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Photo: East Of The River

Instant Gratification

By Mike Mazzella Instant gratification. That is exactly what Ebonee Avery-Washington gets from her job at Legal Counsel for the Elderly. “I’m arming them with knowledge,” Ebonee told me when I met with her to discuss her work East of the River. Ebonee’s mission as a legal associate for Legal Counsel for the Elderly is a simple one: to assist low-income, elderly residents of the District of Colombia with their everyday legal issues. The problems she helps resolve range from consumer issues to accessing public benefits. She travels all over the Northeast and Southeast quadrants, including spending time at Capital View Baptist Church and Bread for the City’s Southeast office. Each client is unique, and each problem she handles requires an individualized approach. Recently, Ebonee assisted an elderly client who had problems with a home repair project. Her client was an 89-year-old woman looking to have the air ducts in her home cleaned. The client contracted with a company to clean the ducts, agreeing to pay more than a thousand dollars for the repairs. The company came to the client’s home, but the services provided were substandard and not performed as contracted. The company refused to come back to repair the work, and sent the client a bill. The client, shocked by the unwarranted charges, turned to Ebonee for help. Together the two contacted the company to challenge the unjust bills. “She was able to handle it, she’s a smart woman, but it was nice to lend her a helping hand,” explained Ebonee. Ebonee’s advice to lawyers and law students thinking of contributing their time and skills East of the River is to go for it! “Just do it! There are so many opportunities to learn and grow. The work is worthwhile, challenging, and gratifying. I have encountered a great deal of professionalism and high standards in my work with East of the River communities.”

Photo: Legal Texts

Legal Aid Acts Fast to Defeat Eviction Action, Tenant Overjoyed

By Chinh Le & Mike Mazella Ms. Moore (name changed to maintain client confidentiality) came to Legal Aid’s office in Anacostia (the one with the Big Chair in front) for help with her eviction case. Her landlord had sued to evict her for nonpayment of rent. The Legal Aid attorney staffing the Big Chair office met with Ms. Moore that day and was able to refer her to a Legal Aid attorney at our courthouse office for further assistance with her housing issue. When Ms. Moore came to the courthouse office, her case was scheduled for a bench trial that same day. Her situation looked bleak. However, Ms. Moore credibly disputed the rent amount that the landlord was charging her. Indeed, the Legal Aid lawyer was able to determine that the landlord had unlawfully increased her rent by 30% during the initial lease term. A Legal Aid lawyer helped Ms. Moore stay in her home and avoid eviction. The attorney negotiated an agreement that reduced the balance by almost 90%, reduced Ms. Moore’s monthly rent to the correct amount going forward, and required the landlord to complete all outstanding repairs to the apartment. Ms. Moore and her attorney were able to navigate the situation together, allowing Ms. Moore to live comfortably in her home.

Photo: The Big Chair

Legal Aid Attorney Helps Stroke Victim Retain Residence

By Chinh Le & Mike Mazella Mr. Brown (name changed to maintain client confidentiality) and his wife came to the Big Chair office in Southeast D.C., because they had been sued as squatters by their landlord. A few weeks prior, they had received a favorable administrative decision resolving a tenant petition they filed against their landlord to contest an illegal rent increase. Rather than accept or appeal the administrative order, the landlord ignored it and sued Mr. Brown as a squatter in landlord-tenant court. The case was based on the landlord’s claim that Mr. Brown, who had rented his current unit since 1994, was not a tenant of that unit, and was only permitted to reside in a studio unit that he had previously rented from 1986–1994. Legal Aid filed a motion to dismiss the landlord-tenant case. The pro se landlord decided that she needed to hire an attorney, which she did and shortly thereafter voluntarily dismissed the case before the hearing. Mr. Brown had been struggling with complications from a stroke and has great difficulty communicating and getting around. Throughout the hearings, Mr. Brown’s attorney met him and his wife at the Big Chair office and at their home, so that Mr. Brown could avoid having to travel and cut down his transportation time to the court. What began as a mentally and potentially physically stressful problem for Mr. Brown and his wife ended happily as a result of Legal Aid’s help through our presence at the Big Chair.

Photo: Avis Buchanan

2014 Presidents’ Award for Public Service: Avis Buchanan

For the last ten years, Avis E. Buchanan has been the director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia(PDS), which provides defense, and related legal and non-legal services, to indigent adults and children charged with crimes and delinquent acts in the local DC courts. PDS is widely regarded as one of the best public defender offices in the country, local or federal; Avis is the longest-serving director in PDS history. As director of PDS, Avis oversees an extensive range of cutting-edge legal and non-legal services aimed at providing the best possible representation to criminal defendants. PDS has a staff of 220, roughly half of whom are lawyers. PDS has seven legal units and, uncommonly, pulls from those to create practice groups that focus, for example, on forensics and mental health, two chief aspects of trial and sentence-mitigation work. Specialists not only assist in individual cases but push for reforms of local and federal policies and legislation. They also run training programs for lawyers, social workers, investigators, and others working on the front lines of DC justice. Indeed, PDS was set up as a model public defender organization, Avis says. “We give people a fighting chance, just as rich people have… We are helping people at a very crucial time in their lives. We are dealing with people facing scornful, judgmental attitudes.” PDS attorneys force the system to see people as human beings – not just criminals, or bodies moving through the system. Avis has worked to expand access to justice throughout her career, in both civil and criminal cases. After graduating from law school and clerking for a federal appellate judge, Avis joined PDS as a staff attorney in 1982. She represented criminal defendants for six and a half years, during the height of the crack epidemic in D.C. For the next 13 years, Avis served as a staff attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Project, and then director of litigation at Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. There, Avis litigated individual and class action civil rights cases across the country. After over a decade of litigating civil-rights cases, Avis returned to PDS in 2002, as deputy director, and then became its director in 2004. Avis, who grew up in Washington, DC and Prince George’s County, says that the struggle for civil rights has been a “running theme of my existence” and results directly from the influence of her father. Her parents’ values and her faith led her into public interest law and continue to guide her work. “The idea of helping people and doing for others is what I was taught at home and taught at church,” she said. And Avis continues to be active in her community: she sits on her church’s board of trustees, her former elementary school’s board, and on the board that runs the local Adventist Health Care system. She also sits on the board of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and on our own Honorary Board. Finally, Avis is a mentor to young people in a variety of settings. She has served as a mentor through the public interest program at Harvard Law School, and has volunteered to be a mentor at Georgetown Law. She also reaches out to younger people at church, and takes time to help young people who friends or colleagues send to her for advice. “I have them come down to the office, introduce them to attorneys and take them to do court-watching,” she says. “It demystifies the job, and shows them it is within their reach.” We’re not the first to notice Avis’s accomplishments. She has received the Wiley A. Branton Award from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the Edwin D. Wolf Award from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We’re pleased to join these organizations in honoring Avis’s many contributions to both civil and criminal justice.

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