The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Awards
Recipients of the pro bono service awards gather with the justices and Florida Bar President Ramón Abadin at the Supreme Court.
THE FLORIDA BAR
PRO BONO SERVICE AWARD
The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award was established in 1981. Its purpose is twofold: “to further encourage lawyers to volunteer free legal services to the poor by recognizing those who make such public service commitments, and to communicate to the public some sense of the substantial volunteer services provided by Florida lawyers to those who cannot afford legal fees.” This award recognizes individual lawyer service in each of Florida’s specific judicial circuits. It is presented annually in conjunction with the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award given by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
THE FLORIDA BAR
PRESIDENT’S PRO BONO
SERVICE AWARD RECIPIENTS
Jason A. Waddell
Getting started as a lawyer wasn’t easy for Jason A. Waddell.
He graduated from Cumberland Law School at Samford University in Alabama in May 2001 and headed for Northwest Florida. It wasn’t much later that the terrorist attacks of September 11 dealt a blow to the economy, and Waddell found that the job market had dried up.
However, many local lawyers and others in Pensacola offered Waddell guidance and support as he worked to build his practice. Within two years, his practice was large enough that he could add his wife as a partner – creating Waddell & Waddell, P.A. – and he has been finding ways ever since to say thanks.
Waddell contributes about 50 hours a year in direct pro bono efforts.
In 2003, Waddell joined the Public Service Committee with the Escambia Santa Rosa Bar Association, and for the next four years he assisted on projects such as providing estate-planning documents for first responders.
In 2005, he worked with The Florida Bar’s standing committee on the Unlicensed Practice of Law. Later, his work with the Bar’s Elder Law Section led to an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court that Waddell felt would protect many senior citizens from incorrect legal advice.
More recently, working with Legal Services of North Florida and the Council on Aging of Northwest Florida, Waddell helped develop a program on advanced directives. Through two free CLE courses, lawyers and paralegals received documents and guidance as well as a refresher on durable power of attorney.
After the CLE and two presentations to Council on Aging groups, Legal Services of North Florida conducted two workshops at which, with Waddell’s assistance, about 10 lawyers provided 33 people with assistance and documents free of charge.
Waddell is involved with numerous other efforts, from mentorship to senior and dementia programs.
In a nomination letter, Legal Services of North Florida said: “It is clear to us Jason has demonstrated a desire to freely give his time and expertise to help ensure those in his community are served regardless of their situation.”
James Vernon Cook
James V. Cook is a perfect example of a truth among many pro bono attorneys – that the areas where they donate their services don’t necessarily mesh with their day-to-day practices.
At his office in Tallahassee, Cook works almost exclusively in federal civil rights law, with cases including police misconduct, sexual misconduct in prisons, and the like.
In his pro bono work with dependency cases and troubled teenagers, however, Cook’s legal help is sought by guardians ad litem, the state’s Department of Children and Families, Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center, attorneys for other parties in cases, judges in court, and even the families of children in need.
A quick look at some of the cases that Cook has volunteered to handle over the last three years finds:
• A child who was in a psychiatric facility far from his mother, who had no transportation. The separation threatened the mother’s parental rights, but Cook helped reunite the mother, the boy, and his siblings.
• A child afraid of being returned to her mother, because of past abuse. Cook agreed to represent the child, the parental rights were terminated, and the girl is awaiting adoption.
• A case concerning an abused youngster who faced drug-related delinquency charges involved the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, Guardian ad Litem, and even the Indian Child Welfare Act. Cook arranged for a custody agreement including the mother and an aunt and uncle. The child’s delinquency problems are being resolved.
• A now-teenaged girl with a host of complex issues, including mental health and past abuse. Cook represented a prospective adoptive mother and, working with DCF and the girl’s multi-disciplinary team, helped finalize the adoption and give the girl some much-needed permanency in her life.
Cook, a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, points out that, while a child in the juvenile justice system has the right to an attorney, often a child in dependency court has no such right. Lawyers such as James Cook can give these children the help they need.
Frederick Laurence Koberlein, Jr.
When the story of a killing in Columbia County hit the news, the details were horrifying.
A 14-year-old girl had shot her brother, then fled from their home with a younger sister. The teenager had been chronically, emotionally, and physically abused. She had been locked in a room, often for weeks at a time, with only a bucket and a blanket. It was the same room where she had been repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle, who was serving a life sentence for that crime.
So you might have excused Frederick L. Koberlein, Jr., if he had politely declined a request from the public defender to act as an attorney ad litem for the girl. Instead, Koberlein, whose office is in Lake City, agreed without hesitation, knowing full well the complications and time that might be involved.
The appointment of an attorney ad litem was important, because Koberlein would be working to prevent anything in a parallel dependency case from compromising the teenager’s rights in the criminal case. Koberlein – an experienced criminal defense attorney – was a strong advocate for the teenager and helped prepare a strategy that resulted in her entering a plea in juvenile, not adult, court to a charge of burglary and being sentenced to probation.
In the dependency case, the parental rights were terminated and the girl was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families. But more importantly, Koberlein incorporated the conditions of probation into the girl’s treatment plan, thus avoiding the conflicts that often arise.
“Mr. Koberlein not only provided a great benefit to (the teenager) but he has served as a great example to other lawyers,” Columbia County Public Defender M. Blair Payne wrote in a nomination letter. “He readily agreed to take on this child’s cause without having any idea of how much time and effort would be necessary.”
Koberlein estimates that he spent more than 100 hours on the case – an estimate that Payne considers low.
Koberlein, a graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, has been a volunteer attorney with Three Rivers Legal Services since 2009. His father, Frederick Koberlein, Sr., won the 3rd Circuit honor in 1994.
What an incredible legal career Patricia Vail has had.
After getting her J.D. from the Cleveland Marshall Law School, she spent more than three years with the Office of the Attorney General in Ohio, followed by a long stint as a staff attorney with CSX Transportation in Jacksonville. Then it got really interesting.
She was a liaison with the ABA’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative, heading an office in Kazakhstan and working with that country’s Supreme Court to establish an independent judiciary. Later, she returned to Jacksonville to open a private practice. She then found a new direction as state pro bono coordinator with Florida Legal Services and working with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
The constant in her long career is that she has had a broad and far-reaching positive impact on her community, and she has consistently advanced the cause of underserved, vulnerable, and low-income people.
Vail “retired” in 2003, but she has hardly slowed. She is a trusted resource as a pro bono attorney “on call” in a number of Northeast Florida senior centers and HUD residential facilities. Issues she helps people with include simple wills, durable powers of attorney, designation of health-care surrogates and pre-need guardians, contract matters, and consumer issues.
For three years she did all this single-handedly, but in 2011, recognizing the great need, she initiated an effort that became the Advance Directives for Seniors Pro Bono Project. The project — a partnership of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Florida Coastal School of Law, The Jacksonville Bar Association and the Northeast Florida Paralegal Association — serves 60 to 80 seniors each year with complete advance directive packets. In 2015, the project expanded to include senior patients at medical clinics and rural Council on Aging campuses.
“Patricia Vail serves all with respect and professionalism,” wrote Kathy Para, the pro bono director at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “The relationships she has fostered in the legal and senior citizens communities and beyond are built on trust, compassion and a sense of humor. Her presence comforts, encourages and empowers hundreds of our most vulnerable citizens – our low-income seniors.”
Raymond Thomas McNeal
During a long legal career that included almost 30 years as a judge, Raymond T. McNeal had a life-changing moment on, of all places, a mission trip to Brazil.
There, he was asked: “What are you going to do when you go home? Home is a mission field also.” On the flight home, McNeal made a list – and providing pro bono legal assistance was on it.
In 2010, the now-retired judge began volunteering with Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, and two years later he became a board member of CLSMF and its sister organization, the Legal Advocacy Center of Central Florida.
As a volunteer attorney, McNeal has assisted more than 200 people who needed legal advice and pro se assistance with family law matters. He also has worked to develop pro se pleadings for Guardian Advocacy, and he has helped countless parents complete the forms to become the guardian advocates for their adult children with disabilities.
McNeal works with the staff at CLSMF to recruit lawyers willing to do pro bono work, and he actively participates in the agency’s fundraising efforts. He is now working with CLSMF to serve people who are homeless by creating a legal-advice clinic at an area church that provides services and meals.
McNeal, who lives in Ocala, earned his J.D. from the University of Florida College of Law in 1972. He became a Marion County judge in 1979 and moved to a 5th Judicial Circuit judgeship in 1983.
The former judge also is no stranger to honors. Among recent honors he has received are the Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida’s Richard D. Custureri Pro Bono Award (2013), The Florida Bar Family Law Section’s Keeper of the Flame Award (2012), and the Commitment to Children of Divorce honor from the Florida Psychological Association (2012).
The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section in 2014 created the Honorable Raymond T. McNeal Professionalism Award. Naturally, McNeal was the first recipient of the honor, which recognizes an individual who has been involved in the Family Law Section’s 32-member executive council.
Lawrence J. Markell
Lawrence J. Markell, a lawyer since 1964, is now retired – if you want to call what he does retirement.
Markell, who earned his law degree at Boston College Law School in 1962, had a long legal career in Massachusetts, interrupted by about 11 years in Florida. Soon after he retired to southern Pinellas County in 2012, he began volunteering with the Community Law Program, and, in the words of Executive Director Kimberly Rodgers, he has been “a godsend.”
Since 2012, Markell has handled about 40 contested family-law cases and donated more than 1,000 hours of pro bono service, including volunteering at workshops and legal clinics. Markell accepts challenging cases, often involving victims of domestic violence.
A list of his recent pro bono cases includes a single mother whose husband would not return their 14-year-old autistic son, as previously agreed; a wife in a contested divorce made more difficult because the husband and opposing counsel were out of state; a father of two whose petition for injunction for protection had been denied, even though the mother had been charged with child abuse; and a young mother of two seeking child support in a case complicated by the fact that both parents were being treated or counseled for drug addiction.
In the nomination for this honor, Markell even received support from opposing counsel in a family law case. Carolee K. Blackmon had drafted a settlement in a family law case, but she feared that the agreement wouldn’t be completed before a final hearing. However, Markell worked nights and weekends to review pleadings, confer with his client and negotiate a deal.
“I can honestly say that I have never met an attorney as dedicated to pro bono service as Mr. Markell,” Blackmon wrote.
One of the clients helped by Markell told of the “dignity and respect” with which she was treated. She said there were times when Markell “was the only person in my corner.”
Another client, one caught in a bitter divorce and seeking to move out of the state with her son, summed up Markell’s efforts: “If it weren’t for Larry, I don’t know where we would be today. But it wouldn’t be good.”
Jennifer Courtney Anderson
Acting as a guardian ad litem is not just an investment of time – there’s the emotional cost as well.
Jennifer C. Anderson’s husband, Gregory, expresses amazement at her willingness to accept cases that involve abuse and despair. “I have told Jenn that I cannot even bear to hear them anymore,” he said.
But, as Anderson demonstrates, there also are great rewards. Consider one of the cases she accepted, involving a girl whom Anderson has been helping to protect for two-and-a-half years.
The girl was 9 when they first met, a victim of sexual abuse by her father and abandoned by her mother, who had drug and alcohol issues. Anderson’s first task was to locate the mother who was in Tennessee, in the hope that she was rehabilitated enough that the mother and child could be reunited. Anderson then faced the challenge of finding suitable foster care for the girl.
In getting to know the girl, Anderson found that she had a talent for music and helped get her a guitar for Christmas. The girl now is thriving at a school for the arts in Jacksonville after Anderson helped her get an audition. Anderson still visits with the girl monthly, as she does with other children she represents, and those visits often include lunch, shopping, or a movie. She has spent hundreds of hours on this one case.
“Jennifer Anderson … has been a best friend to me,” the girl wrote as part of Anderson’s nomination. “She has made sure that I had everything I needed and that my needs and requests were heard by the judge.”
Anderson, who earned her J.D. at the Stetson University College of Law, is a partner at AndersonGlenn LLP in Ponte Vedra Beach, focusing on product liability and insurance coverage.
In addition to her professional work, she has three children – one of whom she and her husband took in after the child’s mother abandoned her six years ago.
Mary Katherine Wimsett
As if Mary K. Wimsett doesn’t have enough to keep her busy – managing a solo practice in Gainesville that is focused on adoption law, volunteering as a guardian ad litem and attorney ad litem, and being a devoted mother and friend – she also competes in marathons and triathlons.
“She says, ‘If you can run a mile, you can run a half-marathon,’” Stephanie Marchman, of the City Attorney’s Office in Gainesville, said. “mile 13 of my first half-marathon, I began to question the wisdom of this encouragement, although I will say that I managed to run the entire race.”
If you plan to work with Wimsett, you’d better be prepared to run the whole race.
Wimsett, a graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, began volunteering with the Guardian ad Litem Program when she was a new lawyer. Today, she usually is representing four or five children pro bono as a guardian ad litem and attorney ad litem or through Three Rivers Legal Services.
Since 2006, she has worked with the Partnership for Strong Families and Children’s Home Society to find adoptive homes for children. The state provides a minimal fee for prospective parents, so Wimsett often absorbs the extra costs and time of travel, filing fees, and other expenses. She also is a frequent resource for foster families that call for advice and assistance.
In 2010, Three Rivers Legal Services rarely handled adoptions, but when Wimsett became a volunteer attorney, she quickly became the person to answer questions, provide support to staff, and accept referrals. When she added elder law to her expertise, she began to accept referrals in that area, too.
The cases Wimsett accepts can be complicated, such as representing a child in a contested dissolution of marriage. One case mentioned by several nominators that at first glance seemed simple – helping a child disabled by abuse get a motorized wheelchair – involved a fee waiver contested hearing and a subsequent Medicaid appeal.
Wimsett was instrumental in establishing the Gerald T. Bennett Inn of Court, which focuses on professionalism, and she now serves as its president.
Pamela Lynn Foels
Pamela L. Foels is a shareholder with Zimmerman Kiser Sutcliffe P.A., in Orlando, concentrating on workers’ compensation cases.
But when Jamie Billotte Moses, president of the Orange County Bar Association, spoke to a middle-school class and asked if anybody had a lawyer in the family, she got a special insight. A girl raised her hand and explained that her father “defended hospitals” and her mother “protected children.” The girl was Pamela Foels’ daughter.
Since 1989, the year she became a member of The Florida Bar after getting her J.D. from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, Foels has helped more than 100 children and contributed more than 1,500 hours accepting guardian ad litem appointments.
One of Foels’ first such cases was horrifying. A mother with addiction issues left her three children at a hotel. They were adopted by a woman who abused them physically and emotionally. The oldest child, only 9, would run away with his siblings, trying to protect them. That’s when Foels got the case.
There aren’t always happy endings. The oldest child ended up incarcerated, the middle one went into foster care and moved out of state, and the youngest was reunited with his biological mother. She is rehabilitated, but the child has permanent physical and emotional scars.
However, the case cemented Foels’ commitment to being an advocate for children.
Foels is currently the guardian ad litem for 14 children, and many of her former clients have stayed in touch. A co-worker recalls being in Foels’ office and seeing some photos she hadn’t noticed before. Foels explained that they were children she had helped through the GAL program.
Co-worker and mentee Jamie Blucher said Foels’ busy work and home life would have made it easy for her to pay $350 – the suggested annual contribution to a legal aid organization under the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar – in lieu of doing pro bono work. Instead, Foels not only has accepted the work but also has taken the hard cases, ones that require continuous contact with the children, case managers, foster care workers, social service workers, and the juvenile justice system.
Thomas Clifford Saunders
The people at Florida Rural Legal Services know that family law cases can be the stickiest and most time-consuming — and the hardest to find volunteers for.
That’s why Thomas Saunders is so appreciated by Mary Daugherty, pro bono coordinator for the 10th Judicial Circuit. Without lawyers such as Saunders, she wrote in her nomination, “FRLS would not have had the resources to assist these families.”
Saunders, who earned his J.D. from the University of Florida Levin College of Law, practices with the Saunders Law Group in Bartow, with a concentration on family law, business litigation, and personal injury-medical malpractice. In the last year, Saunders and his firm devoted almost 80 hours to two pro bono cases.
In one, he represented a client trying to establish paternity and a parenting plan for his daughter, after the client’s ex-wife and her family refused to allow time-sharing with the child. The case, litigated over two years, was complicated by the fact that both Saunders’ client and his ex-wife – as well as the child – required sign language interpreters.
In a second case, Saunders helped a woman get a dissolution of marriage and an award for alimony. The case is ongoing, with Saunders still working to ensure that the client gets the alimony awarded to her. The woman has no income, and the alimony is crucial to her survival.
A glance at Saunders’ other pro bono cases in recent years shows a similar pattern of dealing with family-law issues such as divorce, custody, and child support. In one case, a couple trying to file adoption papers pro se walked into his office and asked for assistance. Saunders helped, and a final judgment of adoption was entered.
Saunders has served as president of the Polk County Trial Lawyers’ Association, and as chair of the 10th Judicial Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission and The Florida Bar Civil Trial Certification Committee.
“I have always felt that it is our duty as lawyers to give back to the community,” Saunders says, “and I have experienced great satisfaction in being able to give back through pro bono work.”
Lyndall M. “Lyndy” Lambert
A child having her future determined in family court needs an advocate. She often also needs a mentor and a friend. That describes Miami lawyer Lyndall “Lyndy” Lambert.
Over the past 11 years, Lambert has represented six foster children in dependency court in Miami as an attorney ad litem. She also has acted as a pro bono guardian ad litem for five children in family court and has represented a parent in a child visitation dispute.
Lambert’s influence shows through in the case of a 14-year-old she began representing in 2012. The girl, whose mother died soon after she was born, lived with an abusive father, was in and out of group and foster homes, ran away several times and was sexually exploited. The state wanted to place her in an involuntary lockdown mental facility, but Lambert said that was not appropriate.
Lambert helped find a stable foster home for the girl — and the girl’s new baby, who had been removed from her custody. The girl will age out of foster care soon, and Lambert has been helping her find a place to live and mentoring the girl as she transforms into a caring, loving mother. “She realized she had an adult who was on her side,” Lambert told the Daily Business Review. “She started taking my advice, and that was the turning point.” Since 2013, Lambert has spent more than 600 hours on this case.
In family court, Lambert represented a young mother whose custody dispute was complicated by an arrest and homelessness. Since 2012, Lambert has devoted about 180 hours to this case, and the woman now has a job, stable housing, and 50/50 time sharing with her child.
Lambert’s pro bono efforts also include recruiting other attorneys to do pro bono work. She organized and hosted a full-day CLE training seminar in child advocacy and organized another seminar on guardian ad litem work.
Lambert, a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, also has found strong support from Holland & Knight in Miami, where she is a partner. When Lawyers for Children America lost its office space, Holland & Knight stepped in to provide space in its Brickell Avenue offices.
William Howard “Bill” Drumm
Legal Aid of Manasota has been leaning heavily on William H. “Bill” Drumm since 2001, when he moved from New York state to sunny Sarasota.
Since 2001, Drumm has donated more than 530 hours of pro bono legal service.
Drumm’s areas of concentration are family law along with business litigation. That’s good news for Legal Aid of Manasota, because family law is the biggest need in legal aid.
At any given time, Drumm may be representing several legal aid clients in complex family-law matters. He has been willing to take the most challenging cases, even the ones Manasota has been unable to place with any other attorney.
“He is deserving of this year’s award not only for the hundreds of pro bono hours he has donated, but also for his kindness, leadership, and dedication to the cause of the less fortunate in our community,” wrote Pamela Fields, the pro bono coordinator at Legal Aid of Manasota. Fields also praised Drumm for being quiet and unassuming, even as he rarely turns down a pro bono referral.
Drumm, who earned his J.D. at New York Law School in New York City, also is active in the legal profession and community. He was a board member at Legal Aid of Manasota for seven years, and is a member of the Judge John M. Scheb American Inn of Court. He also is a youth basketball coach and has served as a Big Brother, in addition to being a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast.
“I attended law school because I wanted to be empowered to help people seek justice,” Drumm says on the website of the Law Office of William Drumm. “I chose family law and business litigation because our legal system, while not perfect, provides the best available remedies for assisting people and protecting their rights.”
Isabel “Cissy” Boza Sevelin
For most of the first 13 years after she earned her J.D. from Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law, Isabel “Cissy” Boza Sevelin worked for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Middle District of Florida and was unable to provide pro bono legal service.
She opened a solo practice in Thonotosassa in 2013 – and since then has made up for lost time.
In 2014, Sevelin donated 863 hours to various organizations, and in 2015 that total was even higher. In fact, most of her practice now consists of pro bono work, which explains why she was nominated for the 13th Circuit honor by the Bay Area Legal Services’ Volunteer Lawyers Program, Crossroads for Florida Kids, Inc., and Are You Safe, Inc.
With the Bay Area program, Sevelin began by volunteering with the Domestic Violence Assistance Project. She also serves on the Care Referral Panel and always is working on several cases at a time. When she has a break between hearings, she will head down to the clerk’s office to assist victims.
Sevelin also helps victims of domestic violence through Are You Safe, mostly representing women as they seek injunctions for protection.
With Crossroads for Florida Kids, Sevelin’s work goes beyond simply representing a troubled youth. She makes frequent trips to jail to visit and gain the trust of teenagers. If the teens fall back into trouble – as they sometimes do – Sevelin won’t give up, continuing her visits and counseling them in the hope that they will make better choices.
“Ms. Sevelin is successful in winning the trust and respect of her teen clients because of a combination of legal advocacy, compassion, and empathy,” Crossroads founder Rosemary Armstrong wrote in a nomination letter.
Sevelin also volunteers in teen court and has devoted hundreds of hours serving as a guardian ad litem in dependency court.
In a nomination letter, Jena Hudson, a staff attorney with Bay Area Legal Services, wrote: “Ms. Sevelin has not only provided significant pro bono legal assistance to indigent clients but has also made a substantial emotional impact on each of these clients’ lives.”
Robert Louis Thirston II
Robert L. Thirston II of Panama City Beach got an early start when it comes to providing free services to those in need.
As a student at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thirston dove right in with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, and in his last two years at law school, he was the program director. Before earning his J.D. in 2007, Thirston provided more than 180 hours of pro bono service.
When Thirston started working for the State Attorney’s Office in the 20th Circuit in 2008, he continued his volunteer work. He organized and participated in the National Bar Association’s annual Thanksgiving Day dinner program, delivering dinners to low-income families. He also served as a judge in the Southwest Florida High School Mock Trial competition and worked with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha to award scholarships to high school students. With a group of other minority attorneys, he volunteered for the National Bar Association’s outreach program, visiting elementary schools in underserved neighborhoods to inspire students to think about careers in the law.
When Thirston opened his own practice in Panama City Beach in 2012, the 20th Circuit’s loss was the 14th Circuit’s gain.
He immediately became involved with the Bay County Bar Association/Legal Services of North Florida’s monthly First Saturday Legal Clinic. There he provides legal assistance to low-income individuals and families in civil legal matters. Through this program, he has spent well in excess of 100 hours on cases involving divorce and child custody.
From 2014-15, Thirston was co-chair of the clinic, meaning he not only was helping clients but also was recruiting fellow attorneys and making sure everything ran smoothly.
Recently, Thirston started volunteering with Legal Services of North Florida to represent clients who are having trouble with their federal income taxes. He has agreed to do the same through Three Rivers Legal Services in Jacksonville, through its Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.
Jason Dorian Lazarus
Since joining Holland & Knight’s West Palm Beach office in 2001 after several years as an assistant state attorney, Jason D. Lazarus has provided a wide range of pro bono services, including defense of eviction, foreclosure, Lemon Law cases, and contractual disputes. Over that time, he has donated more than 900 hours, and in one case in which there was an award of attorney’s fees, he directed that the money be given to the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.
That record of service has earned Lazarus several honors, and in 2015 he was inducted into the Legal Aid Society’s Hall of Fame.
One case in particular demonstrates Lazarus’ dedication and legal ability, as well what pro bono work can mean to a needy client. In 2008, Debbie Vaughn, a woman in her 50s, was arrested after spraying a neighbor with a hose. During the arrest by a sheriff’s deputy, her arm was broken, her shoulder was dislocated, and she lost several teeth. In addition, she faced several charges related to resisting arrest.
After some charges were dropped and a trial concluded, she was found guilty only of resisting an officer without violence.
In a pro se action, she sued the deputy and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for excessive use of force and other claims. As the case went on, Vaughn was unable to find a lawyer to represent her even on a contingency fee basis, and she was running out of money and risked foreclosure.
Lazarus, with help from Holland & Knight, became involved after accepting the case from the Volunteer Lawyers’ Project for the Southern District of Florida in 2014. In the end, the sheriff’s office admitted it should not have hired the deputy, considering his background, and a settlement was reached. The law firm did not keep any attorney’s fees, and gave the entire settlement, minus a few minimal costs incurred, to Vaughn. Lazarus spent more than 200 hours on the case.
“It was a miracle that an attorney as good as you took my case and believed in me,” Vaughn told Lazarus, who is a graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
Patricia Ann Eables
Patricia A. Eables is no newcomer to The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Awards.
In 2008, Eables also received the honor for the 16th Circuit, with a nomination focusing on her guardian ad litem work. This year, Eables’ nominators from Legal Services of Greater Miami told a story that illustrates the struggles to find access to justice, the dedication of pro bono attorneys, and the twists and turns a case can take.
In 1997, unbeknownst to family members, a Key West man took out a reverse mortgage on the conch-style home that had been in the family for generations. He deeded the house to a daughter in 2001, then died in 2010. In 2012, to the surprise of his daughter, the process server came with a foreclosure action.
The daughter wanted to keep the home where she had been raised. She qualified for services from Legal Services of Greater Miami. Eables got the case and raised numerous defenses, but was unable to reach a settlement at mediation that would let her client remain in the house. Meanwhile, the home had fallen into disrepair, and the client, who had a disability and a limited income, knew she would be unable to make the necessary repairs. Worse, though the initial maximum amount of the loan was about $96,000, by 2015 it had grown to more than $375,000.
At that point, Eables and her client realized that their best hope would be to salvage the equity in the family property. The daughter approached a friend, who also is an architect, and he and his business partner made an offer to buy the house. The daughter accepted.
In the end, the daughter couldn’t retain ownership. But she did come away with some money, and Eables helped her relocate to an apartment. Eables contributed more than 158 hours to this case.
Eables, a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law, moved to Key West in 1994 after beginning her legal career in Little Rock. She now has a solo practice, Patricia A. Eables, PA, and has been active in many local organizations.
Russell Miller-Thompson has had an interesting career – not all of it law-related – since earning his J.D. from the University of Miami School of Law and being admitted to The Florida Bar in 1985.
He was already a successful executive with Pylon Manufacturing, an automotive parts supplier in Deerfield Beach. After becoming a lawyer, he stayed with the company, working his way up to chief operating officer and, finally, president and CEO.
In 2000, though, he decided to use his legal skills to help private clients, and he opened a solo practice, the Law Offices of Russell M. Thompson, a personal-injury firm in Sunrise. Soon after, Thompson also began using his legal skills to help those less fortunate than him.
A longtime advocate for the poor, Thompson now volunteers with Legal Aid Service of Broward County and Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, working mostly through three pro bono projects: Broward Lawyers Care, Mission United Veterans Pro Bono Legal Project, and the Tracey McPharlin Pro Bono Dependency Recruitment Initiative, whose purpose is to aid at-risk children.
Over the past 12 years, Thompson has represented 22 pro bono clients on distinct cases, with those who benefitted including veterans, survivors of domestic violence, and child survivors of abuse and neglect. He also has advised more than 30 low-income clients on housing and debt-collection issues through the Legal Advice Hotline in just the last two years.
“In my regular practice, I may win a large award for a client and they complain that it was not large enough,” Thompson said. “On the other hand, I do a simple dissolution of marriage for a mother, and after the case is complete she will come to my office with a basket of fruit to thank me for the work I did for her.”
Thompson also has worked with the Broward County Bar Association’s mentorship program and is a member of the Broward County Bar Association’s Board of Directors.
In 2011 and 2013, Thompson received awards for Outstanding Pro Bono Service from Broward Lawyers Care and Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida.
Taras Stefan Rudnitsky
When a foster child named Lonnie turned 18, he figured it was time to take the money he had been saving from an after-school job and buy his first car so he could travel to a better job as well as to a local college.
Lonnie bought a used car and, a week later, the car was inoperable and the cost of repairs out of reach. Luckily for Lonnie, his caseworker contacted the Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society, which placed a call to Taras S. Rudnitsky.
Rudnitsky, of the Rudnitsky Law Firm in Longwood, has devoted his career to consumer protection. As a bonus, he is an automotive engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. When negotiations with the used-car dealer broke down, Rudnitsky filed a 20-page complaint and aggressively pursued the case. In the end, the dealer gave a full refund to Lonnie, who now drives a car he purchased with a bit more caution.
Rudnitsky is a treasure to three legal aid groups – the Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, and the Legal Advocacy Center of Central Florida. He has logged more than 600 hours of pro bono work over the last five years, and those hours don’t include the time he has spent training and mentoring legal services attorneys, consulting on cases, making presentations on behalf of legal services groups, or serving as a member or officer of their boards. He also has been generous financially to help sustain the mission of legal aid.
Rudnitsky has served on The Florida Bar’s Small Claims Rules Committee since 2011 and is president of the Ukrainian American Bar Association.
“Taras is always willing to help the most vulnerable in our community gain access to the legal system to resolve their legal issues,” Silvia McLain, executive director of the Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society, said of Rudnitsky.
Rudnitsky’s commitment to consumer justice began before he finished his J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School. As part of the school’s clinical law program, he assisted consumers in cases ranging from landlord/tenant disputes to employment discrimination.
Kathryn “Kate” Joan Hill
Kathryn “Kate” J. Hill began her legal career as a prosecutor in the 19th Judicial Circuit, but after five years she moved into private practice – and almost immediately began taking pro bono cases.
Today, Hill is a go-to lawyer for Florida Rural Legal Services, which covers Indian River County. The services she provides for low-income people include dissolutions of marriage, shared-parenting plans, child support, and other related matters of family law.
Hill, who has been taking pro bono clients from Florida Rural Legal Services since 1999, reported more than 200 hours of pro bono work in 2015 – more than any other lawyer with FRLS.
What really impressed the Indian River County Bar Association, one of the groups nominating Hill for the pro bono honor, is that she always seems to have an active pro bono case. When one case is resolved, she is ready to accept the next one.
Hill also is willing to accept cold calls from people who need legal services but say they aren’t able to pay. Hill frequently refers such cases to Florida Rural Legal Services for screening, indicating that she is willing to take the case on a pro bono basis if Florida Rural Legal Services finds that the client qualifies economically.
“Kate provides peace of mind when people are most vulnerable,” wrote 19th Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Coordinator Carolyn Fabrizio in her nomination of Hill. “She lives her oath as an attorney that ‘I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.’”
Hill, who earned her J.D. at the University of Miami School of Law, has a solo practice in Vero Beach. She has served on the boards of directors of C.A.S.T.L.E. (Child Abuse Services, Training & Life Enrichment) in Ft. Pierce, the March of Dimes, and Child Care Resources. She also has worked with the United Way and the Domestic Violence Task Force, taken part in the Florida Supreme Court’s Justice Teaching program, served as a literacy tutor and helped with an immigration clinic in Miami.
Kelley Geraghty Price
In her office work, Kelley Geraghty Price has used her leadership skills to become a director at the Cohen & Grigsby office in Naples. In her pro bono work, she has used those skills to lead three major initiatives that expanded access to justice in Collier County.
In 2004, with the creation of Legal Aid Service of Collier County as part of a statewide consolidation of legal aid programs, Price used her position as then-president of the Collier County Bar Association to focus attention on the need for legal services for those who could not afford them. She worked with both groups to create the Collier Lawyers Care Pro Bono Program and to recruit a core group of volunteer attorneys. Today, CLC has almost 200 pro bono lawyers.
When the foreclosure crisis hit in 2008, Price sprang back into action and helped found the Collier County Foreclosure Task Force. She led recruitment, organizing, and outreach efforts, and through 2012, the task force helped more than 1,000 local homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Thousands more visited the task force’s website.
In 2012, Price decided the county needed a pro bono event to honor and serve veterans. The inaugural Wills for Heroes was conducted that November – to coincide with Veterans Day – with the purpose of providing wills, power of attorney forms, medical care directives, and other estate-planning documents to veterans as well as first responders.
Since then, Wills for Heroes has served more than 100 people, with more than 40 lawyers participating, along with paralegals and law students.
There was one more benefit to Wills for Heroes: It has served as a gateway to further pro bono service, encouraging lawyers who never had done pro bono work for the Legal Aid Service of Collier County to take cases.
“She creates an environment that makes it easy and comfortable for other attorneys to perform pro bono service through legal aid,” wrote Jeffrey Ahren, director of development at LASCC.
Price, a graduate of the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, joined the LASCC Board of Directors in January 2016.
Even in a law firm that values pro bono service – for six consecutive years, 100 percent of the 650 U.S. lawyers with Hunton & Williams LLP have devoted time to pro bono service – the efforts of partner Andrew Kamensky stand out.
Over the past three years, Kamensky has dedicated more than 1,200 hours to the legal needs of low-income people. That’s on top of his successful bankruptcy practice at the firm’s New York City office.
Most of Kamensky’s pro bono work has been with two projects: the Volunteers of Legal Service’s Incarcerated Mothers Law Project and the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Almost every month, Kamensky takes a train to the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., where he provides legal services to mothers who are in prison. The issues these women face include custody and visitation, guardianship, foster care, child support, and termination of parental rights. Kamensky has spent more than 300 hours helping more than 15 mothers over the last three years, and the project is now part of his firm’s summer associate program.
“Recently, a client who had not seen her children in several months mailed me photos of herself playing with her children at Taconic, after I helped her arrange for visitation,” Kamensky recalled. “Her kids’ smiling faces were priceless!”
The refugee project teams lawyers and law students to help refugees who need assistance in navigating the rules and processes of resettlement in the United States.
Kamensky has dedicated more than 200 hours helping an Afghan refugee who had provided assistance to the U.S. armed forces. In November 2015, Kamensky and his team scored a victory by obtaining visas for the client, which means he can continue to seek full asylum.
Kamensky, a graduate of the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, has served as the pro bono chair of the New York office for the past four years. He also assists lawyers in other Hunton & Williams offices with their pro bono cases, and he has devoted significant time to a bankruptcy case involving a New York nonprofit that provides housing and health care to AIDS patients.