Second Annual Clinical Programs End-of-Year Awards Luncheon Recognizes Outstanding Clinic Students

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Professor Beth Posner and her student, Melanie Stratton Lopez
Melanie Stratton Lopez, third year law student and recipient of the CLEA Outstanding Student Award for 2014, with Prof. Beth Posner of the Immigration Clinic.

On Monday, April 14, 2014, UNC Clinical Programs held its Second Annual End-of-Year Awards Luncheon, during which the sixty third-year law students who participated in the clinic during the 2013-14 academic year were recognized as they enjoyed a catered lunch from the Indian restaurant, Mint.

Prof. Tamar Birckhead, Director of Clinical Programs, thanked the group for its commitment and tenacity on behalf of their clients, and she spoke of the dedication of her students in the Juvenile Justice Clinic, including Galo Centenera, Ryan Eletto, Alyssa Kisby, Catherine McCormick, Kati Ruark, and Samantha Thompson, all of whom represented children under the age of 16 in the juvenile delinquency courts of Wake, Orange, and Durham counties. Among her students' accomplishments were the reduction or dismissal of criminal charges pending against their young clients as well as successfully assisting juveniles in finding alternative educational options, counseling resources, and creatively meeting their other needs. The parent of one of the Clinic's clients wrote a note of thanks to the law student who represented her son, expressing the following:

"Mark and I were very impressed with and appreciate so much all your hard work and excellent results in defending him. I'll always remember the two of you standing in front of the judge. Even though you'd taken the time to prepare Mark very well, whenever he wasn't entirely sure how to respond to a question, he'd look up at you and you'd nod at him. It was a perfect attorney-and-young-client moment."

Prof. Barbara Fedders, who also teaches in the Juvenile Justice Clinic, echoed this sentiment and expressed particular gratitude for the wonderful advocacy work her students did in school discipline cases in Wake County, which is a new area of focus for the Juvenile Justice Clinic. One student successfully appealed a long-term suspension that would otherwise have imperiled his client's college scholarship. Another student used discovery gained in a school discipline hearing in the successful defense of a delinquency case. Prof. Fedders supervised Laura Ackerman, Kindra Bradley, Erin Briley, Becka Fortune, Quinn Godwin, Ben Kleinman, Eli Sevcik-Timberg, and Luke Woollard in the spring, and Fran Hodgson, Donald Huggins, Ken Jennings, John Miller, Satie Munn, Maura O'Keefe, Kati Ruark, and Charlotte Stewart in the fall. Prof. Lindsey Spain, a recent graduate of the Law School, also assisted with supervision in the fall.

Prof. Kathryn Sabbeth highlighted the work of her students in the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic, including Valyce Davis, Devlin Horton, Vanessa Peña, Bridget Warren, Morgan Wittman, and Aggie Zmuda. She provided the following examples of what they accomplished this year:

  • Seeking recovery of security deposit on behalf of young tenant new to the Section 8 subsidy program.
  • Representing a domestic violence victim facing eviction, and through the deposition of the landlord's agent, unearthing widespread violations of the Violence Against Women Act and Fair Housing Act.
  • Researching prisoners' claims brought to our attention by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and Prisoners Legal Services, and putting together an open records request to learn what’s really happening at the prisons.
  • Challenging severe mold inside the home of a family with small children, and successfully defending the family when the landlord brought a retaliatory eviction case.
  • Advising a national Latino organization on how best to assist members of the public facing employment discrimination and whether and how the organization can bring claims on behalf of these workers.
  • Zealously tracking down and pursuing employers engaged in theft of wages: getting an employer to come to the bargaining table with a good faith attempt to settle after the Department of Labor told the employer to pay but DOL was unable to convince the employer to pay a cent.
  • Appealing the denial of unemployment benefits, in which the student’s work earned such high praise from the legal aid referring organization that our contact suggested we should be nominated for an annual award from the NC Bar Association.

Prof. Erika Wilson, who also supervises in the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic, shared highlights of her students' work in the areas of education law and housing law:

Assisted a high school student in having a long term suspension and recommendation for expulsion removed by demonstrating that the conduct that led to the long term suspension and recommendation for expulsion was a manifestation of the student’s disability. The students also assisted the client in having an appropriate Behavioral Intervention Plan put in place which has helped the student to avoid further behavioral problems.

Filed a petition with the NC Office for Administrative Hearings on behalf of a 6th grade student with a disability who was suspended for forty-five days on the grounds that she used a dangerous weapon (a pocket pencil sharpener) and inflicted a serious bodily harm on another student (a 6cm scratch that did not require medical treatment). The students were successful in getting the suspension reduced and assisting the student in having an appropriate Behavioral Intervention Plan put in place which has helped the student to avoid further behavioral problems.

Negotiated a favorable settlement agreement during a court required mediation on behalf of a client who lived in substandard housing conditions, which included severe bedbugs and cockroach infestation. The students were able to negotiate for a $2,500.00 rent abatement for the client for the time period he was forced to live in substandard housing conditions.

Represented a tenant who was facing eviction for an alleged breach of lease and failure to pay rent. The students were able to negotiate a favorable agreement with the landlord which resulted in the landlord dropping the eviction suit and allowed the client to remain in the apartment for a longer period until she found a new place to live.

Represented a tenant who was unlawfully evicted and in which the landlord forced him to leave the apartment before he was able to collect most of his and his children’s personal belongings. The student assisted the client in getting the landlord to return his personal belongings, after which he received this letter of thanks:

“It is reassuring to know that the [UNC Civil Legal Assistance] clinic is available for people who find themselves in vulnerable situations and few options available, which is exactly where I was when I was referred to you. I've come to realize that it's not uncommon for the disenfranchised to be taken advantage of by the more powerful in our society. But a good attorney can make all the difference. On behalf of everyone in that boat, I really do appreciate the clinic and its commitment to the "little guy." It has been a huge relief to finally have all of my family's belongings in one place; some things I needed (winter clothes and pots and pans, etc.) and some things my heart needed (Christmas ornaments my daughter made in her glass blowing class we got back in time to put on the tree, a family bible that belonged to my great-grandmother, my other daughter's favorite Narwhal t-shirt, a coat that belonged to my father that my mother gave me after he died and before she did)... a lot of things that one can't really attach a value to. I also appreciate the professional, respectful and non-judgmental manner in which Mr. Herr treated me throughout the process. It was the team's thoroughness, persistence, attention to detail and competence which eventually shifted the balance to our side. Hopefully, Matt and your other aspiring attorneys learned some things that will helpful to the down the road, as well. If I run into anyone needing expertise on 1920's inn-keeper laws, I'll send them [the clinic student's] way."

Prof. Wilson's students include Sarah Chang, Ryan Fairchild, Matthew Herr, Samuel Hightower, Logan Liles, Munashe Magarira, Rachel Nicholas, and Erica Romain.

Prof. Laura Collins Britton then spoke of the work done by her students in the Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic, including Catherine Bruce, Zach Ferguson, Sidney Fowler, Jared Knight, Seth Lawrence, Uka Onuoha, Asia Prince, and Kristofer Readling. She explained that during this academic year, CFT Clinic students worked on behalf of vulnerable consumers on matters pertaining to credit and homeownership. Without exception, their work was outstanding. Several students were able to stop and significantly delay multiple mortgage foreclosure cases against senior citizens and struggling families; some advanced lawsuits against creditors who committed fraud and unfair debt collection. One student assisted an elderly woman in attempting to recoup $15,000 she was wrongfully forced to pay in property taxes on her home. Others prepared an amicus brief in a mortgage fraud case before the North Carolina Supreme Court. In conjunction with the Center for Responsible Lending, students compiled data about debt collection efforts in North Carolina which was then presented to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a report about the need for increased regulation of debt buyers nationwide. They built relationships with federal, state and local advocacy groups and the office of the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks. Through it all, they displayed the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. Their work truly made a meaningful difference in the lives of consumers across North Carolina.

Although Prof. Tom Kelley of the Community Development Law Clinic was not present for the event, his students have also excelled during the year; they include Jordan Cobb, Lauren Demanovich, Lauren Harkey, Laura Krcmaric, Leah Mason, Amy McCrea, Stephanie Mellini, and Kaitlin Powers. A few of their representative cases are the following:

Client : A grassroots community financial institution that helps homeless people save money to meet specific personal and professional goals.

Task : Performed legal research and drafted legal memoranda advising the client on how to avoid losing deposited money through the application of North Carolina escheat and garnishment laws. Then re-drafted certain contracts in light of that advice.

Client : A large provider of services to individuals suffering mental health problems and other disabilities.

Task : Advised them through the process of merging with two similar nonprofit organizations.

Client : A former UNC student organization that runs a community garden and distributes produce to food insecure individuals.

Task : Advised on risk reduction, including the drafting of letter agreements and volunteer waivers. Also advised the client regarding the proper structure for independent contractor arrangements with its interns. Helped them prepare an application for federal tax exemption.

Client : A former UNC student organization that focuses on “promoting healthy bodies, healthy minds, and healthy relationships for girls.”

Task : Advised the client regarding risk reduction, including drafting corporate policies and procedures and liability waivers. Also provided advice regarding NCAA regulations that may apply when the organization includes UNC intercollegiate athletes in its youth programs.

Client : An innovative charity that wishes to receive donations of used medical equipment, sell the equipment at market prices in the U.S., and use the proceeds to purchase medical equipment for under-resourced hospitals in India.

Task : Performed extensive legal research and ultimately advised the client that it was unlikely to be granted federal tax exempt status because its business plan is too commercial.

Prof. Beth Posner acknowledged the accomplishments of her students in the Immigration Clinic, including Yallana Boston-McGee, Sarah Colwell, Eva Gullick, Elaine Hartman, Emily Rojas, Jordan Wolfe, and Chrisy Yun.

Prof. Posner then presented the 2014 Clinical Legal Education Association's Outstanding Student Award, which is given annually to a UNC Clinic student who has achieved excellence in the field work component of the clinical course as determined by the student's thoughtfulness and self-reflection in exploring the legal, ethical, strategic, and other pertinent issues raised in the particular clinic, with consideration of the nature and extent of the student's contribution to the clinical community at the Law School. In presenting the award, Prof. Posner shared the following:

"I am very proud of all my clinic students this year. This, as you all know, was my first year teaching in this Clinic, and they all jumped in and took it on faith that we would go on to do great things. And we have.

Our clinic this year has completed, or nearly completed U-Visa applications for 8 primary clients and 3 family members living out of the country. Students are also just about finished with Green Card applications for 9 new clients. By the time the students complete their work, they will have assisted 20 new clients applying for immigration status.

Additionally, two of our students conducted a very well-received community education program for the Orange County Domestic Violence Task Force. The law enforcement officers, advocates, social workers, and medical professionals there were extremely impressed with the depth of their knowledge, the skill with which they presented, and the manner in which they were really able to make all the different community members feel like we are playing for the same team—helping our clients get lawful status.

As many of you know, this year I changed the focus of the clinic such that all of our clients were victims and are survivors of domestic or sexual violence. This required that each of my students not only develop the legal skills necessary to do the required immigration work, abut also the professional and ethical skills necessary to work with a very vulnerable population.

I asked you all to be consciously client-centered, empathetic, and creative in your work. We had to talk about boundaries and self-care, and I asked you to think about the political implications of your work and your feelings about your work. You did it, and your clients are in better places because of your compassionate lawyering.

As if it’s possible, one of you, however, had a tougher road than the rest. A harder case, a client who brought so many additional challenges, and that student is Melanie Stratton Lopez. I think we all learned from the graceful and passionate advocacy Melanie brought to her client’s needs, and because of that, she is this year’s recipient of the CLEA Outstanding Student Award.

For those of you outside the Clinic, Melanie represented a homeless, schizophrenic, rape victim who neither the police nor the nurse who examined her in the emergency room believed. We knew this would be a hard case, but Melanie jumped in. From the beginning, she displayed that she was thinking critically about the practical and ethical issues that her client presented. And she wanted to learn from them. She had to be and was creative about when and where she would meet her client and how she would keep up communications. She had to juggle numerous service providers and guard against becoming a social worker herself. She had to think about what her client’s hunger, and homelessness, and mental health meant during each meeting and throughout all the decisions they made together. She had to think about what her client’s challenges meant to her as a person and as a lawyer. And all the time, she engaged me, as her supervisor, and her peers, in that process. She allowed us all to learn from her work, from her thought processes, and, ultimately, from her failure.

Melanie did not prevail on behalf of her client, but the law enforcement agency she worked with felt sufficiently educated by her that they want to work with us more. She did not prevail on behalf of her client, but the advocacy agency that referred her client wants to do more work with us because of her professionalism and zealous advocacy. Melanie didn’t win her case, but her client knows that there is a lawyer who took her story seriously, that there is a professional who met her – where she was—quite literally—and cared enough about her to press her case forward. Even though Melanie is the only Immigration Clinic student whose U-Visa failed, I think it’s fair to say that through her work with that client, and her contributions to the seminars, group meetings, team meetings, and meetings with me in my office, the rest of us learned from her how important it is to be aware of the larger social and political issues at play in our hearts and in our work.

For those reasons, I am so pleased to give Melanie this award."

Prof. Birckhead closed by thanking the Clinical Programs staff for their hard work and dedication, which makes it possible for the program to run smoothly and meet the needs of the students and their clients: Melissa Cobb, Rushdee Omar, and Perla Ramos.

Congratulations and many thanks to ALL of the third year students in UNC Clinical Programs during 2013-14. We have assisted hundreds of clients this year on a myriad of cases, and we are proud and grateful to the law students who committed themselves to this vitally important work.


Posted by Tamar R. Birckhead on Tue. April 22, 2014 1:28 PM
Categories: Civil Legal Assistance Clinic, Clinical Programs Events, Community Development Law Clinic, Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic, Immigration Clinic, Youth Justice Clinic
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