When Ursula M. Anderson, a retired doctor living in Cattaraugus County, was scammed by a roofing contractor three years ago, she did not know where to turn.
She had gotten the loan from a federally funded government program that supplied its own contractor, over the one she had, and when the work was not completed, she said she was told she was ungrateful.
The scam not only damaged much of her house, when most of the roof collapsed, but led to health problems and a heart attack, she told a panel Thursday during Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s fourth hearing to assess the civil legal services needs throughout the state.
And, that is only a small part of her nightmarish story. Finally, the Cattaraugus County Department of Aging suggested she contact Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of Western New York Inc. where William W. Berry, supervising attorney for the Civil Unit, was able to help her rectify the situation.
Anderson said what happened to her is an example of how elderly and disabled people are cheated and abused. She said it also led to contempt for federal agencies.
She suggests correcting the mindset of people who perceive the elderly as targets for financial gain and the lack of oversight of federal programs that give out money, addressing the extensive need for legal resources and imposing penalties on abusers.
Judge Lippman said the bottom line is it shows that even a person “of great learning” is not necessarily equipped to deal with legal problems.
He was touring the state, visiting each of the four departments, hearing from local providers and clients. The information gathered will be used as a basis for making funding recommendations to the governor and state Legislature later this fall.
On the Western New York panel with him were Presiding Justice Henry J. Scudder, Appellate Division, Fourth Department; Judge Lawrence K. Marks, first deputy chief administrative judge, state Office of Court Administration; and Buffalo attorney Vincent E. Doyle III, Connors & Vilardo LLP and former president of the New York State Bar Association.
Much of the focus of the Fourth Department hearing was on getting civil legal services to people in rural areas. The hearing was conducted in the Francis M. Letro Courtroom of John Lord O’Brian Hall at SUNY Buffalo Law School.
The panel also heard horror stories from Diane Butler, a client of Legal Assistance of Western New York Inc. and Richard Hesse, a client of The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo Inc. who was accompanied by attorney Marc J. Connors.
Butler, who came with Steuben County attorney David Pels of Bath, encountered several legal problems related to an abusive husband who later sued from his jail cell for visitation rights with their pre-teen daughter. LawNY was not only able to work out a supervised visitation, but helped Butler retain her benefits while battling cancer which left her unable to work.
“I’m just one low-income person,” Butler said. “There are a lot of people like me. I know that many of them have legal problems.”
Justice Scudder, who also lives in Bath, took a moment to thank Pels and the rest of the people like him in the rural parts of Steuben County.
“That’s really all we have in an area like Bath,” Justice Scudder said. “Without them, I don’t know what we’d do because there really is nothing else.”
Hesse of East Concord, Erie County, had been injured on the job and needed help keeping his house from being sold in a tax foreclosure.
Lippman said he thought it was hard for people to understand that not just poor people are in need of civil legal services.
“I just want to thank you all for demonstrating what this is all about and putting a human face on it,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Judge Lippman talked about the disconnect between the great need for civil legal services and the available services for people fighting for the necessities of life. He started the series of hearings in 2010.
“This is all about equal justice,” Judge Lippman said. “If we don’t have equal justice, we might as well close the courtroom doors.”
The first panel consisted of SUNY Buffalo Law School Dean Makau W. Mutua and two students expected to graduate in May who talked about, among other things, Judge Lippman’s 50-hour pro bono requirement announced earlier this year for all law school students in the state to be admitted to the bar.
Mutua called the new 50-hour requirement one of the most important programs in the state to improve access to justice. He said it is too early to definitely say how students are excepting it, but that he would assume the positive, that students have embraced it with enthusiasm. He added that students recognize pro bono service is not just a pathway to the bar, but that it gives them a leg up in terms of the legal marketplace.
Kerisha Hawthorne said she grew up in a low-income family and came to law school wanting to help people, but got caught up in the attraction of large firms, particularly when thinking about paying off her student loans.
But her experience in a clinical program, Healthy Homes Legal Practicum, not only put her in touch with helping poor people with housing issues, but reminded her she wanted to use her degree to advocate for low-income people.
“This opportunity has truly enhanced my law school experience and allows me to use my experience in a meaningful way,” Hawthorne said.
Emily A. Dinsmore, daughter of Suzanne Tomkins, a clinical law professor, said SUNY Buffalo Law School provides many opportunities to meet and exceed the pro bono requirement. This past spring, she became involved in mediation clinic work, mostly helping people with small claims, under the supervision of Steven Sugarman, a partner in the Buffalo firm Pusatier Sherman Abbott & Sugarman.
Among those in the audience were Erie County Supreme Court Justice Paula L. Feroleto, administrative judge of the Eighth Judicial District; Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III; Alan S. Harris, president and CEO, Legal Aid Society of Rochester; and Sheila Gaddis, executive director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County Inc.
Gaddis also serves on Judge Lippman’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York. She helped select witnesses who could address civil legal services issues in rural areas. Other task force members present included Chair Helaine Barnett, Steven Banks, Robert Convissar and the Hon. George Lowe, co-chair, NYSBA President’s Committee on Access to Justice, and of counsel, Bond Schoeneck & King PLLC.