Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic

Successfully Protecting Housing Rights of Sexual Assault and Domestic Abuse Survivors

Attorneys and students in LSC’s Housing Justice for Survivors Project are working on multiple fronts to protect the rights of survivors of sexual assault and physically abusive relationships to ensure that they have safe, affordable housing. Sometimes that means helping tenants break a lease to relocate quickly. In other cases, it means fighting to help them hold onto an apartment the survivor formerly shared with an abuser.

Their efforts are leading to favorable rulings in the courts and greater understanding of state laws that protect survivors from being re-victimized.

Most recently, their work filing an amicus brief in one case has helped lead to a major court ruling in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. That ruling ensures that even if a survivor’s name is not on a lease, even if she/he is labelled an “unauthorized occupant” by the landlord, or even if she/he is accused of fraud for living in the apartment without being on the lease, she/he still may have a valid claim to the apartment and that claim should be heard at trial.

Getting out of a lease to leave an unsafe home

Survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking often have to leave their homes with little notice or planning in order to avoid harm by a perpetrator who knows where they live.  Clients of LSC have had to leave their homes because their perpetrator lived upstairs, because they were getting ready to file criminal charges and feared retribution, because their abuser threatened their safety in and around their homes, or because their rapist worked around the corner from where they live.

One of the most pressing question clients ask when they reach out for help in these impossible situations is “What will happen if I have to break my lease?” Many fear financial penalties from the landlord, or simply believe that they will not be able to leave until the end of the contract.

Fortunately, G.L. c. 186, § 24, “Termination of rental agreement or tenancy by victim of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or stalking” (“Section 24”), was signed into law in Massachusetts in 2013, after decades of law-reform efforts by survivors and housing advocates. Its purpose is to help survivors leave their homes for safety reasons without incurring financial penalties.

The Housing Justice for Survivors Project has represented many tenants in these situations, allowing them to relocate quickly to safer homes and a fresh start. However, Section 24 is not well known or understood, and so survivors across the Commonwealth who do not have lawyers remain trapped in unsafe living situations and unable to break free from abuse for fear of financial liability.

To familiarize legal practitioners, landlords, and tenants with the provisions of Section 24 so that its benefits may be more broadly utilized, LSC attorney Julia Devanthéry recently published an article in the Boston Bar Journal on the topic.

Fighting evictions so that survivors can stay in their homes

Another common housing crisis that survivors face is the risk of loss of housing as a result of abuse. Sometimes survivors are evicted for reasons directly related to the violence (such as damage to the apartment or disturbance of neighbors). Sometimes the eviction is a downstream effect of abuse or standing up to abuse (for example, when a survivor finally separates from an abuser and suddenly doesn’t have enough income to pay the rent each month, or the survivor is not on a lease for the shared apartment and kicking out an abuser exposes the remaining family members to loss of housing).

Unsafe housing and housing instability re-victimizes survivors, causing homelessness and tremendous loss to survivors and their families.  LSC’s Housing Justice for Survivors Project is standing with survivors to help make sure that their rights are protected by representing them in evictions and negotiations with landlords.

The Housing Justice for Survivors Project submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Judicial Court representing two leading domestic violence and sexual assault agencies, Jane Doe Inc. and Casa Myrna, in support of a tenant who was trying to protect her home after she got her abuser removed through a restraining order. Her abusive husband had repeatedly prevented her from taking the steps necessary to be added to the lease, and when he was removed from the home after she finally was able to get an abuse prevention order, the landlord moved to evict her and her children because her name was not on the lease.

In a major victory for survivors across the state and beyond, the Supreme Judicial Court in mid-September published its decision in favor of the survivor tenant in Beacon Residential v. R.P. The Court ruled that survivors of domestic violence should be allowed to intervene in eviction cases as of right (on behalf of themselves or their minor children) when they have claimed an interest in the apartment under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) or a corresponding state law.

The Court said that even if the survivor is not on the lease, is labelled an “unauthorized occupant” by the landlord, and/or is accused of fraud for living in the apartment without being on the lease, she still might have a valid claim to the apartment  and that claim should be heard at trial.

Devanthéry and three Housing Justice for Survivors students (Nino Monea, Tara Knoll and Michael Zhang) wrote the amicus brief , and worked closely with lawyers from Nutter McClennen & Fish who took the case pro bono through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project’s Civil Appeals Clinic.  Other tenant rights experts in Boston and across the country also worked on the case, including the National Consumer Law Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Women’s Bar Association, and the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco.

Together the team presented a cohesive and passionate defense for survivors at risk of losing their homes and convinced the Court that the voices of survivors should be heard in eviction proceedings in order to prevent unjust loss of housing.

“It was truly a community push,” says Devanthéry, “and it couldn’t be a better outcome for survivors across the Commonwealth and beyond. ”

Student Reflections on Working at LSC

In two recent posts on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, former Estate Planning clinic students Stephanie Jimenez and Travis Leverett discuss their experiences working on estate planning issues. Read both Stephanie’s post, “Empowering clients through the Estate Planning Project” and Travis’ post, “A reflection on my semester with the Estate Planning Project“.

In addition, former  Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic  students Suria Bahadue and Alison Burton share their experiences with family and domestic violence issues in the following posts: “Out of the classroom and into the courtroom” by Suria Bahadue and “A sense of community and a chance to represent clients in court” by Alison Burton.

The Legal Services Center takes People’s Law School on the road in service to veterans

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LSC’s Julie McCormack (Dis-Lit) and Dana Montalto (Vet) with VA Bedford Compensated Work Therapy staff Will Hatley and Mary Lee Losordo after their presentation on November 5th.

The now annual Legal Services Center (LSC) People’s Law School of community legal education workshops facilitated by LSC staff and clinical law students has proven to be hugely popular, attended by almost 200 people over the past 2 years.  And so popular that Will Hatley, Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) Program Coordinator at the Bedford Veterans Administration (VA) proposed that LSC take the program on the road, bringing workshops specifically tailored to the needs of the veterans served through the CWT program directly to them on-site at the Bedford VA.  Julie McCormack, senior clinical instructor and director of the Disability Litigation Clinic at LSC, enthusiastically accepted the challenge and recruited not only LSC instructors and clinical students in presenting workshops, but also reached out to recruit presenters in areas not served by LSC.  She and her LSC colleagues were ultimately joined by instructors and law students from the Tenant Advocacy Project and Prisoner Legal Assistance Project student practice organizations and the Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic.

Over the course of several weeks and 5 workshops, veterans and their case managers at the Bedford VA were advised of their legal rights and the process by which these rights could be exercised in several key areas of direct impact.  On October 29th, Toby Merrill and her student Alison Sher ‘15 from the LSC’s Project on Predatory Student Lending presented first on credit issues including bankruptcy and predatory student loans, many of which are specifically marketed to veterans.  Toby and Ali discussed the means by which these unfair loans can be challenged, discharged or otherwise eliminated.

On November 5th, Julie McCormack presented on Social Security disability programs, other programs for low-income and/or disabled veterans and their families, and the financial implications in these programs of wages and other forms of income and how to respond.  Dana Montalto of LSC’s Veteran’s Legal Clinic presented on Discharge Upgrades, the benefits of upgrading and the process by which an upgrade can be requested.  Julie also met with veterans privately, responding to individual questions and providing advice and follow-up in their individual cases.

va peoples law school fam law clinic

LSC’s Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson with Family Law clinical students Isabel Klosterman ’16 and Mara Ludmer ’15 after their presentation on November 12th.

On November 12th, Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson of LSC’s Family Law Clinic, their clinical students Isabel Klosterman ’16 and Mara Ludmer ’15, and Tamara Kolz Griffin of the Estate Planning Project of LSC’s Veteran’s Legal Clinic, and her student, Hillary Preston ’15, presented on family law and probate court issues, including divorce, child custody and child support, separations, restraining orders, conservatorships, guardianships and probating estates.  Tamara Kolz Griffin and her clinical students, Amanda Klopp ’16 and Carolyn Ruiz ’16, from the Estate Planning Project of the Veteran’s Legal Clinic followed up on November 13th with a workshop specifically dealing with wills, trusts and other estate planning tools helpful to veterans and their families, and met one-on-one with several prospective clients on their individual cases.

Finally, on November 19th, the Hon. John Cratsley (ret.) of HLS’s Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic and David Hanyok ’15 (with HLS’s Prison Legal Assistance Project) presented on criminal record sealing and other issues.  Both handled a variety of questions from veterans as well as program staff and met one-on-one with veterans interested in discussing their record sealing options, providing forms for obtaining a CORI, for fee waivers, and for applying to seal a record. They also answered numerous questions which sometimes raised other criminal justice issues of concern to veterans.  Their session was followed by Marcia Peters of HLS’s Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) and Zoe Brennan-Krohn ‘15 (of both TAP and LSC’s Disability Litigation Clinic) who presented on the process to appeal public housing denials based solely on having a criminal record.  They took on similar challenging questions.

Each of the workshops were attended by 30 to 50 veterans and case managers.  The attendees participated eagerly with questions and personal observations, sharing knowledge and experiences.  Will Hatley generously recognized each of the presenters with personal certificates of appreciation.  He and many of the attendees urged that the workshops be repeated and even expanded in the spring, pointing to the obvious need for this kind of community legal education among folks facing complex legal, social and personal challenges as they transition from military service to civilian life.  And although taking the time from clinical teaching and providing services to current clients and students presents resource and other constraints, LSC and their partners are more than willing to try to answer the call.

Stephanie Davidson Joins Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic

Stephanie DavidsonStephanie Davidson joined the Legal Services Center (LSC) in July as an Attorney and Clinical Fellow. The Clinic primarily serves clients through the Passageway Health Law Collaborative, a partnership with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital where attorneys, law students, and Passageway social workers to work together to confront domestic violence from a public health perspective.

Davidson’s addition to LSC will allow the Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic to accept more students and cases for the upcoming academic term, and to engage in more extensive community outreach throughout the year. Davidson will be representing clients in family law cases, conducting community education programs, and assisting in the supervision of law students.

Davidson joins Nnena Odim, Senior Clinical Instructor and Associate Director of the Family Law Clinic, who states “I am really looking forward to working with Stephanie. She comes to LSC with such dedication and commitment to improving the lives of victims and survivors of domestic violence. While we will never be able to fully satisfy the unmet needs of the population that we serve, having Stephanie join our team means that we will be better able to address the legal needs of people affected by domestic violence, particularly families with children.”

Davidson has already begun representing clients and preparing the Clinic’s docket for the next set of clinical students. Returning from The Suffolk Family and Probate Court after her first court appearance as an LSC staff member, Davidson said, “I’m thrilled to be providing desperately needed legal services to domestic violence survivors in a clinical setting. These cases provide excellent clinical experiences for students, not only because of the severity of the problem, but also because the legal issues domestic violence survivors encounter illustrate how poverty, violence, and gender intersect in the lives of Boston-area families.”

Student Lawyers Making an Impact on Family and Domestic Violence Cases

Students in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic manage all aspects of their cases. Under the supervision of Associate Director and Senior Clinical Instructor Nnena Odim, they conduct intake, provide advice, and represent clients in both Family and District Court in Massachusetts. They also draft pleadings, analyze discovery, negotiate with opposing counsel, and work with complex financial issues. These students are more than lawyers. They support clients through difficult and stressful experiences, and make a real impact on their lives.

This past academic year, four students – Alyssa Greenberg, J.D. ’15, Kathryn Mullen, J.D. ’15, Kate Aizpuru, J.D. ’14, and Lana Birbrair, J.D. ’15 – did just that.

Alyssa signed up for the clinic to get substantive litigation experience. “I was not disappointed,” she said. “I drafted complaints for divorce, motions for temporary orders, and discovery requests; I prepared to take depositions, led a negotiation, and represented my client at a hearing in Probate and Family court; I spoke to my clients regularly, counseling them and working with them to determine what course their case should take.” Alyssa’s work has helped women who were married to abusive husbands get the closure and financial support they needed.

For Kathryn, representing clients “has been deeply rewarding”. Kathryn represented a husband seeking a divorce. “This case was not only an excellent learning opportunity, but a good reminder that anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse,” she said. Kathryn’s client experienced great psychological distress, suffered serious health problems and was also in dire financial straits. Yet, despite the difficult circumstances, he did not want anything except a divorce on grounds of cruel and abusive treatment. This “meant he would have to testify about his wife’s behavior,” said Kathryn. “It was important to him to tell his story on the record.” The experience contributed to and shaped her desire to become a public interest lawyer.

Kate Aizpuru signed up for the clinic to translate her interests in gender issues into practical experience. “I wanted to spend some time learning the types of skills I wouldn’t be able to get in a classroom: working with clients, drafting legal documents, and appearing in court,” she said. She represented a client who had suffered domestic violence. “At first, I felt nervous—I had only appeared in court on motions, never for a full trial,” said Kate. But the more she thought about the skills she had acquired throughout her two semesters at the clinic, the more confident she felt, and took charge of the entire case. “It was an incredible experience,” she said. Kate delivered the opening statement at trial, answered questions about the case’s procedural history, objected to inadmissible evidence, and cross-examined her client’s husband. Several weeks later, she received a favorable judgment for her client.

Lana took on a divorce case involving domestic violence and custody. “By the end of the semester there was a  6 inch case file with 8 pounds of paper representing 10 weeks of investigation and research,” she said. By her second week at the clinic, Lana was in court seeking a custody order. She met with her client regularly, culled through medical records, tax filings, negotiated with opposing counsel, and subpoenaed records from various banks. She even examined deeds to real estate, written in French. “After a semester, I appreciate the days when we can get a “good” or “great” result for a client we can genuinely help,” she said.

Family Law Clinic Student Advocates for Survivor of Domestic Violence

Akhila Kolisetty

Akhila Kolisetty

by Akhila Kolisetty, J.D. ’15, Harvard Law School

As I sat in the courtroom with my client, waiting for the judge to call us for a pre-trial hearing, we saw my client’s abusive husband enter the room. Immediately, she became nervous and tense. In that moment – as she started tearing up and remembering the past abuse he had put her through – I saw the impact that a lawyer and advocate can make in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. I listened to my client’s needs, reassured her that she would be safe, and that we would achieve the best possible outcome in her divorce case.

A few minutes after this conversation, I had the chance to present the key issues in the case before a family court judge. In my opening statement, I detailed the history of abuse my client had gone through. I explained why she deserved custody of her children, why she should reside in the marital home, and receive child support. Through discovery, I had gathered evidence of a substantial sum of money that my client should have received during the marriage, so I also argued why she deserved a portion of those assets. The judge was sympathetic to our requests and gave us more time to collect critical evidence needed before a trial. I left feeling that the case would have a positive outcome, and my client left feeling a sense of hope for the future.

The experience of representing low-income survivors of domestic violence was an incredible one. I had come to law school with a deep interest in improving my ability to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. Prior to law school, I had volunteered as an advocate providing peer support to immigrant survivors of violence but often felt that I lacked the capacity to fully advocate for them. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me pair empathy with crucial skills in negotiation, oral advocacy and legal writing, to be a much stronger advocate for clients. I not only learned to represent clients in pre-trial hearings, but also conducted discovery, helped clients file for divorce, and advised them on their options. Throughout this process, I received helpful feedback that concretely improved my skills.

Many survivors of domestic violence are immigrants and low-income; they have difficulty navigating the court system and lack the finances to hire a lawyer. Furthermore, abusers often appear confident in court, while survivors of abuse feel intimidated when required to speak in court alongside their abusive partners. Lawyers in family law cases can help survivors of abuse advocate for themselves and ensure that they obtain the financial resources and the independence they need in order to move forward and thrive. Lawyers can also simply listen to difficult stories, acknowledge past abuse, and serve as a support system.

The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me develop vital skills needed to become such a lawyer and advocate, while also providing a needed service to a vulnerable population. I cannot think of a better experience to have as a law student.

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This piece was originally posted on the Harvard Law School Clinical and Pro Bono Programs blog.