Updates from the Hale Dorr Legal Services Center

BY KAREN TENENBAUM

David Grossman and Noan Popp, 2L, discuss a case.
Beth Tossell, 2L, and Rafael Mares confer about litigation strategy.

Jeremy Peterson (3L, Employment) won a victory for his client at an administrative hearing at the Division of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), a Massachusetts state agency. Peterson’s client has a severe allergy to a number of scented products that were present in her workplace; things like perfume and a colleague’s plug-in air freshener. Initially, she combated the problem with anti-allergy medications, but, because of adverse side effects, stopped taking them. The client’s supervisors did make some efforts to accommodate her condition, but stopped short of the most obvious solution: asking her co-workers not to wear scented products. “Ironically,” Peterson related, “the problem was not with women wearing perfume, but with men wearing cologne; one man wore essential oils.” There seemed to be “something in the culture of the office,” he said, that kept people from taking her condition seriously. This “something” bordered on audacity: “The director of the office was even wearing a faint amount of cologne when he came to the negotiation.” Peterson’s client had to leave work because of her condition, and although she was still technically on the payroll, Peterson made the case before the hearing examiner that she was effectively unemployed and should receive benefits. One of Peterson’s strategies was to compare an unemployment case in which a pregnant woman who worked as a welder was kept on the payroll despite being unable to come to work due to the presence of lead in her workplace. The other side’s response? “They didn’t really contest us in any of the facts or any of the law,” and the client secured her benefits. “Once they came before some sort of tribunal,” Peterson said, “they seemed much more accommodating.”

Josh Sohn (3L, Family Law) successfully represented a client at a hearing in a paternity matter, in which the Court determined that a father could not have unsupervised visitations with his child. In an earlier agreement, the father could not have unsupervised visitations of the child until he had completed a 2-day parenting class. When the father completed the class, he moved to get unsupervised visitation, something the client feared because, as Sohn said, the father was “inattentive at best, abusive at worst.” In the three weeks before the appearance, Sohn and his client prepared an affidavit that painted “a grim picture of what the father was like.” Although this was Sohn’s first time going before a judge, which would make anyone nervous, Sohn was unfazed, and believed the judge would heavily weight his client’s affidavit. Sohn likened the challenge to a motion for summary judgment: “I felt I was in an advantageous position…I felt that all I had to do was create an issue of material fact to win.” And win he did.

Lexi Nunn (2L, Housing) won a major award for her client, a woman who’d been discriminated against for being a Section 8 voucher recipient. Section 8 is a national program administered by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that gives vouchers to low-income families, who in turn can choose where to live and pay a specified percentage of their income towards rent. HUD, through local agencies, pays the balance of the rent up to fair market value. Nunn’s client, who was apartment-hunting, was told by a realtor that the owner of an home she liked did not rent to Section 8 recipients. This sort of response is ok in most states and cities, but not in Massachusetts, which prohibits landlords from turning away Section 8 recipients as such. Nunn and her predecessor on the case, Jeff Jamison (3L, Housing), fashioned a discrimination suit. First they deployed testers. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston devised a test that “[showed] twice, actually, that the owner and realtor had a preference for non-Section 8 recipients, which is clearly illegal,” Nunn said. Rather than go to court, Nunn and her client opted to resolve the dispute through the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). At a conciliation conference that precedes formal hearings, Nunn won a $15,500 settlement for her client. In addition, the respondents will have to go to fair housing training at their own cost and advertise future rentals with agencies that cater to Section 8 recipients. So, uh, does Nunn get a cut of the award? Nunn laughed, but then declined even to dignify the question with an answer. Nunn arrived at the settlement number after researching awards in other MCAD and housing discrimination cases in Massachusetts. “It’s hard to prove discrimination,” she related, and it was difficult “trying to convince someone of something that people don’t think exists anymore.” The more difficult issue, however, was to quantify her client’s emotional and physical suffering, as both the client and her daughter suffered from a number of medical conditions. The settlement also included stringent confidentiality clauses to protect the identity of the respondents. Nunn explained: “They were a little ashamed, and, I think, rightfully so.” You know, this is just like Property class, in the days before the restrictive easements with an option to revert to life estate covenants unit. Have you told Professor Singer, Ms. Nunn? “No, I really should.”

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