October is National Pro Bono Month. “Pro bono” is short for the Latin term “pro bono public,” which means “for the public good.” In the legal profession, it applies to providing free legal services to the poor, who would be otherwise unable to afford a lawyer.
The Alabama State Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) was created in 1990 by the Alabama State Bar Board of Bar Commissioners to provide an organized vehicle through which attorneys can volunteer their services on a pro bono basis in civil matters to indigent citizens in their community. The VLP began its operation in 1991 and has delivered free legal services to low income residents of Alabama for 25 years. But how does this program work in the real world?
Beasley Allen lawyer Stephanie Monplaisir is involved with the Montgomery VLP (MVLP), which operates a walk-in clinic each month for those seeking legal assistance. This program was recently expanded from one to two days a month, on the first and third Thursday of each month from 3-5 p.m. at the Montgomery Community Action Agency. She recently won a pro bono case on appeal for a client she met at the clinic, who faced losing her house as a result of a bad loan agreement whose terms had changed without her approval. Although the client, Janet Minefield, had won her initial case, which started in 2000, the other party had appealed the decision. Monplaisir happened to be the only appellate lawyer volunteering at the VLP clinic that day.
“When she started telling me all that had led up to the appeal, I knew that I had to do more than just answer questions,” Monplaisir says. “I knew I had to write the brief for her.”
Monplaisir explained the case, saying in 2000 Ms. Minefield borrowed a little over $2,000 from Mr. Joseph Thomas, a family friend, to catch up on some bills. He agreed to loan her the money only if she would sign her house over to him “for collateral.” He promised that he would sign the house back over to her once she paid the loan. She paid him back, and he never mentioned owning the house once he was paid.
A few years later, she got behind on her mortgage. Mr. Thomas offered to pay off the mortgage (approx. $10,000) in exchange for her signing the house over to him again. They made the same arrangement as before – once she repaid him, his interest would divest. But this time, Mr. Thomas didn’t want to be repaid – he wanted the house.
Almost immediately, Monplaisir says, he started harassing Ms. Minefield to get out of the house, to pay him rent, or to pay him the full value of the house. He would send police officers over to evict her, would break into her house, and was constantly filing documents with the Court to have her evicted, or to force the sale of the house. Ms. Minefield continued to make payments on the $10,000 loan, but eventually brought an action to quiet title to the house to stop his harassment.
Judge William Shashy found that Ms. Minefield and Mr. Thomas had created an equitable mortgage. Once Ms. Minefield paid what she owed, Mr. Thomas’s interest would divest. Judge Shashy ordered Ms. Minefield to pay the rest of the loan, and she did so. Mr. Thomas was still not satisfied. He wanted more money, and he wanted 100 percent ownership of the house. He appealed Judge Shashy’s Order.
“This is the point where Ms. Minefield came to MVLP,” Monplaisir says. “She had no idea what an appellate brief was or where to start. I wanted to take that burden off of her since she had spent the last 10 years battling this man who was trying to take her home. Luckily, the Court of Civil Appeals agreed with us, and Ms. Minefield gets to keep her house and doesn’t owe Mr. Thomas anything else!
“The sad thing is that Mr. Thomas has done this to many people. He preys on uneducated people in bad situations. Hopefully, this Order will help future victims.”
The VLP receives support from the Alabama State Bar, Alabama Law Foundation, and Legal Services Alabama, as well as through private contributions. There are also local VLPs, like the MVLP, which operate in cooperation with their local county Bar Associations. The MVLP is supported by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, the Alabama Law Foundation, City of Montgomery, Legal Services Alabama, Montgomery County Bar Association, Montgomery County Bar Foundation and the generosity of the legal community. There are many reasons for lawyers to get involved with the VLP.
“I got involved with VLP because it was a chance for me to give back to my community.” Monplaisir says. “Sometimes we can become so isolated in our practice and forget that there are people out there who have real legal issues that may never come into our office. They either do not understand the legal process, or cannot afford help. That is where VLP comes in and provides essential services for those who may be uneducated or less fortunate.
“VLP is not only important for clients. I think it is just as important for lawyers – that we may never forget that the legal profession is really about service to others.”
For information about how to become involved with the VLP, visit the Alabama State Bar online at www.alabar.org or contact the VLP at 334-269-1515 or email [email protected]. There are many activities and events going on throughout the state in October as part of the National Pro Bono Celebration. A full list of activities can be found on the State Bar website at www.alabar.org/events.