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Sonnenschein Attorneys: Teamwork and Tenacity

Thursday, January 13, 2005

  • By: Rachel Fretz
  • Organization: VLSP

January's Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) Volunteers of the Month, attorneys Donald Carley and Peter Soares of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP, have demonstrated teamwork and tenacity while working to save the housing of an immigrant family.

In April of 2004, VLSP approached Sonnenschein partner Don Carley and associate Peter Soares, both commercial litigators, with a pro bono eviction defense case involving an elderly immigrant couple in their mid-70s and their extended family. There were eight family members in all, being evicted from their home. San Francisco-based Legal Assistance to the Elderly planned to represent the senior couple and referred the other, younger family members to VLSP.

After learning about the aggressive claims that confronted the family and the limited resources available through Legal Assistance to the Elderly, Sonnenschein agreed to represent all eight defendants and ensure a coordinated defense. Typically, VLSP asks its new volunteers to commit to representing two clients within one year, so Don, Peter and their firm exceeded VLSP's expectations fourfold. Sonnenschein also generously agreed to represent the tenants in a follow-on unlawful detainer action filed by the landlords.

Litigation has proved difficult and protracted. The landlords, seeking to evict the family, threatened and have raised the family's rent by nearly 300 percent, marking the beginning of a series of contentious maneuvers. Since then, Don and Peter have been able to turn the tables, putting the landlord in the hot seat for failure to maintain the property. "Seeing the deplorable conditions of the house has been difficult to deal with," Don says.

Mobilizing their formidable expertise, Don and Peter, with the assistance of a number of other Sonnenschein attorneys and paralegals who have also been generous with their time, have effectively represented the defendants to ensure that the family does not lose their home. "It's rewarding to be able to represent these defendants," Don continues, "You can tell by the look in their eyes - they're relieved to know that they're being properly represented in this case."

As if taking on eight new pro bono clients at once wasn't enough, the Sonnenschein team's task was further compounded by the fact that none of their eight clients speak English. Conveying the ups and downs of the case to the non-English-speaking family has been one of the biggest challenges for them. "The litigation itself has been challenging on a number of levels," Peter says, "The language barrier adds a whole new layer of complexity related to linguistic and cultural issues." Yet this legal team remains undeterred.

To provide support to volunteer attorneys in situations like these, VLSP taps into its pool of volunteer interpreters and matched Don and Peter with Cantonese-speaking interpreters to become an integral part of the litigation team. "VLSP is a great source of interpreters who would've otherwise been a substantial cost," says Peter.

Peter, a Montreal native who came to San Francisco in 1996, says he's used to being a renter in a big city. "I'm highly sympathetic," he says with regard to family's personal history. Helping clients who lack financial resources and English language skills through eviction defense proceedings has been a real eye-opener for him. "It's not always obvious that a significant part of the population can be taken advantage of, especially if there's an isolating cultural divide," Peter explains. "The system does not always appear adequately equipped to dole out the same measure of justice for this portion of the population."

Don, who hails from the Philadelphia area and arrived in San Francisco one year before Peter, first got involved with VLSP while chairing Bridging the Gap, a program of the Barrister's Club of San Francisco. "I'd invite people from VLSP to talk to new attorneys [about doing pro bono work]," he remembers. Don went on to serve as President of the Barrister's Club and sat on its Board of Directors and on the Board of Directors of the Bar Association of San Francisco. These days, in addition to his "day job" as a commercial litigator - with a focus on technology-related litigation and insurance coverage and bad faith disputes - and his substantial commitment to pro bono work, Don is also a Commercial Arbitration Panel Member for the American Arbitration Association.

Their exceptional work has earned Don and Peter each a 2004 Outstanding Volunteer in Public Service Award from VLSP. But both are quick to point out that their work has only been possible as a result of the support of Sonnenschein and a number of other San Francisco-based attorneys who have also been generous with their time and support.

Impressed by the dedication, hours and resources that Don and Peter have donated to this case, VLSP Supervising Attorney Mairi McKeever calls the two, simply, "superheroes." Mairi is unequivocal when she says, "The family got the best legal team they could ever have dreamed of."

Would you like to be a superhero? VLSP's Eviction Defense Project is hosting a free Introduction to Landlord/Tenant Law training for new volunteers on January 31, 2005. For more information about attending this training and volunteering with VLSP, contact Lisa Wong at volunteering@sfbar.org.

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