Monica is a 30 year old mother of a beautiful five year old girl. Her dream is to go back to school, get a college degree, and find work as a social worker for Child Protective Services. She’s always had a soft spot for troubled youth and wanted to make sure they succeeded in life. Monica met her future husband, Donald, when she was 16. They became sweethearts at a high school in San Francisco. After high school they continued their relationship, getting married and having a child together.

Over time, Donald’s behavior became increasingly oppressive. For the last ten years, he has been beating her at least a few times a month. He would slap her across the face and choke her. He would control what she wore, what friends she saw, who she talked to on the phone. He even told her what color lipstick she could wear. She did not consider his actions domestic violence because, in her words, “I thought domestic violence required a closed fist.” Donald even kept a mistress, which Monica knew about and he openly acknowledged.

Usually, Donald’s beatings would occur in private, behind closed doors. But in early 2015 he beat her savagely in public, because he felt Monica had been disrespectful to his mother. He grabbed her neck and hoisted her against the car, choking her, before slapping her across her several times and screaming insults for several minutes. This occured in public, in view of their neighbors, and right in front of their child.

After this incident Monica decided that she needed to get out. She went to the Bayview police station and found posted on the bulletin board a flyer for Open Door Legal. She made an appointment with us that day.

We successfully filed, argued, and won a 3-year domestic violence restraining order that physical kept Donald away from her. Then we started work on obtaining a divorce, a child custody order, and a child support order. The divorce was particularly difficult because Monica was entitled to a portion of Donald’s pension, and Donald refused to cooperate by providing any documents.

Monica found a great new job and tried her best to find a new apartment, but she was turned away everywhere she looked. When she saw that her wages were being garnished for some reason she didn’t understand, she came back to our office. We discovered that she had an old eviction case on her record. It turned out that when she and Donald were together back in 2009, their landlord had filed a case against them that they never knew about. The landlord had obtained a default judgment against her and this was preventing her from getting new housing. It also explained the garnishment of her wages. The landlord claimed Monica owed more than $7,000 in back-rent and had started garnishing 25% of her wages. With the garnishment, she couldn’t afford an apartment. With the eviction on her record, no one would rent to her anyway.

We reached out to a private law firm which agreed to fight Monica’s old eviction case, and the bogus debt, pro bono. Our awesome pro bono attorney went to court for Monica and got the garnishment reduced. Then she successfully negotiated with the prior landlord to cancel the remaining debt and restrict the past eviction judgment. Now, Monica has a new apartment, no more debt, and a clean record.

“I believe that Open Door Legal is a Godsend. I had never been involved with anything legal before – not even a parking ticket. But in the last year I’ve had to deal with a restraining order, a divorce, child support and custody, a past eviction, and even a creditor I never knew about. I could never have done it without their help.”

Skills

Posted on

September 25, 2015

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.