By Karen Grisez and Sheryl R. Miller
For the past three years, Brendan McNamara, a staff attorney at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, has consistently and successfully advocated on behalf of elderly clients referred to the firm through Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s (LCE) Pro Bono Project. Brendan’s involvement has been a unifying factor across various pro bono teams as his responsibilities increased over time.
Brendan handled his first LCE case in 2015, where he and his Fried Frank colleagues negotiated a favorable settlement for an elderly woman whose landlord had refused to remediate mold inside her unit. An inspector found substantial water damage to the walls and visible mildew on many surfaces in her unit. This tenant received rental assistance from the Housing Choice Voucher Tenant-Based Program, administered by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA). Under this program, the elderly tenant paid about 30 percent of the rent and the DCHA paid the balance directly to the landlord.
“There was mold, peeling paint, cracks in the ceiling from which water would leak and drip directly onto our client’s bed,” said Brendan. “The landlord was content not to make repairs to remedy the DC Housing Code violations because the government paid such a large portion of our client’s monthly rent.”
Brendan and his colleagues filed a claim for rent abatement and damages, which resulted in a favorable settlement for their client who was then able to leave these deplorable housing conditions. This tenant called Brendan and his colleagues her “miracle attorneys.”
Later that year, an older woman with disabilities sought help when her landlord sued her for installing a washing machine in her apartment without his consent. He alleged that the washing machine caused the water bill for the building to triple, and he sought more than $1,000 in damages plus the removal of her machine from the unit. Brendan and his Fried Frank colleagues challenged the complaint and filed counterclaims against the landlord for failing to make essential repairs to the unit. In a negotiated settlement, the landlord agreed to drop his lawsuit, allow the tenant to live rent-free for six months, and to install handicap-accessible laundry machines in the complex.
Most recently, Brendan and his colleagues successfully negotiated a settlement on behalf of an elderly woman who sued her landlord for wrongful eviction. While she had been out running errands, the landlord changed the locks to her unit and threw all of her belongings outside in the rain. She had to sleep outside and in the park for several weeks. While settlement negotiations were ongoing, Brendan pressed forward on the litigation front. He drafted motions, pursued discovery, and argued vigorously on behalf of his client’s interests. The final settlement included a favorable cash payment to the client.
Brendan’s experience illustrates why pro bono work is good for attorneys as well as clients. “These cases are great because they provide opportunities to gain valuable court experience and to cultivate a wide variety of litigation skills,” explained Brendan. “But most of all, I enjoy working with the clients and figuring out how best to help people who would otherwise have a very difficult time helping themselves.”
Karen Grisez is Public Service Counsel at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP.
Sheryl R. Miller is Pro Bono Manager & Legal Aid Attorney at AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly.