By Jen Masi
In December 2018, residents across the District were preparing for the holidays and enjoying the comfort of their warm homes. At that same time, a fire broke out in a Brightwood Park apartment complex, leaving six families without a place to call home.
Residents of the building had appealed to management for years to fix terrible housing conditions – faulty electrical wiring, moldy ceilings and walls, rats that fell from those ceilings, and more – without success. As we see time and again through Children’s Law Center’s medical-legal partnership with DC health clinics, poor housing conditions including mold and pests can trigger serious health issues — like asthma — in kids.
The children who lost their homes in the fire that night were not only traumatized – their health had been endangered by unsafe housing.
Children’s Law Center attorneys and investigators, led by Senior Supervising Attorney Kathy Zeisel, filed a complaint and secured temporary Red Cross shelter for the six families. But in an atypical moment for our organization, we brought in Williams & Connolly to co-counsel, knowing that an unusual case of this size needed pro bono help from a team of fierce civil litigators. That team included firm associates Tracey A. Fung, Michaela Wilkes Klein and Tony Sheh, with partner Andy Keyes providing support and supervision.
“When I joined the case, my oldest daughter was just under half a year old, so I was a relatively new father. Knowing that six families with young children had just spent Christmas and New Year’s without a home really struck me. That feeling only grew as we got to know the families over the course of our many meetings and interviews.”
– Tony Sheh
“We recruited Williams & Connolly because we wanted ferocious litigators to represent the clients in the long road ahead,” shares Kathy. “They did extensive discovery, with thousands of pages of documents, and many days of depositions.” The team represented the homeless families, filing a complaint on their behalf asking for damages in addition to relief.
“This was not a small case to litigate, and the firm empowered our team to investigate all of the facts and to present the best possible arguments on behalf of the clients at every stage of the case, including all the way through expert discovery and pretrial,” says Tony. “I think that’s a testament to how seriously the firm takes its commitment to pro bono service.”
Tracey, a member of Children’s Law Center’s Advisory Board, agrees: “There were complex issues to tackle and doing so with not one, but six families was not easy. Since Spanish was the main language spoken by our clients, we needed to ensure that we properly understood each other. We learned a lot from working on the case, and it was great to interact with each family, as well as to see tangible results for them.”
“I was actually pregnant with my first child during the first part of the case, so it was particularly heartbreaking for me to watch our clients, many of them with young children of their own or pregnant as well, be homeless during the winter. It was wonderful to know that we were having a meaningful impact on our clients’ daily lives and that we were helping our clients empower themselves to protect their families in the future.”
– Tracey A. Fung
After more than two years, the case settled in 2020 – about a month before trial. All the families involved knew the settlement wouldn’t bring back their homes, but they were relieved to know that the property owner was being held accountable for the damage and loss they caused.
“It was an honor to help the families we represented because our work empowered them,” reflects Michaela. “I also hope that our zealous representation of their cause sends a message to unscrupulous landlords that their tenants are not powerless in the face of uninhabitable and unsafe conditions and illegal treatment.”
“Working on this case was extremely fulfilling from both a personal and professional standpoint. Most of us enter the legal profession with the hope of promoting justice and helping others, and this pro bono opportunity did just that. In addition, it was a wonderful chance for us, as associates, to develop our in-court skills and truly ‘own’ the strategic decisions at every juncture.”
– Michaela Wilkes Klein
Children’s Law Center is proud to highlight Tracey, Michaela and Tony’s dedicated pro bono work in the service of DC’s children and families during Pro Bono Week 2020. We hope their example will inspire more District attorneys to help our neighbors in need. As Tracey encourages: “If you’re given an opportunity like this, please take it!”
Jen Masi is Pro Bono Director at Children’s Law Center.