Wednesday, March 9, 2011

County alleges misconduct by attorney-statements

March 8, 2011

Today, the lawyer for the Board of Social Services (the "Board") wrote Judge Grasso and alleged that I acted improperly at the Board's Special Response Office in Tom's River (the "Office") yesterday. 
Apparently, the Board did not want a lawyer to see what I saw:  desperate homeless people asking for emergency shelter, but being turned away before a lawyer showed up.  My supposed "misconduct" included:  (1)  objecting after the Board declined to give emergency shelter on a cold night  to a young mother and her two young children; and (2) talking to other homeless people at the Office (public property) and gathering evidence (certifications of their experiences) from them.

My view is that what I did was perfectly proper, as I explained to Judge Grasso in the Certification I submitted in response.    Judge Grasso will be speaking with the attorneys about this issue by phone at 9 a.m.   Below is the full text of my response Certification, and attached 9for those who want this level of detail) are copies of both side's submissions to Judge Grasso on this issue.   In any event, if you are in the Toms River area and can drop by the status conference this Monday, 3/14 at 1:30 p.m., please stand with the homeless and show your support.  I will re-circulate the directions to the courthouse  later this week:

Jeffrey J. Wild
Attorneys At Law
65 Livingston Avenue
Roseland, New Jersey 07068
Attorneys for Homeless Individuals[1]

Superior Court Of New Jersey
Docket No.:  OCN-L-2462-10

Civil Action

Steve brigham et al, including JOHN does 1-50,
               Third-Party Plaintiffs.

OCEAN COUNTY, THE OCEAN COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS (currently, James F. Lacey, John P. Kelly, John C. Bartlett, Jr., Gerry P. Little and Joseph H. Vicari) and THE OCEAN COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES,
               Third-Party Defendants.

JEFFREY J. WILD, ESQ., an attorney-at-law of the State of New Jersey, hereby certifies as follows:
1.                  I am a member of Lowenstein Sandler PC, pro bono counsel for:  (1) the 14 Homeless Individuals, as defined in Consent Order entered in this action on July 15, 2010 and the Answer, Counterclaim and Third-Party Complaint dated August 31, 2010 that this firm filed on behalf of the Homeless Individuals; and (2) the proposed class, under R. 4:32-1 et seq., comprised of all homeless individuals located in the County (the “Class”).
2.                  I submit this certification:  (1) to set forth the facts relating to what occurred yesterday, March 7, 2011, at the Special Response Office of Ocean County Board of Social Services, 1027 Hooper Avenue, Building 4, in Tom River (the "Office"); and (2) in response to the allegations made against this firm in the letter of today from Jean L. Cipriani, Esq., counsel for the Board of Social Services (the "Board") to Your Honor.
3.                  The Board's allegations of supposed misconduct by me and this firm are false.  Given, however, that the Board has made these serious allegations, I respectfully request that Your Honor deal with these allegations on the record.  Indeed, the Board's allegations of (supposed) misconduct by this firm raise issues that not only go to the core of the subject matter of this litigation -- the lack of emergency shelter for the homeless -- but also present an issue of public importance:  an extraordinary attempt by a government body (the Board) to restrict activities on public property (the Office) by pro bono counsel (this firm).
4.                  Your Honor previously designated Mike McNeil of NJ STEPS (Solutions to End Poverty soon) as a liaison to communicate with Linda Murtagh of the Board regarding any individuals whom Mr. McNeil believed were in need of emergency shelter from the third-party defendants in this litigation, Ocean County, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Board (collectively, the "County").  Mr. McNeil was preparing a list of some of the individuals in need of emergency shelter, and I was scheduled to meet with McNeil yesterday at 11 a.m. at STEP's office at 14 South Clinton Avenue (the "STEPS Office").  Mr. McNeil was not available until 11 a.m. because he expected to be in court in housing hearings until then.
5.                  At 9:30 a.m. yesterday, I and two other employees of Lowenstein Sandler PC (Julie Levinson Werner, Esq., counsel at the firm, and Kelly Charles, a senior paralegal) were at the homeless camp in the woods of Lakewood (the "Lakewood Camp") interviewing and taking certifications from some homeless individuals believed to be in need of emergency shelter.  We planned to meet with Mr. McNeil at 11 a.m. and provide names of these individuals, so that Mr. McNeil could include them in his list, and so that STEPS could begin transporting homeless individuals to the Office for emergency assistance.
6.                  We were at STEPS at 11 a.m. as scheduled.  However, Mr. McNeil did not arrive at the STEPS office until approximately 12:30 p.m. because his housing hearings ran longer than he had expected.  Mr. McNeil also advised that the telephone message he had left Ms. Murtagh of the Board last week had not been returned. Shortly before
1 p.m., Mr. McNeil faxed Ms. Murtagh a letter (a true copy of which is attached as Exhibit A) giving her the names of the first 17 individuals that Mr. McNeil wished to discuss with Ms. Murtagh. 
7.                  I had no intention of transporting individuals in need of emergency shelter to the Office, but Mr. McNeil asked me to do so because his staff would not be able to do so until today.  Also, the outside temperature was expected to drop below freezing yesterday evening.  I agreed to do so.  I next drove back to the Lakewood Camp and picked up two brothers in need of emergency shelter, John and Floyd Cundiff.
8.                  That afternoon, I also received a call on my cell phone from Patricia Godall of the House of Hope, an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church of Toms River at 1070 Hooper Avenue in Toms River (the "House of Hope").   Ms. Godall explained how she has just learned than another individual, Michael Elliott, was in need of emergency shelter for the night.  Given that I was already transporting homeless to the Office, I agreed to pick up Mr. Elliott at the House of Hope.  I did so at approximately 3 p.m.  Mr. McNeil also faxed Ms. Murtagh a letter adding Mr. Elliott and two other individuals as homeless and in need of emergency shelter.
9.                  At approximately 3:30 p.m., I arrived at the Office with the three individuals in need of emergency shelter whom I had transported.   The House of Hope is across the street from the Office, and Mr. Elliott informed me that the Board had denied him emergency shelter less than an hour before.  However, the Board gave Mr. Elliott a different answer when he was brought back with an attorney, and Mr. Elliott -- who had been denied as "unqualified" an hour before -- was suddenly given emergency shelter (a voucher for a hotel room).  Also, even though other individuals in the Office's reception room had been waiting for many hours, John and Floyd Cundiff -- again, individuals accompanied by an attorney -- were given a voucher for emergency shelter in less than an hour.
10.              While I was in the reception area waiting for the homeless individuals whom I had given a ride, I was not -- to use the adjectives in the letter submitted by Ms. Cipriani, who was not even at the Office -- "aggressive," "self-righteous," "inconsiderate" or "manipulative."  What actually happened was as follows:

A.        I was approached in the reception room by various homeless individuals who had heard me talking to the three homeless clients I had brought, and told me about how they had been turned down for emergency shelter.  I had never met any of these individuals before. 

B.        One woman who approached me was with her two young children, a seven-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl.  She described how she had just arrived in New Jersey and been found "unqualified" for emergency shelter and so she and her children had no place to go -- even though it was close to sunset and sub-freezing temperatures were expected that night.  I therefore called the Board's attorney, Ms. Cipriani, and gave my view that this family was entitled to emergency shelter.  As a result of my making this call, the Board changed its mind and provided this family with emergency shelter at a local hotel room.  Had I not been in the waiting room and made this call, this family would have been denied emergency shelter.[2]

C.        Likewise, while in the waiting room, I was approached by a couple that included a man, Carmen Vargo, who had finished his prison sentence a month earlier, but had only been given emergency shelter for a night or two during the prior 30 days.  I explained to Mr. Vargo and the other homeless in the waiting room who had approached me that I was one of the lawyers arguing in a court case that no person should have to sleep in the woods and that the County should be required to offer emergency shelter to anyone who needs it.  I also had with me (from the meetings with the homeless in the Lakewood Camp in the morning) extra draft certifications with blanks for any homeless who wished to fill them out and provide evidence that the County was denying homeless people emergency shelter.  I told the homeless individuals that they could complete the certifications if they wished to provide evidence that homeless people are denied emergency shelter, and a total of approximately six individuals did so. 

D.        During her call to me, Ms. Cipriani claimed that I was engaged in improper solicitation of clients.  As a threshold matter, the ethics rules would have permitted me and this firm to offer pro bono assistance to the homeless.  [See RPC 7.3.]  In any event, as I explained to Ms. Cipriani, I had been approached, and not solicited any clients at all.

E.         I never "refused to accede" to any request that Ms. Cipriani made during my call with her.  I did tell her what I believe is the law:  that a government body (the Board) cannot restrict activities on public property (the Office) by pro bono counsel (this firm), such as speaking with the homeless and getting certifications in the manner that I did.  Finally, I told Ms. Cipriani that if I had been engaged in "grandstanding" -- as opposed to trying to help men, women and young children in need of emergency shelter shortly before the Office closed at 4:30 p.m. -- I would have called the press, not her.  I also told Ms. Cipriani that I remain ready to work with the County to avoid the need to continue this litigation if possible.

11.                In short, I and this firm have engaged in what I believe to be the highest standards of pro bono representation, including speaking with witnesses on public property (an activity protected by the Constitution), and successfully keeping at least six individuals -- including two young children -- off the street on a subfreezing winter night.  The events of yesterday only occurred because the County was denying -- and apparently, each day denies -- emergency shelter to homeless individuals.  If the County disagrees, the County is welcome to make a motion to restrict this firm's pro bono activities and this firm will respond accordingly.
12.              I hereby certify that the foregoing statements made by me are true. I am aware if any of the foregoing statements made by me are willfully false, I may be subject to punishment. 

Jeffrey J. Wild 

[1] As defined in Consent Order entered in this action on July 15, 2010 and Answer, Counterclaim and Third-Party Complaint dated August 31, 2010.
[2]   Because this woman advised the Board that she was the victim of domestic violence, her name is not being included in this certification but is available if the Court wishes.

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