The College of Law’s Pro Bono Initiative (PBI) provides free legal advice to the underserved in the community who otherwise would lack access to the justice system. PBI also offers skill-building legal opportunities to law students, who work under the direct supervision of volunteer attorneys. Recently, two participants, Jonathan Thorne, supervising attorney, and Daniel Black, rising 3L, provided relief for a client who faced eviction from her home based on a misunderstanding compounded by a language barrier. Below, the two discuss PBI, the Street Law Clinic, and how they combined their respective skills to help their client, Betty.
How did each of you get involved in this matter through the Pro Bono Initiative?
DB: I am the Bono Initiative Student Director for the Street Law Legal Clinic and Special Projects for Summer 2013. Gerry Esplin (the wife of U of U Vice President Fred Esplin) came into the Street Law clinic earlier this summer with her friend, Betty, looking for help with a legal issue between Betty and her homeowners association. I did their intake along with attorney Jonathan Thorne. Gerry and I translated for Jonathan, as we both speak Spanish.
JT: I was one of the supervising attorneys at the clinic that night and was asked to help provide advice to a certain table — Betty and Gerry. Dan and I interviewed Betty, with the help of Gerry. Dan and I also reviewed the documents and determined that based on the facts we could potentially help Betty. Unfortunately there appeared to be a breakdown in communication (language barrier) between Betty and opposing counsel.
Can you briefly relate the facts?
DB: Betty had been sued by her homeowners assocation (HOA) for failing to pay her monthly dues. The HOA obtained a judgment against her and began garnishing her wages. The judgment had been augmented a couple times and her wages continued to be garnished. There was another pending motion to augment her wages. Betty was confused by the situation and did not understand she had an ongoing obligation to pay monthly dues.
What kinds of services/counseling did you provide the client?
DB: Jonathan asked me to collect copies of all of Betty’s documents and correspondence with the HOA and summarize the situation for him in an email, which I did. I also attached to that email an Excel spreadsheet with a breakdown of the amount owed to the HOA and the amount sought by the HOA. I also included in my email to Jonathan my thoughts on the case.
JT: We determined that she had failed to pay her HOA dues for the past couple years and explained to her that she had a monthly obligation to pay those dues. She did not previously understand that she was required to pay a monthly due. We determined that the HOA had a basis to sue and would be successful in obtaining a judgment against her (which had previously occurred) and the HOA would likely receive attorney fees and costs incurred. However, we believed that the HOA did not have a basis to augment the judgement and would have to file another suit. We were able to negotiate with opposing counsel — explaining our legal position and that we would be filing an opposition to the HOA’s motion to augment; and further explaining the practical situation — there was a breakdown in communication and she had not previously understood her obligations. We were able to get the HOA to waive the all costs and attorney fees related, and Betty was only responsible for paying her outstanding dues (which was a fraction of her actual potential liability). Opposing counsel agreed that after receiving the money he would dismiss the lawsuit.
How did your education at the College of Law and the training/guidance you received through the PBI help to prepare you for this experience?
The S.J. Quinney College of Law’s Pro Bono Initiative gave me the opportunity to participate as a volunteer in the Street Law clinic so that I can help people like Betty. I was able to draw on my experience in accounting prior to law school and my Spanish language skills to help me as well. Mainly, law school has helped me develop my critical thinking and problem solving skills to effectively handle legal problems like this one.