Stroock Attorneys Fight for Sex Trafficking Survivor’s Housing Rights

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Christina,” a survivor of sex trafficking.

Annika is a Development Intern at Sanctuary and a rising first-year student at Stanford University. She is passionate about politics and criminal justice and hopes to study public policy and English in college.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Christina,” a survivor of sex trafficking. The incredible team, consisting of Stroock Partner Michele Jacobson and associates Alexandra Lyon and Robert Mantel, was successful in helping Christina reinstate her tenancy after it was wrongfully terminated by the New York City Housing Authority.

Christina

Sanctuary client “Christina” has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity in her life, including a long history of abuse and exploitation at the hands of traffickers and others in the commercial sex industry, drug addiction, and the loss of custody of one of her children. Despite the hardship she has faced, Christina successfully turned her life around, has been drug-free for over eight years, has held a steady job, and has created a safe and stable home for her daughter at their New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartment.

The stability Christina had fought so hard for came under threat when NYCHA held a hearing in April 2019, resulting in the termination of her tenancy several months later. Due to a sex offender designation, she obtained through entering a plea deal with the FBI for cooperating against one of her traffickers, NYCHA determined that she and her daughter were not fit to remain in their home. On the brink of losing her home and the new life she had built, Christina turned to Sanctuary and an incredible team of pro bono lawyers from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan for help. Reflecting on his first meeting about the case, Stroock team member Robert Mantel, notes, “I remember us getting the facts and just thinking about how incredibly unfair it was — how there are these underlying issues of domestic violence, violence against women, and sex trafficking — and how it seemed like the courts didn’t really understand what had happened to [Christina]. The system didn’t seem to understand that she is a victim…”

The Case

The pro bono Stroock team, consisting of Michele Jacobson, Alexandra Lyon, and Robert Mantel, worked diligently from August 2019 to June 2020 to help Christina save her home. They drafted and filed a letter motion to reopen the termination hearing when Christina won an appeal downgrading her sex offender designation from Level 2 to Level 1. The team then drafted and filed an Article 78 proceeding appealing the termination, which included a detailed Petition that extensively described the relevant facts and persuasively outlined their legal arguments., Ultimately, the team successfully negotiated a stipulation of settlement, pursuant to which Christina’s tenancy was reinstated. Throughout this complex process, Michele, Alexandra, and Robert kept Christina apprised of all relevant developments in her case and advised her in connection with appealing the termination and agreeing to the settlement. With the Stroock team’s help, Christina was able to fight back against NYCHA’s illegal attempt to evict her and ensure that she and her daughter can maintain safe and stable housing. Stroock attorney  shares,

“I did not expect how much help we would receive from those who heard Christina’s story and wanted to offer their experience and expertise. With these resources and Sanctuary’s expertise in anti-trafficking cases, she was able to keep her apartment.” — Alexandra Lyon, Associate.

Going Above & Beyond

The Stroock pro bono team did remarkable work in prosecuting this complicated, novel appeal. All team members were particularly trauma-informed with respect to the unique challenges Christina faces as a sex trafficking survivor, as someone who has struggled with drug addiction, and as someone who was required to register as a sex offender even though she herself was a victim. The team showed exceptional professionalism and compassion in handling this case and was able to achieve an outstanding victory for Christina.

“Working on [Christina’s] case made me realize that, while society has recognized that victims of sex trafficking are, in fact, victims, the criminal justice system and, unfortunately, government, have not supported these victims as they should.” — Michele Jacobson, Partner.

Expressing her gratitude for the Stroock team’s work, Sanctuary Supervising Attorney Dana Kaufman shares, “I have seen first-hand how having a pro bono team step in on a complex housing litigation can mean the world to a client, knowing she has the backing of an incredibly competent and compassionate team to help her fight against her landlord to maintain safe and stable housing for herself and her children.”

Christina is incredibly grateful for the excellent legal advocacy performed on her behalf by the Stroock team. Thanks to the Stroock team’s efforts, she and her daughter can finally live in peace in their home, without fear of being evicted and rendered homeless.

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

WilmerHale Attorneys Help Trafficking Survivor Secure T-Visa

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from WilmerHale for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa. 

Victoria O. Abraham is an associate in the Mergers & Acquisitions group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York, a Co-Chair of the Above & Beyond Committee and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 

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At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Julina,” helping her to obtain her T-Visa.  The team consisted of partner Dan Schubert and attorneys Jenny Pelaez, Sara Maldonado, Olga Kamensky, and Ken Brady.  Former WilmerHale partner Sharon Cohen Levin worked extensively on this matter, as did former WilmerHale attorneys Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea, Marguerite Colson, Sarah Mortazavi, and Carrie Montgomery.  Senior paralegals Lauren Kennedy and Joseph Ciraco also provided invaluable assistance.

In 2016, when she had just turned 18 years old, Julina went to a party where her future trafficker drugged her, kidnapped her, and then sex trafficked her out of a hotel room in New York. Julina managed to escape from him when he left her alone in the hotel room. She ran to another hotel down the street where she used a stranger’s cell phone to call the police. Despite going through this extremely traumatic and challenging trafficking experience, Julina was able to be a key witness in the case against her trafficker. Julina, with the help of her WilmerHale attorneys, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Sarah Mortazavi*, and Jenny Pelaez participated in a series of interviews with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and was instrumental in helping them bring charges against her trafficker. He ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced in 2019.

After the successful resolution of her trafficking case, the team of current and former WilmerHale attorneys, consisting of Dan Schubert, Sharon Cohen Levin*, Lisabeth Mendola-D’Andrea*, Sara Maldonado, Ken Brady, Olga Kamensky, Jenny Pelaez, Marguerite Colson*, and Carrie Montgomery*, took Julina on as an immigration client to help her with her T-Visa application. Julina had come to the U.S. from Mexico, undocumented, when she was just two years old.  Julina’s T-Visa case was not straightforward and required the team to put together a supplemental application in response to the government’s Request for Evidence (“RFE”).

“What stood out to me about this case was that their representation of the client was really multi-faceted. They took on so many different kinds of representation – witness cooperation, obtaining Continued Presence and applying for and obtaining T nonimmigrant status,” said Jessica-Wind Abolafia, Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families. “It was legally complex – during the pendency of the T application, the government issued an RFE dealing with the intersection of immigration and criminal law. It was a particularly challenging RFE given the policies of the current administration. The team skillfully drafted a compelling response that was ultimately successful.”

“Sometimes the systems that are put in place to help people who have been trafficked may make help out of reach. It is unimaginable from our point of view how someone could fill out this application on their own,” Sara said. “We had initially been frustrated when we received an RFE asking her to explain why she should be admitted after having engaged in prostitution.  But we were able to explain the nexus to the trafficking component of her story and that she had not engaged in prostitution on a voluntary basis, and we were glad to see that they understood and credited Julina’s story.”

The COVID-19 pandemic presented additional logistical challenges for the team in terms of managing the process, navigating the court system and obtaining the necessary records. With all these challenges, the team was still able to approach the case in a holistic way that was supportive of Julina and respectful of her healing process.

“The way the team was there for her on an emotional level was so key and so crucial. Their compassionate approach led to the client being able to get through a really challenging time in a way that was manageable and respectful of her limits. They really struck the right balance.” — Jessica-Wind Abolafia, SFF Anti-Trafficking Initiative Director.

“She helped me to figure out different ways to interact with clients and how to respect where she is as a person. This has been a learning and growing experience for me. I was working with someone who experienced trauma that I could not even imagine,” said Sara.

The government granted Julina’s T-Visa in June 2020, and since then Julina has been focused on rebuilding her life with her two young children and her partner.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Dan, Sharon, Lisabeth, Sara, Ken, Olga, Marguerite, Sarah, Carrie, Jenny, Lauren, and Joseph. 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.

Cahill Attorneys Advocate on Behalf of Domestic Violence Survivor and Her Daughter

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Alison” to obtain an order of protection and a judgment of divorce.

Silvia Marroquin is an associate in the international arbitration practice of Chaffetz Lindsey in New York and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono representation of “Alison” to obtain an order of protection and a judgment of divorce.  The team consisted of associates Tobin Raju, Andrea Abarca, and George Harris.

In November 2018, Alison—a full-time health worker and mother of two—sought an order of protection against her then-husband from whom she had separated.  For over five years, Alison endured verbal, emotional, and physical abuse towards herself and her young daughter.  Her strength and warm-hearted personality never dimmed.  But, the continuous stalking, messaging, and verbal threats from her abuser that followed her separation, frightened and upset Alison and eventually led her to pursue legal action.

In December 2018, the team from Cahill, consisting of Tobin Raju, Andrea Abarca and George Harris, took on Alison’s representation and successfully secured a final one-year order of protection on consent for Alison and her young daughter, who had been a witness to repeated physical and verbal abuse by Alison’s then-husband.

The entire team showed an unparalleled commitment to the case and were always available to Alison.  Their desire to develop a supportive and sincere relationship with Alison bore fruit, as she became more comfortable talking about difficult issues which allowed the team to develop a deeper knowledge of her case.  Throughout their representation of Alison, the team met with Alison, and diligently collected and organized the numerous police reports, screenshots, photographs, and other potential evidence to be used at trial.  The team’s precision and care in preparing Alison alleviated her anxiety about the trial. Moments before trial, opposing counsel initiated settlement discussions.  The team’s hard work paid off and culminated in their successful advocacy during settlement negotiations and the hearing, eventually obtaining a satisfactory outcome for Alison.  In fact, the court referee was at first reluctant to include Alison’s daughter in the order of protection, because she is not the abuser’s child, but Tobin’s advocacy convinced the court referee that it was appropriate and necessary.

Not surprisingly, in June 2019, the team immediately volunteered to represent Alison in her divorce, and successfully obtained a final uncontested judgment of divorce from the abuser in November 2019.

Tobin and the team were some of the most responsive and communicative pro bono attorneys I have worked with. Tobin proactively reached out to the client on a regular basis, sending me updates on the case, as well as other issues arising in the client’s life. Tobin and the team were totally eager and happy to help the client with the uncontested divorce as well, which the client was thrilled to receive,” said Sanctuary Senior Staff Attorney Lindsey M. Song.

“When I asked the client for feedback for Tobin and the team, she said, ‘I could not have asked for any better [team]! You helped me through this time from beginning to finish. I am grateful to you all.’”  — Lindsey Song.

Despite facing so many challenges, Alison’s unflappable strength was truly impressive and key to the outcome of the case.  Tobin said, “We could not have asked for a better client to work with. She is an incredibly courageous person, and I was honored to work with her.”  The relationship is such that months after the case was resolved, Alison and the team continue to be in touch.

Reflecting on their work, the team expressed that they were especially grateful for having the opportunity to work with Lindsey M. Song, Senior Staff Attorney at Sanctuary for Families, and to have been put in the position to advocate on Alison’s behalf.

It was important to have someone with Lindsey’s experience with survivors–not only in terms of strategy but also to understand the nuances of how trauma can affect memory and how we, as attorneys, should ask questions to help our client remember the details that make her case. All this, while navigating the client-relationship to be both effective and compassionate,” said Andrea Abarca.

Lindsey gave us enough autonomy while walking us through every requirement and working with us on the best strategy for the case.  She trusted our instincts and our abilities.” — Tobin Raju.

It was extremely helpful to be able to have guidance from someone that would speak to the nature of how the court would react and that helped us prepare Alison to be ready for a tough referee,” said George Harris.

 The team described this as a unique experience that was extremely rewarding, personally and professionally, because it allowed them to grow as attorneys by developing essential skills and taking on more responsibilities while supporting a client moving on with her life and family.

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

Paul Weiss Helps Domestic Violence Survivor Overturn Court Order, Remain in Apartment

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Paul Weiss for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Lisa,” a survivor of domestic violence facing court-ordered exclusion from her apartment.

Sharon Barbour is an associate at Cohen & Gresser and co-chair of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council. 

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a team of attorneys from Paul Weiss for their tireless pro bono work on behalf of “Lisa,” a survivor of domestic violence facing court-ordered exclusion from her apartment. The team consisted of partner Dave Brown; associates Sofia Reive, Katarina Broeksmit, and Luke Phillips; former associates Mahalia Boyd and Lance Polivy; and former paralegal Erin Nunes. 

For years, Sanctuary’s client Lisa endured an unimaginable situation in her own home, a rent-controlled apartment where she had lived since childhood.  Her family had been fractured by domestic violence.  As children, Lisa and her siblings witnessed their father violently abuse their mother, which left lasting trauma on the entire family.  Lisa’s sister, Nina, who was in an extremely abusive relationship, ultimately killed her batterer and was sentenced to two decades in prison.  Lisa left college to care for Nina’s children.  Back in her childhood home, Lisa faced psychological abuse by her brother, who had learned how to abuse from their father.

By 2017, Lisa was in poor health and unable to work.  Her brother had his own home but, seeking a buy-out from the building’s management, launched a vicious campaign to force Lisa out of hers.  He installed cameras in the apartment to monitor Lisa’s every move and left menacing notes, threatening her and disparaging her with racist and misogynistic names.  He even went so far as to install a roommate in the apartment without Lisa’s permission to monitor and harass her.  He eventually obtained an order of protection based on spurious claims that Lisa abused him and that the apartment was his only residence.  Claiming that Lisa violated the order of protection, he sought a court order excluding her from the apartment.

In July 2017, after Sanctuary successfully advocated for parole on behalf of Lisa’s sister Nina, Lisa approached Sanctuary for legal assistance.  Sanctuary contacted Paul, Weiss about representing Lisa pro bono.  Mahalia Boyd, then a Paul, Weiss associate, jumped at the opportunity.  Because domestic violence is often understood to involve romantic partners rather than siblings, “that made me want to learn more about those issues and how to protect someone in that space because I don’t think it gets enough attention,” Mahalia said.

The Paul, Weiss team, which included Mahalia, partner Dave Brown, associate Sofia Reive, former associate Lance Polivy, associate Katarina Broeksmit, associate Luke Phillips, and former paralegal Erin Nunes, fought for over two years to keep Lisa in her home.  For the team, Lisa’s success felt personal.  As Sofia put it, “the stakes could not have been higher, since she was in such fragile health and was at risk of becoming homeless.”  “We felt that pressure personally,” Lance said.

The team worked tirelessly with Lisa to prepare for trial.  The team prepared Lisa to testify about years of abuse by her brother and undertook thorough investigative work to expose the brother’s lies.  “It was really important for us to establish trust with Lisa at the beginning,” said Mahalia.  “Lisa started to feel like she was really heard and could contribute to the success of her case.”

During the highly contested year-long trial, as a result of careful preparation and skillful direct examination, the team exposed the brother’s abusive behavior and undermined his credibility.  Yet inexplicably, the court found in favor of Lisa’s brother and ordered Lisa’s exclusion.  The team immediately sought an emergency stay of the exclusion order from the Appellate Division, which was denied.  Undeterred, the team filed an emergency appeal of the denial of the stay, which a full panel of the Appellate Division granted.  The team then briefed an appeal of the family court order on the merits.  After oral argument in September 2019, the Appellate Division overturned the portion of the family court order that excluded Lisa from the apartment.  Finally, after years of hard work, Lisa’s right to stay in her home was secured.

“I am forever grateful to this extraordinary group of lawyers. Their skill and dedication kept me in my home and gave me hope.” — Lisa, survivor.

The team likewise expressed great admiration for Lisa.  “Lisa is a fighter,” said Lance, who praised Lisa for attending school and volunteering at a senior center while coping with an extremely difficult home situation and working on her litigation defense.  “Each time she left [the apartment], she was taking a risk that her belongings would be thrown out in the street, as they had in the past.  On top of this, she spent many long days meeting with the Paul, Weiss team to go over everything and prepare for her trial.” As Dave observed, “We had a better outcome because she was so invested in this process.”  Sofia added, “During several years working closely with Lisa, I was astounded by her courage and resilience – never more so than in the days following an exclusion order by the lower court.”  Mahalia agreed, noting that “despite everything that happened to her, she tried to be positive and . . . make the best of her situation.  It was really inspiring to see that come out and shine through her.”

Reflecting on the successful outcome—the result of intensive factual development, trial preparation, direct examination, motion practice, post-trial submissions, and multiple appellate briefs—Dave said that the case “really highlighted the broad base of skills that Paul, Weiss can bring to bear.  Fortunately, we had the ability to bring all of that to the table to help Lisa.”  He added that he was “really happy to continue the legacy of Paul, Weiss’s support of Sanctuary.” 

For Sofia, “It was invaluable to work on this matter from start to finish: through trial, an emergency stays, and, finally, to a successful appeal.  Ultimately, though, keeping Lisa in her home and turning back her abuser was far and away the most rewarding aspect of the case.  This experience was only possible through our firm’s commitment to pro bono representation and longstanding partnership with Sanctuary for Families.”  Lance echoed these sentiments, noting, “There’s nothing more gratifying than using our legal training to help those in need.  That was what this case was all about.”

“The team never stopped fighting.  We didn’t give up.  This was a case of perseverance.” — Dave Brown, partner, Paul Weiss.

Dorchen Leidholdt, Director of Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, said “It was perseverance coupled with strategic brilliance and top-notch lawyering skills that [the Paul Weiss team] used every step of the way.” She praised each member of the team for being “committed, hardworking, and talented,” calling their work on Lisa’s behalf “extraordinary.”  Dorchen further noted that, because Lisa suffers from multiple chronic illnesses and would have been rendered homeless in the midst of the ongoing COVID pandemic, “They prevented a catastrophe for the client.  It was life-saving.”

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Dave, Mahalia, Sofia, Lance, Katarina, Luke, and Erin. 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.