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Varnum Team Wins Big for Disabled Vet in Pro Bono Matter

November 10, 2021

A Michigan disabled veteran in danger of losing her home was a big winner in court recently, obtaining a significant judgment and turning the tables on the plaintiff who brought suit against her. The outstanding result was the culmination of a two-year effort by a pro bono litigation team at Varnum, led by attorney and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Will Thompson and including Rich Hewlett, Katie O’Connor, Olayinka Ope and Jailah Emerson.

The matter involved U.S. Army veteran Sandra Barrett, who became a defendant in the lawsuit after refusing to pay for questionable renovations to her home which was being retrofitted through a U.S. Veterans Administration grant to accommodate her significant service-connected disability. The case was referred to Varnum in 2019 from the University of Michigan’s pro bono department. At that point, the client was already in default and on the verge of being forced from her home.

Over the course of two years, the Varnum team faced aggressive litigation tactics employed by the general contractor, which resulted in the need for extensive discovery and motion practice. The team also dealt with bureaucratic challenges involving the U.S. Veterans Administration and Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) as well as local building code enforcement that made the case more complex and protracted.

Following a three-day bench trial in March 2021, the Court issued its Opinion finding no cause for the general contractor and granting the client’s counter claims, resulting in a $70,000 judgment against the general contractor. In addition, because the renovations were being done under the umbrella of a U.S. Veterans Administration grant, the decision also freed up over $40,000 of escrowed funds that the client was immediately able to use on accommodations for her service-connected disability.

Thompson noted that the outcome made the difference between Ms. Barrett staying in her home or facing the very real possibility of living on the streets.

“When I told her the news about her victory, she was in tears and simply said, ‘I just really needed to hear some good news right now,’” Thompson said. “The weight of those words was really heavy. It’s not often in our line of work that we get to have such a profound impact on an individual’s life.”

In addition to Thompson, the Varnum team included Rich Hewlett and Katie O’Connor who provided significant input on construction law issues; Olayinka Ope who provided research and input on-site inspections; and Jailah Emerson who worked the case with Thompson through trial.

Thompson also thanked the firm’s pro bono administrator, Mark Allard, for initially taking the case and letting him know upfront that “the full resources of the firm are behind you.”

Will Murray and Murray’s Property Management, LLC v. Sandra J. Barrett, Case No. 19-00100-CH, was decided in June in the Berrien County Circuit Court. The appeals period expired in August.

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