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.