Mind the Gap Participant’s Pro Bono Work Saves a Family’s Home

BASF’s Mind the Gap (MTG) program provides recently licensed attorneys who are unemployed or underemployed with training, work experience, mentorship connections and debt reduction information as they bridge the gap from passing the bar to employment.

J-LeeThanks to attorney Joseph Lee, a MTG participant and Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) volunteer, a working mother of three kept her home despite an unscrupulous landlord’s attempt to evict her. In the process Lee heavily litigated his first full-scope representation case, gaining experience managing all aspects of the case, including client meetings, preparing and propounding discovery, negotiating with opposing counsel and writing a motion for summary judgment.

Struggling to make ends meet for her family, Ms. Diego* faced a full-blown crisis when the landlord moved to evict her from her home in San Francisco’s Mission district. Ms. Diego was particularly vulnerable as a tenant, residing in a rent-controlled apartment in a neighborhood with skyrocketing rents. The landlord alleged that Ms. Diego had failed to pay rent, but she knew that this was not true and she had the bank statements to prove it.

With her limited English proficiency, Ms. Diego feared that she would not be able to defend herself against an aggressive landlord who was represented by an experienced eviction attorney. So she turned to JDC for pro bono legal representation. Recognizing the case needed a volunteer attorney with the time and desire to vigorously defend the case, JDC staff tapped Lee to represent Ms. Diego and volunteer interpreter Erika Portillo agreed to provide interpretation services.

As a new attorney, Lee made good use of JDC resources to mount a vigorous defense on behalf of his client.  With the training and support of Supervising Attorneys Cary Gold and Ted Janowsky, Lee put his nose to the grindstone and prepared and propounded a set of discovery. This elicited an almost immediate response from opposing counsel who seemed to be inviting settlement negotiations.  The landlord’s attorney offered to allow Ms. Diego to remain in her unit, if she paid $5,000 for the landlord’s attorney’s fees.  Additionally, if Ms. Diego had a single late rent payment within the next 12 months she would be immediately evicted.  This offer was simply unacceptable to Lee.  Fortunately for the tenant, the tables were about to turn with the discovery of a crucial piece of evidence.

Working together with his client and the interpreter, Lee obtained a bank statement that showed that the landlord had actually cashed two of the client’s rent checks.  Realizing that his client had a complete defense, Lee approached opposing counsel with a demand that the case be dismissed.

With the trial date rapidly approaching, and with a still intransigent plaintiff, Lee filed and served his motion for summary judgment. Two days later, opposing counsel dismissed the case, and the threat of eviction was lifted.

While reflecting on the experience he gained as a JDC volunteer, Lee had this to say, “Of course, in the end, the greatest highlight was having my client and her family stay in their home.”

For more information about Mind the Gap, please visit www.sfbar.org/mtg.
For more information about JDC’s volunteer opportunities please visit www.sfbar.org/volunteer.

*In the interest of confidentiality the client’s name has been changed.