The first time that Liz Morgan Hitt’s husband hit her was the last, she said. She packed a U-Haul with her belongings and fled.

She was penniless, jobless and sick. One of her lungs had been removed seven months earlier, her cancer deemed terminal.

Morgan Hitt, 52, needed a lawyer to help recover the life savings that she’d sunk into a house her husband was building, she needed health insurance and she needed a friend.

She found Ryan Poe-Gavlinski, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of West Virginia’s Martinsburg office, who in 2010 won her alimony payments that helped her launch a successful business selling handbags.

Her health is still fragile — she’s now battling a stubborn bout of bronchitis — but her laughter is vibrant and quick. And the two women have grown so close that the legal aid lawyer now calls her former client “my West Virginia mama.” “She was a godsend, she really was,” said Morgan Hitt, at ease on the couch in her tidy white bungalow near the edge of the highway in Martinsburg. “There was no way I could have afforded a lawyer. If I hadn’t found legal aid, I don’t know what I’d have done.”

A BRIEF MARRIAGE

The daughter of a California judge, Poe-Gavlinski, 31, was initially reluctant to take the case. “There were no children involved,” she said, and the marriage was brief — less than six years. With a case­load that’s more than tripled in the past three years, the office’s four attorneys are forced to be highly selective about the cases in which they can offer direct representation. “We have to prioritize who really needs help,” she said.

An old railroad town, Martinsburg is located near the tip of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and has a population of about 17,000. Median household income in 2009 was less than $35,000, compared to $52,000 nationally. “The need here is great,” said Kelly Beck, supervising attorney of the office, which serves clients in six counties, some more than 100 miles away, on a bare-bones budget.

The lawyers’ salaries start in the low $30,000s, and local seniors take turns volunteering to serve as receptionist. Grimly utilitarian, the storefront office is next to a Latino grocery store and a hair salon. As for luxuries like décor, Beck and her 15-year-old daughter painted her office walls themselves using leftover tan paint.

Any reduction in funding — Legal Aid of West Virginia stands to lose $600,000 statewide if proposed cuts to the Legal Services Corp. are enacted — would mean layoffs, Beck said, despite the surge in demand for services, which also include assistance with landlord/tenant and housing disputes, custody fights and welfare benefits.

Morgan Hitt, who left her husband in August 2009, made her plea for representation in person. “I was like ‘Please, please.’ I wasn’t taking no for an answer,” she said. “I really needed a lawyer and bad.”

A ‘BAD INVESTMENT’

Morgan Hitt met her husband through mutual friends and had known him for several years before they married in 2004. Both had been married in the past, and she had grown children — a daughter and two sons, one of whom died in a car accident at age 18.

She sold the home where she’d raised her family and put the proceeds — about $25,000 — into her new husband’s house, which was about 60% finished at the time. It was supposed to be an investment — 4,800 square feet on seven acres of mountaintop land. “Everything was custom,” she said. There were all-wood floors, a finished basement with a media room, even an in-ground pool with a tiki bar she designed herself. “The plan was we’d get it finished, sell it and then build our own house,” she said.

Then came the day that her husband struck her, she said. “I was 50 years old, and I didn’t need to be smacked.” She left him, and a local women’s shelter referred her to Legal Aid. Before the marriage went bad, the house was appraised for $600,000. By the time the divorce was final in 2010, its value had plummeted to about $300,000, and her ex-husband owed more than that on the mortgage.

“All I wanted back was what I put into [the house],” she said. “But the judge kept saying that the money wasn’t there, that I made a ‘bad investment.’ ” At one point, the judge indicated that her ex-husband would get to keep the house, and Morgan Hitt would walk away empty-handed.

Poe-Gavlinski was able to convince the judge that such an arrangement was fundamentally unfair. She prepared exhibits of before and after photos of the house showcasing its high-end transformation, but opposing counsel objected they were irrelevant. The judge initially agreed, but eventually relented in the face of Poe-Gavlinski’s persistence. “To me, the only way to get her anything was to show that everything she had went into this guy’s home,” she said. “When the economy gets better, he’ll have a major investment and she’ll get nothing.”

In May 2010, Poe-Gavlinski secured alimony payments for her client totaling $9,600 — unusual under West Virginia law, where marriages typically must last for at least 10 years before the court will consider alimony, she said. That wasn’t all. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, Morgan Hitt was unable to continue working as a mail carrier. “I was going through so much at that time. I’d lost my lung, and I’d lost my job,” she said. She also lost her health insurance — she’d been covered by her ex-husband’s policy through his employer.

She was eligible to retain coverage under COBRA, but never received the paperwork. By the time she did, she was told she’d missed the deadline to sign up and was denied. Poe-Gavlinski helped her write a successful letter of protest, allowing her to get health insurance. The alimony meant she could afford the $400 monthly premium. “If it hadn’t have been for legal aid, I would have been without health insurance,” Morgan Hitt said.

‘IT REALLY IS A CALLING’

She and Poe-Gavlinski see each other regularly, greeting each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek. They even took a day trip together to New York City late last year. Their relationship is special, said Poe-Gavlinski, who handles the bulk of the office’s domestic violence cases, but she gets personally involved to some degree with all of her clients.

In large part, that’s what makes the job both rewarding and difficult. “We’re kind of social workers as well as lawyers,” she said. “It takes a certain kind of person who can do it, who can tolerate it. I’ve actually gotten physically sick over some [abuse] cases.”

Her supervisor Beck, who spent six years as a real estate associate at a local law firm, Martin & Seibert, added, “It really is a calling. It can be legally demanding, but it’s also emotionally demanding.…I’ve had to hold back tears in the courtroom.”

Poe-Gavlinski originally envisioned a career in criminal law. Her mother, Janice McIntyre-Poe, was the first woman superior court judge in Southern California’s Riverside County, and her father was an investigator with the district attorney’s office. “I grew up knowing everything about criminal law,” she said.

But during her first year of law school at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Conn., she interned at a legal aid office. “I fell in love with it,” she said. She worked first for legal aid in California, handling housing cases. She moved to West Virginia in 2008 when her husband got a job there.

Morgan Hitt’s case is about as close to a happy ending as they come in the Martinsburg office. Her home-based business selling Miche handbags is thriving. It’s allowed her to afford a new SUV and a family trip to Florida in February. As for her cancer, there are no further treatment options, but she’s vowed to keep fighting.

In the meantime, she wants to give back to the organization that helped her. “After her case, she asked if she could volunteer here answering phones. She felt like she wanted to do something for us,” Poe-Gavlinski said (though the organization’s rules require clients to wait a year before volunteering). “She never, ever wanted to take a handout. She’s always fought for everything she has. She’s always wanted to make it on her own.”

Jenna Greene can be contacted at jgreene@alm.com.