MCB Pro Bono Volunteer Spotlight
Sarah L. DiFranco
Sarah L. DiFranco discusses her first pro bono landlord/tenant case and the importance of volunteering in the community. To learn about current volunteer opportunities, contact Director of Lawyer Volunteer and Community Service Heather Blackley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704/375-8624.
MCB: Current Employer / number of years with current employer?
SLD: Poyner Spruill, LLP/ 3 years
MCB: Area of Practice / Expertise?
SLD: Civil litigation/ business, tort and construction litigation
MCB: Law School / Law School Graduation Year?
SLD: Georgia State University College of Law/ 2007
MCB: What is a typical pro bono landlord/tenant case like?
SLD: Ted Fillete of Legal Aid of North Carolina referred this case to my firm. I was asked by our pro bono coordinator if I would be willing to take it. My client is a hardworking mother of two who faced deplorable living conditions in her rented apartment, including dangerous mold caused by a leaky shower as well as bed bugs. My client's landlord repeatedly ignored or refused to properly rectify the issues, despite numerous complaints by my client. After almost a year, my client decided it was in her family's best interest to move out. The landlord sued my client for non-payment of rent and my client filed counterclaims for Breach of the Implied Warranty of Habitability and Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. The landlord, a corporate entity that owns a number of multi-family communities in the area, was represented by counsel, as required in North Carolina. In a case such as this, whether the tenant is represented by an attorney can certainly impact the outcome of the case. Following a trial, my client was awarded damages. The landlord appealed the judgment and during the appeal, the matter settled with my client receiving money damages.
MCB: How many of these type of pro bono cases / issues do you typically handle at one time?
SLD: To date, this is the only case of this type that I have handled. I spent 100+ hours on the case between July of 2010 and January of 2011. Additionally, since 2008 I have served on the North Carolina Bar's Wills For Heroes Committee where attorney volunteers draft estate planning documents for first responders including, police, fire and medic. My work on the Wills For Heroes Committee has included helping to organize and put on events throughout the state. Additionally, last school year I served as a mentor for a Charlotte Mecklenburg eighth grader through the Bar's Lunch with a Lawyer Program.
MCB: How do you prepare for handling such cases / issues?
It took a lot of work to prepare this case for trial, including a thorough investigation of the facts as well as study and analysis of the relevant statues and case law. I also relied heavily on the mentorship of Ted Fillette.
MCB: Did you participate in any particular training so that you could handle these cases / issues?
SLD: Mecklenburg County Bar's CLE on Residential Landlord Tenant Law.
MCB: What is your hope for the future with regard to these cases / issue?
SLD: I hope more Mecklenburg County attorneys will volunteer to work with clients on a pro bono basis. There are people and organizations throughout the community in need of good representation, but who are unable to afford it. No matter the area of the law, there is undoubtedly someone who could benefit from pro bono assistance.
MCB: What is the best advice you've received during your legal career?
SLD: Don't let fear of making a mistake keep you from taking action; and when you do make a mistake own up to it because you will always learn the most from your mistakes. In my experience as a young lawyer, the fear of making a mistake can sometimes lead to over thinking things and keep you from taking action. It is not enough to make a thoughtful decision, but you've actually got to act upon it. I have learned a lot through my mistakes and am a better lawyer for having made them.