Delroy Fjelstad is an 80-year-old Vietnam veteran. He has owned and lived in his townhome for nearly 30 years. Then, expensive car repairs caused him to fall behind on his homeowner’s association (HOA) dues. He wrote a letter explaining the situation and resumed payments as soon as he could. The HOA refused to accept his payments and sold their lien to a real estate company, which initiated a foreclosure by action.
This was a perfect case for the Home Ownership Pro Bono Project, a partnership between Legal Aid, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., and the MSBA Real Property Section. The project focuses on low-income senior homeowners at serious risk of losing their homes, giving litigators and real estate attorneys an opportunity to apply their expertise to pro bono work. Many cases have the potential to involve litigation but can often be resolved through negotiation.
Former Minnesota Supreme Court justice and United States attorney for Minnesota David Lillehaug, who now practices at Fredrikson and Byron, took Fjelstad’s case. His work focuses on complex civil litigation, and he allocates a significant piece of his part-time practice toward pro bono service.
“This was my first pro bono case with Legal Aid,” says Lillehaug. “The client was a widower with health problems, and I wanted to keep him from getting kicked out of his home. Also, I found the unsettled legal issues compelling.”
Lillehaug and Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Coordinator Colleen Daly reviewed pleadings and exchanged ideas on potential claims and defenses. There’s not much case law involving homeowner association liens, but Lillehaug applied statutory interpretation skills that he developed as a Minnesota Supreme Court justice.
“I enjoyed the collaboration,” Daly says. “Mr. Lillehaug had not worked on foreclosure cases previously, and that was not a problem. Volunteer attorneys shouldn’t feel like they need to be expert in a particular area of law to be useful.”
The case was headed for trial. Lillehaug was looking forward to his first trial since leaving the bench, but the case settled. Fjelstad paid $7,500 out of the $12,000 he allegedly owed and did not have to pay $4,500 in attorney’s fees and costs.
“Daly was a great advisor,” says Lillehaug. “She knows housing law and was an excellent sounding board, on both the law and the facts. Without legal representation, Mr. Fjelstad would have had a trial. Whether he would have lost his home, I cannot say, but we certainly helped him keep it.”
Beginning in 2022, the Minnesota Supreme Court is requiring all licensed attorneys to report their pro bono work to the Minnesota State Bar Association. Daly hopes this will encourage more people to volunteer, independently or through a project with their firm or law school.
“We can likely find pro bono cases in any area where an attorney has expertise, but we welcome paralegals, law students, and attorneys to work outside of their practice area,” Daly says. “We have several projects where we will train and support you even if you are brand new to that area of law.”
Legal Aid does not have the resources to help even half of the qualified applicants for help. Pro bono volunteers have an opportunity to either apply their expertise or expand their legal knowledge while making a real difference for people like Mr. Fjelstad.
“As an attorney, pro bono work is not only an obligation, it’s a privilege,” says Lillehaug. “I generally get more out of a pro bono case than I put into it. I couldn’t have asked for better support than I got from Legal Aid. It was a good experience.”