When New York litigator Cynthia B. Rubin took her first pro bono case for a local organization that helps battered women, she never imagined it would still be going on more than 10 years later.
“Many of the big firms don’t want to take on pro bono matrimonial cases because matrimonial work is a specialized area,” says the partner at Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer. “Also, because a lot of these are cases that tend to go on and on.”
Case in point: It was 1996 when Rubin first became involved with Sanctuary for Families, the largest non-profit organization in New York State dedicated exclusively to serving domestic violence victims and their children.
Considering the dearth of matrimonial lawyers available to Sanctuary on a pro bono basis, Rubin became an invaluable resource.
“I always believe in giving back, and I felt like it was a way that I could use my skills and my knowledge about matrimonial law to help other people,” she says.
Founding partner Jack F. Zulack says the pro bono endeavor with Sanctuary for Families is a way for younger attorneys at his litigation firm to hone their skills before entering the ring with larger firms and more complex cases.
“We want to make sure that our recent law school graduates have an opportunity to have courtroom appearances and client contact and a lot of the things that you really need when you’re a developed lawyer,” he says, “which you often do not get when you’re in very large firms.”
Zulack also says that pro bono cases offer attorneys the chance to use their expertise, while at the same time benefiting from the opportunity to help someone in need. “Anybody who’s done pro bono realizes that you get more out of it than you often put in,” he says.
Rubin’s expertise in matrimonial law came in handy for that very first case, which involved an Egyptian woman who came to the United States at age 19 to marry a considerably older American man whom she had only known for about a week.
“Anybody who’s done Pro Bono realizes that you get more out of it than you often put in…” – Jack Zulack
“She immediately got pregnant and had a baby girl,” Rubin says.
Then the isolation began. Promises to apply for the woman’s citizenship were broken by the husband.
“Then the abuse started,” Rubin claims.
Speaking little English and with few resources at her disposal, the woman found Sanctuary for Families, which represented her in getting a temporary order of protection, while Rubin tackled the divorce case.
“She told me he owns buildings and he has lots of properties,” recalls Rubin. “So we went about trying to prove that.”
Still, numerous depositions and several sworn statements from the defendant husband left Rubin with no trace of property ownership or assets. In 1998, the case settled for an insignificant amount, and Rubin assumed that was the end of it.
Then in the summer of 2005, Rubin got a call from a local district attorney, asking if she had handled the divorce case in question.
“It turns out that her now-ex-husband was being prosecuted for forgery and grand larceny because he apparently sold a building in Brooklyn for $600,000, on which his name did not appear on the deed,” Rubin notes.
Rubin’s meticulous handling of the divorce case worked to the DA’s advantage, since she had sworn statements about his property ownership and reams of other documents to help support the investigation.
“He asked me if I would testify because the husband’s defense to the charges was that he was, in fact, the real owner of the property and he had put somebody else’s name on it so that his wife wouldn’t get anything in the divorce,” Rubin says.
Even the real estate lawyer involved in the transaction was implicated, testifying that he basically conspired in the fraud against the wife by putting the closing documents in another person’s name, according to Rubin.
“Ultimately, he was convicted of the forgery,” Rubin says of the husband. “And after his conviction I brought a lawsuit in Supreme Court to set aside the prior settlement agreement on the basis of fraud.”
Rubin ended up earning her client a significantly larger amount of money, and also got a trust set up for the woman’s daughter.
Rubin also pursued a suit against the real estate lawyer, claiming that he could be held liable for defrauding a party to a lawsuit. Since the divorce proceedings weren’t actually ongoing at the time of the fraud, the real estate lawyer was not found liable.
Rubin’s tireless pursuit of justice on the woman’s behalf continues to this day, as she fights to get the husband to pay child support. A court order was issued as recently as this November, stating that the husband owes thousands of dollars in child support.
“It’s just the case that never ends, because he never pays,” Rubin says.
As a result of her continued commitment to this case and many others, Rubin was awarded the 2007 Abely Pro Bono Achievement Award, named in memory of Davis Polk & Wardwell attorney Maryellen Abely, an advocate for the rights of domestic violence victims.