Scarey – and true – Halloween Lawyer Story.



By Bradley Merrill Thompson

This is another installment in a blog series.  Brad is a shareholder in the Washington DC office of Epstein Becker Green. Although he works in Washington, he lives in Zionsville, Indiana and volunteers with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. In his spare time, Brad is an avid photographer who loves to document stories of justice.

It’s Halloween and the scariest thing I can think of is leaving Christian Legal Aid solely to lawyers.  As I explained in my prior post, that should frighten anyone.  There is an awful lot that clients need that is not in our wheelhouse.

For example.  One Saturday a client named Emma shuffled into my office using a walker, and I’m not sure honestly how she even moved. She was roughly 80 years old and had severe diabetes, with all of the side effects that accompany the advanced stages of the disease, including loss of eyesight and pain in her extremities. She might’ve been 5 foot tall, although I would guess she was probably a good bit taller in her youth.

As I looked at Emma, I was amazed at just how much she looked like my mother.  The two are almost exactly the same age and suffer in many of the same ways. Emma looked extremely kind. She had gentle eyes.

I asked how we could help, and she produced some crumpled papers out of her purse, spreading them on the table in front to me. She explained that because of her eye sight she couldn’t read them very well. She offered her general understanding that they were from the Indianapolis Board of Health, and that the board was condemning her home.

I looked at the papers, and they indeed said her home was going to be condemned as uninhabitable and she was going to be forced to leave.

I asked how this happened.  She explained that a very nice woman from the board had come to visit her, and had asked to look around. This inspector noted conditions around her house that needed fixing, and this paper had arrived sometime later.

I must confess, I got excited. In a prior post, I explained that I am a food and drug lawyer, which means I deal with public health authorities on a regular basis. I’d been working at the clinic for years, and frankly my personal expertise had never been even the slightest bit useful in helping the poor. But I do know something about the legal authority of government agencies when it comes to the public health, and so my mind immediately went to the Supreme Court case law on the requirements for a lawful inspection. I started to brainstorm out loud with Emma regarding various legal theories we could assert to overturn the order, and she just looked at me a bit bewildered.

Then, she ever so sweetly and politely said she just wanted to make sure that I understood that all of the things the inspector had found broken are indeed broken. In fact, she explained, I can’t shut my front door.

In what may have been a slightly condescending tone, I explained that as an attorney I would decide whether the fixtures in the house are in fact legally “broken” to the point of making the house “uninhabitable.” She continued to look at me puzzled and perhaps with a bit of pity.  I probably looked like a sad Halloween monster looking to suck the life out of the government.

I went back into my thinking mode to consider how I’m going to challenge this inspection using Marshal v. Barlow’s Inc, and then there was that same small voice from my right side. Maria, the translator you met in the last post, was reading the inspection findings and asking about the various conditions cited in the order.

Turns out that Maria has a friend at her church who helps the elderly with basic home maintenance for free. He spends a couple of hours each weekend fixing broken stuff for shut-ins if they’re all alone. Maria starts going through the list and explaining that most of it should be fairly easy to fix.

I look at the list, and I’m honestly not sure what any of it is, but I noticed they want to put chalk around the bathtub for some reason. And they misspell it as “caulk.”

Well, I explain to Emma, I guess that’s another way to go. I ask Emma which she would prefer, and she opts for the handyman route.

I tell her that there’s an important constitutional issue involved, and someone has to keep these government agencies in check. What about the next person?  She still prefers the handyman.

Rats, I was pretty sure I could win this one.

But Emma seems tremendously happy, like this enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders.

I’m getting pretty tired of hearing about the great help offered by Maria and her church.