A Day in the Life of the SGR Fellow

Each year, Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP selects an associate to spend three months working full time at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. as part of the firm's ongoing commitment to providing legal services to Atlanta's indigent population.

Each year, Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP selects an associate to spend three months working full time at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. as part of the firm’s ongoing commitment to providing legal services to Atlanta’s indigent population. The appointment provides the “SGR Fellow,” as the person holding the position is known, an invaluable opportunity to work “in the trenches” representing the poor in matters ranging from landlord-tenant disputes and evictions to federal subsidized-housing problems to “loans” with questionable interest and repayment rates.

Shayne Clinton spent the first three months of 2007 working at Atlanta Legal Aid on behalf of the firm as the SGR Fellow. The following is an example of a day in Shayne’s practice while at Legal Aid.

9:00 a.m. — I arrived at the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) for a 9:00 a.m. appointment to review my client’s file stored at AHA. I needed to review the client’s file to investigate the facts of the case. The
client lost her Section 8 federal housing assistance shortly after moving to Atlanta. She received a voucher to find rental property but approximately two weeks after she signed her lease, AHA terminated her voucher. AHA accused her of submitting false information regarding her employment to obtain Section 8 assistance. AHA had attempted to verify the client’s employment by contacting what it thought was her employer. However, AHA erroneously contacted not the client’s employer but the contractor for whom the client’s employer was a subcontractor.

Results of Representation: After reviewing the client’s file at AHA, I sent AHA a demand letter to reinstate the client’s housing assistance and attached documents to show that the client did not submit false information. A couple of weeks later, I spoke with AHA’s general counsel, and AHA agreed to reinstate the client’s federal housing assistance. While investigating this matter, I also learned that the rental property had been sold to a third party. I assisted the client to transition her lease to the new landlord.

10:30 a.m. — When I arrived at the Atlanta Legal Aid office after my appointment with AHA, I opened my mail and learned that a client had won her unemployment benefits hearing before the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL).

The client is a single mother of two children, and a Japanese immigrant, struggling to make ends meet. She was discharged from her job, and the employer gave her a recommendation letter stating that it had to discharge her due to budgetary problems. The termination letter did not state any other reasons for firing her. When the client applied for unemployment benefits, the employer then claimed that it fired her not because of budgetary problems but due to her incompetence. The DOL initially denied the client her unemployment benefits based on the employer’s statements.

At the hearing, I had had the opportunity to cross-examine the employer’s two representatives through a DOL-appointed Japanese interpreter. The representatives admitted that the company never gave the client prior warnings and also admitted that the company gave her the recommendation letter. I then had the client testify to the facts of the case. The client was thrilled to have the unemployment benefits reinstated to help her care for her children as she looks for a new job.

11:00 a.m. — I served a subpoena upon a witness who lives in a local housing project for an upcoming hearing before the Georgia DOL.

The DOL had initially denied the client’s unemployment benefits, and the hearing was a de novo appeal of that initial decision. The client was incarcerated on a Sunday and did not show up for work for two days. When he returned to work, the employer fired him for unrelated insubordination claims. The client was never given any warnings, and having a prior warning is a factor that the DOL should have considered in deciding whether to award unemployment benefits. Moreover, the DOL denied his benefits because of the incarceration. However, the employer’s stated reason for discharging him did
not mention the incarceration.

Results of Representation: At the hearing, I was able to cross-examine the employer’s representative, and the representative admitted that the company never gave the client any prior warnings. I also had the client testify to the facts of the case. The client won, and the DOL reinstated the client’s unemployment benefits.

**11:45 a.m. **– On the way back to the office, I had lunch with one of the Atlanta Legal Aid attorneys to discuss the status of current cases.

12:30 p.m. — I filed a lawsuit on behalf of a client.

The lawsuit concerns several claims against a mechanic for breach of contract, trover, conversion, negligence and punitive damages. The mechanic has had the client’s vehicle since August of 2006. The client originally hired the mechanic to replace the car’s timing belt. While attempting to replace the timing belt, the mechanic damaged the vehicle’s engine. Instead of repairing the damage he caused, the mechanic refused to return the vehicle. The client left notes and attempted to call the mechanic several times before contacting Atlanta Legal Aid. However, the mechanic refused to return the car. Moreover, the mechanic removed the vehicle’s wheels so the client could not remove the vehicle from the mechanic’s property. I sent a demand letter to the mechanic, but the mechanic did not contact me so I filed the lawsuit, which remains pending.

1:00 p.m. — I returned to my office for final preparations for a trial scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. While reviewing my arguments for trial, I received a telephone call from a client ecstatic that she was living in her new apartment. I was excited to learn that she no longer has to live with rats and cockroaches and with holes in her apartment floor. She also informed me that her new apartment is much larger than her old one and that the heat actually works.

The client had contacted Atlanta Legal Aid with respect to problems with AHA and her landlord. She had entered into a lease with a landlord under a Section 8 federal housing assistance program. She was obligated to pay a small portion of the rent, and AHA was responsible for paying the remaining
amount to the landlord.

In December 2006, the apartment failed an AHA inspection. The landlord refused to correct the problems; as a result, AHA terminated the lease as of January 31, 2007. The client attempted to contact AHA on numerous occasions throughout December 2006 and January 2007 to receive a new voucher to move to another apartment. AHA failed to provide the client with a new voucher to move. In February 2007, the landlord filed a dispossessory action to evict the client, and the client came to Atlanta Legal Aid for help.

I filed an answer and asserted several defenses under federal and state law. At the same time, I sent AHA a demand letter to get the client a new voucher to move to a new apartment. The client was literally threatened with being placed out on the street, as she has no relatives or friends with whom
she could live.

Ultimately, AHA’s general counsel agreed to expedite AHA’s process so the client could move. I also spoke with the landlord’s attorney after he received the client’s answer, and he agreed to dismiss the dispossessory action.

Despite these successes, AHA’s expedited process turned out to be very slow. At the end of February, the landlord again threatened to file another dispossessory action. I spoke with opposing counsel, and he agreed to cancel the dispossessory filing before it was served on the client. I contacted AHA several
times to get the process truly expedited. Finally, in the last week of February, AHA inspected a new apartment for the client so she could move in.

1:30 p.m. — While continuing to review arguments for trial, I received another call from a client, letting me know that the Social Security Administration (SSA) office confirmed that it had received a check from his former representative payee, and that he would be getting his money soon.

The client is a former homeless man who receives social security disability benefits because he suffers from schizophrenia. While he was homeless, his former SSA-appointed representative payee gave him only a portion of his disability benefits, shorting him by approximately $2,700.

The new representative payee learned of this and asked the former representative payee to return the money. However, the former representative payee ignored the requests, and the new representative payee contacted Atlanta Legal Aid for help (the new representative payee was taking care of the client by giving him a place to live as well as administering his benefits).

I sent a demand letter to the former representative payee asking for an accounting. I also spoke with the former representative payee, and she agreed to provide us with an accounting and return any money she owed the client. After she sent me the statement of account, she agreed that she owed approximately $2,700. She delivered a check to the SSA, and the SSA will now pay the money over to the new representative payee for distribution to the client.

**1:45 p.m. **– For this afternoon’s trial, I had a conference with my client and two witnesses that I had planned to use at trial. We went over the types of questions that I was going to ask them, and I prepared them for what to expect during the trial.

The client had her lease terminated and a dispossessory action filed against her. She has lived in the same HUD public housing community since 1997. In the middle of December 2006 while she was in the hospital, her adult son forced himself into her apartment and held a gun to his head and threatened
to commit suicide while the client’s grandson attempted to stop him. The grandson ran out of the apartment and retrieved his mother, and they called the police. When the police arrived, the officers arrested the client’s son on unrelated child neglect charges and took him to Grady Memorial Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Later, the grandson’s mother determined that the gun was not real but a toy.

The public housing community terminated the client’s lease and her subsidized housing assistance because she purportedly had a guest who engaged in criminal activity. However, she had been in the hospital when the event took place, and she had not seen her adult son since 2003. The landlord also alleged that a gun was fired in her apartment.

I filed an answer and asserted several defenses under state and federal law. In February, the case was on the dispossessory calendar, and the case was sent to mediation. At mediation, I met with the housing community’s representative and its attorney. We could not reach a settlement, and the case was reset for trial this afternoon.

3:30 p.m. — I arrived at the Fulton County Courthouse along with the client and the two witnesses for the trial. At the beginning of the bench trial, opposing counsel informed the court that he had mailed subpoenas to three police officers to testify. However, two of the three officers were not available, and he requested a continuance. I objected to the continuance under Georgia law for his failure to properly serve the witnesses. The judge agreed and denied the request for a continuance.

I also moved to exclude some of the landlord’s proposed evidence. The landlord wanted to submit evidence that was not included in the original termination notice. I argued that under federal law the landlord had to rely solely on the reasons stated in the “for cause” termination notice that was sent
to the client. The judge agreed and excluded the evidence.

After opening statements, the plaintiff ‘s representative began testifying. Before she had an opportunity to testify from a police report of the events in question, I objected on hearsay grounds. The judge sustained my objection, and opposing counsel had no further evidence to prove his case.
After opposing counsel finished his case-in-chief, I moved for directed verdict and the judge granted my motion.

After the trial, the client was thrilled and very appreciative. She is a grandmother responsible for raising her grandchild. She told me how relieved she was when the judge told her that she could stay in her apartment and that she could continue to receive federal housing assistance. Without the assistance, she could not have afforded to live in an apartment and take care of her grandchild.

5:45 p.m. — I returned to the Atlanta Legal Aid office to draft memos of the day’s events and to prepare for the next day as an SGR Fellow working to help Atlanta’s indigent population.

Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. was founded in 1924 by E. Smythe Gambrell, the principal of one of SGR’s predecessor law firms, who also served as the Society’s president for most of two decades. The Society’s Fellowship Program began in 1995, and approximately 13 Atlanta law firms now participate by sending associates to one of the Society’s five area offices. Atlanta Legal Aid provides representation exclusively in civil (non-criminal) matters to clients who have an income at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and who reside in either Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb or Gwinnett counties. Such clients must also have priority cases, which include housing, consumer fraud, public benefits, employment, education, health, spouse abuse and child custody cases. For more information, visit

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