At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring Tansy Woan, a litigation associate at Skadden, for her pro bono work on behalf of Ms. T, a woman who was seeking a full five-year order of protection against her husband, who subjected her to severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse during their relationship.
From the Dominican Republic to Maryland
Just over four years ago, Ms. T, then 21-years old and living in the Dominican Republic, thought that she had met the love of her life when she came across Mr. S, a charming older American man in his 30s. They hit it off immediately and began dating.
They continued to date long distance after he returned to the United States. As their relationship progressed, Mr. S asked Ms. T to consider moving to the United States to be with him. She agreed and moved in with him in Maryland, and they were engaged shortly thereafter. That was when Ms. T’s life shattered.
After Ms. T moved to Maryland, Mr. S became a different person. He became increasingly angry with her and started yelling at her and threatening her. He then began physically abusing her. Six months into their relationship, his violence intensified to severe sexual abuse and threats against Ms. T’s life with a firearm that Mr. S kept in their shared bedroom. Ms. T was living in constant fear, with no friends or family nearby and no means of support. When the abuse became too much for her to bear, Ms. T fled to New York City and found Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary assisted Ms. T in obtaining a temporary order of protection against Mr. S. But Ms. T still needed a full and final five-year order of protection, and Sanctuary turned to Skadden for assistance.
Tansy Woan steps in
Tansy Woan, then a newly-minted first year associate at Skadden, immediately stepped in. Tansy had worked on domestic violence cases when she was in college, and had hoped that once she began practicing, she could incorporate her passion into her legal practice as well. The March 2014 e-mail that came across her inbox, seeking an attorney interested in working on Ms. T’s order of protection application pro bono, seemed almost fortuitous and Tansy jumped at the opportunity.
Thus began an 18-month long bench trial in Bronx Family Court. Determined to prove Mr. S’s cruelty, Tansy, under the guidance of Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s Legal Director at the Bronx and Manhattan Family Justice Centers, skillfully advocated for Ms. T throughout the trial. Tansy gently elicited Ms. T’s story during her emotional direct examination. And she skillfully handled the long and challenging cross-examination of Mr. S, carefully highlighting the many inconsistencies in his testimony, and the inconsistencies between his testimony and the evidence, succeeding in badly damaging his credibility. According to Dara, Tansy was “fierce during cross examination,” in spite of Mr. S’s aggressive and unpleasant demeanor during the trial.
Tansy’s skilled advocacy resulted in the granting of a full and final five-year order of protection for Ms. T. Tansy’s effective representation was achieved in no small part because of her ability to connect and establish trust with Ms. T. It was extraordinarily difficult and re-traumatizing for Ms. T to recount her difficult story, both during prep sessions and at trial. The process of having to go through all the details was excruciating and emotional, and it was only with Tansy’s ability to comfort Ms. T and create a safe space for her to tell her story that Ms. T was able to do so. As Dara explained, Tansy showed “extraordinary empathy” for Ms. T, “always giving her the time she needed to deal with the feelings and emotions that trial preparation evoked.” And as Tansy reflected, “A lot of the advocacy that I did was just to comfort her, and to give her strength. My job wasn’t just to prepare for trial, it was to be there for her.”
Reflections and advice
In April 2016, after a long and drawn out trial, and shortly after Tansy left Skadden for a judicial clerkship, Ms. T received the protection for which she had fought so desperately. The Family Court granted Ms. T a full and final five-year order of protection, the longest possible under the law. Tansy was ecstatic with the outcome.
“It was an honor to have this experience, and to help Ms. T work through a very difficult period of time. Not only was I doing a full-blown trial with Sanctuary as a first year associate, but I was giving Ms. T the chance to have her side of the story heard, and to help her fight back against this man who terrified her for years. It felt so good to tell her that it was all worth it, and to say to her: ‘Your courage got you through this.’”
Tansy reiterated that she was only able to do what she did because of the support that she received from Sanctuary, particularly Dara:
“Dara was amazing. She was there with me at every client meeting and every court appearance, and always made herself available to answer any questions I had, no matter how often or what time of day. Without her, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through the trial – she helped me practice my cross examinations, my openings, everything, really. It was my first trial ever and she really helped me to feel at ease. I can’t imagine having gotten through it without her. I can’t thank her and Sanctuary enough for all of the mentoring, support, and encouragement they have provided. It is so inspiring to work with someone as passionate as Dara.”
Tansy also marveled at how Skadden rallied the full weight of their resources behind Ms. T. Other attorneys at the firm, including Steve Kolleeny, Jay Kasner, Scott Musoff, Lauren Aguiar, and Rob Fumerton, took time out of their busy schedules to offer advice and guidance and to run through arguments. Steve, who was the Skadden attorney overseeing Tansy’s representation of Ms. T, was particularly instrumental during the case. Tansy reminisced, “He was phenomenal, so incredibly busy, but always made time to help this anxious first year associate.” Tansy had wanted nothing more than for Steve to see the trial through, to show him that all of the hard work that went into it eventually paid off, but to everyone’s great loss, Steve passed away in September 2014.
With Tansy now back from her clerkship at Skadden, she is even more determined to take on another domestic violence matter for Sanctuary. She even has some advice for future young attorneys hoping to make a true difference in the life of another: “Prepare for the unexpected. Know your facts and the law by heart. And, above all, remember to be human. So much of Ms. T’s testimony required that she maintain her cool under pressure, and that she trust me. For me to gain her trust, and to be there for her, required that I be so much more than an attorney.”
Ms. T was incredibly grateful and thrilled with the outcome:
“[Tansy] earned my trust and respect for the way and dedication with which [she] perform[ed] [her] work. Tansy was always there listening to my story and looking for the best way to help me get my order of protection. I felt very privileged that among the many cases she could work on[,] [that she chose] mine the way [she] did. [A]ll I can say is thank you very much and God bless her and allow her to continue to have success in her work.”
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Tansy’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here. If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.
Etienne Barg-Townsend is Senior Legal Counsel at KGS-Alpha Capital Markets, L.P., a New York-based institutional fixed income broker-dealer. She was formerly a litigation associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, LLP, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. She has worked on several pro bono matters with Sanctuary, and is in the process of developing a pro bono program at KGS-Alpha. She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and is Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond gala.