Celebrate the 2018 Access To Justice Award honorees

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Access to Justice Awards will honor six attorneys and one law firm, recognizing their exemplary legal skills and service to the community. The awards will be presented at the sold-out 2018 Annual Dinner at the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel on Tuesday, April 24.


PROSECUTOR AWARD

SARA A. COLB
Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division

ColbWin or lose, Sara A. Colb says the cases she prosecutes for the Civil Rights Division of the Attorney General’s Office place her firmly “on the side of justice.” 

Since joining the public sector after years in private practice, Colb has found fulfillment in amplifying the voice of discrimination victims across the state, holding powerful entities accountable for financial damages, and affecting policy change to protect entire classes of people. The assistant attorney general has also taken on prominent roles in cases with far-reaching implications, helping Massachusetts maintain its reputation for adopting progressive stances and establishing national precedent on civil rights issues.

After the Trump Administration announced its intention to prohibit military service by transgender individuals, Attorney General Maura Healey entrusted Colb and two others with preparing a condemnatory amicus brief that was signed by 15 additional states and filed in U.S. District Court.

“I think the transgender military ban is an affront to our fundamental American values,” Colb said. “That our government would turn its back on transgender veterans and active servicepersons — people willing to do what so few of us are, risk their lives for their country — and essentially say, ‘You’re not fit to serve,’ is a disgrace to the nation.”

In the landmark Supreme Judicial Court case Lunn v. Commonwealth, Colb co-authored a brief for the commonwealth arguing that state law does not grant local law enforcement officials the authority to conduct arrests at the direction of federal immigration authorities. This first-in-the-nation ruling by a state supreme court is still the only one of its kind, Colb said. 

Although she relishes her involvement in larger matters of federal significance, Colb is equally inspired to pursue justice for individual complainants, with one notable example being a $110,000 settlement she negotiated with Dell EMC to resolve allegations of discrimination against a transgender employee. 

“There’s a real need for this kind of work, and I find it to be personally and professionally the most rewarding,” Colb said.

PRO BONO PUBLICO AWARD

JAMES T. VAN BUREN

VanPro Bono Publico Award winner James T. Van Buren has effectively modeled his legal career after his ophthalmologist father, who treated countless patients without the means to pay for the services they so critically needed.

This defining example has led Van Buren to donate thousands of pro bono hours to individual clients and community groups, and to advance systemic change as a member of the MBA’s Access to Justice Section Council and the SJC’s Access to Justice Commission. While employed at a small firm in the mid 1970s, Van Buren initially sought pro bono work to expand his professional horizons, but he soon discovered that lack of representation among low-income clients was a chronic issue in the legal realm.

“Tremendous numbers of people still appear in court without any representation, or any clue. I didn’t think that was conducive to being a citizen of a democracy, so I got involved,”  Van Buren said.

As an attorney receiving no compensation in exchange for his courtroom presence, Van Buren says the reward lies in “taking what is obviously an injustice and making it just. It gives you a sense of personal satisfaction that’s really hard to express.”

According to Van Buren, pro bono assistance rendered to Housing Court clients frequently entails consideration for the interests of the other party, and bringing a landlord/tenant dispute to its amicable resolution provides an additional measure of gratification.

Based on his knowledge of the profession, Van Buren said lawyers making their first foray into pro bono work are often forever changed by the experience, and then feel a sense of obligation to continue serving in this capacity. 

“When you can actually make a direct and beneficial impact on somebody who is completely at sea, it’s almost like you can’t get away from it,” said Van Buren, who is now semi-retired, focused on his committee responsibilities and invested in facilitating statewide access to the Housing Court.

LEGAL SERVICES AWARD

ANNETTE R. DUKE
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Inc.

DukeFor Attorney Annette R. Duke, a four-year fixture in the push to extend statewide access to the Housing Court, a final legislative victory represented the culmination of a career-long commitment to tenants’ rights.

By the time a bill was formally signed into law last July, Duke had rallied support from more than 150 distinct but like-minded organizations, all of which agreed that this critical service should be readily available throughout the commonwealth. With 2 million people in 84 communities set to fall under the Housing Court’s expanded jurisdiction, Duke says her success in an advocacy role only underscores the overwhelmingly positive sentiment around this issue.

“This award represents the work of many — both inside and outside the State House,” said Duke, who has been employed since 1989 by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “From mayors to firefighters to faith-based organizations, this victory shows the breadth of the community that cares about housing.”  

Duke says she is a strong proponent of the Housing Court because tenants facing the traumatic prospect of eviction deserve “a fair place to address their issues, a place where they can be heard, and a place that supports them.” 
 
Before her more recent efforts to broaden the reach of the Housing Court, Duke helped preserve the national right to affordable public housing, guaranteed for 50-plus years under the “Brooke Amendment.” Specifically, then-retired U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke (R-MA), for whom the amendment is named, joined an anti-repeal campaign at Duke’s urging.

Outside of her legislative contributions toward housing reform, Duke authored four editions of Legal Tactics: Tenants’ Rights in Massachusetts, and has published numerous community legal education materials.

Moving forward, Duke intends to continue to work with community groups, the Housing Court, and the Access to Justice Commission to ensure that Housing Court is a forum that provides the resources people need to access justice and preserve their housing, including lobbying to strengthen vital initiatives such as the Tenancy Preservation and Lawyer for the Day programs.

DEFENDER AWARD

MARYELLEN CUTHBERT
Law Office of Maryellen Cuthbert

CuthbertMaryellen Cuthbert is quick to characterize her Defender Award as a shared accomplishment with the entire community of juvenile attorneys in Middlesex County, and says her reputation for taking an active interest in the personal welfare of clients is in line with most of her peers.

Despite her humility, Cuthbert has led a distinguished career of 35 years in private practice, noted for her versatility in arguing cases that are among the most challenging in the Juvenile, District and Superior court forums. Outside of the courtroom, Cuthbert provides a steadying influence for adolescent, often low-income clients during their formative years, with few becoming repeat offenders and many finding success in the classroom and stability in their future employment.

“So many of our clients don’t see a way out, or they don’t even know where to start with getting an education, getting a job or moving on,” Cuthbert said. “Sometimes it just takes leadership and acting like maybe a parent would, saying, ‘Here’s a job application; I’ll help you fill it out.’”

Cuthbert intentionally avoids seeking out former clients, choosing to respect their privacy and need for closure, but she fondly recounts being driven to court by a man who summed up his experience by saying, “We lost [the case], but you fought for me.”
“People remember you fought for them whether you win or lose, and that you thought they were important enough to fight,” Cuthbert said. 

The Chelmsford attorney, who relishes continued opportunities for professional growth and collaboration, said defense lawyers must also act as educators to ease apprehension over the complexity of the legal system. 

“The system is not user-friendly, and it’s important that we’re proactive about making it seem accessible and understandable to our clients,” she said.

PRO BONO AWARD FOR LAW FIRMS

NIGRO, PETTEPIT & LUCAS, LLP

NPLEugene A. Nigro was first offered conciliation work as a 20-year attorney thoroughly invested in building his own practice, leaving little time for much else. After he ultimately started accepting cases at the persistent request of a Probate Court judge, Nigro earned distinction as a conciliation trainer in Middlesex and Essex counties, leading to his active involvement in implementing educational programming throughout the state. Nigro now works with his sister and partner, Janice C. Nigro, at Nigro, Pettepit & Lucas, LLP.

Nigro’s passion for conciliation lies in sharing his wealth of knowledge with fellow lawyers, and in easing the common burden of heavy caseloads by preaching fair and prompt settlements to otherwise lengthy proceedings.

“Conciliation provides an avenue to resolve cases in a positive, balanced way, and gives lawyers the opportunity to be passionate about representing their clients, and at the same time reach a settlement,” said Nigro, who deferred praise to his entire firm staff for their volunteer efforts and varied contributions to training sessions. 

According to Nigro, attorneys trained in alternative dispute resolution are also better positioned to advance in their careers, having learned to navigate sensitive issues with proper tact and decorum. 

Although conciliations always begin as contentious disagreements, often with no apparent hope for resolution, Nigro says “focus and rationality” prevail around 80 percent of the time. In one notable example, Nigro entered conciliation with a divorced couple whose case had already spanned three years and multiple lawyers, all unable to break through the deep animosity between the two parties. 

“When I started working with them separately, it became clear that they weren’t that far apart. After a very brief period of time, the structure for an eventual settlement became obvious to me,” Nigro said.

In addition, Nigro said the profession’s embrace of conciliation work “promotes our system of justice — puts our system in a very favorable light, enhances the needed collaboration between judges and attorneys, helps the general public, as well as letting everyone know that attorneys are good people.”

RISING STAR AWARD

KATHRYN CONDON GRACE
MetroWest Legal Services

CondonGraceThough still in the early stages of her career, MetroWest Legal Services staff attorney Kathryn Condon Grace has fast emerged as a passionate advocate for low-income individuals, immigrant parents and children, and other vulnerable populations within the justice and health care systems. 

Grace has been drawn to serving this clientele since she completed a transformative experience as a paralegal for the AIDS Legal Counsel of Chicago, where she gained appreciation for the role of medical-legal partnerships in improving patient well-being. Now with MetroWest, she has called upon her prior expertise to help launch a grant-funded MLP with Framingham’s Edward M. Kennedy Health Center, training staff to identify “health-harming legal needs,” providing on-site consultations and handling direct representation for over 350 patients.

Grace, who deals extensively with the undocumented immigrant population, counts two such cases among her most noteworthy to date.
 
When one client was initially denied insurance coverage for a bone marrow transplant to treat his acute myeloid leukemia, Grace’s evidence-based appeal compelled MassHealth to change its stance prior to the hearing, and the now father of three has since entered remission.

“I was able to have a truly lifesaving impact,” said Grace.

She takes similar pride in obtaining asylum for a young El Salvadorian woman detained by immigration agents after escaping severe torture in her home country, with impending legal proceedings only compounding her emotional distress. 

As Grace explains, low-income patients tend to distrust lawyers, but will confide in their doctors, who can, in turn, ensure that issues of significant legal or medical consequence do not go unaddressed.

“If someone’s having a heart attack on the street, I can’t step in; I can’t do anything to help. I’m not trained to do that. But if somebody has an access to justice legal need, I can step in there and have a real impact on their lives and their well-being,” said Grace.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

DICK BAUER
Greater Boston Legal Services

BauerAs the honoree for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Dick Bauer has spent the majority of his waking hours “fighting for people who didn’t have much and were entitled to have more.”

The veteran attorney offered this brief synopsis when asked to summarize his more than three-decade tenure at Greater Boston Legal Services, where he compassionately represented low-income tenants, homeless individuals and those entitled to subsidized housing. Bauer, who noted the rewarding and intellectually stimulating nature of his work, said he gained immense personal satisfaction from earning shelter accommodation for homeless families, and saving people from certain foreclosure or eviction.

“The cards are really stacked against people who don’t have much money,” Bauer said. “They face fights with entities, landlords, government agents or banks that have a lot more power.”

One such fight involved two Boston-area women placed without warning in a Springfield shelter, despite a requirement that relocations occur within a 20-mile radius. After his appeals were dismissed, Bauer filed class-action lawsuits that ultimately enabled both families to remain in Greater Boston, and also ensured that others would receive proper notice for, and the opportunity to contest, similar housing assignments.

Just as Bauer advocated for clients of lesser social standing, he prioritized the needs of his junior colleagues and the profession at large by accepting voluntary retirement amid declining profits and corresponding layoffs at GBLS in 2014. “They’re the future of legal services more than I am,” Bauer said of GBLS’ younger attorneys and his decision to step aside.

While he remains active in legal aid on a part-time and voluntary basis, Bauer devotes his remaining time to mentoring newer lawyers across the state, keeping alive a tradition that helped jumpstart his own career.

“This has been a wonderful way to spend a career, and I feel very lucky and honored to have had the opportunity to do that,” Bauer said.