Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

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Tag: Lee Goldstein

Building the Wage and Hour Practice

Clinical Instructor Lee Goldstein (left) and Kellie MacDonald '15 (right)

Clinical Instructor Lee Goldstein (left) and Kellie MacDonald ’15 (right)

Via the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau 

This past summer, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau won a settlement for an undocumented woman whose employer had illegally withheld her overtime pay for the past ten years. Claudia * had consistently worked long weeks of 50 to 72 hours over the past decade, serving customers at a dry cleaning business. But her employer never paid her for more than 40 hours, racking up a debt of over $50,000 in unpaid overtime wages.
 
“This kind of story is all too common, especially for undocumented workers” said Clinical Instructor Lee Goldstein. “There are many workers in the Boston area who are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers.”
 
Claudia found her way to Kellie MacDonald ’15 when Greater Boston Legal Services referred her to the Bureau’s Wage and Hour practice. Since the Bureau does not receive funds through the Legal Services Corporation, the Bureau is not subject to federal funding restrictions. “We have the flexibility to serve undocumented clients, unlike many other legal aid organizations in the Boston area,” said Kellie. 
 
The Wage and Hour practice was created in 2005 in order to help workers seeking to recover unpaid wages from their employers. The practice expanded rapidly following the New Bedford textile factory raid in 2007, which brought public attention to salaries and working conditions at the plant. “The Bureau has had a significant role to play in developing important legal theories for workers – for example, agent-principal theories which can establish liability against big national franchisors and equitable estoppel to counter statute of limitation restrictions,” said Lee.
 
In recent years, Kellie and other Bureau members have organized trainings at community organization City Life / Vida Urbana and restaurant union Unite Here in order to educate workers on employment law.
 
The Wage & Hour practice is growing in response to increased interest among Bureau members. “We have a group of 2Ls and 3Ls excited about the opportunity to represent workers who are being denied the fair wages for their labor,” said Kellie. “These clients often have limited English skills, no immigration status and are the most vulnerable to exploitation.”
 
Claudia spoke only Spanish and had no immigration status, after fleeing civil war in her native Guatemala in the 1980s. Thanks to Kellie’s extensive prior work with Spanish-speaking clients, Kellie was able to represent Claudia without the help of an interpreter. Kellie and Lee talked Claudia through the potential risks of her employer retaliating against her by contacting immigration authorities as well as how to avoid those risks.
 
“Kellie did a wonderful job of devising an aggressive and informed legal strategy while maintaining an awareness of the possible impacts on other areas of Claudia’s life,” said Lee. “She was empathetic and understanding of Claudia’s needs.” 
 
The statute of limitations for overtime claims was not on Claudia’s side. Massachusetts law sets a two-year limit and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act set a three-year limit on the unpaid wages which could be claimed through the court system. Nevertheless, Kellie sent a letter to the owners of the dry cleaning shop, demanding all ten years of unpaid overtime pay under an equitable estoppel theory. Kellie argued that Claudia was owed the entire amount because her employer had failed to advise her of her rights to overtime pay.
 
The employer responded with an initial settlement offer of $9,000 in January, and Kellie continued to negotiate over the course of several months. By May, Kellie had succeeded in getting a larger offer of $25,000. After this point, Bureau Summer Counsel Jason McGraw (Northeastern ’15) and Lisa Castillo (Iowa ’15) took over negotiations and succeeded in receiving a settlement offer of $30,000, which Claudia decided to accept. This settlement represented approximately six years of unpaid overtime wages, well beyond what was prescribed by the statute of limitations.
 
“Advising a client on whether to accept a settlement is difficult, particularly when you know that she has been cheated out of her fair wages and deserves so much more,” said Jason “But with Claudia, we had to weigh how much more we could win in a negotiation against her need for financial relief.”
 
“I was so happy to finally get paid for all my hard work,” said Claudia. “I hope that the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau can continue to help other workers in trouble.”
 
The Wage & Hour practice has eight active cases in its docket, and Kellie hopes it continues to grow over the coming years. “The fact that students can be entrepreneurial and steer the direction of the organization, including building out smaller practice areas, is one of the most exciting things about being at the Bureau,” said Kellie. “We recognize the importance of this work and want it to be an integral part of the Bureau for years to come.”
 
* name changed to protect confidentiality.  

A Century of Service

As the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau celebrated 100 years of providing free legal services to low-income individuals, Senior Clinical Instructor Lee Goldstein, Administrative Director Susana Arteta, alumna, and current students, joined together to share their experiences working with the Bureau.

Please watch “A Century of Service” on Vimeo.

Two Trials and a Graduation

By Chas Hamilton (JD ’13)

Chas Hamilton (JD ’13)

During a two-week period that spanned from late May to early June, I tried two cases before twelve-member juries in the Boston Housing Court. In between those two seminal events I was able to squeeze in one more: graduation on May 30 from law school.

I want to share these jury trial experiences in order to provide an account of the importance of clinical education to the overall law school experience. As a student-attorney in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), I have had the privilege of serving socio-economically disadvantaged individuals and families in communities across Boston in a multitude of ways ranging from canvassing foreclosed properties and informing residents of their legal rights, to representing tenants in court when their landlords have attempted to evict them. As with many other forms of litigation, the vast majority of eviction cases in Boston Housing Court do not go to trial. The much more frequent occurrence is for the case to settle at some point between the landlord’s commencement of the eviction and the court scheduling the case for trial. In certain instances settlement in this window of time will be impossible, and the case will be scheduled and prepared for a trial.

The two jury trials were scheduled two weeks apart, the first on May 20-21 (the May Trial), and the second on June 3-5 (the June Trial). As a general legal services provider in the greater Boston-area, the members of HLAB accept cases through a multi-stage intake process in which the facts and circumstances of potential clients and their cases are considered. Both cases were accepted for representation through this intake process.

The May Trial involved a bedbug infestation in our client’s (Client A) apartment that she became aware of in the 2012 summer. The landlord, a property management corporation, brought an eviction action against Client A after she elected to withhold her monthly rent in light of the infestation, which at that point had lasted two months. By the date of trial Client A no longer wanted to live in her apartment—the infestation had had such a detrimental psychological impact on her that she could barely bring herself to sleep in the apartment that for years she had called home. Because Client A was not interested in returning to the apartment, the remaining question was whether she would have to repay her months of withheld rent—which by the time of trial had grown to 10 months—or whether the landlord would be required to compensate her for its failure to timely address the bedbug infestation. After a day and a half of trial we were able to reach a settlement awarding Client A nearly $5,000.

The June Trial also concerned the conditions in our client’s (Client B) apartment, though the circumstances were a bit different. We began representing Client B in late 2010 when her landlord began the eviction process. Early on in the relationship it became clear that Client B suffered as a result of serious bad conditions in her apartment including rodent infestation, poor ventilation, the occasional absence of water, and a persistent gas leak. However, before the case was completed, Client B moved out of the apartment. Even though the question of who deserved possession of the apartment had become moot as a result of Client B’s move, there still remained a question of whether her landlord owed Client B any money damages for the significant conditions of disrepair in her home during the course of her 14-year tenancy. The trial was scheduled for June 3 and 4, but the proceeding required a third day in order to accommodate the testimony of all the witnesses, including an inspector from Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, as well as a private housing inspector, each of whom had an opportunity to inspect our client’s home. After three days of trial the 12-member jury returned a judgment in favor of our client for almost $9,000, nearly ten times what she currently pays in monthly rent.

While each of these trials was exciting and represented a milestone in my nascent legal career, it was far from my intention to try two cases in such a short time period, not to mention with graduation in the middle. Over the past two years I have learned that this is the nature of litigation—your case that has been ambling through the court’s scheduling calendar is suddenly marked up for the first available date, which might only be weeks away. I was reminded of this possibility when on May 2 I entered Boston Housing Court prepared to argue a relatively simple opposition motion and the judge decided, based on an unexpected vacancy in the court’s calendar, that the case would be scheduled for a two-day jury trial on May 20-21. At the time, I was prepared for the June jury trial, which had been scheduled almost two months prior. In an instant I was faced with the reality that the month of May had become a lot busier.

There was a lot of preparation required for both cases. In each case I was joined by tremendously talented and hardworking co-counsel and supervised by phenomenal clinical instructors. In the May Trial, I was joined by Dave Barber, a fellow 3L and HLAB student-attorney in the Housing Practice, and clinical instructor Liz Nessen, with whom I had worked extensively over the past two years. In the June Trial, I worked with Matt Nickell, a 2L and also an HLAB student-attorney in the Housing Practice, along with clinical instructor Lee Goldstein. In addition to these individuals there were numerous others who helped in a myriad of ways, from conducting additional research, to preparing exhibits for trial, to providing feedback on opening and closing remarks. There were many long days and late nights that were consumed by case strategy, witness preparation, and the more mundane, but very necessary organization of trial folders containing all documents we believed would be relevant at trial.

While the trials themselves were exciting, I found the preparation beforehand more thought provoking. For example, “time” was an important factor in both cases. For the May Trial, the major question was the amount of time that the bedbug infestation was allowed to exist in our client’s apartment. For the June Trial, the major questions were the amount of time that bad conditions existed in our client’s apartment, as well as when the landlord became aware of these bad conditions. In each of these cases it was important for me to find a way to illustrate the determinative chronology first for my own understanding of the case, but later to determine the most effective way of communicating it to the jury.

In September I will begin work in the Litigation Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP. In the immediate future, I hope that I will have an opportunity to make use of my trial experience at Paul, Weiss. The nature and scope of trials in a large law firm that specializes in litigation will undoubtedly be quite different from the experiences I had in Boston’s Housing Court, but they are similar in their fundamental characteristics: developing a theory of a case and understanding your strengths and weaknesses; marshalling the rules of evidence for documents and testimony that you want to introduce, as well as those you want to exclude; being able to tell your client’s story. These are the aspects of trial that I have come to enjoy most, and I hope that I can continue to develop proficiency in these areas while at Paul, Weiss.

Considering the longer term, HLAB has given me insight into the way that individual legal services and social policy can be joined to profoundly impact a community. This model, which combines individual client interaction with a broader vision for change, is one that I hope to make use of, wherever I find myself in the future.

L to R: Eloise Lawrence, Staff Attorney; Stephanie Goldenhersh, Clinical Instructor; Maureen Devine, Clinical Instructor; Brad Jenkins (JD ’13); Susana Arteta, Administrative Director; Chas Hamilton (JD ’13); and Melissa Minaya, Program Administrator