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One former Maryland Legal Aid attorney reveals she was fired, staff and officer leadership sent letters concerned about reopening

Lisa Sarro, supervising attorney in the Anne Arundel County office of Maryland Legal Aid, during an online townhall July 20 discussing evictions in Maryland. Sarro was fired Friday, one day before the federal eviction moratorium was lifted. She said she was not given a specific reason for her firing but she and several other MLA attorneys had raised concerns about the firm reopening to the public in the days prior.
Lisa Sarro, supervising attorney in the Anne Arundel County office of Maryland Legal Aid, during an online townhall July 20 discussing evictions in Maryland. Sarro was fired Friday, one day before the federal eviction moratorium was lifted. She said she was not given a specific reason for her firing but she and several other MLA attorneys had raised concerns about the firm reopening to the public in the days prior. (screenshot)

A Maryland Legal Aid attorney, who left the pro bono law firm unexpectedly last week, said she was fired just days after she and 11 other top attorneys raised concerns about the organization’s plans to reopen its offices to the public for the first time since March.

Lisa Sarro, supervising attorney in the organization’s Anne Arundel County office, and three chief attorneys, John Marshall, Blake Fetrow and Anita Bailey, were summoned to the firm’s Baltimore headquarters on July 23 for separate meetings with a human resources representative, Sarro said. In that meeting Sarro was fired, she said, though she couldn’t speak for the others.

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An email from a Maryland Legal Aid human resources chief obtained by The Capital said Marshall, head of the Montgomery County office; Fetrow, head of the Prince George’s County office; and Bailey, Anne Arundel County’s chief and Sarro’s boss, no longer worked for the organization. There wasn’t any explanation beyond thanking them for their service.

Letters and other documents obtained by The Capital show the departures came just days after the four now-departed members and other chief attorneys raised concerns about the organization’s plans to reopen its offices to the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

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There was not a specific reason given for the firing, Sarro said. She worked for the firm for 22 years, the largest in the state offering free legal representation for tenants in failure to pay rent cases among other services. She was told “the executive team lost confidence in your ability to lead the office” by a human resources representative, she said.

“That was all I was told. I asked repeatedly what that meant,” she said. “The only response I was given was that quote. It was very clear that’s all he was permitted to say.”

Fetrow and Bailey declined to comment. Calls to Marshall were not returned.

Sarro was given the choice of immediate termination or resigning with a non-disclosure agreement and a non-disparagement clause, she said.

“We all had our email cut off Friday morning and access to any client materials (cut off),” she said. “It appears that all four of us received the same treatment.”

Maryland Legal Aid leadership did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Marshall, Fetrow and Bailey, who have decades of combined experience at the firm, were among 11 attorneys who signed a letter July 17 to Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph, Chief Operating Officer Gustava Taler and Deputy Chief Counsel Gina Polley. The letter pushed back on a reopening proposal that allowed in-person client meetings for the first time in four months.

“The reopening guidelines provide a great deal of flexibility in staffing the office, but it provides almost no flexibility when addressing real-world issues for those who may need to work from home, even on a part-time basis,” the attorneys wrote.

The firm was closed March 16 as Maryland shut down due to the coronavirus. Attorneys pivoted to meeting with clients remotely. The reopening guidelines announced to its employees earlier this month require up to 50% of staff capacity in the office starting July 20. In-person client meetings resumed Monday.

A driving force behind reopening was to increase walk-in intake appointments, which had “decreased significantly” during the pandemic, Joseph wrote to staff in a July 2 email obtained by The Capital. Reopening offices, and conducting in-person intake “can help keep MLA on track” to meet funding goals, Joseph wrote. He noted that Maryland Legal Services Corporation, MLA’s largest funder, has already cut the organization’s funding by $1 million for the current fiscal year.

Other emails show that July 20 was chosen to align with the reopening of Maryland’s court system, which opened its court clerks’ offices that day. One email from June 9 notes that the projected date assumes that Maryland would keep seeing improvements in fighting the virus. This week, the state’s 14-day average of newly reported coronavirus cases reach 822, surpassing the 809 average recorded on June 9.

Joseph in an email also pointed to some vulnerable populations who might lack the technology to seek legal services remotely. Some staffers pushed back on this notion, including Sarro, who said her clients — many of whom are older or medically compromised — were actually safer when she was working remotely because it didn’t require them to venture into public and risk exposure.

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Representatives from the Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union and National Organization of Legal Services Workers sent a letter July 22 that expressed “overwhelming concern” about the decision to reopen the offices. The union represents Maryland Legal Aid’s employees.

“As legal services workers, we are used to working in challenging environments,” read the letter signed by Victoria R. Robinson, president of the Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union and Pamela L. Smith, president of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers.

“But we never agreed to risk our lives or the lives of our clients, our co-workers or our families to accomplish our work.”

The letter acknowledged the difficulty of devising a reopening plan and requested possible solutions such as letting staff work remotely, stopping the use of paid leave or sick time to work from home and giving greater flexibility to staff with child care needs.

On July 23, the day after the union letter was sent, Marshall, Fetrow, Bailey and Sarro were called to Maryland Legal Aid’s headquarters in Baltimore. Their departure was announced the next day.

Sarro, who did not sign the July 17 letter, has been vocal about the reopening plan since discussions began, she said. She said she wrote an email July 20 to Colleen Russell, a member of the reopening committee who reports directly to Taler, that the Annapolis office could be unsafe for staff due to poor ventilation.

“There was no indication given that the termination was related to those concerns. However, I sent an email raising the alarm, and by Friday, I was fired,” she said.

Sarro said she thinks her firing was meant to send a message that any pushback on the reopening plan would not be tolerated.

Three current employees declined to speak on the record for this story for fear of retribution.

The staffers who remain are devastated, said Smith, a former Maryland Legal Aid attorney in the Annapolis and Prince George’s offices who worked for seven years with three of the four now-departed attorneys.

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“It’s been traumatic for them,” she said.

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“There are newer staff members in the program that are now left with a vacuum of leadership in their organization,” she said. “And those [departed] individuals also carried significant caseloads. So, there are hundreds of clients whose cases have lost their counsel.”

Sarro’s absence was felt this week when two women whom she helped fight eviction from the Chase Lloyd House in Annapolis last month, must leave a hotel Sarro secured for them by the end of the week. One of the women may once again be without a home after Friday. Sarro is no longer representing them at this time.

The leadership departures come just as the federal moratorium on evictions lifted over the weekend and courts have restarted landlord-tenant proceedings. Sarro has numerous clients who live in public housing communities, including more than 50 plaintiffs in a federal discrimination lawsuit against the City of Annapolis and its housing authority. Sarro has served as co-counsel for the residents since last year and said she plans to stay in a similar capacity as the case moves forward.

In the days since Sarro’s firing and the others’ departure, the news has caused a backlash on social media. More than 200 MLA alumni have created a closed Facebook group to show their support.

“It’s shocking and stunning to see the Facebook page and the sheer volume of people — who I join the ranks of now — Legal Aid alums, who are concerned about the direction that Legal Aid is going in,” Sarro said. “I fear that it has lost its way, and it’s a really horrible time for the largest free legal services provider to have lost its way.”

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