A MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR
Melina Healey, Director of Clinical Programs
With warm seasons greetings from Long Island, I am proud to share the year-end news from Touro Law Center’s Clinical Program. As always, we have been busy learning from each other, providing critical assistance to our community, and participating in broad transformative change for social justice.
This year our 11 in-house clinics provided tens of thousands of hours of pro bono legal services to thousands of clients in Suffolk County. These efforts safeguarded the housing of hundreds of seniors and other vulnerable Suffolk residents, ensured dozens of veterans gained access to critical benefits and employment, prevented many immigrants from unjust removals, supported the work of local nonprofits, and obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in services for children and adults with disabilities. Our inaugural class of prosecution clinic students at the Kings County DA’s office learned firsthand to be thoughtful progressive prosecutors, playing an instrumental role in both exonerations and murder convictions. We take great pride in these accomplishments and commend the students who assumed responsibility for their clients and causes. We know the experience was instrumental in fostering their growth into dedicated and effective emerging attorneys with a passion for public interest.
As we look towards the new year, we eagerly anticipate the coming, in Fall 2024, of our new Small Business Legal Assistance Clinic (we are currently hiring a director for that clinic! See posting here). We also look forward to continuing and growing the Education Justice Clinic’s novel autism-focused medical-legal partnership with Touro’s graduate schools of Occupational Therapy and Applied Behavioral Analysis.
Attoney Paul H. Senzer Joins the Senior Citizens Law Clinic as Clinic Grows to Meet Surging Community Need
The Senior Citizens Law Clinic (SCLC) welcomes Paul H. Senzer, Esq., as a Legal Fellow. Mr. Senzer joins Touro following a long career serving clients on Long Island and is very interested in senior citizens issues. He ran a private practice in Garden City for more than 30 years, appearing in nearly every state and local court across Long Island. From 1994 – 2020, he served as elected Justice in Northport Village Court and from 2013 – 2019 was District Court Hearing Officer/trial judge at the Suffolk County Traffic & Parking Violations Agency in Hauppauge. He joins a thriving legal team that safeguards vulnerable long island seniors’ access to housing, healthcare, and basic life necessities.
The SCLC is a federally-funded program created under Title III-B of the Older Americans Act. It provides legal services at no cost to seniors, age 60+, living in Suffolk County. The program is run by Senior Staff Attorney Denise Marzano-Doty, Staff Attorney AveMaria Thompson, Mr. Senzer, and Paralegal Gerontologist, Judith Lespinasse. The clinic serves more than 1,000 senior citizens each year through direct representation as well as information and assistance on a variety of topics.
In addition to this core staff, each semester a group of students join SCLC’s efforts.. Clinic students take on the role of counsel in these cases, with an opportunity to interview and counsel clients and research and draft legal documents. This hands-on training is educationally invaluable. Students are exposed to a wide range of legal practice areas during their clinic experience, and are able to play a role in many meaningful victories for their clients.
The SCLC assists local seniors with the greatest economic and social needs. This scope encompasses a diverse cross-section of clients including those who reside in nursing homes, adult homes or assisted living; clients who are chronically ill or have difficulty accessing health care; clients who are homeless or threatened with homelessness; clients who live on subsistence income or are threatened with the loss of subsistence income; aging lesbian, gay or transgender residents; those who have language barriers that limit their access to legal redress or whose language barriers have made them prone to victimization; and those who are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation, including fraudulent and deceptive consumer and financial practices. SCLC works to maintain housing and health coverage and prevent homelessness by securing a wide range of public benefits. The program also protects the rights of patients in nursing homes, prevents or redresses elder abuse and exploitation, and provides counsel in health care decision-making and access to health care issues.
Since the pandemic, the clinic has witnessed an even greater demand for legal services. During Covid, local seniors suffered from illness, loss of income, lack of social support from family or friends, lack of transportation, and isolation. As the only legal services organization in the county providing specialized pro bono legal services for seniors, the SCLC has had its hands full.
In the face of these new and evolving challenges, SCLC has managed notable recent achievements. For example, Ms. Lespinasse worked diligently with a client who had not cashed her Social Security checks in many years due to a misunderstanding. Ms. Lespinasse met with the client, researched the matter, and. through advocacy with the Social Security Administration, was able to resolve the issue favorably. The client was awarded reimbursement in excess of $100,000. These funds will make her daily life much easier.
SCLC attorneys and law students have also assisted many clients who were at risk of eviction or loss of housing. By appearing with them in court, clinic members are able to negotiate settlements to give clients time to locate new housing, prevent a monetary judgment, and, in some cases, to retain their tenancy. In one instance, AveMaria Thompson worked with a client to get an eviction case withdrawn from the court docket. Not only did this advocacy reduce the client’s rental arrears, but the clinic also helped her obtain supplemental government funds to cover her balance due. The client was moved to tears of gratitude that she could remain safely in her home, and with a clean slate, after this ordeal.
SCLC has also assisted many clients in obtaining Community Medicaid benefits which have allowed them to obtain home health care. Other positive outcomes include a settlement of $12,000 for a senior whose contractor who did not complete work on their home and walked away mid-job. We commend the tremendous work of SCLC students, faculty, and staff.
Judith Lespinasse Appointed to Paralegal Advisory Board
Congratulations to Judith Lespinasse who provided such excellent paralegal internship supervision to Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) students that she has been appointed to the advisory board for the SCCC paralegal program!
Judith Lespinasse has served since 2021 as the Site Supervisor for the SCCC Paralegal Studies Internship Program. Every spring semester, she welcomes a cohort of undergraduate and graduate interns to the SCCC and presents them with valuable opportunities to work with clients and learn about the various elder law issues we encounter daily.
Earlier this year, Lespinasse was asked to serve on the SCCC Paralegal Advisory Board. The Board, comprised of lawyers, judges, and members of the legal and business communities, is responsible for guiding the success of the paralegal program. They ensure the program provides students with substantive experience and skills that can be transferred to the workplace. To that end, they assess the needs of employers; solicit student feedback through regular surveys; and examine new trends in the field. Like Law Schools, the SCCC Paralegal Program is subject to approval from the American Bar Association.
Judith stated, “I am involved with the SCCC Paralegal Studies Internship Program because it allows me to demonstrate to students how integral paralegals are to the law environments in which they work. The internship program is oftentimes the first interaction students will have with the legal field in a professional office; and I do not want it to be the last.” She continued, “My involvement with the SCCC Paralegal Advisory Board is an extension of this commitment. I am honored to work with such a distinguished group of individuals who give of their time and expertise in this way. It is very rewarding to see how my mentoring and coaching skills have enabled the interns to begin to ask the right questions, work well with clients, and understand the implications of the advice we give. In a relatively short time, they acquire the knowledge to provide effective services to a vulnerable individual or caregiver.”
Immigration Law Clinic Off to a Great Start
The inaugural semester of Touro Law’s newly established Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic exemplified the clinic's dedication to cultivating well-rounded advocates dedicated to positively impacting the lives of immigrants facing complex legal issues.
In a recent triumph, a team of clinic students successfully secured lawful status for their client, a Mexican woman who had endured nearly two decades of wrongful imprisonment before being exonerated earlier this year. The students' meticulous research and innovative factual development, in collaboration with Touro Law’s Veterans and Servicemembers Rights Clinic, persuaded the Department of Homeland Security to grant an infrequently used form of relief. Against great odds, the students eliminated the imminent threat of deportation for their client, safeguarding her from deportation and, just as crucially, making her eligible to undergo a life-saving medical procedure.
“Securing lawful status for our client was one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my law school career. Even when it seemed like we would not succeed, we pressed on, reframed, and covered all angles of the case, which ultimately led us to victory,” said Allison Baal ’24. Her teammate, Jessica Khargi, ’24 noted: “Our client has been through so much, and we are truly honored to have played a part in obtaining life-changing and life-saving relief for someone as deserving as she is.”
In a separate case, another student team researched, drafted, and filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York, seeking to compel the federal government to act on a long-delayed green card application for their client. The case challenges the government’s prolonged processing delays for relief applications, which deprive eligible individuals of the ability to work and reside securely in the United States. The students’ work seeks to positively impact their own client as well as others who experience these common delays. In a third case, students from the immigration clinic tirelessly gathered factual and expert testimony, including testimony from crucial country conditions and psychological experts, in preparation for their client's trial, anticipated to take place next year.
In addition to working with individuals at different stages of deportation proceedings, students at the immigration clinic confront systemic issues by collaborating with community-based and non-profit organizations. This semester, the entire clinic team worked with staff at SEPA Mujer, an organization working to support immigrant women on Long Island since 1993. The students assessed eligibility for relief and prepared temporary status and work permit applications for newly arrived immigrants at an event held at the William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center.
The clinic is taught and directed by Mauricio Noroña, who joined Touro this semester as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law.
When Clinic is a Family Affair
By Melina Healey, Assistant Clinical Professor and Director of the Education Justice Clinic
In the spring of 2022, a single mother reached out to the Education Justice Clinic seeking assistance with her son’s school suspension. The child, 11 at the time, had been removed from school for weeks because of an offensive drawing and other inappropriate behavior. The child was intelligent but always had difficulty socializing. He was desperate for friends and sought affirmation and praise, but never seemed to understand how to please his peers and teachers.
Like too many kids, this child had fallen through the cracks of his school system. His public school had failed to understand his increasingly problematic behaviors as a symptom of what was belatedly diagnosed, after intervention and representation from our clinic, as severe autism. Indeed, while it should have been apparent to his educators starting in kindergarten, the school overlooked entirely that he had autism and a host of other mental health and disability challenges that impaired his ability to read social cues and respond to directions. The child, now almost a young man, is bright, and his academic abilities allowed him to skate by in a general education setting even while his mental health and relationships were falling apart, and his grades slipped from excellent to barely passing.
Our clinic prevailed in challenging the child’s suspensions. We demonstrated that his behaviors were connected to his disability and instead of unfairly excluding the child, the school would have to provide him with more services to address his educational and behavioral needs. After this victory, however, the work with the child’s family had only just begun. While the “case” appeared to be a simple suspension representation, which we could reasonably open and close quickly, his family needed so much more. And the dedicated students who worked on his case, among them, Devin Trapp ’24, wanted to do so much more. Ultimately, the clinic succeeded in reversing 10 suspensions on the child’s record, obtaining $350,000 in educational evaluations and benefits, and securing a new school placement. We represented the child’s siblings to secure other educational benefits in excess of another $50,000. And we represent the mother now in a related personal injury proceeding.
The work is only just beginning on this “case.” We hope this work will make a difference for the family, but we have also been blessed by it. It is continuing to teach us the many things that the Education Clinic, and our clinical program, must do to ensure that our clients are able to thrive. This family is among very few non-White community members in a very White area. As a clinic, we have no doubt that this impacted their treatment in the local school system. What more can we do about this? What can we learn about autism from the expert faculty from related disciplines who we consulted on the case, and how can we apply that knowledge to our other cases involving children with autism? The family has also experienced frustrating housing instability in an area where affordable housing is nonexistent. What can our clinical program offer them? Almost a year after starting her work on this case, Devin is continuing to engage the clinic in thinking through these questions.
Devin says: "When you start working with a family you start to see the multifaceted challenges that they face and addressing these questions becomes imperative.” Devin also reflected on the collaborative work we did on this case through the clinic’s medical-legal partnership with Touro’s Graduate School of Occupational Therapy and Applied Behavioral Analysis. Students and faculty from those disciplines, both central to the treatment of autism, helped advise and deepen our understanding of our client and our case strategy. Devin adds: “It becomes a journey of learning, reflection, and most importantly interdisciplinary collaboration to thoroughly assist the family and make proactive change."
Instead of representing one child on a discrete legal issue, the Education Justice Clinic has been able to amplify our work to cover more holistic services for the family more broadly and to start thinking expansively about how to reverse injustice in the family’s community.
Prosecution Clinic Provides Unique Experience for Students
Touro Law Center offered our inaugural Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office Prosecution Clinic this year. The program immersed students in prosecutorial practice in a modern and progressive office. Students engaged in the application, procedure and principles of criminal litigation through working directly on and studying actual prosecutions and exonerations.
Under the guidance of Adjunct Professor Michael Boykin ’11, a Deputy Bureau Chief in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, and other Brooklyn DA supervisors, students were assigned a challenging and important caseload in the trial division. The students assisted in the preparation of several important trials which ultimately lead to convictions. In one notable case, the defendant had shot ten rounds of ammunition at two individuals in a crowded intersection in the Flatbush neighborhood. That defendant was initially identified by a tattoo on his hand. During trial, one of the clinic students also became a key witness when he took a photo of the defendant's hand which later became a trial exhibit. Clinic students also took responsibility for witness preparation in another murder trial in which the defendant shot a coworker while at a crowded amusement park in Coney Island. This case also was a successful conviction for the office.
Seminar went beyond PowerPoint presentations and lectures. Students had immersive forensic experiences during field trips to the Brooklyn DA’s Digital Evidence Lab, the NYPD Forensics Investigations Division facilities and laboratories, and the NYPD Controlled Substance Analysis Laboratory. During these trips, the clinic explored the use of forensic science and technology as evidence. They became familiar with the methods used to chemically test and examine drugs, conduct paint and footprint analysis, and new virtual microscopy hardware. They toured the NYPD’s ballistics testing area, where they learned about gunshot residue, ghost guns, microscopy, the police force’s ballistic recovery tank, serial restoration, and the metallurgy of firearms. The clinic also explored various methods of surveillance technology.
Clinic students also were part of the Brooklyn DA’s application of this cutting-edge technology to the practice of criminal law from investigation to trial. They witnessed how technology can instill confidence in convictions and deliver more precise, reliable, and expeditious verdicts. The clinic observed how technology opened the door to new investigative leads into otherwise cold cases. The clinic, like the office more broadly, focused on fairness and prosecutorial integrity in the use of technology. Students studied several cases in which technology helped to forestall wrongful accusations, preventing innocent people from even being charged. Students were able to be part of the exonerations of two individuals who were wrongfully convicted. Accurate prosecution remained the clinic’s theme.
In all, the program was a success, and Touro Law, as well as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, are eager for the program to continue to thrive.
Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic Update
On average, there are about 200,000 military service members who end their service every year. When a veteran is given a less-than-honorable discharge, it can be an uphill battle to get the basic housing, employment, and healthcare benefits that they deserve. However, though the Veterans and Servicemembers Clinic, student clinical interns, under the supervision of experienced veteran and attorney Patrick Donohue, provide free legal services to veterans in the Long Island community and beyond who are in need of discharge upgrades and VA benefits.
One recent success in the clinic involved a Vietnam Veteran who reached out for help with their veteran’s disability benefits. Before contacting the clinic, the client was admonished by a Veteran Service Officer that their hearing loss disability claim was “frivolous.” Students in the clinic, under Professor Donohue’s guidance, conducted their own investigation and determined that the client’s claims had merit.
The student handling the case quickly assisted the client with gathering the necessary evidence. The clinic then appealed the hearing loss denial. within a few months, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rendered a favorable decision granting the veteran disability benefits for hearing loss. The VA has already supplied the veteran with much-needed hearing aids as a result. Needless to say, the veteran is extremely grateful for the clinic’s careful handling of the case.
A Summer to Remember
College Internship Affirms Decision to Pursue a Law Degree
The Siena Summer Fellowship Program provides a glimpse of the legal world and law school for undergraduate students considering a career in law. Each summer, Touro Law accepts 1-3 students from this program. Over the years, nearly all the interns who completed the law clinic internship are now enrolled in law school or are practicing attorneys.
“This program exposes students who are thinking about careers in law to the realities of law school and practicing law. They are often reassured to know that although law school is rigorous, the benefits of being able to help clients navigate the legal system is rewarding. Law is a noble profession. I am grateful to be a part of this journey for these students and often keep in touch with them as they navigate both law school and their legal careers,” stated AveMaria Thompson, Adjunct Professor, Director of the Landlord-Tenant Mediation Clinic, Staff Attorney of the Senior Citizens Law Program and Director of the Summer College Intern Program.
This past summer, Touro Law accepted Elizabeth Byrnes into the program. The program provided the exposure to law that she needed to make a decision about her future.
“My experience at Touro Law working with Professor Thompson has been life-changing. Prior to
entering the program this summer, I felt unsure as to whether or not I would choose to go into the legal field and pursue law school after graduation, or if I would end up earning a Master's Degree in the field of education, pursuing a path as an educator. After my first week at Touro, I had a conversation with my parents and told them that I would be attending law school upon my graduation from Siena College. Within 4 days of my start at Touro, I signed up for an LSAT preparatory course and began to ponder where I might apply to law school. Touro had already been a life-altering experience after my first week, as it made the path to my next chapter clear.”
Working with Professor Thompson, Elizabeth got first-hand experience and exposure to a variety of tasks that a lawyer might perform on a given day. Attending court hearings, conducting client intakes, and drafting legal memoranda are just a few of the jobs Elizabeth was tasked with throughout the summer. As the weeks progressed, Elizabeth grew more passionate about the work she was doing, and what her future would hold if she decided to continue her legal education.
“My time at Touro has changed my life in many ways. I have learned everything that I currently know about the legal field through this experience, and I am leaving with knowledge in several areas of what it takes to be an effective and impactful attorney. Professor Thompson has shown me that serving as an attorney is a helping profession. Being an attorney means being there for individuals in need on some of the worst days of their lives. I see the strength in this ability to help people through legal knowledge, and I feel passionate about pursuing a career in law after my experience at Touro with Professor Thompson.”
Professor Thompson agrees and concluded, “It is inspiring to work with the next generation of lawyers who are committed to public service.”
Touro Law's Clinical Program
Touro Law’s Clinical Program is ever-changing to meet the needs of students in full-time, part-time, and FlexTime programs as well as the landscape of law school and lawyering during these challenging times. What is of critical importance for each clinic is providing students with an opportunity to engage in hands-on learning while delving into specific areas of the law.
If you want to learn more about our clinical programs, please reach out to us at (631) 761-7080 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.