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Jim Kenyon: Legal Help for Those Who Need It Most

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 12/22/2018 11:28:27 PM
Modified: 12/22/2018 11:28:29 PM

In 2015, with winter fast approaching, New Hampshire Legal Assistance received a call about a mentally ill Claremont man in his early 60s who was being evicted from his apartment over bedbugs.

The building’s manager claimed that Darryl Heiser, who has battled schizophrenia since his late teens, was responsible for an infestation of the pests that plagued the building. By the time the nonprofit New Hampshire Legal Assistance heard about Heiser’s predicament, however, he had missed a Claremont District Court deadline to challenge his eviction notice. In a matter of days, he’d be out on the street.

“This is what happens to people like Darryl,” said Ben Mortell, a staff attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s office in Claremont since 1996. “He didn’t understand what was going on, so he didn’t respond (to the eviction notice).”

Mortell quickly got to work. He reached out to Heiser’s mental health counselor in Claremont and his sister, Sharon Kalinowski, who had made the call for free legal help. Kalinowski, who lives in Castleton, Vt., is her brother’s guardian.

Mortell needed to buy time. He rushed over to the courthouse in downtown Claremont with the legal paperwork to temporarily block Heiser’s eviction.

Next he contacted the apartment building’s out-of-town landlord. He offered a gentle reminder that the federal Fair Housing Act, which has been around since 1968, protects disabled people from this very sort of treatment.

The landlord got the message. Three years later, Heiser remains in the apartment.

Last week, I called Kalinowski, who is retired but still works part time as a bartender. Her brother, who doesn’t have a phone, gets by on a $700 monthly Social Security disability payment, food stamps and $35 a week that Kalinowski sends him.

If Mortell hadn’t stepped in, would her brother have wound up homeless by now?

“No,” Kalinowski told me. “He’d be dead.”

I’d like to think the social service safety net would have caught Heiser before that happened, but I get what Kalinowski was saying: Without Mortell’s help, her brother didn’t stand a chance.

“Ben takes the impossible cases, and wins them,” said Stephanie Bray, New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s managing attorney in the Claremont office.

Over the years, Mortell has handled the cases of thousands of people with stories not all that different from Heiser’s. If they’re not on the verge of losing their homes, they’re about to have their lights shut off or their claim for disability benefits denied.

Helping poor people in their battles against landlords, utility companies and government bureaucracy is the only job that Mortell has really ever known. And after 38 years of fighting the good fight, Mortell, who soon will turn 64, is retiring.

“I’ve always enjoyed using the law to help people,” Mortell told me. “I’ve worked on some bigger projects, but what has given me the most satisfaction is working with individuals and helping them solve their problems — getting them to a place where their life is more stable and they have a little less to worry about.”

Mortell, the son of an electrical supply salesman and a stay-at-home mom from Connecticut, arrived in Claremont in 1980. He had just finished a year with VISTA (short for Volunteers in Service to America) in Iowa, where he worked in a nonprofit’s legal department.

It led to New Hampshire Legal Assistance offering him a paralegal position in Claremont.

“I had no burning desire to be a lawyer, but this was a way I felt comfortable helping people,” he said.

In civil matters, unlike many criminal proceedings, there’s no constitutional right to legal counsel. That leaves the act of representing some of our most vulnerable neighbors to New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which has 25 attorneys and paralegals in five offices. The organization receives funding help from the state, feds and the New Hampshire Bar Association, among others.

“Unfortunately, we’re never able to help everyone who needs help,” said Mortell, who often has juggled about 50 cases at a time. “It’s triage, not all that different from what goes on in a hospital emergency room.”

With his ruffled sports coat and ill-fitting trousers, Mortell comes across as the legal community’s version of Columbo. “He has an unassuming, soft-spoken way about him,” said John Tobin, New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s former executive director. “But by being smart and persistent, he figured out how to win cases that other lawyers weren’t going to win. After thousands of these cases, he still has the passion. He can still get fired up about injustices.”

Megan Dillon, a paralegal in the organization’s Manchester office, worked with Mortell on advocating for people, often disabled, who had difficulty getting or keeping their public benefits. “Ben taught me that it’s our responsibility to assist indigent people in New Hampshire because nobody else will,” Dillon said.

Nearly everyone goes through rough patches in their lives, but “poor people have less resources to deal with the consequences,” Mortell said. “That makes them even more vulnerable. You shouldn’t need a lawyer just because you’re poor.”

Unfortunately, the vulnerability that comes with poverty isn’t going away. Which is why a lawyer as good as Mortell who spent his career helping those who needed it the most — unlike his sports coat — will never go out of style.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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