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Sacramento attorney receives Jack Berman Award

Sonia Fernandes
Sonia Fernandes

Sonia Fernandes’ father liked to help people. When people he knew — particularly the elderly or disabled — came to him with their problems, he did more than listen. He walked them down to the appropriate government agency and spoke on their behalf. “He had a passion for helping others,” says Fernandes, who added that her father was a powerful verbal advocate. The one area where he was deficient, though, was in reading and writing. With a third-grade education in his native Fiji Islands, Fernandes’ father, a maintenance man, was illiterate. So he turned to his young daughter to read to him or help fill out forms.

The grown-up Fernandes, now staff counsel for the enforcement division of the state’s Department of Managed Health Care, credits those years watching and assisting her father with honing a commitment to helping others — on the job or off. For that commitment, Fernandes, 35, received the 2010 Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public. Created in 1992 by the California Young Lawyers Association, the award was renamed in 1994 for San Francisco lawyer Jack Berman, whose extensive pro bono work earned him the admiration of colleagues and clients. Berman was killed in the 1993 mass shooting at 101 California Street. The award recognizes the public service of a young or new lawyer.

The award, says the Sacramento lawyer, “has given me an opportunity to reflect upon my decisions and to reflect upon the persons and experiences that have influenced them. And I’m truly grateful to all the fabulous mentors I’ve had along the way who have encouraged me to pursue a career in the law.”

Fernandes’ public service runs the gamut. She volunteers monthly at Sacramento’s My Sister’s House legal clinic, which assists victims of domestic violence.

As a board member of Women Lawyers of Sacramento, she helped create and chairs the Ad Hoc Child Protection Committee, which has focused on sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking, the illegal trade of human beings for sexual exploitation or forced labor. She helped create a network of attorneys to assist victims of trafficking and has organized and assisted with programs to educate lawyers on the subject. She follows the performance of the local Child Protective Services and has pushed its officials to improve its service and oversight of children, particularly those in foster care.

At work, her investigation helped force a health plan to cover a diagnostic test for breast cancer and to pay almost $500,000 in previously denied claims to the provider or to women who were denied the test. She has helped shut down unlicensed discount health groups, some of which misled California consumers into believing that they were purchasing actual health insurance.

“I have the opportunity to ensure that health plans are meeting their obligations to California enrollees and following the law, and obviously, that impacts the care that people receive,” Fernandes said. “The breast cancer case definitely has been one of the highlights in my career at the department thus far. I’m also proud of the work the department is doing with respect to discount health plans.”