and facilitated their work. I am also thankful to the Sanctuary for Families staff attorneys who were instrumental in swiftly setting up this innovative program that met the urgent needs of the moment.  And, as always, I am also grateful for, and constantly inspired by, the courage and strength of the clients who stepped forward to protect themselves and their families from violence and abuse in the midst of a global health crisis.

In the words of VCAP volunteer attorney Amy Barton of Paul Weiss,

“Although my clients repeatedly expressed their appreciation to me for my assistance, in the end, they were the ones who deserved my thanks for inspiring me with their strength to find help when needed and allowing me the opportunity to try to make someone’s life a little safer in a world that seemed to be turning upside down for all of us.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the VCAP volunteers’ outstanding pro bono work. 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.

S&C Attorneys Help Trafficking Survivors Adjust Status, Obtain T-Visa

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP for their astute and flexible representation of “Soojin” and “Miyoung” in their applications for adjustment of status and a T-non-immigrant visa, respectively.

Colleen is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.  She is a Vice President and Senior Counsel at Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell LLP for their astute and flexible representation of “Soojin” and “Miyoung” in their applications for adjustment of status and a T-non-immigrant visa, respectively. The team assisting Soojin consisted of partner Garrard Beeney, attorneys Connor “CJ” Haynes and Suniti Mehta, and legal assistant Emma Needham.  Garrard Beeney also assisted in Miyoung’s case, along with attorneys Olivia Chalos and David Seidler.

Soojin and Miyoung, two unrelated women who survived sex trafficking through massage parlors in both Korea and the United States, have each spent years working to overcome the trauma they endured.  Both women had paid the same immigration attorney in another state to assist them with their immigration petitions, but when they found their way to Sanctuary for Families, those applications had been in limbo for several years.  Soojin had filed a petition to adjust her status to receive lawful permanent residency after procuring a T-nonimmigrant visa (“T visa”) several years prior.  Miyoung had been waiting for her T visa for nearly five years, despite the successful prosecution of several of her traffickers.

When Sanctuary for Families attorneys Amy Hsieh and Kathy Lu began working with Soojin and Miyoung, they made several attempts to get the attention of USCIS and to find out the status of the cases, but to no avail. They realized that the best course of action to force a decision would be a rare and risky tactic: filing a mandamus action against the federal government to compel action in Soojin’s and Miyoung’s cases. And they knew that they would need a sophisticated team of pro bono attorneys to help.

In July of 2019, the Sullivan and Cromwell team took the cases, and Garrard, CJ, Suniti, Oliva, David, and Emma began preparing the mandamus actions.  After conducting extensive research into the novel issues presented, and considering the risks of increased negative scrutiny on the clients’ petitions as the result of a lawsuit against the government, the team drafted complaints.  In relatively short order the team filed the mandamus suit in Miyoung’s case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.  Shortly thereafter, they were contacted by the Assistant U. S. Attorney who had been assigned the case.  The AUSA asked for more time to respond, with the implication that the suit may have prompted the government to take action on the underlying petition that would moot the mandamus case.  In January 2020, Miyoung received a Request for Evidence (“RFE”) relating to her T-visa petition.

In the meantime, Soojin had received an RFE, as well, likely on the back of a new, corrected adjustment-of-status petition Sanctuary had filed after withdrawing the prior version.  In light of the new territory both clients found themselves in, the Sullivan and Cromwell team did not miss a beat before shifting their attention to the RFEs.  While the mandamus actions were largely complicated questions of law that required extensive legal research, the RFE responses were incredibly fact-specific, especially when it came to detailing in a clear and accurate way the complicated criminal histories of both Soojin and Miyoung, which often present challenges for survivors of trafficking.

Further compounding the issue was the fact that the country was in the beginning stages of a pandemic.  In-person meetings between the clients and their lawyers would not be possible. “These circumstances make pro bono cases especially difficult when you can’t see your clients in person and develop that connection with them,” reflected Suniti.  

But as Kathy notes about the Sullivan and Cromwell team, “The speed with which Garrard, CJ, Suniti, Olivia, David, and Emma pivoted was remarkable.  They did not hesitate to roll up their sleeves to work on the RFE right after they had put countless hours into the mandamus complaints, all while managing the challenging new logistics of handling immigration cases during a pandemic.  We could not have done this work without them.”

For their part, the Sullivan and Cromwell team remained focused on serving Soojin and Miyoung with the best quality legal counsel, and they found their close partnership with Amy and Kathy to be incredibly effective.  Bolstered by their clients’ resilience and this new shot at overcoming the legal barriers that had been in Soojin and Miyoung’s way for too long, the Sullivan and Cromwell and Sanctuary for Families teams completed the RFEs together and submitted them timely.

Within a matter of weeks, Miyoung received approval of her T-visa petition, which granted her access to much-needed work-authorization, as well as a derivative visa for her husband, and Soojin received approval of her adjustment of status petition and is now a lawful permanent resident of the United States.  Given the extensive length of time both clients waited, and the significant legal hurdles they had to overcome, they were prepared for the worst.  Receiving approval of their respective petitions so soon after the Sullivan and Cromwell team started working on them was a tremendous relief.

Reflecting on the case, Olivia noted how clear it was to her from the start that Miyoung undoubtedly had overcome horrible experiences and had met the legal requirements for a T visa, especially since her traffickers had already been prosecuted.

“I was grateful to work on this case, but it is challenging to know that there are so many people without lawyers who find themselves in similar situations, facing these procedural hurdles.” — Olivia Chalos, Associate.

Suniti expressed her deep admiration for Soojin, who had lived in a state of uncertainty for so long and had survived years of trauma as the result of the trafficking, only to become stuck for years in an immigration system that she thought her prior attorney was working to help her navigate.  The Sullivan and Cromwell team, cognizant of Soojin’s experiences, worked hard to gain her trust and to be the advocates she deserved.  As Suniti put it, “having counsel can actually help you.”

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Garrard, Suniti, C.J. Emma, Olivia, and David. 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.