Law Clinics Improve Community Life, Serve as Teaching Tool, Pt. 1

By Martin Haro

Eight law clinics are currently operating within the College of Law at FIU. There, law students are not only gaining hands-on experience in many areas of practice but also improving the lives of their fellow community members. In this first part of a two-part story, we tell you about some of the cases handled by the Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic, the Environmental Law Clinic, the Family and Children’s Advocacy Clinic and the Immigrant Children’s Justice Clinic.

When Peggy Maisel joined the faculty of the College of Law in 2003, she did so with a clear goal in mind: to establish a flagship clinical program that provides students with hands-on experience outside the classroom.

In August 2004, Maisel and former College of Law Professor Troy Elder launched the inaugural law clinic, the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. Currently, there are eight clinics and a ninth is being planned to work on behalf of veterans.

About 45 percent of FIU Law students work in a clinic before graduation. Through the end of the 2011-’12 year, the students had provided more than 27,000 hours of free legal services to approximately 400 individuals, groups and organizations. That is equivalent to a court-approved value of more than $2 million in free legal services, exclusive of faculty time.

“We are very much a law firm focusing on educating the next generation of lawyers through close supervision of law students as they practice for the first time and provide policy advocacy and community education throughout Miami-Dade,” said Maisel of the clinics, which primarily serve underprivileged individuals and nonprofits that must meet a certain threshold to receive services.

Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic

The Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic focuses on helping people get a fresh start.

Clinic director Leyza Blanco, an attorney with GrayRobinson, P.A., says students enrolled in her clinic – which has been operating for about three years with funding from the Bankruptcy Bar Association – primarily work under the supervision of bankruptcy attorneys on Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases. Typical cases involve individuals seeking to have their driver privileges reinstated or people who are in financial hardship due to medical debt or extreme circumstances. They handle 14-16 cases each semester.

“We had a client who had deteriorating eyesight. He’d borrowed money to attend a technical school, but by the time he finished studying, his sight was really bad and he couldn’t work and make a living,” Blanco said. “He retained us to seek a discharge of some of his student loans in court, which is incredibly difficult. But his was a special case, and we were able to discharge it successfully.”

Barry Turner JD ’10 is an attorney in the bankruptcy practice group at Greenspoon Marder, a West Palm Beach-based law firm. He worked on this particular case as an FIU Law student and remembers it being a one-of-a-kind experience.

“I learned the skills to negotiate with other lawyers, how to draft a complaint, how to draft motions, and aspects of the Bankruptcy Code,” he said. “It was great to be part of an enterprise that gives individuals a fresh start that would, under different circumstances, cost them thousands of dollars.”

Environmental Law Clinic

Stephanie Nuñez began working with the Environmental Law Clinic in Fall 2011. “I hadn’t really considered environmental law before, but I discovered I really like it. I’d love to do it as part of my pro bono work.”

Nuñez was among the students who assisted clinic director Jim Porter in securing an additional $2.3 million for the mitigation package proposed by Miami-Dade County and the state and federal agencies working in Port of Miami’s “Deep Dredge” project.

Deep Dredge will see some 600 million cubic yards dredged from the seabed in Biscayne Bay in the next two years. The port then should be able to accommodate new super-sized cargo ships that will be coming through the expanded Panama Canal in 2014. The dredge will impact the bay’s seagrass and coral reefs.

The Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, the Tropical Audubon Society, and environmentalist Dan Kipnis joined efforts to safeguard Biscayne Bay’s ecosystem and brought the case to the Environmental Law Clinic. The petitioners originally wanted Deep Dredge stopped, Porter says. Ultimately, the law clinic was able to reach a settlement in May through mediation.

The settlement provides for 16.6 acres of new seagrass and reefs to be added for mitigation, and the relocation of small corals to a new artificial reef or to those unaffected by the dredge. Funds also will go to the restoration of coastal dunes on Virginia Key and two mangrove and wetlands projects at Oleta River State Park.

“FIU Law students were instrumental in strategizing and following leads that we didn’t always have time to,” said Alexis Segal, the executive director of the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper. “The deck was stacked against us not winning, so we’re grateful to have gotten us the best outcome possible by settling.”

Family and Children’s Advocacy Clinic

At the Family and Children’s Advocacy Clinic, cases often are referred by judges. “We often work with the bench on referrals and also with the guardian ad litem program,” said FIU Law Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor Laverne Pinkney, director of the clinic. “What’s most admirable is that our students show a deep concern and dedication to all of our cases.”

In 2009, Pinkney’s team began collaborating with Lawyers for Children America, to represent several foster children in the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Dependency and Family Courts.

“The Family and Children’s Advocacy Clinic at FIU’s College of Law has earned a reputation for providing quality legal representation,” said Claire Subran, a Lawyers for Children America attorney. “It is an essential asset to the community.”

The clinic has advocated successfully on cases involving special education, mental health, as well as physical abuse, neglect or abandonment. It recently won an appeal in a case involving custody of a 10-year-old girl before the Third District Court of Appeal and made case law in the process.

“We mostly work on cases involving low-income families,” said Karina Rodriguez ’03, JD ’08, a staff attorney who works with several of the clinics at the college. “These are people who don’t have very many assets with straightforward cases, like divorces, child/spousal support, custody, that can’t afford representation. We really are a resource that more and more people are discovering.”

The other half of the caseload at the clinic revolves around students with special needs who require assistance acquiring the services they need to thrive.

“We get a lot of cases of children with ADHD or behavioral problems,” Rodriguez said. “We work with their schools to set up individual education plans to determine how best to place these children and only go to hearings if cases can’t be resolved. We advocate on their behalf.”

Immigrant Children’s Justice Clinic

The Immigrant Children’s Justice Clinic represents undocumented children and youth arriving in the United States without parents. All of the clinic’s cases are referrals from Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ), a Miami-based nonprofit.

“We are generally very successful with our cases,” said Mary Gundrum, the clinic’s director and a visiting clinical assistant professor at the College of Law.

Gundrum’s team usually handles the dependency aspect of a case; AIJ sees to the immigration aspect. She recalls a case involving a 13-year-old Haitian boy who arrived in Miami four months after the 2010 earthquake. The young boy had never met his father and his mother died when he was 2. In Haiti, he lived with an abusive uncle who died in the earthquake.

“We successfully petitioned for him to become a dependent of the state while he was living in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shelter,” Gundrum said. “Together with AIJ, we worked on getting him special immigrant juvenile status and then a green card.”

Today – two years after the process began – that child’s case is closed, and he is still in Miami, living with his sister. “He’s thriving in school and very focused on his future,” she said.

Russian-born law student Natalia Deluca has worked on about 16 dependency cases at the clinic. She hopes to focus her practice on immigration after she graduates in 2013.

“I’m an immigrant and most of my friends are immigrants. This is what I want to do,” she said. “Working at the clinic at FIU Law has been great. I plan on volunteering with the clinic as I enter my last year of law school. It’s been an incredible opportunity.”

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