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Honoring California’s pro bono standouts

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

In huge demand for the pro bono legal services she provides veterans, Nicole Heffel struggled to pay her bills in 2014, borrowing money from her family so she could continue helping those who needed her.

One of them was former Marine Darren D’Ambrogi, who says the La Jolla woman turned out to be the “miracle” he was praying for, helping him to get on the right track after his release from jail.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Nicole Heffel saved my life,” he wrote in a letter to the State Bar. “She believed in me when no one else would listen. She encouraged me, guided me and never let me give up on myself.”

A veteran herself, Heffel is just one of nine extraordinary individuals, firms and programs to be recognized with President’s Pro Bono Service Awards on Oct. 9 during the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in Anaheim. The awards are given annually to attorneys, law firms, law schools, law students and legal organizations who have provided, or enabled legal services to be provided, to the poor or disadvantaged.

Here is a little more about Heffel as well as the four other attorneys, two teams, law firm branch office and project selected to receive this year’s pro bono awards.

Recently admitted

Although her paid work as a sole practitioner is primarily in estate planning, wealth management and asset protection, Heffel logged more than 1,500 pro bono hours on behalf of 500 veterans in 2014. A Navy veteran admitted to the practice of law in December 2013, she did most of her pro bono work through American Combat Veterans of War, which helps veterans cope after returning from war.

Heffel quashed warrants for veterans so they could qualify for residential treatment centers, helped them get driver’s licenses by helping them dismiss old traffic cases and – as in the case of D’Ambrogi –  ensured their probation lined up with treatment services. She meets weekly with veterans in jail, offering counseling and legal services, volunteers monthly with a veterans legal self-help clinic and participates in a program that helps active-duty military members avoid default judgments while they are serving their country.

Distinguished pro bono service

Launched in 2013, the Los Angeles HIV Law and Policy Project provides legal services to county residents, offering immigration assistance and making sure they have access to healthcare, housing and employment. It is a collaboration between the Disability Rights Legal Center, the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s AIDS Legal Services Project, Inner City Law Center and UCLA Law Center, but relies heavily on pro bono resources.

Last year, nearly 50 law students volunteered on its intake line, helping to screen cases, interview potential clients and perform research and writing. The project also provided 54 trainings, clinics, outreach and other events aimed at expanding access to information and resources and handled more than 600 separate legal matters.

Additionally, 85 pro bono attorneys contributed more than 2,600 hours, working with staff attorneys to help more than 500 clients.

Individual from a law firm

Sarah Powell

In 2014, after eight years of work and more than 2,000 pro bono hours, Sarah Powell of San Bernardino got justice for her client Tina Satterwhite. After suffering the loss of her job as a correctional officer, the death of her only child and the threatened foreclosure on her home, Satterwhite turned to her pastor Terrance Elliott for help. Elliott convinced her to sell her home and turn over the funds to him, purportedly for safekeeping. In the end, he defrauded her of more than $100,000, leading her to be evicted from her apartment and become homeless.

The litigation against Elliott involved 13 different judges at the state, federal and appellate court level and was set for trial five different times before it actually happened.

Powell wrote in a synopsis of the case that it was better that the matter was handled pro bono because it helped eliminate money worries in making decisions about prosecuting the case. “Further, I believe the case is a shining example of why we all become attorneys: To stand up to any injustice that has been done and to try and make right the things that went wrong,” she wrote.

Solo practitioner

Shahpour Motloob

A longtime and dedicated volunteer immigration attorney who works with a number of San Francisco Bay Area legal nonprofits, Shahpour “Shawn” Matloob gave more than 150 hours of his time and served nearly 100 pro bono clients last year. Matloob participated in immigration clinics to assist clients with cancellation or removal proceedings, U visas, asylum, naturalization and adjustment of status and took on 17 referrals from the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. His work in these cases included successfully petitioning for asylum and obtaining a green card for the same-sex partner of a client.

He also works with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which helps save the lives of low-income refugees by winning asylum for them in the U.S. Since 2004, Matloob has mentored fellow members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association on asylum issues.

Limited active practice

Ophelia Zeff

Though technically retired, Ophelia Zeff of Sacramento has been the “backbone” of the Voluntary Legal Services Program of Northern California’s employment law clinic since 2000. Zeff is a fixture in the clinic, which convenes every Tuesday evening. She is also a role model to many, mentoring law students at the clinic. She also appears at administrative hearings before the state Employment Development Department and Division of Labor Standards Enforcement and provides practical skills training and help in analyzing employment cases.

In a letter submitted in support of her award nomination, Victoria Jacobs, VLSP’s managing attorney, wrote that Zeff had already been given the group’s volunteer award, but that her many years of pro bono work deserved statewide recognition.

“Ms. Zeff’s expertise in the area of employment law is invaluable in the operating of our Employment Law Clinic, and we don’t know what we’d do without her,” she added.

Individual from a law firm

Michael Soloff

Called a “true champion of social justice” and a “stalwart supporter of legal services,” Michael Soloff’s pro bono service grew out of work he did on a landmark 2009 case protecting Section 8 tenants against illegal eviction. Since then, he has continued to work on Section 8 issues with Bet Tzedek Legal Services and other Los Angeles-area groups, spending 650 pro bono hours defending 16 elderly and disabled tenants from wrongful eviction in 2014. One was a widowed 82-year-old Holocaust survivor with Alzheimer’s who needed to stay in her West Hollywood home because it was familiar to her. Soloff was not only successful in her case but went on work with other tenants in West Hollywood, many of whom are disabled, elderly and could speak only Russian.

Zachary Bray and Zachary Katz, who as junior associates were part of Soloff’s team protecting Section 8 tenants, called him “one of those truly rare people who are both benevolent and compassionate in the highest degree.

“He would drive to the moon in the middle of the night to meet with a potential client in trouble if need be, and once he arrived would work until daybreak to fix their problems,” Bray and Katz wrote.

Law firm team

Arnold and Porter Team
Arnold & Porter LLP

As supporting letters note, it can be difficult to get lawyers to take on time consuming pro bono cases in the Central Valley, particularly if the matter is controversial. Yet Arnold & Porter LLP’s Fresno Homeless Litigation Team dove right in, challenging, as co-counsel with Central California Legal Services, the so-called “clean-ups” of homeless encampments and seizure and destruction of homeless people’s property.

The team represented 30 homeless clients against the city of Fresno, requiring more than 80 depositions, numerous motions and discovery hearings and many trips to the city. During the course of the litigation, Arnold & Porter attorneys racked up 2,201 hours of attorney time and 2,311 hours of support staff time. The team’s efforts led to an overall settlement that included cash payments to the homeless and key policy changes.

“Their efforts changed public policy in Fresno and made government agencies around the county carefully consider their policies of taking and destroying homeless people’s property,” homeless advocate Mike Rhodes wrote.

Law firm branch office

Gibeson and Dunn OC office
Orange County branch of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP

In 2014, the Orange County branch of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP contributed some 2,500 hours to the Public Law Center, helping 56 clients and taking on what were often complex and time-consuming matters. Among them was the case of a low-income senior who risked losing her home of 40 years because her housing co-op wanted to sell the building. The office also took on a time-sensitive emergency guardianship involving a grandmother trying to protect a child from an abusive parent and helped a veteran be more employable and an elderly disabled man grappling with student loan debt collections.

On top of their work with the Public Law Center, attorneys in the office volunteered their time to an array of other groups, including the Alliance for Children’s Rights, Family Violence Appellate Project and Inner City Law Center.

Law firm team

In 2014, a team at Cooley LLP’s San Diego office saw a big payoff in the many pro bono hours they logged on behalf of immigrants. Working with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU Immigrations’ Rights Project, the team notched a huge win in Lopez-Venegas v. Johnson, a class action alleging abusive immigration practices by immigration enforcement officers.

As a result of the historic settlement, significant reforms were made to a process known as “voluntary departure,” in which immigration enforcement agencies used coercion or misinformation to expel non-citizens without a hearing. Certain Mexican nationals who were coerced into leaving as a result of the flawed voluntary departure procedures will also be allowed to return to the U.S. to pursue immigration relief. Ultimately, many others could benefit.

Cooley attorneys Anthony Stiegler and Darcie Tilly spent 553 hours on the matter in 2014, and the firm as a whole has devoted more than 2,500 since 2013.