Cahill Partner and Associates Fight for Mother and Her Special-Needs Child

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, we’re honoring a powerful and dedicated team from Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, for their successful representation over two years in Manhattan Family Court of an immigrant victim of domestic violence who was the sole caretaker of her a disabled daughter. Read to learn more.

Jamie Stinson is an associate in the Special Matters and Investigations practice in the New York office of King & Spalding. She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a powerful and dedicated team from Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, including Partner Joel Kurtzberg and Associates Kerry Burns and Kathleen Farley, for their successful representation over two years in Manhattan Family Court of an immigrant victim of domestic violence, a hardworking young woman from the Caribbean, who was the sole caretaker of her a disabled daughter. 

The team tirelessly worked to take both an order of protection and a visitation case to trial, obtain an order of protection and extremely limited visitation, and ultimately win an appeal that not only provided maximum protection for both mother and daughter but set important precedent.  

Protecting Mother and Daughter

The case began when Helen’s abusive ex-partner filed for custody of their five-year-old daughter, Anabel.  The little girl had been diagnosed with autism, asthma, sleep apnea, and cerebral palsy and needed round-the-clock, intensive care, which Helen uncomplainingly provided. Thanks to Helen (a pseudonym), Anabel was attending a wonderful school with expertise in her disabilities. After surviving a pattern of violent acts at the hands of Anabel’s father, which resulted in two hospitalizations and put Anabel, who was present, at physical and psychological risk, Helen entered a confidential domestic violence shelter and later found permanent housing. 

In 2012, Anabel needed surgery, and Helen contacted the child’s father to tell him about it.  Subsequently Helen permitted limited visitation, wanting her little girl to have her father in her life.  Unfortunately, Anabel’s father resumed his abusive behavior, demonstrated that he was unable to provide the safe and structured environment Anabel needed, and began putting pressure on Helen to move back in with him. Helen explained to Anabel’s father that their relationship was over.

In 2014 in retaliation, Anabel’s father filed a custody petition, falsely alleging that he had been denied visits with the child.  Cahill Associate Kerry Burns volunteered to take the case, with Partner Joel Kurtzberg supervising, and Associate Kathleen Farley later joining the team.

Fighting for Helen and Anabel

When Kerry took the case, she recognized that the abuse Helen suffered at the hands of her ex-partner was severe and escalating, put Anabel in harm’s way, and warranted a five-year Order of Protection that included the child.  This would require proving at trial that the violence committed against Helen in Anabel’s presence constituted “aggravating circumstances,” which is necessary for obtaining a five-year (as opposed to a two-year) Order of Protection.

In September 2016, the Cahill team represented Helen in a highly contested trial in Manhattan Family Court, which included discovery, the introduction into evidence of exhibits, and a cross-examination of Helen’s abuser, who was represented by a skilled, aggressive attorney.  Following the trial, the judge issued a disappointing decision that failed to protect Helen to the full extent possible.  While the judge found Helen to be a credible witness and found that her ex-partner had been violent to her in Anabel’s presence, he declined to find aggravating circumstances and issued an Order of Protection only two years, in part due to the amount of time that had passed since the specific instances of abuse (occurring in 2009-2010).

Believing that they could achieve a better result for Helen , the Cahill team appealed the decision, arguing that the severe abuse she suffered did in fact constitute aggravating circumstances.  On January 16, 2018, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court issued its decision, finding that the abuser had assaulted Helen so severely that she suffered physical injury, had assaulted her in the presence of Anabel, and that these factors, as well as the ongoing risk to Helen’s safety, constituted aggravating circumstances, entitling Helen and Anabel to a five-year order of protection, the longest possible.  About this sweeping appellate victory, Kerry stated,

“The judge credited everything our client said, and the [Appellate] decision was essentially 100% the brief that we filed on appeal.”

A New Trial and Another Victory

After prevailing in the Order of Protection case, the Visitation case went to trial. Although Helen’s abuser consented to Helen having full custody since it was apparent to all concerned that she was doing an extraordinary job caring for Anabel and he was not prepared or interested in taking on that level of responsibility, he petitioned for expansive, unsupervised visitation with the little girl. Helen was alarmed and the Cahill team agreed to fight for supervised visitation.

In preparation for the trial they obtained and studied Anabel’s extensive medical records and met with her school psychologist to understand more about Anabel’s medical and educational needs. Joel, Kerry, and Kathleen quickly realized that the psychologist would make a strong expert witness about the magnitude of Anabel’s needs and began to prepare her to testify. They also worked for hours with Helen to prepare her to testify about the vigilant, knowledgeable level of care that she provided Anabel on a 24-hour basis.

At trial, Helen covered the intensive caretaking that Anabel required and the school psychologist educated the court about the nature of Anabel’s disabilities and the techniques the father would need to but hadn’t learned in order to care for her.  Although the judge has a reputation for granting noncustodial parents generous, unsupervised visitation schedules, this time he did not. After a highly contested trial superbly litigated by Kerry and Kathleen, the court ordered that the father’s visitation be supervised and limited to a few hours each week.

A Victory for the Client and for Other Survivors

As a result of the Cahill team’s extraordinary efforts, not only was Helen awarded a five-year Order of Protection against her abuser, but the Appellate decision established important precedent for other domestic violence cases. Kerry noted,

“For the client, the decision was significant because it was such a great outcome for her. From a broader standpoint, the holding and reasoning in the Appellate decision can be used as precedent for many other cases.  This decision can be used to support the argument that the passage of time after incidents of domestic violence should not reduce the likelihood of a finding of aggravating circumstances when there has been physical injury.”

Reflecting on her work on this case, Kathleen appreciated her first drafting experience:

“It was great to get my first drafting experience, and to do it on a case where we could set significant precedent and clarify the law.”

Kerry was thrilled to be able to assist such a courageous, devoted mother:

“This experience was very rewarding. For me, the driving motivation was always the client.  I became close to her and really care about her.  She is a wonderful, positive person who is raising her special-needs daughter on her own.  It was very rewarding to be able to achieve a positive result for her.  In addition, it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see the family law system, and it was great to have a hand in creating precedent that will help other women and children.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, New York as we honor this Cahill team’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.

Alston & Bird attorney’s support and advocacy on behalf of domestic violence survivor enables client to find peace and safety

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

Extreme Abuse

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.

Finding Peace

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.

Paul, Weiss Team Wins Major Victory for Domestic Violence Survivor

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 skilled litigation on behalf of a domestic violence survivor. Paul, Weiss former associate Michael Nadler (currently a 2nd Circuit judicial clerk) and Paul, Weiss associate Allison Penfield, supervised by partner Liz Sacksteder, argued that past incidents of domestic violence, although committed more than a year prior to petitioning for an order of protection, were enough to give their client, Susan, a continuing reasonable fear of her abuser. The judge agreed with their deftly-made arguments and granted Susan a one-year order of protection. This result was a major victory with immense precedential value.

Emily Suran is an associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP. She is a Co-Chair of the Above & Beyond Benefit, the editor of the Above & Beyond blog posts, and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

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 skilled litigation on behalf of a domestic violence survivor. Paul, Weiss former associate Michael Nadler (currently a 2nd Circuit judicial clerk) and Paul, Weiss associate Allison Penfield, supervised by partner Liz Sacksteder, argued that past incidents of domestic violence, although committed more than a year prior to petitioning for an order of protection, were enough to give their client, “Susan,” a continuing reasonable fear of her abuser. The judge agreed with their deftly-made arguments and granted Susan a one-year order of protection. This result was a major victory with immense precedential value.

A History of Abuse

In 2014, Susan’s former partner, Todd, became physically violent and menacing, and in 2015, Susan ended the relationship. At one point, Susan obtained an order of protection against Todd, but it was subsequently dismissed.

A New Incident Leads to a New Case

Over a year later, Susan was at a restaurant when she saw Todd standing next to her car outside. Terrified, Susan called 911.

Luba Reife, a senior staff attorney with Sanctuary for Families’ Family Law Project, enlisted the help of Paul, Weiss partner Liz Sacksteder, associate Allison, and then-associate Michael to secure a new order of protection for Susan. While the latest incident did not independently rise to the level of an offense, the team crafted an argument that all the prior incidents of abuse, taken together, gave Susan a reasonable and continuing fear of Todd and justified an order of protection.

Michael and Allison developed a strong relationship with Susan, and did extensive research and witness preparation before heading into the courtroom. Michael single-handedly conducted the direct examination of Susan, and he also cross-examined Todd.  Allison conducted the direct examination of another witness, who testified to the history of abuse.

Paul, Weiss partner Liz Sacksteder recalls,

“Mike and I strategized before every hearing date and talked through all the evidentiary issues and strategy for each examination.  I was very impressed by all the care and thought and depths of analysis going into Mike’s and Allison’s preparation. I thought the two of them were a great team, and Mike was a great leader of the team.”

A Positive Outcome

Thanks to the efforts of the Paul, Weiss team, the court issued a decision granting Susan a one-year order of protection.

Upon receiving the positive decision from the court, Luba enthused:

“Michael and Allison did a fantastic job eliciting testimony as to all the past incidents of domestic violence and, what’s most important, were able to convey to the Court, through the testimony, that Petitioner is still in need of an order of protection … This decision is great case law and a major win for Sanctuary and for Paul, Weiss. But above all and most importantly, this is a tremendous and well deserved victory for Susan!”

In Memoriam

Tragically, Susan passed away shortly after receiving the court’s decision. In an email sharing the devastating news, Luba wrote, “She was a lovely person, a trooper, with a wonderful sense of humor, smart and gutsy. She was going to present the award at Above and Beyond for the Paul, Weiss team. I am absolutely heartbroken over this loss.”

Michael and Allison were shocked. After such an exhilarating win, it was difficult to process Susan’s untimely death. Allison recalled Susan as vibrant and a wonderful role model for women. “I think a lot of people would have not gone through the hell she went through to get this order of protection in place,” she said. “Working with her was the most rewarding part of this case.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Paul, Weiss team’s outstanding pro bono work.  Learn more about the event here.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Families’ work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Debevoise team secures freedom and protection for survivor of abuse and her family in multi-year trial process

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Debevoise attorneys for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of Rebecca. The Debevoise team worked tirelessly to help Rebecca win full custody of her son, an order of protection from her abuser, and a substantial child support award.

Brenna Rabinowitz is an associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.  She is the Membership Chair of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Debevoise attorneys for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of Rebecca. The Debevoise team worked tirelessly to help Rebecca win full custody of her son, an order of protection from her abuser, and a substantial child support award.

This dedicated team included partner Sean Hecker, associates Anna Domyancic, John Pierpont (now an AUSA at the Connecticut US Attorney’s office), Ashley Fillmore, Marisa Taney (now clerking in Miami), law clerk Rhianna Hoover, and litigation analyst Lesley Douglas.

Deceived by her Abuser

Rebecca moved to the United States in 2011 after waiting seven years to get a visa in her home country of Nigeria. She described the day she got her visa as a “dream come true” and explained that, though it was hard to leave her family, she decided to leave Nigeria in pursuit of a better life for her and her young daughter. Rebecca had to leave her daughter in Nigeria temporarily but vowed to return for her as soon as possible.

Soon after moving to this country without friends or family, Rebecca became involved with her abuser. It was only after Rebecca was several months pregnant with their child that he revealed he was a Level 3 sex offender, and had sexually abused his seven-year-old niece. Around the same time as this shocking revelation, he became aggressive, verbally abusive, jealous, and controlling. After Rebecca’s son was born, her abuser became physically violent, both at home and in public, often in the presence of their infant child. Frightened for her and her son’s safety, Rebecca contacted Sanctuary for Families in November 2014, seeking custody of her son and protection from her abuser.

Willing to go Above and Beyond

When the Debevoise team got Rebecca’s case through Dara Sheinfeld, former Director of Sanctuary’s Legal Project at the Manhattan and Bronx Family Justice Centers, they jumped into action. Initially they had agreed to represent Rebecca only in her family offense petition (FOP) and her custody cases, but when other issues arose the team eagerly stepped up and expanded their representation to address all of Rebecca’s legal needs.

The team appeared in court over 20 times on Rebecca’s FOP case alone, which included multiple hearings to secure the court’s permission for Rebecca to travel with her son to Nigeria to help bring her daughter to America, and another dozen or more times on her other matters. The team collectively spent hundreds of hours preparing for these appearances, including preparing multiple witnesses for cross-examination, practicing opening and closing statements, and gathering impeachment evidence to be used in cross-examining Rebecca’s abuser. The team also successfully represented Rebecca in child support proceedings, which resulted in doubling her support award.

Throughout these extensive preparations, Dara provided support and advice, even on late nights and weekends. Team members described Dara as a “great partner” throughout this process.

Positive Results

The team adeptly navigated Rebecca through a multi-year trial process. At one memorable juncture, they effectively used impeachment evidence against Rebecca’s abuser during a multi-day cross-examination when he attempted to deny the crimes for which he had been previously convicted.

Thanks to the Debevoise team’s hard work and dedication, Rebecca received a final order of protection, gained full custody of her son, received a support award sufficient to sustain her and her son, and, most importantly, achieved freedom and protection from her abuser. Rebecca’s daughter has also joined Rebecca and her son in the US.

The Debevoise team continues to represent Rebecca in her ongoing legal matters. Most recently, the team submitted a brief opposing an appeal filed by Rebecca’s abuser that challenges the five-year order of protection that Rebecca was granted. This dedicated  Debevoise team remains committed to representing Rebecca as long as her fight continues.

The team’s work was life-changing for Rebecca. When Rebecca learned of their nomination for this award, she told Sanctuary that the Debevoise team members were her “heroes.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Debevoise team’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.