Updates from the Legal Services Center

BY KAREN TENENBAUM

Three generations of advocates with the settlement they worked to achieve. From L-R

Jung Ju (3L, Housing) just closed a 13 year-old case that had been considered a lost cause for almost as long. In 1993 -when we were twelve and trying to make friends in middle school but Kristin wouldn’t let you sit at her lunch table because you didn’t even have a pair of blue jeans let alone Guess jeans and you didn’t know all the words to that Ace of Base song, but that’s okay because Kristin still lives with her parents in Rockville and you are at law school – Jeanne Charn, then the director of the LSC, settled a case for a tenant against her landlord for $19,500.

In the 13 years since, the defendant has received not one cent of the judgment. At the statutory rate of 12% interest, the landlord now owes her over $50,000 dollars. The landlord appeared to have little income, but owned property in the form of at least one house.

In March of this year, the LSC discovered that the landlord had sold a property. The landlord had loaned the purchase price to the buyer, in effect giving the buyer a mortgage. The buyer was to pay off the loan in monthly payments, plus interest.

The LSC team – comprised primarily of Ju and clinical instructors Rafael Mares and Esme Caramello – asked the court for a hearing to begin the process by which the landlord would begin paying their client the money he owed (a “supplementary process”). At the hearing, the judge ordered the landlord not to spend more than $1,600 per month of the mortgage note payments, and scheduled another hearing to determine how much of that money he could afford to pay per month.

At the next hearing on October 20, the landlord appeared to be unrepresented. In open court, he declared that the buyer had paid him the balance of the mortgage note in a lump sum and that the money he had not already spent – $147,000! – was in a bank account in Springfield, MA. Ju was stunned. The landlord had declared, in effect, that he was now able to pay the client the full $50,000+ of her judgment, after 13 years of neglecting his obligation to do so.

At that point, the court very well could have ordered the landlord to pay the full judgment immediately. But just before the hearing ended, the landlord noted that he was, in fact, represented, but that his attorney had not shown up for the hearing and could not be reached. In this court where parties are frequently unrepresented (to their great disadvantage), the judge decided to continue the hearing to the following week so that the landlord’s attorney could be present. He also ordered the landlord not to spend the money down below $75,000 (the landlord had already spent $28,000 dollars of it in just a few weeks, violating the judge’s May 18 order).

Ju knew what a risk this extra week posed. Given the landlord’s rate of spending, there might well be nothing left by the next hearing. And the day before the next hearing, the court rescheduled it to three weeks later. The LSC team was crestfallen. After so many years, the landlord might now slip away again without paying a dime.

Ju was able to schedule an emergency hearing, and also asked the court to freeze the money or escrow it with the court. Both attempts to keep the money safe were ultimately unsuccessful: by the hearing on November 6, just as predicted, only $2,500 remained. The landlord had sent $141,000 to an account in Lebanon, as Ju learned.

The landlord’s spending was in flagrant violation of two very specific court orders; in fact, each episode of spending seemed a reaction to being ordered not to. Ju removed his kid gloves and filed a complaint for contempt. A finding of civil contempt could mean jail for the landlord. At the contempt hearing, the landlord did not even appear. The judge told the attorney that the landlord was ordered to show up at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, bearing either a check made out to the LSC client trust account for $51,000, “or a toothbrush.” The landlord’s attorney blanched. Typically, it doesn’t look good when a client ends up in jail in a civil case, especially in a supplementary process case.

Although at the next hearing the attorney did not produce the landlord, the money, or a toothbrush, he did have proof that the money had been wired. Ultimately, it arrived safely from Lebanon, and the judge ordered the release of $50,289 from the bank to the client’s trust account. It’s a heartening outcome for Ju and the Center, where almost everyone was pessimistic about the possibility of ever recovering. As Ju wrote in a November 18 email, “I talked to [the client] yesterday and she’s ecstatic about the outcome and is grateful to everyone at the center.”

Ariane Buglione (3L, Family) won an important, contested restraining order hearing for a client embroiled in an ongoing custody dispute with her ex-boyfriend, who filed for custody of their children. The story of this couple began in 2001. Buglione’s client had recently arrived in the United States, most likely as a political asylee. Her immigration case was made more difficult by the fact that her former boyfriend had kept all her immigration papers. The couple, who are from the same country, met, became romantically involved, and moved in together. In 2002 the client gave birth to a daughter, and had another child this past August.

Over the course of their relationship, the plaintiff became increasingly emotionally abusive, so the client left him and moved to a shelter for women suffering domestic abuse. “She’s just terrified of him,” Buglione said, “He’s very controlling.” The client obtained her first restraining order in late spring of this year. It was a “no contact” order, meaning that if the plaintiff wants to contact the client, he must go through her attorney. Restraining orders must be renewed periodically, and Buglione was in charge of the November renewal hearing.

The renewal hearing did not promise to be a cakewalk for Buglione. The standard of proof for issuing a no contact order is that the applicant must reasonably be in fear of imminent physical harm. The initial order had been based on physical abuse that was in the somewhat distant past, by the court’s standards, and Buglione was concerned that the judge might now deny a restraining order when the last incident of physical abuse was three years old. So Buglione shifted strategies, focusing instead on the plaintiff’s repeated violation of the initial order. The plaintiff found out where the client was living and contacted her directly, repeatedly.

Buglione ultimately persuaded the judge to renew the order for an additional year. “Our strategy, combined with the fact that the other attorney was [arrogant and ineffective], really helped our case,” she said. Five minutes before the hearing, Buglione recounted, the other attorney had approached her and threatened that his client would withdraw his affidavit of support for her immigration, making her “illegal as of today.” It appears to have been an empty threat, however, since if the client is indeed a political asylee, her status in the U.S. isn’t dependant on the plaintiff’s endorsement. The opposing attorney also annoyed the judge by continuing to object to the admission of his client’s handwritten notes, even after the judge made it perfectly clear that she was admitting them.

The next step for Buglione is a pretrial conference in January about the custody issue. While the client currently has full physical custody over the children (which their father has conceded), he is still seeking shared legal custody, which would give him decisionmaking authority over them. Given the father’s aggressiveness, “she is not comfortable with that,” Buglione said.

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