Law Clinics Improve Community Life, Serve as Teaching Tool, Pt. 2

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 second part of a two-part story, we tell you about some of the cases handled by the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, the Investor Advocacy Clinic, the Health, Ethics, Law and Policy (H.E.L.P.) Clinic and the Community Development Clinic.

Since 2004, the College of Law at FIU has had a flagship clinical program that provides students with hands-on experience outside the classroom.

“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 clinical director Peggy Maisel of the program, which primarily serves underprivileged individuals and nonprofits that must meet a certain threshold to receive services.

In part 1 of this two-part story, we told you about the work that has been done at Consumer Bankruptcy, Environmental Law, the Family and Children’s Advocacy and the Immigrant Children’s Justice clinics. Now, we share the good word on the work of the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, the Investor Advocacy Clinic, the Health, Ethics, Law and Policy (H.E.L.P.) Clinic and the Community Development Clinic.

Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic

Advocating on behalf of community members is the fundamental mission of the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. It won more than $22 million in damages in 2010 for five Liberian victims that brought torture and persecution charges against Charles McArthur Emmanuel, a.k.a. Chuckie Taylor, the head of the infamous Liberian Anti-Terrorism Unit.

That spring, students in the Costa Clinic also reached out to the community following the 2010 Haiti earthquake to assist Haitians in South Florida applying for temporary protected status and other immigration relief. Most recently, the clinic has focused its efforts on representing mentally ill individuals being detained by the Department of Homeland Security because of their immigration status.

“Most of our clients are unable to help themselves, and they cannot afford to hire an attorney in immigration court,” said Juan Gomez, an FIU Law clinical assistant professor and the clinic’s director.

Some case examples include: obtaining cancellation of removal for an undocumented young man who had been tortured by his U.S. citizen stepfather; reuniting a Laotian family with a son thought to be dead for several years; and winning protection in the United States for a transgender Guatemalan.

The clinic has also helped hundreds of residents apply for U.S. citizenship, and students are involved in helping create systems that will help young people eligible for relief under President Obama’s new DREAM ACT/Deferred Action policy apply for benefits.

“Our clinic will not only help someone with their immediate immigration needs,” Gomez said. “We often find ourselves trying to find shelter space for our clients, and working with other organizations that will help them with their personal problems, which range from health services to job placement.”

Investor Advocacy Clinic

The goal of the Investor Advocacy Clinic is to fill the gap in legal representation for small investors – often times the elderly or individuals who have a limited understanding of English – and level the playing field between them and those who take advantage of them.

Under the direction of Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor Robert Savage, the clinic has achieved numerous successes. Savage recalled the case of a disabled retiree from North Miami Beach who spoke only Spanish. A financial advisor at a brokerage firm who did not speak Spanish advised him to invest his workman’s compensation in a very complex investment that resulted in “devastating losses” for the client.

“The brokerage firm should have attempted to locate a Spanish-speaking registered representative,” Savage said. “We obtained a settlement of more than 100 percent of his net out-of-pocket loss.”

The Investor Advocacy Clinic’s work has gone national, having represented an investor from Arizona. That state’s securities division launched an investigation when the investor lodged a complaint on a shady transaction.

“Our client had received a promissory note that was supposed to pay 36 percent interest from an investment advisor who also claimed to be an attorney. Our client received only two annual payments on his investment and then the payments stopped,” Savage said.

As it turns out, the so-called advisor was not properly licensed personally or through his corporation to sell securities. Savage’s team discovered that a promissory note is defined as a security under Arizona state security laws. When Arizona opened an investigation into this “bad actor,” they referred the client to the College of Law’s clinical program.

The Health, Ethics, Law and Policy (H.E.L.P.) Clinic

Students enrolled in the Health, Ethics, Law and Policy Clinic represent patient-clients in partnership with FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. It opened in 2010 in response to the medical school’s groundbreaking NeighborhoodHELP program.

“I approached people at the College of Medicine with the idea for an interdisciplinary initiative since their idea was to change health outcomes,” Clinic director Peggy Maisel said. “People in the community have a lot of issues that will affect their health. For example, if you’re about to be evicted, that’s going to be stressful. Or if you don’t have access to medical insurance, that’s obviously going to impact your health, and lawyers can help clients access alternative public benefits.”

As part of the partnership, medical students refer families with legal troubles to their peers at FIU Law. The clinic works on the cases or refers them to an appropriate organization that can help.

Clinic staff attorney Natalie Castellanos JD ’11 has been working with an Opa Locka client with chronic diabetes and numerous medical-legal issues. He lost his legs in May 2010 due to infections brought on by the diabetes. In the year preceding the amputations, he had 20 hospital visits and 12 blood transfusions.

“He enrolled in Medicaid,” Castellanos said, “but when we first found out about him in the spring of 2011, he was in a wheelchair and without means of transportation to see his doctor or get to a pharmacy to get his prescriptions.”

Students at the clinic advocated for him to get transportation services by instituting a Medicaid fair hearing. They have continued to assist him to ensure he has adequate, sustained access to healthcare services and prescription medications.

Maisel says interdisciplinary partnerships such as this one make the work of the clinical programs an even richer experience for future lawyers. “I truly believe collaboration is an important learning opportunity for our students and results in better legal results for our clients.”

Community Development Clinic

The Community Development Clinic usually is present at the dawn of an individual’s or group’s idea. The clinic provides counsel and legal services to small-business owners and local nonprofit organizations.

“We have many happy former clients that otherwise would have gone unrepresented due to the high cost of legal services,” said Shahrzad Emami, an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc., and a supervisor at the clinic.

Among them is Phillip Church, a professor of theatre at FIU, who this year sought the clinic’s assistance in forming the nonprofit What If Works Productions, an organization that offers recent theatre, film and music graduates a bridge from an academic environment to the professional world.

“I think these clinics, and the Community Development Clinic, in particular, are a wonderful resource for South Florida residents,” he said. “I am extremely grateful for all that was done to help the What If Works enterprise. We couldn’t have done it without the help of the clinic.”

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