The Yale Sappern room at the New Haven Courthouse
She doesn’t have family in the state, or money, or the skills to read the documents to get the restraining order she desperately needs. But she does have Sappern Fellow Thomas Piscatelli.
In a small office on the sixth floor of New Haven Superior Court, Piscatelli, a third-year Quinnipiac law student, reviews the affidavit he helped the woman fill out, checking each account of abuse she has endured from her drug-addicted husband, including the time he threw her against the wall when she was pregnant and threatened to kill her and her family.
“He’s been calling everyone trying to find out where I am. I’m so scared,” she says, muffling her crying into the neck of the one-year-old on her lap.
Piscatelli explains the process to her. If she’s granted the temporary restraining order, she needs to have a marshal serve her husband at least five days before the hearing in two weeks, which she also must attend. If the papers aren’t served, she’ll have to start the process again. She doesn’t know where he is, she says. His brow creases. He takes a deep breath and encourages her to do the best she can to find him.
“I was prepared for the worst, and that’s exactly what I got,” says Piscatelli of the stories he hears. He’s been a Sappern Fellow for three semesters, helping pro se parties file paperwork for restraining orders and divorce cases. More than the professional experience he’s gained—learning about the courthouse and working among lawyers and judges—he has had the opportunity to help clients with real, sometimes urgent, problems.
Many of the people who walk into the Sappern Fellows office—a former conference room with toys and coloring books to occupy the children who accompany their parents—need help navigating the complicated legal system. With waiting lines that can stretch to dozens of people, the clerk’s office doesn’t have the time to offer the individual guidance the Sappern Fellows do, says Piscatelli, who alsoworked as a temporary assistant clerk.
Third-year student Thomas Piscatelli with a client in the Sappern Fellows Office, New Haven Superior Court
The students’ work is supported by the Yale Sappern Memorial Fund, which Pietrina Sappern ’60 and her brother-inlaw, Donald Sappern, established at Quinnipiac University School of Law in honor of her late husband, Yale, who was the first assistant clerk and supervisor of the Family Division in New Haven Superior Court. Yale was known for his dedication to the division and the people it served. Fellows receive a stipend for their work, and Quinnipiac law students are the sole beneficiaries of the fund.
As a practicing lawyer, Deborah Daddio remembers Sappern’s kind demeanor. “He was informative and helpful and would give me the same type of treatment and respect that someone who was an insider at the courthouse would expect,” says Daddio, career services director at the School of Law. She oversees the Sappern Fellows program. Since its inception in 2000, the fund has supported about 150 fellows working in New Haven, and occasionally in Bridgeport, Waterbury and Norwich. Each year, they help about 1,400 clients.
Pietrina Sappern wants new lawyers to gain an appreciation for people in troubling situations. “I want them to be able to make a difference in someone’s life,” says Sappern, who helps organize the annual Yale Sappern Memorial Golf Tournament fundraiser. For her work, she received an honorary degree at the School of Law Commencement ceremony on May 11.
“Her compassion and dedication is just amazing,” said Jamie Young ’08, of Killingworth, Conn. A former Sappern Fellow, Young is involved in gathering support for the fund. “Yale Sappern is someone I would have enjoyed knowing and would have learned immensely from, and through my experience as a fellow, later observing Pietrina and her work on the fund, I have come to know him in a small way.”
Nancy Strini ’06, a lawyer for the Children’s Law Center in Hartford, said there isn’t a court in the state that wouldn’t benefit from the Sappern Fellows program. “In most courthouses, you have to shout out the details of your life with 50 people in line,” she explains. “We created a space where you can cry, you can cuss and rant and rave, and no one is going to think poorly of you.”
She recalls one woman returning several times before she gathered the courage to submit her paperwork. “She could come back 100 times. When she was ready, we were there to help her,” says Strini.
The fellowship isn’t just for students entering family law. Michael Speight ’08 of Hamden didn’t focus on family law in school, but has enjoyed working with the public.
“I would hate to have someone who legitimately needs a restraining order not get one because of limited education or not being aware of how a judge makes his or her decision,” says Speight.
The experience also has helped him better understand people and what motivates their actions, which is helpful for any area of the law. As a Fellow, he occasionally had clients who seemed to be filing restraining orders just to get back at a girlfriend or boyfriend. The fellows take satisfaction in knowing that the respondent has the opportunity to defend himself—or herself—at a hearing. Ultimately, it’s up to the judge to sort fact from fiction.
“When they have a black eye or stitches, you can see for yourself they are telling the truth,” he says.
Fellows often come across interesting legal dilemmas. Young remembers a man who came in to annul a marriage because his bride turned out to be a groom. Given the circumstances of the situation—the couple married before the state adopted civil unions and the marriage certificate lists the name of a male and female—he didn’t know how to dissolve the marriage.
“Those are legal questions that I had never thought about and I had to find the answers,” says Young, who referred the case to her supervisor. Fellows can’t provide legal advice, but they often refer clients to organizations, such as Legal Aid.
Meredith Olan’s experience as a Sappern Fellow, particularly working with abuse cases, solidified her career direction.
“This fueled my fire to be a state’s attorney,” says Olan, who will be graduating in December. “You see things like that happening and you want to be part of the solution.”
A Yale Sappern Fellow Hard at work at the New Haven Courthouse
Sappern Fellow Meredith Olan helps clients with divorces and restraining orders.