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Editor’s note: Another holiday season is upon us, and nowhere is the holiday spirit more evident than in Texas’ legal services organizations, which give and share all year ’round. That’s why Texas Lawyer has decided once again to turn its attention to some of the state’s legal aid organizations. What follows are just a few of the stories that illustrate the groups’ generosity throughout the year. FIGHT FOR WHAT’S RIGHT Fernando Guerrero is 58. Born in Durango, Mexico, he has been a permanent, legal resident of the United States since 1973. He has worked as a migrant agricultural worker for 20 years. He has picked peaches in South Carolina and New Jersey, mushrooms in Pennsylvania, pecans in Louisiana, tobacco in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, and vegetables in Maine. He often works in the chili and onion fields of southern New Mexico. He never felt any reason to complain about an employer prior to his experience with a landscaping company from Maryland. In September 1997, Guerrero was recruited by a licensed farm labor contractor. His labor contract guaranteed that he would be paid $5.15 per hour, plus a bonus of 25 cents for each hour he worked, if he worked the entire three-and-a-half-month contract period. The contract also guaranteed that he would be paid overtime for any hours over 40 per week; that he would be given a round trip bus ticket from El Paso to the city where he was working; and that housing would be furnished to him at no expense. Guerrero, along with a group of other workers from El Paso, Texas, was sent to Maryland, where he lived in a small, two-story house with a basement. As many as 20 other men lived in the house with him. The two bedrooms on the first floor each held two bunk beds. Anyone who did not get one of the beds had to sleep on the floor. Since there was only one bathroom on the floor, there was always a line in the morning. Most of the other workers from El Paso lived in the basement of the house, where they had a small kitchen area with a hot plate, sink and refrigerator. Since the plumbing was below ground and substandard, raw sewage sometimes backed up into the sink. Leaking pipes from overhead would drip into the kitchen area, so the workers had to walk around while they ate in order to avoid the dripping sewage. Guerrero felt that the Mexican-American workers were treated poorly and paid less than other workers. Through discovery, we learned that there was an average $2 per hour differential in the pay of Hispanic-surnamed workers, compared to other workers. Guerrero also complained that he was charged rent and transportation expenses in violation of the contract, and that he was charged for housing supplies and utensils, which he never received. In addition, the employer required all workers to wear uniforms, and the company deducted money from the workers’ pay to cover the costs of the uniforms. JURY AWARD The workers began their workdays at 6 a.m., and traveled up to two hours to get to the various work sites where they performed their landscaping jobs. Except for 15 to 25 minutes for lunch, workers did not get breaks during the day, and often there were no bathroom facilities or fresh water provided for them. At the end of the day, they were clocked out at the moment they stopped working, even though they still had to ride back to the main office. With all the deductions, and the employer’s failure to pay for all hours worked, Guerrero was unable to earn enough to support his family, so he decided to leave prior to the end of the contract period. Guerrero and 12 other plaintiffs who had been recruited in El Paso turned to Texas Rural Legal Aid. They sued to obtain the money they felt had been illegally deducted from their paychecks and to receive their final paychecks, which the employer had withheld since the workers left before the end of the contract period. In June, the case went to trial in federal court in El Paso. The trial lasted three days. Only nine of the 13 plaintiffs appeared for trial. One is disabled and retired in Omaha, and could not make the trip. The others were working in Maine, Florida and California, and couldn’t get time off. The jury found violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Agricultural Workers Protection Act, breach of contract and employment discrimination. They awarded the plaintiffs $120,000 in damages from the landscaping company and its owner. The owner has paid $20,000 of the judgment. We are still seeking payment of $100,000 from the company. – Michael Wyatt, attorney, Texas Rural Legal Aid, El Paso SERVE AND PROTECT Here’s a true story about one family (the names are not disclosed because minors are involved) — a story that best explains why I do what I do. Not long ago a young lady in her late 20s requested the assistance of West Texas Legal Services to obtain her divorce. There were two children from the marriage, both boys, one about 6 years old and the other about 11. The boys looked like they had stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with freckled faces and bright smiles that could melt the heart of the biggest Scrooge. The mother was a likeable woman, warm and friendly. The father was a slightly built man with a muscular disease, which he alleged left him disabled. Initially it seemed like a typical case. There were allegations that the father was physically abusive toward his wife — a scenario that is all too familiar in our business. There was some police involvement and a brief stay in a shelter. There were no concerns about the boys being the target of the abuse. The case was accepted and assigned to me. Eventually the mother felt like she just could not fight anymore and agreed to finalize the divorce, and the father was named primary joint managing conservator with the mother receiving standard possession. She reasoned that with the father’s disease he would not be able to care for the boys on his own for long. She wanted the boys to enjoy as much time with their father as they could while he was still physically able to do so. A month after the divorce became final, the boys came over for a visit. The mother noticed some marks on one of the boys — marks that looked ominous enough to report to Children’s Protective Services. CPS initiated an investigation and determined that there was reason to believe the father had physically abused the boys. CPS informed the mother that there was enough cause for concern that they likely would remove the boys from their parents if they were sent home to the father. THE REAL QUESTION With the boys now safely living with their mother and new stepfather, the mother again sought our help in modifying her divorce decree. Papers were filed, hearings were held, investigators conducted interviews and an attorney ad litem was appointed. The younger of the boys told a counselor that the father had sexually abused him. The older son also was interviewed, and it was revealed that the father allegedly had abused both boys. The boys were hospitalized with severe depression, and suicidal and homicidal tendencies. The father has been arrested; he denies the allegations. At the time this article was submitted for publication, the case was pending. The boys are receiving the help they need, and are surrounded by people who care about them and will protect them. The father is out on bond, but he’s not allowed to have any contact with the boys. So why are we folks who work for various legal aid agencies willing to work so hard for such meager pay and without many of the resources and technology available to even the most humble of law offices? We do what we do because of kids like these. Were it not for the dedicated people of West Texas Legal Services, these boys would still be living with the man who allegedly abused them. And were it not for the commitment of people in similar agencies throughout Texas and the United States, many victims of abuse would be left to survive on their own. “Why do we do what we do?” The question should be: “How could we not do what we do?” – William Pruett, staff attorney, West Texas Legal Services, Fort Worth THEY’RE NOT NAMELESS, FACELESS CLIENTS Client A’s granddaughter is 17 and will not be 18 until August 2001. She has earned income from her part-time job at a grocery store. Under the provisions of the Mickey Leland Childhood Hunger Relief Act, her earnings should be excluded from the food stamp agency’s calculation of her household’s income. However, because the youngster graduated from high school in three years instead of four, the Department of Human Services determined to count her income against the family, resulting in a decrease in food stamp benefits of about $160 per month. The decrease was ordered by DHS despite the fact that the granddaughter still lives at home in Winnsboro and commutes to Mount Pleasant as a full-time student at Northeast Texas Community College. Her earned income would not be counted against her family if she were still in high school or if she was in home schooling or was pursuing a GED. The federal court granted a temporary restraining order reinstating benefits on Aug. 29, 2000, and the motion for preliminary injunction will be heard soon. To East Texas Legal Services, Gertrude James is more than Client A. And her granddaughter was a young girl trying to get an education and trying to make something of herself in a system that was fighting against her and her family. MOVING UP When Client B began raising her two small sons in housing projects in Nacogdoches, she never dreamed she would be living there after her sons were grown, married and living somewhere else. However, there just didn’t seem to be a way out. Enter the East Texas Fair Housing Service Center, created by East Texas Legal Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The service center offers Young v. Cuomo class members the choice of moving out of public housing and into private rental housing using Section 8 vouchers. It was an opportunity that the client immediately saw as a chance to leave the housing project behind and join her sons in Tyler, Texas. ETFHSC located an apartment for her, assisted her in budgeting for and making the move, and encouraged her dream of attending Tyler Junior College. She is enrolled and enjoying time with her family. To East Texas Legal Services, she was not just Client B. She is Juanita Ward, someone who did her best to raise her family and made sacrifices for them, and so what could be better than getting to stay close to them? Dismissed by society and tangled in the system, people can quickly become “Client A” or “Client B.” But not at East Texas Legal Services. – Paul E. Furrh Jr., executive director, East Texas Legal Services, Nacogdoches KIDS FIRST Julie Buffington, an attorney with Littler Mendelson, is helping her pro bono client get custody of her nephew, who is 3. (The names are not disclosed because the case involves a minor.) The client is 22, but she was willing and able (and really the only person available) to take care of the child. Children’s Protective Services intervened when the child’s parents were accused of being abusive and neglectful. To protect the child, CPS placed the child in the client’s home and provided her with a service plan that said neither parent would be allowed unsupervised visitation with the child; however, CPS did not file suit to get conservatorship orders for the child. The result is that the parents, as legal guardians, could come and get the child at any time, which could result in harm to the little boy. Absent legal conservatorship, the client’s only recourse to a parental “snatching” would have been to call CPS, and hope it would intervene and convince the parents to return the child. The mother of the child allegedly physically abused him before he was removed from her care. She allegedly also lived in a drug-infested home and had been hospitalized for emotional problems. The father also was unable to care for the child. Buffington, an advocate for children’s rights and 1999 graduate from Southern Methodist University School of Law, accepted the case. Elaine Mosher, the fellowship staff attorney for the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, assists Buffington with the case. Buffington filed a “suit affecting parent-child relationship” requesting managing conservatorship of the child for her client. The mother responded to the suit, but eventually took the child from Buffington’s client’s care, just as the client had feared. Buffington had to file a writ of attachment immediately to get the child back into her client’s care. Buffington also handled a temporary-orders hearing, during which several witnesses testified about the child’s best interests. As a result, she obtained temporary orders granting sole managing conservatorship of the child to her client with child support and limited, supervised visitation for the parents. The case is in litigation. A social study has been ordered, and a review hearing is set for early 2001. The most important thing is that the child is safe from harm and in a good home. Although Buffington specializes in employment law, she has volunteered as a lay advocate for several child matters prior to joining Littler Mendelson. The firm has adopted the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program’s Law Firm Clinic Model, where attorneys handle all aspects of their pro bono cases at their law firms. The firm recently proved up eight basic divorce and custody cases. – Alicia Hernandez, director, Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, Dallas A HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS Legal Aid of Central Texas handled many cases in 2000 and recently sent “Client Satisfaction Surveys.” The responses were heartwarming. One client noted: “With this protective order, now I can take my babies out to the park without having him around bugging me so much.” Another said: “I was a victim of domestic violence and I got all the help, and had a lot of resources made available because of legal aid. Thank you so much.” In particular, here are two client stories that remind us why we work so hard and why we do what we do. Sondra Phillips contacted Legal Aid of Central Texas with an eviction suit filed by her mortgage lender that alleged her home had been foreclosed and purchased by the mortgage holder lending institution. Widowed at 34 with four minor children at home, Phillips could not read English. Phillips reported that when she received correspondence, she would call the mortgage company and ask to speak with someone in Spanish; her name and number were taken, but she was never called back. Phillips was convinced that she had made all her monthly mortgage payments, including a lump sum of $5,000 from her deceased husband’s insurance benefits. Unfortunately, Phillips’ money orders were not applied to her mortgage loan because she omitted the account number or her deceased husband’s name on many of the payments. Fortunately, Phillips kept her money order receipts, and her legal aid attorney convinced the mortgage company to forbear the eviction while tracers were run on the money orders. An analysis of the money orders showed that they had all been received by the mortgage company and the payments placed in a suspense account as a correct account could not be determined without the borrower’s name. The mortgage company rescinded the foreclosure and reinstated the title and the mortgage. JUST IN TIME Sixty-two-year-old Phillip Clark came to our office in September 2000 when he was served with an eviction suit. Clark has not been working because of vision problems, and he and his wife and high school-age son have been making ends meet with her income from an area nursing home. Of the $1,245 monthly income, $560 goes to rent, plus utilities. The Clark family has lived in the same duplex since January 1996. In August 2000, the California owner changed management companies. The previous management company had allowed the Clarks to pay the rent by mail, one half on the 3rd of each month and one half on the 18th. Some payments would arrive a few days late. The prior management company never made an issue of the late payments. Clark’s wife placed their September payment in the mailbox on Sept. 2. Because of the Labor Day weekend, the management company did not receive the payment until Sept. 6. The management company then filed an eviction suit, claiming untimely payment of rent. Clark first contacted the Austin Tenants’ Council. One of the counselors attempted to negotiate with the management company to get it to drop the eviction. The management company refused. Legal Aid of Central Texas filed an answer to the suit claiming, among other defenses, that the owner had waived the right to receive payment on exactly the third of the month. The management company dismissed the suit on the date of the trial and allowed the Clarks to remain, with the understanding that if payments were postmarked by the 3rd and the 18th of each month, they would be considered timely. – Amy Price, resource development coordinator, Legal Aid of Central Texas, Austin

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