MFY Offers Opportunity To Serve The Disabled: Volunteer As A Guardian Ad Litem

Saturday, October 1, 2005 - 01:00

Jeanette Zelhof

Attorneys at MFY Legal Services, Inc. regularly represent persons with disabilities to preserve their community-based housing and to protect their civil rights. Sometimes, based on the degree of the person's disability and need, lawyers at MFY find it necessary to seek the appointment of a guardian ad litem where the person is not able to adequately participate in his or her own defense, the standard set forth in New York States CPLR 1201.

The Need

The need is great. According to a 2002 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Community Health Survey, approximately 381,000 New Yorkers suffer from some form of mental disability, yet live in community-based housing and are in receipt of subsistence level disability benefits. Disabled persons who become respondents in eviction proceedings have great difficulty negotiating the Housing Court system, with its strict procedural requirements, and its mandate to summarily process cases. They often are easily pressured into signing agreements giving up their tenancy rights, without understanding the legal consequences of their consent, or lose their cases after trial. In either case, these persons have no financial resources to obtain new housing in this very expensive housing market, and end up homeless, hospitalized or institutionalized, at great cost to the public. Access to a lawyer is therefore key, which is what MFY does well. But the MFY lawyer cannot do it all.

The Role Of The Guardian Ad Litem

MFY has also been successful in recruiting attorneys (associates and partners) from the private bar to serve as guardians ad litem in cases where MFY's disabled clients are either unable to make it to court because of a hospitalization, or come to court but are simply overwhelmed by the process and unable to make cogent decisions as a result. As an example, Kathleen McCabe, a corporate associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, was asked by MFY to act as guardian ad litem to an MFY client who was an inpatient at a City hospital, and being treated for depression and congenital hydrocephalus. The landlord was attempting to evict her for, inter alia, failure to pay rent. Ms. R. was unable to pay her landlord as she had been admitted to the hospital without a checkbook, passbook, or any identification.

Ms. McCabe worked closely with the MFY attorney, the client and the client's case worker at the hospital, to adjourn the case to give her time to track down the client's sister, who had all of her documentation and bank passbook. In addition, because Ms. McCabe was initially unable to contact the sister, she began working with the client's bank to gain access to her account. After a month of telephone calls to the bank, the bank acquiesced and provided a check with the full amount of rent owed to the landlord, thus avoiding Ms. R's eviction.

The Reward

Corporate counsel and other attorneys find it rewarding to work on pro bono cases in roles other than as counsel. Acting as a guardian ad litem, the attorney establishes a relationship with the client, ascertains the clients' interests, and works with the attorney and the court to defend the case to achieve the ward's wishes. The contact is personal, and the reward immediate.

MFY welcomes corporate counsel volunteers to do this type of pro bono activity. If you are interested, contact agoldberg@mfy.org.

Jeanette Zelhof is Deputy Director, MFY Legal Services, Inc.