There was nothing typical about the recent case won by Rutgers Law Associates (RLA), the practice within the Rutgers Law Associates Fellowship that serves the needs of low- and moderate-income New Jersey residents at no or reduced cost. First, it was a six-day civil case tried before a jury. Though RLA is a general practice law firm, much of its work has recently focused on family practice, which is generally tried in one day in front a judge without a jury. Even more rare is that this civil case went to a verdict; most are settled out of court. Finally, it’s incredibly rare for a newly-minted attorney—with just a few months since their law school graduation—to take on a civil case like this, pick a jury, try the case, and win. But that is precisely what RLA fellow Patrick Johnson ’22 did.
This case arrived at RLA in the winter of 2021. The client had already secured a final restraining order (FRO) against her mother following a violent incident, but had additional legal challenges looming. First, the client’s mother was also her trustee, responsible for dispensing funds earmarked for her education and housing. RLA’s client stopped receiving these payments after the FRO was issued. Plus, her mother was also filing a lawsuit against her in an attempt to take ownership of her home, the down payment and initial mortgage payments of which were paid for by the trust. “Our theory of the case was that these actions were retaliation against our client for seeking and being granted the FRO,” says Johnson.
RLA fellow Carol Huston, a 2020 graduate of the law school’s evening program, immediately began pretrial discovery and motions, and Johnson took over the trial portion in August of 2022. Huston had filed a counterclaim for the trust funds withheld. After a six-day trial in Burlington County, Johnson ultimately defended against the claims that would have stripped the client of her home, and won on the counterclaims for failure to pay under the trust—to the tune of $262,000. “It’s rare for us at RLA to try this kind of case, it’s less common for civil matters to reach a jury and verdict, and the fact that it was a win for our client made it even more special,” says Johnson. “I’m grateful that I had this experience, and all of this is a testament to RLA’s strengths.”
Professor Andy Rothman, director of the Rutgers Law Associates Fellowship Program and its managing attorney, was pleased with the conduct of the case and, of course, with the result. “Carol did a simply outstanding job preparing this case for trial, and Patrick conducted a flawless trial,” Rothman says. “His courtroom work in this case could not have been improved upon by a certified civil trial attorney with 30 years’ experience. Our client is thrilled and, for the first time in many years, feels truly empowered. This case exemplifies everything RLA and Rutgers Law School stands for.”