Steven Cordero is a litigation partner in the New York office of Akerman LLP. He is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above and Beyond Pro Bono Awards and Benefit.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP for their pro bono work that resulted in a young Orthodox Jewish mother of four receiving long sought after relief in both civil and religious court.
The multifaceted strategy and tireless advocacy of the Paul Weiss team, comprised of partner Audra Soloway and associates Joshua Kaye, Naomi Morris, Samantha Weinberg, and Jacob Taber (now an associate at Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP), led to a hugely favorable settlement that provided for the client to receive a religious divorce from the Jewish court, child support arrears in civil court, and the withdrawal of her husband’s appeal.
When a Civil Divorce is not Enough
Rachel (not client’s real name) filed for divorce in 2012 (prior to finding Sanctuary for Families). The proceeding languished for several years until Rachel successfully obtained a divorce awarding her full custody of her four children and financial support to help her rebuild her and her children’s lives. Importantly, the judge also directed Rachel’s ex-husband to grant Rachel a Get, which is a Jewish writ of divorce, within 90 days of the court’s decision, or face a financial penalty. Rachel’s ex-husband, however, refused to provide the Get, failed to pay child support, and appealed the divorce judgment.
Rachel was particularly devastated by her ex-husband’s refusal to grant her a Get. According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once a husband voluntarily gives the Get to his wife. Even if there is a civil divorce, the couple remains married under Jewish law without the Get. The Get is tied to the wife’s identity. Orthodox Jewish women who are refused a Get by their husbands are called agunot, or chained women. They cannot remarry, any new relationship is considered adultery, and any children from those new relationships would be deemed to be illegitimate.
A husband’s refusal to grant a Get when the marriage is over is a form of domestic violence because it is an assertion of power and control over the wife, with potential economic and social ramifications that are unique to Orthodox communities. The husband may withhold the Get to extort concessions from the wife in divorce negotiations, such as the waiver of financial support, the payment of a large sum of money to the husband, or even the surrender of custody of the children.
Indeed, here Rachel’s ex-husband wielded his refusal to grant a Get in an attempt to force Rachel to agree to vacate the divorce judgment and sign a stipulation more favorable to him. Desperate, Rachel turned to Sanctuary for Families’ Orthodox Jewish Matrimonial Project for help.
Paul Weiss’ Multifaceted and Steadfast Advocacy
Recognizing the pressures Rachel faced, the pro bono team at Paul Weiss went on the offensive and filed a motion for contempt against Rachel’s ex-husband for his failure to pay child support. The Paul Weiss team deftly countered the ex-husband’s dubious litigation tactics that included filing a baseless downward modification of child support petition and changing litigation counsel while having his personal lawyer outside of court attempt to assert pressure on Rachel to sign away her rights.
The Paul Weiss team mounted a multi-tiered strategy that included simultaneously preparing for trial on the contempt hearing, analyzing the ex-husband’s appellant brief and preparing to draft Rachel’s respondent’s brief, and negotiating a settlement that would protect Rachel’s rights and enable her to receive a Get.
The Paul Weiss team skillfully engaged in challenging negotiations, leveraging their strong appeal arguments and excellent trial preparation in the contempt matter. Because of their steadfast representation, Rachel’s ex-husband ultimately relented in his strategy shortly before the contempt hearing and agreed to a favorable settlement in May 2018.
Rachel’s ex-husband paid her a lump sum for the child support arrears, withdrew his appeal, and gave her the Jewish divorce she was entitled. The Paul Weiss team accompanied Rachel to the Jewish court, the Beit Din, where she finally received her Get. Reflecting on their work, Joshua Kaye said:
“It was a tremendously rewarding experience. We faced new challenges and used our tools as litigators to make the client’s life better.”
Securing a Better Life
Thanks to the hard work of Paul Weiss’ talented pro bono lawyers, Rachel is able to move forward with her life in a far better position than she was when she came to Sanctuary for help more than a year ago.
When asked about her firm’s pro bono experience with Sanctuary, Naomi Morris said:
“I appreciated our co-counsels’ insight into the process, their experience, and their willingness to take the time to explain what to expect, while giving our team the autonomy to draft papers, counsel the client, and manage the case.”
Mr. Kaye added:
“I encourage any lawyer considering partnering with Sanctuary to just do it. It is a great way for young lawyers to grow, impact someone’s life, and make a real difference.”
As Rachel herself said about this excellent team: “They were professional, kind and very dedicated!”
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Paul Weiss’ outstanding pro bono work.