"Arguing this case was by far the most rewarding (and challenging) experience of my summer. I never imagined that as a summer associate, I'd be able to work closely with a client, argue in front of an ALJ and even cross-examine opposing witnesses. This project opened my eyes to the amazing possibilities for doing pro bono work at a law firm, and I plan to do much more of it as a full-time attorney."
— Sophie Mancall-Bitel, Summer Associate, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
Merjem Dodik* worked in accounts payable at a nonalcoholic beverage distribution company for 14 years. She always received good performance evaluations. Then, one day in April 2014, Ms. Dodik told a coworker that she was worried that her longtime professional contacts would not be able to navigate the company's new phone system, and asked the coworker how to use the system. Unfortunately, the woman in charge of installing the new phones overheard, and this allegedly caused a confrontation.
The woman in charge of installing the phones reported Ms. Dodik to the company's CEO and CFO for cursing and causing a disturbance in the office. Without asking for her side of the story, the CEO fired Ms. Dodik. Had he spoken to her, he might have discovered that Ms. Dodik never swears.
Ms. Dodik applied to the New York State Department of Labor (DOL) for unemployment insurance benefits. Based on information her former employer provided, the DOL concluded that Ms. Dodik had been fired for misconduct and denied her claim.
Ms. Dodik requested a hearing and called Volunteers of Legal Service's Unemployment Insurance Advocacy Project hotline for help. After interviewing Ms. Dodik and assessing the merits of the matter, Dave Fillingame, VOLS' Project Director, referred the case to Sophie Mancall-Bitel, a summer associate, and Bob Sheehan, of counsel, at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. Ms. Mancall-Bitel and Mr. Sheehan volunteered to take on the case.
Ms. Dodik’s hearing was scheduled to be conducted by telephone. Ms. Dodik, who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was nervous about the prospect of having to make herself clear over the phone to an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") she had never met. At Ms. Mancall-Bitel's and Mr. Sheehan's request, the ALJ granted Ms. Dodik an in-person hearing in White Plains, NY. Her employer appeared by phone.
The hearing was hard-fought. Ms. Dodik's employer produced three employees to testify in support of their employer’s version of events. In direct examination of Ms. Dodik, Ms. Mancall-Bitel was able to establish that Ms. Dodik had not used profanity, that the open-plan office was regularly disturbed by loud employees, and that the employee with whom Ms. Dodik had argued had misrepresented the incident. Ms. Mancall-Bitel and Mr. Sheehan buttressed Ms. Dodik's case with the testimony of a coworker who was present on the day of the alleged confrontation and who testified that Ms. Dodik had neither cursed nor disturbed the office in any meaningful way. The ALJ was surprised to learn that the coworker still worked for the employer, but was nonetheless willing to testify on Ms. Dodik's behalf.
Thanks to Ms. Mancall-Bitel's and Mr. Sheehan's pro bono representation and to the courageous testimony of Ms. Dodik's coworker, the ALJ recently issued a decision finding Ms. Dodik’s version of events to be more believable and awarding Ms. Dodik unemployment benefits.
If your law firm would like to participate in VOLS' Unemployment Insurance Advocacy Project, please contact Dave Fillingame at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To support VOLS' efforts to provide pro bono representation to low-income New Yorkers, click here.