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.

Kasowitz Team Navigates Complicated Divorce Proceeding

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team from Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Frannie,” a domestic violence survivor.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP (“Kasowitz”) for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Frannie” to obtain a judgment of divorce with a continued order of protection and a favorable settlement agreement. The team consisted of partners Sarah Gibbs Leivick and Cindy Caranella Kelly, and associates Léa Dartevelle Erhel, Marcellene E. Hearn, and Jillian Roffer.

Approximately ten years ago, Frannie moved to the United States where she met and married Jim. Frannie thought that Jim was kind and loving, but he quickly became both mentally and physically abusive. The abuse increased after Frannie gave birth to their two children, and often occurred in front of the children. Frannie fled the family home and, fortunately, found Sanctuary and obtained an order of protection.

After Jim obtained private counsel and filed for divorce, Sanctuary realized it needed to build a more robust team to support Frannie and joined forces with Kasowitz at the end of 2018.  After over two years of court appearances, extensive discovery from multiple parties, and complex negotiations, Kasowitz successfully secured a favorable settlement agreement.

Throughout the proceedings, the Kasowitz team remained highly client-centered and sensitive to Frannie’s needs. The team took the time necessary to ensure that Frannie, a non-English speaker, was fully informed of all issues during court conferences or negotiations.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team smoothly navigated the transition to virtual hearings and continued to remain in contact with Frannie to resolve day-to-day issues while a final custody/visitation arrangement was being negotiated. To facilitate Frannie’s understanding of a complicated visitation schedule, the team got creative, preparing tools to help her visualize and adhere to the final schedule.

Sarah Leivick, speaking on behalf of the team, describes the experience as “extremely rewarding,” and stressed that the Sanctuary team was with them every step of the way. “It was a true partnership and team effort,” said associate Marcellene Hearn. Lauren Patel, Senior Staff Attorney in Sanctuary’s Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project, applauds the Kasowitz team for being graceful and proactive throughout the proceeding:

“The Kasowitz team remained constantly engaged, and was ready to pivot to meet every challenge. Whenever the Kasowitz team would come to Sanctuary to discuss an issue, the team had already thought of three possible solutions.” – Lauren Patel, Sanctuary Senior Staff Attorney

Frannie just recently received her judgment of divorce and is very happy to be done with the proceeding. She is relieved to have the custody and visitation issues resolved, and is thankful that Kasowitz was able to have her order of protection continued.

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Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on Oct. 26, 2021, as we honor Kasowitz’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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Nicole Vescova is an associate in the Labor & Employment group at Ellenoff Grossman & Schole LLP where she represents and advises businesses in all industries across the country. She is also a member of the Pro Bono Council.

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.

Simpson Thacher Secures T-Visa for Survivor Despite Many Setbacks

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (“Simpson Thacher”) for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Talia” to obtain T Nonimmigrant status.

Nicole Vescova an associate in the Labor & Employment group at Ellenoff Grossman & Schole LLP where she represents and advises businesses in all industries. She is also a member of the Pro Bono Counsel.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (“Simpson Thacher”) for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Talia” to obtain T Nonimmigrant status. The team consisted of Pro Bono Counsel Harlene Katzman, and associates, Dan Levien and Daniel Owsley at Simpson Thacher.

Talia was a young teenager living in her home country when Andrew professed his love for her and asked him to move in with his family. Talia accepted Andrew’s offer, leaving behind her abusive childhood home. Soon after Talia gave birth to their daughter, Andrew convinced Talia that they should head to the United States to seek work and build a better life for their family. Talia knew her daughter was too young to make the dangerous journey across the border, and although hesitant to leave her daughter, Andrew’s forceful urgings to leave and promises that the daughter would be cared for convinced Talia to follow him. Unbeknownst to Talia, Andrew and his family were traffickers.

Talia arrived to America without having any knowledge of the English language or any ties to the country, and most heart wrenching, without her daughter. Immediately, Andrew and his family began harassing Talia, telling her that she owed them a debt for getting her into the country and threatening that they would harm her daughter if she did not pay up. Talia felt trapped, worn down and terrified, and was ultimately forced to “work” in a brothel at Andrew’s demand.

After about a year of being sex trafficked, Talia escaped and went into hiding. Displeased with Talia’s actions, Andrew’s family began harassing Talia’s mother, who was caring for Talia’s daughter back in their home country.  Desperate to see her daughter, Talia took the risk to return home, praying she would not be seen but was unfortunately spotted by her traffickers. Andrew’s family continued to threaten her. Realizing she was not safe there, she again returned to the United States.

When originally referred to Simpson Thacher in 2014, the attorneys thought Talia’s application for T Nonimmigrants Status was straightforward. All were surprised when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied her application claiming that she was not present in the U.S. on account of trafficking. Undeterred, Simpson Thacher submitted a motion to reconsider, arguing that USCIS erroneously interpreted the applicable law; Talia had been effectively chased out of her home country by her trafficker’s family. Although the motion was extremely well-written and compelling, that motion was also unfortunately denied by USCIS.

The team was back to square one – but their commitment never wavered. Without T-Visa status Talia would be vulnerable in the US, and if deported back to her home country, her safety was in grave danger.

The team decided to take a different approach. Despite her fear of retaliation, Talia cooperated with law enforcement. Harlene Katzman of the team states that Talia was an extremely motivated and protective mother – “everything she did was orientated towards the safety of her daughter.” She ultimately received continued presence from the Government, which the team used to file a second application for T Nonimmigrants Status.

Talia remained strong throughout the difficult process where she had to re-hash the abuse and exploitation she previously suffered, and the Simpson Thacher team stayed by her side the whole time. Finally, USCIS granted Talia’s second application for T Nonimmigrant Status and granted derivative status to her daughter. Talia and her daughter were reunited this summer, after many years of living apart and in fear.

Jessica-Wind Abolafia, of Sanctuary for Families, applauds the skills, strategy, and perseverance the Simpson Thacher team brought to the matter.

“The team was ready to move mountains – they never gave up. The client knew she had a team that was going to bat for her, and this was crucial in getting her through such a difficult time.” — Jessica-Wind Abolafia, Sanctuary Anti-Trafficking Initiative Director.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Harlene, Dan, and Daniel. 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.