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134 former Maryland Legal Aid employees condemn removal of staffers who raised alarm about reopening

Lisa Sarro (right) a former supervising attorney in the Maryland Legal Aid's Anne Arundel County Office, revealed she was fired by her employer after raising concerns last month about plans to reopen the firm to the public during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, more than 130 former MLA employees have condemned the pro bono law firm’s leadership team for what they describe as retaliation against Sarro and three other top attorneys. - Original Credit:
Lisa Sarro (right) a former supervising attorney in the Maryland Legal Aid's Anne Arundel County Office, revealed she was fired by her employer after raising concerns last month about plans to reopen the firm to the public during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, more than 130 former MLA employees have condemned the pro bono law firm’s leadership team for what they describe as retaliation against Sarro and three other top attorneys. - Original Credit: (Courtesy Photo / HANDOUT)

More than 130 former Maryland Legal Aid employees have condemned the pro bono law firm’s leadership team for what they describe as retaliation against four top attorneys who raised concerns last month about reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic.

The group called the departure of Anita Bailey, Blake Fetrow, John Marshall and Lisa Sarro a “vicious response to staff who speak up,” demanding their immediate reinstatement, according to a letter sent to the board of directors on July 30 and obtained by The Capital.

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Sarro, a supervising attorney in the Anne Arundel County office, revealed last week she was fired days after she and Bailey, Fetrow, Marshall, and eight other office heads had pushed back on plans to re-open offices at 50% capacity citing safety concerns for both staff and clients. Offices reopened July 20 and in-person client meetings resumed a week later.

Marshall, the Montgomery County chief attorney since 2017; Bailey, Anne Arundel County’s chief attorney since 2004; and Fetrow, the chief attorney in the Prince George’s County office since 2000, all declined to comment for this story.

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“What concerns us all is that these decisions … reflect longstanding, deep organizational problems and an abandonment of MLA’s core values,” the former employees wrote. “The emerging facts strongly suggest that MLA retaliated against these seasoned attorneys for daring to express their concerns that MLA’s insistence on rigid requirements regarding staff’s physical presence in the office unnecessarily compromised the health and well-being of staff, clients, and other members of the public.”

In interviews with The Capital, former Legal Aid employees reiterated these claims, calling their former colleagues removal an overreach by the organization’s executive leadership.

Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph Jr., Chief Operating Officer Gustava Taler and Deputy Chief Counsel Gina Polley have not responded to requests for comment. Ashley Cheatham, a spokesperson for the nonprofit law firm, said Friday its policy is to refrain from commenting publicly about personnel matters.

“MLA’s decision to re-open its 12 office locations statewide to staff and clients on a limited basis, after a four-month closure and in concert with the re-opening of the courts, was done with much thought and consideration,” Cheatham said in a statement. “To that end, MLA has and will continue to implement a range of health and safety protocols put into place for the benefit of staff, clients, and visitors at all MLA offices.”

The board of directors, chaired by William Oliveri, has not yet responded to the letter, said Jeff Burritt, a staff attorney in the Montgomery County office from 2000 to 2004, who has helped organize a private Facebook group of more than 200 former employees to show their support.

Oliveri also has not responded requests for comment.

Billing themselves as the third-largest law firm in Maryland, the private, non-profit organization offers a range of pro-bono legal services for some of the state’s most vulnerable populations. Some examples of cases include representing tenants in failure to pay rent disputes, people with developmental and mental health disabilities and nursing home residents.

The turmoil in the organization could not come at a worse time, Burritt said. There is an increasing need for civil legal services in the state during the pandemic when thousands have lost their jobs and as the federal eviction moratorium ends.

“It just is such a disservice to not have experienced attorneys and experienced leadership,” Burritt said. “It’s really painful.”

Losing four highly experienced attorneys could be detrimental to staff as well as clients who no longer have a familiar face as their legal representative, said Rhonda Lipkin, a former deputy director who served under Joseph from 1997 to 2005. Lipkin helped hire two of the departed attorneys, Fetrow and Bailey.

Their departures were “inexplicable,” she said.

“The idea that some people bringing concerns, ideas — the reality of staff’s lives — to higher-level management, would be potentially punished in some way, it’s just so disturbing on so many levels.”

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When she moved to the executive level after nearly a decade as a chief attorney in the Northwestern office, Lipkin said she found it impossible to keep track of all that was going on at the ground level. Finding and maintaining experienced chief attorneys was critical to keeping tabs on the organization as a whole and executing its goals, she said.

“Without those supervisors, the office is really at sea,” she said. “You don’t hear about life on the ground. You rely on chief attorneys.”

Joe Rohr, who spent 32 years with the firm as a staff, supervising and chief attorney in the Baltimore and Anne Arundel offices, saw the firm modernize and expand its services throughout the state.

“Always a concern ... in probably any legal services program, is the development and commitment of the staff to pursuing the mission of trying to provide equal justice to people who lacked financial resources,” said Rohr, who retired in 2018. “This lack of trust between the executive unit and the rest of the staff really inhibits moving forward [toward that goal].”

This week the union that represents the firm’s staff, Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union UAW Local 2320, reached an agreement with Maryland Legal Aid to loosen some of the reopening guidelines put in place last month, according to a memorandum of understanding obtained by The Capital.

The agreement establishes that staff can continue working remotely during the pandemic. Keeping offices half-staffed was part of a set of guidelines established by the executive team to bring employees back to work for the first time in months.

The memorandum also says supervisors will be physically present in the office. If they aren’t able, they will make themselves available remotely. The document was signed by Joseph and the Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union President Victoria Robinson on Monday.

The firm has already filled two of the vacant positions. Danielle Chappel, a staff attorney with MLA for 12 years, has been named acting chief attorney at the Anne Arundel County office. Cristen Sargent, an MLA attorney since 2018, is now the acting chief attorney at the Montgomery County office.

Fetrow and Sarro’s positions remain unfilled.

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