BY KAREN TENENBAUM
Chris Lanese and Bethany Lobo (3Ls, Family) recently settled a paternity suit at the last possible minute before trial. The dispute was over custody and child support arrangements for the 5-year-old daughter of an unmarried couple.
The two met in 1994 and were together until 2001. In the beginning, Lanese related, there was a honeymoon period, when the defendant was a perfect gentleman. The client is Dominican and the boyfriend was African American, and it was when the client got pregnant that the relationship began to sour. Race became an unexpected and contentious source of conflict: the father insisted that the child be raised a black American and began belittling the client’s heritage. Once, when the client was boiling a bottle for the baby, the father told her, “‘We’re not in the Dominican Republic anymore, we’re in America and we don’t do that,'” Lanese said. The client moved out a year after the birth, taking their daughter with her.
For several years afterwards, child support and visitation issues were a sore point for the couple. According to Lobo and Lanese, the father would insist on visitation at his convenience, often calling the client at work to come collect their daughter immediately or at some other unagreed-upon time. He would buy the toddler gifts and presents, but refuse to give the mother money to pay for other necessities. Sometimes he would leave the child alone with neighborhood pre-teens they had met in the park!
Lobo also noted, “There was the kidnapping incident.” In May 2004, the client started dating someone new. One day, while she was out with her new boyfriend, the father went to where the daughter was staying, and absconded with her. He returned later without the child and began ranting, “‘What’s this white man doing around my daughter? She can’t be dating a white man!'” Lanese paraphrased. When the client returned, the defendant threatened that she would never see their daughter again, that he would take her out of the state. “Where was the kid during that time?” Lobo asked Lanese. Perhaps alone or with strangers? The defendant then left.
After a distraught trip to one notably unhelpful police department, the client was able to rescue her child with the help of the Brookline police. The father was later arrested on three outstanding warrants, none of them related to the May incident.
The mother immediately filed a paternity action and scheduled a hearing. Unrepresented at the time, she was able to establish temporary custody and child support of $57.00 per week, pending a final hearing. Remarkably, Lanese said, the father filed a response in which he asked for full custody and support from the client. After losing at this hearing, Lanese recounted, “Dad did not even ask for visitation, despite seeking full physical custody.” That move drastically undercut his credibility before the judge, who ultimately declared that she did not even consider the matter to be a custody action anymore; it was simply about visitation and how much the defendant would pay in support.
Later the father returned to court seeking visitation and won up to two hours weekly supervised at a visitation center. The father and daughter met weekly in the presence of a visitation supervisor, which was later increased to two supervisors, when he began flouting the rules. It was around this time, Lobo and Lanese said, after visits, that the child started displaying cruelty towards animals. I will not go into the graphic details here, but one incident involved a cat, a paperclip, and one of the cat’s bodily openings. Also, immediately after one of the visits, the child pushed her grandmother over, causing her to go to the hospital. The girl also became intensely race-conscious. Lobo related that she would “come back flexing her muscles and saying, ‘I’m a strong black African.'” (The girl is now in counseling, and all of her violent behavior has diminished.)
Lobo and Lanese, meanwhile, prepared for trial on the final custody, visitation and support issues. Normally such a case would settle, but the defendant refused to change his stance. The two began deposing and subpoenaing witnesses and discovering documents to establish the father’s conduct and how much he would be able to pay in support. The father, in preparation, fired his lawyer, was unrepresented for a while, and then retained his original lawyer.
On the eve of trial, the defendant’s lawyer finally called Lobo. “‘What’s it going to take to make this go away?'” he asked. Finally, settlement discussions! “We’re here all day preparing our client,” Lobo said, “You can reach us anytime.” Lobo and Lanese negotiated intelligently. For example, Lobo and Lanese knew that the father was earning a substantial amount of money, but in court, it would have been difficult for them to prove, based on their deposition of the father’s boss. The other attorney, however, had not requested a copy of that deposition, so Team LSC was able to bluff on what it’d be able to prove in court.
The final settlement? The mom gets full physical and legal custody, $120 per week in child support until the girl turns 23 (a 53% increase) and a structured visitation schedule with the father.
James Goodnow (3L, Predatory Lending) is preparing to depose the defendant in a very interesting case that has received attention in the non-Record news media. This story begins at a local church, where a parishioner “got up in church and said, ‘I’m looking for a house to buy,'” for herself and her eight grandchildren, Goodnow recalled. As it happened, the reverends (two of them, a married couple) had a house to sell, so they agreed to sell to her. An agreement was drawn up, and both parties signed.
Unbeknownst to the parishioner, however, the reverends had taken out a second mortgage on the home immediately before the transfer. Goodnow’s client soon discovered, to her horror, that she now had to pay twice the agreed-to price! The bank attempted to repossess the home shortly thereafter, and the client came to the Legal Services Center. Her attorney here was able to convince the bank not to foreclose, but the client is now paying both mortgages. Normally this would be a straightforward action — find the reverends, make them pay. BUT the reverends have since divorced, and the reverend ex-wife has escaped to Jamaica, where she nowruns a pricey bed-and-breakfast. And, Goodnow alluded, there is speculation that she was involved in a love triangle.
Because one of the defendants has expatriated, Goodnow is going after the reverend ex-husband. Is it possible that this fraud is all the doing of his ex-wife? “We started out believing him,” Goodnow said, but he himself has been involved in 25-30 land transactions, “all very questionable…giving property to other people for no money.” Today, Goodnow is deposing the reverend to find out what he’d say about the transaction in court. Goodnow said that the reverend would probably “take the 5th” on a lot of questions, so he has prepared more than a hundred to ask. Attorneys also need to be flexible. “A deposition takes on a life of its own once started,” Goodnow said. The affair can take hours and hours, and the hardest part of being deposed, as my supervisor once told me, is staying awake.
To add another level of stress, the reverend’s attorney is “a former DOJ guy…and I’m just a student,” Goodnow related. “[The reverend] is stubborn, and his lawyer is really feisty.” When asked whether it was at all possible to pursue the other reverend, Goodnow wryly expressed concern that he “might have to go to Jamaica to find her.” It’s a tough life.