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VLSP Presents William McKnight Volunteer Service Awards

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

  • Organization: Volunteer Legal Services Project
Five attorneys and a team from one local law firm have been recognized for their commitment to justice. All are candidates of the 2003 William E. McKnight Volunteer Service Award.

Erika Stanat (with assistance from Paul Holloway, Mark Wilson and Leslie Desmarteau), Robert McLean, Anita Pelletier, Maroun Ajaka, Stephen Kelley and Patricia Gibbons will be honored for their volunteer efforts at the Monroe County Bar Association's Annual Law Day Luncheon on Thursday, May 1, 2003.

Since 1985, the Volunteer Legal Services Project, has annually recognized a small number of attorneys with the McKnight Volunteer Service Award. Created in memory of Nixon Hargrave partner and pro bono attorney Bill McKnight, the McKnight Award is given to attorneys for outstanding pro bono work on behalf of low-income clients.

Erika Stanat (with assistance from Paul Holloway, Mark Wilson, Leslie Desmarteau)

Stanat, Holloway, Wilson and Desmarteau, are attorneys with Harter Secrest and Emery, LLP, who recently completed a very complex pension case for a VLSP client.

Stanat has handled four cases since 2001 and has donated over 540 hours of service to date. She has handled cases in the areas of licensing, student loans, taxes and pensions. Stanat currently has one open case.

Holloway has handled several cases since 2001, donating over 110 hours of time to VLSP clients. Holloway handles cases in family law and other income maintenance matters and he is currently working on one open case.

Wilson has taken two cases since 1994. To date, Wilson has provided VLSP clients with over 105 hours of pro bono service.

Desmarteau assisted with the pension case. Desmarteau's contribution included over 70 hours of donated time.

The pension case, which had been accepted by Holloway in 1994 was closed in 2002 by Stanat. Since 1994, the HS&E attorneys have provided ongoing representation for the client, who was seeking assistance in obtaining the pension benefits to which she was entitled. When the client came to VLSP, she was the sole support for her son and was receiving only Social Security widow's benefits.

The HS&E team brought a lawsuit against the pension company and was able to obtain a retroactive award of $29,000 and an ongoing monthly benefit of $270 for life on behalf of this client. The attorneys who worked on this case spent a total of 548 hours on this matter.

Robert McLean

McLean is an attorney at Johnson, Mullan & Brundage. In 1999, McLean took a case that involved modifying both child support and visitation pursuant to a Judgment of Divorce. (He spent a total of 60 hours, plus another seven by a different attorney and ten hours by support staff.)

McLean was successful in modifying the visitation and child support, and the client sent a highly complimentary letter to VLSP regarding McLean's efforts in assisting her. He also handled four other cases in 1999 and 2000 where he obtained standby guardianships, wills, health proxies and powers of attorney for those individuals.

In 2001, McLean handled a difficult divorce involving egregious abuse by the spouse. McLean was able to obtain the divorce, as well as an award of custody, in favor of the client. (A total of 65 to 70 hours). Since completing that in mid-2002, McLean accepted another case (highly publicized) involving a grandmother whose daughter and mother of her grandchildren has been and remains missing.

The mother was previously divorced from the children's father. The father, subsequent to the disappearance of the mother, obtained custody and denied her any contact whatsoever with her children.

McLean spent a substantial amount of time attempting to negotiate a settlement on his client's behalf; however, ultimately the matter proceeded to trial in December, 2002, resulting in an award of visitation to the grandmother. The case remains open, for control purposes, on the court's calendar and as such is still ongoing. (Over 52 hours to date).

Anita Pelletier

Pelletier is an associate at Nixon, Peabody, LLP. In 2002 (primarily), she obtained a divorce and award of custody (not contested) for a woman in a physically abusive relationship.

Pelletier also had previously accepted a case involving this same woman where she prepared to defend her in a petition for a downward modification filed by the father (who ultimately defaulted). (A total of 22.5 hours plus an additional ten hours by support staff.)

In the fall of 2002, Pelletier accepted a case involving an uncle seeking custody of four children, whose father (and grandfather of said children) had previously been awarded custody but had since deceased. Both biological parents were alive and contesting custody; however, Pelletier was able to successfully negotiate full custody to the uncle of all four children. (A total of 25 hours plus another two from support staff).

Pelletier also already accepted another difficult case in January, 2003 which involves a custody dispute between two grandparents. The case is still pending.

Maroun Ajaka

Ajaka is a solo practitioner and became associated with VLSP in 2002. Since doing so, he has tackled many difficult cases for VLSP, the majority of them involving custody cases.

Ajaka first took on a case, in the fall of 2002, where a grandmother was seeking custody of her grandchild. The mother of the child, along with the child, had been living with the grandmother. The mother left for approximately six months, and the grandmother sought custody.

The recommendation before the court by Child Protective Services, who had prior involvement with this case, was that they would support the mother obtaining custody only in the event she gets into supported living; and that if she did not, they would support the grandmother obtaining custody. Ajaka appeared on the grandmother's behalf.

Although the client was not successful, and in the end not a lot of hours were spent on the case, the client would have had to proceed without any advice or recommendations from an attorney had Ajaka not been willing to accept this case.

Almost simultaneously with that case, Ajaka also accepted a case where a grandmother was seeking guardianship of her grandchild. She had previously attempted to do so in 1999 as well, which resulted in the parent showing up and taking the child back. She mainly filed again because she was told that if she obtained guardianship, the child would be eligible for Medicaid.

Although initially the parents signed consent agreements, they later questioned the meaning of such and were ultimately appointed attorneys. Although ultimately, the client did not obtain guardianship because the parents would not agree to such, Ajaka was able to negotiate and obtain visitation rights for her as well as access to the child's school and medical records. (A total of five hours spent.)

Following the completion of that case, Ajaka then agreed to accept a case in February, 2003, for a woman seeking representation in a child support modification proceeding filed by her ex-spouse, who was also seeking a change of custody. An older child had already, with her consent, gone to live with him, and he was now seeking custody of the other child, and a change in child support, as well.

A trial started in Family Court in March, 2003, and during the proceedings, Ajaka was able to negotiate a favorable deal for the client, given the circumstances surrounding her case (in particular a fairly bad situation with a second spouse she had married who is now incarcerated), as well as a complete waiver of child support.

Although the primary physical residence was with the father, the parties have joint custody, and the mother was given very liberal visitation rights. (A total of 20 hours spent.)

Ajaka will need to still appear before a hearing examiner to complete the support issue and formally have the child support waived. Upon contacting VLSP only two days after completing this case, Ajaka willingly has also, if VLSP is able to obtain a short adjournment, agreed to take on another difficult custody case.

Stephen Kelley

Kelley, vice president, Fleet Government Advisory Services, became a volunteer in March, 1999, and has accepted approximately 16 referrals in less than four years. Kelley's consistent willingness to take on cases is most admirable.

In 2001, he represented an individual for the second time with regard to outstanding arrears in daycare expenses owed. He had previously assisted her in a similar proceeding the year before.

In addition, Kelley handled four divorces and a child support case between 2000 and 2001, obtaining a custody award in two of the divorces and a child support award in one of the divorces, as well. (A total of approximately 50 hours.)

Kelley also assisted two individuals in 2001 in obtaining living wills and health care proxies. He handled a divorce in 2002 (a total of three hours) and has recently agreed to take on another case as well.

Patricia Gibbons

Gibbons became a volunteer in 2001, originally handling an SSI case for VLSP. (A total of 40 hours.)

She subsequently handled a modification of child support case, where she was able to reduce arrears for an individual on SSI income from $107,000 to $500, as well as reducing his future support obligation from $250 monthly to zero. (A total of 13 hours.)

Gibbons then agreed to accept a difficult case involving a woman who, pursuant to a 1996 Judgment of Divorce, was entitled to $454 per month in spousal support and $110 per week in child support.

At the time this woman came to VLSP, her former spouse owed her in excess of $16,000 in child support and maintenance. In addition, and again prior to coming to VLSP, her former spouse appears to have utilized the COLA review process to reduce his child support obligation to the sum of $47 per week, by requesting an adjustment and then objecting to such, resulting in the child support being modified to reflect his then lower income.

Gibbons was able to reduce the sum of $15,000 to judgment, and negotiate a payment plan to repay this. Although the terms of a proposed order still remain in dispute, the major aspects of this case are completed. (Over 80 hours.)

In addition, and while this case was ongoing, Gibbons also accepted a case for an individual seeking a downward modification, and was successful in not only reducing his obligation for two children to zero, but also in obtaining an award on his behalf for one other child in his custody, in the amount of $120 per month. (A total of 18 hours.)

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