At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring an attorney from Alston & Bird for her pro bono work in support of Maya, a survivor of domestic violence. Read to learn more.
Louisa Irving is a Co-Chair of the PBC.
Sometimes a victory isn’t just about a win in court, it is about supporting your client and giving them the tools and encouragement they need to make the decision that is best for them. In Maya’s case, victory was having the strength to withdraw her order of protection petition against her abuser so that she could move forward with her life and free herself from a long and re-traumatizing family court experience. Maya was empowered in making this decision by the compassionate and persistent advocacy of Elizabeth (Liz) Buckel, Senior Associate at Alston & Bird LLP and recipient of a 2018 Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Award
For years, Maya suffered extreme physical and verbal abuse by her boyfriend Ray. In addition to punching, shoving, and pulling Maya’s arm out of its socket, Ray repeatedly flipped the couch while Maya was laying down, causing her to sustain successive head injuries that eventually led to seizures. One night in 2015, Ray became extremely violent again and Maya fled to her office to sleep because it had 24 hour security. That night, Ray repeatedly called her and left multiple abusive and threatening voicemails. Fearing for her life, Maya filed a complaint with the police. Criminal charges were brought against the abuser, resulting in a guilty plea and settlement that included a two year criminal order of protection.
Still terrified of Ray, Maya hoped for a longer order of protection from Family Court—given the extensive abuse and the physical injuries, Maya was likely entitled to a five-year civil order of protection. Thankfully, Liz volunteered to represent Maya and, under the supervision of Betsy Tsai, Director of Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocate’s Project, assist with her petition for a civil order of protection from Staten Island Family Court. In early 2016, Liz filed a detailed petition and the case was set for trial.
Trial Delays Lead to More Pain
Over the next two years, the trial inched painstakingly forward in 10 to 15 minute increments. Although an appearance would be scheduled for a time certain, Liz, Maya, and Betsy would wait for hours in the small Family Court waiting room, only to be called in and informed that their hour-long time slot had been reduced to mere minutes before the Judge. For each court appearance, Maya had to take a full day off of work, mentally prepare herself to confront Ray both in the tiny waiting room and in the courtroom, and recount the details of the violence she endured.
Maya struggled with understandable anger and anxiety as she processed the trauma of her years of abuse, making each court appearance and the days leading up to that appearance incredibly difficult. Sensitive to Maya’s emotional state and the impact that it was having on her life and her ability to testify, Liz referred Maya to counseling services at Sanctuary for Families. Liz also served as a comfort to Maya, calmly reassuring her in the days before and after each appearance. According to Betsy,
“[Maya] felt totally understood and empowered, due in large part to Liz’s consistency and understanding approach. She was always there for the client, and the client knew that.”
In addition to providing Maya the support she needed, Liz was a skilled and fierce advocate for her client. Liz fought hard to end the constant trial delays that were taking such a toll on Maya. She filed a creative motion for judgment as a matter of law seeking to have the abuser’s plea in criminal court recognized as an admission to a family offense.
The motion was denied and the trial dragged on. Recognizing the harm this was doing to her client, Liz attempted to settle the case, but the abuser refused. In the meantime, over the course of several court appearances, Liz conducted a powerful direct examination of Maya that included playing aloud, over opposing counsel’s objections, the terrifying voicemails left on that December night when Maya fled her home. She also elicited detailed testimony about the numerous incidents of abuse.
After Maya’s examination was complete, the case faced yet another delay. Opposing counsel announced that he needed to withdraw from the case and Ray retained new counsel, who decided to move for a mistrial after noting that the transcripts from the proceedings indicated some “inaudible” testimony. Liz filed a strong response opposing the motion for mistrial, but despite the fact that the inaudible pieces of testimony were minimal, the court messaged to the parties that it was inclined to declare a mistrial.
After more than 2 years of seeking relief from the Family Court, Maya was faced with a difficult choice: begin this painful process again at square one or withdraw her case. In light of the active criminal order of protection, the toll that the trial was taking on Maya, and the inevitable stress of starting all over again, Liz worked very closely with Maya so that she could understand and weigh her options. Maya ultimately determined that she did not want to proceed with her case.
Because Liz invested so much time and energy in developing a relationship with Maya, tuning into her needs and wishes, and building trust, she was able to support Maya through the court proceedings and the decision to withdraw her case. According to Betsy,
“Liz had the perfect balance of both, litigating the case at a very high level, while also understanding the dynamics of domestic violence in a way that enabled the client to trust her and rely on her for years.” In her nomination of Liz for this Above & Beyond award, Betsy wrote: “The legal work, which was excellent, is not why I think Liz deserves this award. She was committed to this case and to this client in a way that was remarkable.”
Reflecting on her experience, Liz says that on a professional level, working on Maya’s case taught her how to be a trial attorney in family court. On a personal level, working on Maya’s case was a real eye opener to the ways the judicial process can wear down a victim. But according to Liz, when she and Maya rode the ferry after that final court appearance, she “never saw her look so happy and free.”
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 Liz Buckel’s outstanding pro bono work. You can buy tickets 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.