Congratulations to VLP’s 2017 Pro Bono Award Winners!
This year’s winners and categories are:
Attorney of the Morning (Landlord-Tenant)
Attorney of the Morning (AOM) was created in 1990 out of the BAEC’s Task Force on Voluntary Pro Bono. AOM operates in Buffalo City Court on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The NYSBA awarded its 1991 Award of Merit to the BAEC for its “innovative” Attorney of the Morning Program. Since then, it has been copied in other cities around the country.
MICHAEL C. CIMASI, Esq., began volunteering at VLP in 2014 soon after his admission to the Bar. In three short years, he has come to the aid of hundreds of Buffalonians facing homelessness. Since February 2014, Michael has volunteered over 111 hours representing 194 clients. This year he volunteered over 46 hours at AOM, representing 80 clients. He is respected by the Court, our staff and our clients. Michael is patient, kind, and skilled at fully explaining the legal process to clients in distress, terrified that they will soon be homeless. Michael is described by those who work closely with him as a dependable and dynamic volunteer. He can be counted on to volunteer at AOM monthly, and routinely makes himself available at the last minute to fill in or serve as a second attorney when the docket is staggering. We could not ask for a more devoted volunteer than Michael C. Cimasi, Esq., a Champion for Justice, who makes access to justice a reality for low income residents in Buffalo.
The Immigration Project at VLP is now in its 18th year and has a staff of 11 full-time attorneys and an accredited representative. It serves detained and non-detained men and women who are long term permanent residents or asylum seekers. The Project also handles cases involving special immigration benefits for juveniles, and non-citizens who have been victims of crime, including human-trafficking and domestic violence.
WILLIAM ALTREUTER, Esq. is a practicing litigation attorney and a professor at Buffalo State College. William became involved when he discovered that one of his college students, a Lawful Permanent Resident from Haiti, was taken into custody and detained at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY. The respondent was released from ICE custody just days before his college graduation. After his client’s release, William prepared the application for Cancellation of Removal and submitted a substantial amount of supporting evidence. After a challenging trial in Buffalo Immigration Court, William successfully obtained Cancellation of Removal for his client, and the removal proceedings were terminated. VLP and his client are truly grateful for William’s work. William Altreuter, you are a Champion for Justice.
The law firm of DREW & DREW has been an asset to VLP’s Immigration Program for the past 5 years. As a small, three attorney firm, they have successfully handled 5 complicated citizenship cases. They also successfully represented a long term permanent resident client faced with cancellation for a minor crime. Dean M. Drew, Esq., is currently representing a survivor of FGM seeking asylum. We know we can always count on the litigation skills of the attorneys at Drew & Drew for our clients. Although Alana Carr, Esq., Dean A. Drew, Esq., and Dean M. Drew, Esq., are not Immigration attorneys, they are always game for handling another case, or to learn a new area of law. We value their skills and commitment to our Immigration Program. For these reasons we recognize the law firm of Drew & Drew as Champions for Justice.
Where does one even start with describing the pro bono work of MATTHEW L. KOLKEN, Esq., from the law firm of Kolken and Kolken, one of the most experienced immigration litigators in Buffalo? A few years ago, news of young children fleeing brutal gang-plagued violence from Central American countries made an impression on Matt and he came to VLP wanting to help. Since then, he has taken on more Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors cases than we can count, usually handling more than one at a time. His exemplary work representing these traumatized kids is especially important because we do not know what these children would do to represent themselves in one of the most complicated areas of VLP’s law practice. Matt also provides training for VLP’s CLE programs and harnesses the power of social media to recruit his colleagues to join him in providing essential pro bono legal assistance to these children. For these reasons, Matthew L. Kolken, Esq. is a Champion for Justice.
Poverty can make family problems worse. Divorce is a subject matter where we always have a list of clients waiting to be referred to a pro bono attorney. Having attorneys committed to helping by handling pro bono divorces relieves a great deal of stress for the clients and for the VLP staff.
KEITH B. SCHULEFAND, Esq., is a valued volunteer who has been representing VLP divorce clients for over a decade. Since 2006, Keith has donated over 235 hours representing clients on 19 cases. He approaches each divorce case carefully, with the same dedication that he is known for in his private practice cases. He is quick to pick up Chris Biggie’s call and handle our more complicated divorce matters. He routinely handles more than one VLP divorce case at a time. In fact he recently offered to take two more cases. He provides our low income clients with the highest quality legal representation. Keith’s commitment to VLP over the years is nothing short of remarkable. For his longstanding commitment to VLP and our divorce clients we honor Keith B. Schulefand as a true Champion for Justice.
Income Tax Controversy
With so many people out of work, it is no surprise that the number of people unable to pay their income tax obligations has increased over the past few years. In addition, even those who are trying to pay their taxes can have trouble understanding and complying with our complex system of tax laws, and end up in trouble. VLP attempts to assist low income taxpayers who have controversies with the IRS by providing advice and, when needed, representation before the IRS concerning the establishment and collection of income tax obligations.
GREENARD POLES, the director of the tax program at the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers (BFNC), has spent decades helping our Buffalo community. His work exemplifies pro bono advocacy for the working poor. Nearly 8000 low income people receive free tax preparation annually at the BFNC. His year round service is invaluable to the city of Buffalo, ensuring that taxpayer rights are protected and that taxpayers receive the refunds to which they are entitled. Mr. Poles works closely with Derek Wheeler and Greg Stewart, regularly providing referrals to our Low Income Tax Clinic (LITC) and directly assisting VLP clients with complex tax preparation to help resolve their tax controversies. Thank you, E. Greenard Poles, for being a Champion for Justice!
Community Partner Award
Community partners help to make VLP better able to serve our pro bono attorneys as well as our clients. They help to fill in the gaps that our limited funding does not cover. Providing financial support is critical to the success of our programs. Our community partners are essential to our commitment to ensuring access to justice for all.
ROBERT C. BRUCATO, Esq. is well known to most of us in Buffalo’s legal community, having managed the Buffalo office of Counsel Press since its opening in 1992. Rob is very involved with multiple legal organizations and associations in Western New York, and is a frequent presenter at CLE programs. He goes above and beyond when we approach him for help co-sponsoring events, often at the last minute. He never hesitates to fund breakfast or lunch for a VLP CLE program, which always increases the turnout. His commitment to young attorneys is impressive. We are grateful for his generous support of our Champions for Justice Bash. We are pleased to recognize Robert C. Brucato, Esq., as Champions for Justice.
Champion for Justice Award
This joint award from the ECBA Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Center for Elder Law and Justice is conferred upon a member of the legal community who has dedicated his or her career to being a Champion for Justice.
KATHERINE S. BIFARO is highly-respected in our legal community. Kathie has served as the Executive Director at the Bar Association of Erie County (BAEC) and the Erie County Bar Foundation since 1982. Prior to this she served as their bookkeeper for seven years. She has been a tireless supporter of our organizations and our initiatives throughout the years. Her efforts have enabled us to increase free civil legal services for our clients. Her door is always open, and we are fortunate to have been able to take advantage of Kathie’s willingness to share her knowledge and expertise. For a lifetime of service to the Bar, and to our organizations, we are so pleased to honor Katherine S. Bifaro as the Champion for Justice.
Federal Court Award
In early 2014, VLP began operation of the Pro Se Assistance Program (PSAP), a limited scope counsel and advice clinic in the Courthouse to advise pro se litigants involved in Western District of NY cases. This program is in partnership with the Federal Bar Association Western District of NY Chapter, the SUNY Buffalo Law School, and the Court.
HURWITZ & FINE, P.C. has supported the PSAP since it launched in February 2014. Their attorneys Earl Cantwell, Mike Perley and Paul Suozzi have provided important legal advice and assistance to a total of 41 pro se litigants. This year, 12 clients visiting the PSAP benefitted from their short term limited scope legal assistance. In addition to helping our clients make sense of the often complex Federal Court procedures, the Hurwitz & Fine attorneys are generous mentors for law student volunteers. They go above and beyond to assist the PSAP. Thank you Hurwitz & Fine, P.C. for being Champions for Justice.
Family Law Help Desk
Many family problems (such as paternity, support, orders of protection, custody and visitation) end up in Family Court. VLP’s Family Court Help Desk was created in 2013 and brings experienced Family Court practitioners, law students, and a VLP staff member together to provide brief counsel and advice for unrepresented Family Court litigants.
KEVIN C. CONDON, Esq., began volunteering for VLP in 2006, handling bankruptcy and divorce matters. He joined our group of Family Court Help Desk pro bono attorneys in 2014. Since 2006, Kevin has spent 146 hours assisting 195 clients. This year his work at the Family Court Help Desk has been extraordinary, having represented 122 clients on 24 days for a total of 58 hours. A solo practitioner, Kevin’s breadth of experience in Family Law and Family Court practice, combined with his thorough and straightforward manner, make him an extraordinary volunteer. He is skilled at explaining the legal process in a way that our confused and often overwhelmed clients can understand. Recently, Kevin provided critical legal assistance to a father who wanted custody of his young child and the child’s half-brother because their mother abandoned them at our client’s home. Kevin quickly sorted out the issues, explained custody rights and responsibilities to the client, and assisted the client with completing the custody petition. The client left understanding how to proceed in court to be able to provide a stable and loving home for the two children. Kevin C. Condon, Esq., is a Champion for Justice.
Law Firm Pro Bono Coordinator Award
Lawyers in law firms are pulled in many directions. Having a dynamic and committed Pro Bono Coordinator within the firm can make the difference in getting partners and associates involved in pro bono work.
ROBERT P. HEARY, Esq. is a longstanding supporter of pro bono initiatives for Barclay Damon’s Buffalo office. Much of the credit for our ability to call upon Barclay Damon attorneys to represent our low income clients is attributed to Robert Heary. Bob devotes a large portion of his time as the Buffalo office’s Pro Bono Partner. Bob practices what he preaches, volunteering at the PSAP and Say Yes Legal Clinics regularly. Not only does Bob coordinate the pro bono activities of Barclay Damon’s Buffalo office attorneys, he is a valued member of VLP’s Board of Directors. In addition, he spends an untold number of hours advising VLP on management and personnel issues without ever seeking recognition. In the past year under Bob’s leadership, 35 attorneys volunteered over 341 hours representing 178 clients. Thank you Robert P. Heary, Esq., for being a Champion for Justice.
Law Firm Commitment Award
Law firms demonstrate their commitment to assist VLP and our low income clients in so many ways. Some handle labor intensive cases. Some handle a high volume of cases. Many provide financial assistance to support VLP’s services.
KENNEY SHELTON LIPTAK NOWAK LLP attorneys have supported VLP for over 30 years, with Patrick Kenney handling a VLP tort defense case as far back as 1989. We have counted on many of the firm’s attorneys to represent our clients, including Shari Jo Reich who readily accepts VLP clients with challenging issues, and Jessica Reich Lynch, who consistently represents our divorce clients. Thanks to the impressive efforts of associates Henry Zomerfeld and Ashlyn Capote, the firm recently implemented a firm-wide pro bono initiative. The firm’s attorneys now have a strong presence at AOM, handle divorces and family law matters, tort defense cases, NFP clients, and wills and estates matters. Last year the firm’s attorneys volunteered over 173 hours representing 80 clients. We are grateful for their pro bono innovation and leadership. Kenney Shelton Liptak Nowak LLP, you are Champions for Justice.
VLP “V.I.P.” Award
This award is for those who have been particularly important to the success of VLP and to the relative sanity of the VLP staff. This is due to the award winner’s longtime commitment and willingness to help in ways in which few others are willing to.
JOSHUA DUBS, Esq. is the perfect example of how a single attorney can make a huge difference in the lives of our clients. Since 2009, when Josh came to VLP as a newly admitted attorney, he has volunteered over 376 hours representing 462 clients in cases involving landlord/tenant issues, wills, power of attorney, name change, guardianship, custody and visitation, and divorce. This year he spent over 64 hours representing 100 clients. He always has an open case or two or three. Josh’s willingness to step in and take a case that we have difficulty placing is remarkable. His commitment to the AOM program remains solid, both as a court volunteer and an instructor for our CLE programs. He is a memorable mentor, and an all-around great person. Josh says the work he does in his private practice pays the bills, but his volunteer work with VLP “feeds the soul”. Thank you Joshua E. Dubs, Esq., for being a tireless and longstanding Champion for Justice.
This category is awarded to Judges, or members of their staff, who have gone out of their way to help facilitate pro bono work.
JOSEPH V. DEREN, Esq., and JONATHAN C. GORMAN, Esq., Court Attorneys with Buffalo City Court, have had an enormous impact on our eviction defense work through the Attorney of the Morning (AOM) program. Both Joe and Jon have worked with VLP to ensure that low income individuals facing homelessness are provided with access to justice. They play an important role with the fair and efficient operation of “eviction court.” They have ongoing communication with VLP to troubleshoot and enhance AOM. They welcome law students and new attorneys to their Court. This year Joe worked with VLP to review court procedures to improve case handling and designed a much more useful stipulation form. In addition, Jon was a lecturer at an eviction defense training that VLP presented. Thank you Joseph V. Deren, Esq. and Jonathan C. Gorman, Esq. for being Champions for Justice.