Below the Law


Two Syracuse lawyers honored for donating free legal help for poor people

By John O’Brien | jobrien@syracuse.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Two Syracuse lawyers were among 18 honored this week by the state bar association for providing free legal assistance to indigent people.

Thomas E. Myers and Tracy Sullivan received the New York State Bar Association’s 2014 President’s Pro Bono Service Award for their volunteer work.

Myers, with the firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, was recognized for his work with nonprofit organizations, including the Syracuse City Court Eviction Defense Clinic and the Village of East Syracuse Justice Court Pro Bono Clinic. He also provided free legal help for the city school district’s Say Yes to Education program, according to the bar association.
Myers increased the number of lawyers doing pro bono work for Say Yes to more than 300, including 50 from his law firm, the bar association said.

Sullivan, a 2011 graduate of Syracuse University’s law school, was named the bar association’s outstanding young lawyer for her pro bono work. She volunteered 25 hours a week with Legal Services of Central New York while working to build her own criminal law practice. She has also volunteered about 40 hours a year in Syracuse City Court, providing free legal help to poor people facing eviction, according to the bar association.

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Tracy Sullivan “volunteered 25 hours a week with Legal Services of Central New York.” Was that 25 hours in one week, or every week? If it was 25 hours every week then her story should be front-page headline news.

In the late 1990’s a survey was done that revealed that in New York State something like 83% of all citizens legal needs were being met—unless you were poor, then it dropped to 12%. The fact is that without a lawyer you cannot get your rights, and 88% of poor people were living without justice. And everybody knows the figure has gotten worse since the 1990’s.

When David Sutkowy, commissioner of the Dept. of Social Services, and Chief Welfare Attorney Zachery Karmen worked together to illegally deny me Medicaid transportation, I went to a volunteer lawyer at the Westcott Community Center. Once a week, the Center and the Onondaga County Bar Association make a lawyer available for free for a few minutes per applicant. So I went and told him my problem. He basically told me that I was screwed and there was nothing to be done about it.

On my way out the door, the lawyer asked me “If you can’t get Medicaid transportation, why don’t you just take a taxi?”

Because my income at that time was about $735/month. On one occasion, my doctor really wanted to see me so he and his secretary split the cost of the $25 one-way taxi fare. The lawyer lived in such a small, rich world that he couldn’t even imagine poverty.

Medicaid transportation was not created as a nice add-on for Medicaid patients. It was created because most Medicaid patients are too sick to take the bus and too poor to own a car or pay for a taxi. There is absolutely no point in making medical care freely available to poor people unless you also make transportation to the doctor available.

I eventually got my rights under Medicaid law by effectively filing a complaint with the NYS Office of the Medicaid Inspector General, and getting a fair hearing in which the judge decided against Zach Karmen and his law books and for me and my Holy Bible.

One of the things I have learned in the past dozen years is that almost all injustice perpetrated by the government against poor people can be reversed by effectively filing complaints through the government system. (The exception is the American medical industry. The government agencies that are supposed to monitor and control Big Medicine do not. The government does what the doctor wants and you can’t fight it.)

Anyway, I had several times gone to the Syracuse University Law School clinic and found them to be useless. Among other things, they would not stand with me against the illegal conduct of the Dept. of Social Services. So, after multiple successes in filing complaints and getting some problems cleared up, I had a bright idea.

I wrote to the S.U. Law School and basically said, look, you have more requests for assistance than you can meet, and they don’t all need a lawyer. The complaint process is there and can be used to get justice for many poor people. Let me work in the clinic under the supervision of a lawyer. I’ll take on the cases that only need to have complaints filed; I’m really good at it—here’s my resume (https://annecwoodlen.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/resume-of-an-activist/ ).

The Law School said no, you’re not credentialed.

The hell I’m not. I’m credentialed by the toughest school in the world: The School of Hard Knocks. I am, in the phrase the British use, “credentialed by experience.”

Well, never mind. I am not allowed to help people because I have a learning disability that prevented me from getting book-learning. You know how I learn? I call people up and ask them questions then I listen to their answers. How about that?

Anyway, Tracy Sullivan volunteered for Legal Services of CNY, which is poor people’s law. Legal Services is swamped, utterly overwhelmed and not able to begin to come anywhere near meeting the needs of the most desperate poor people. We do not live in a civilized society where justice prevails for all.

Based on a little go-round I had with legal aide last year, I think what they are doing is calling their staff into a meeting once day for the purpose of triaging the latest requests for help and redirecting them to other sources. They referred me and my problem to some group of Medicare advocates in New York City. Problem was, all the advocates did was insurance matters but my problem was an issue about quality of care. No help there.

The bottom line is this: poor people, like the slaves of yesteryear, do not get to participate in the freedoms that are supposed to attain to all Americans. The laws exist for people who can afford lawyers, not for us.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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