Melissa Giasi

How did you first get involved doing pro bono work?

I have done minor pro bono projects over the years. However, in 2017, I was contacted by a high school classmate who needed help with an administrative proceeding regarding her retirement benefits. She was an employee of the Pinellas County school board with state retirement benefits. When she was hired in 2010, because the State of Florida did not recognize her marriage to her wife as legal, she opted for the “investment plan” instead of the “pension plan” because that was the only plan that would allow her wife to receive benefits if she were to pass away.

Once her marriage was recognized as legal by the State of Florida, she wanted to switch to the pension plan; however, she was forced to pay an almost $12,000 buy-in. I filed two separate appeals during that case – one in the middle of the administrative proceeding because the Hearing Officer denied our motion to transfer it to a contested matter, and the second after the Agency (Department of Financial Services). rejected the Hearing Officer’s recommendation that my client not have to pay the full amount of the buy-in. I did not prevail on behalf of my client in either appeal, but she repeatedly told me that it was significant in her healing that I gave her a voice. In fact, at the oral argument during the second appeal, I read a statement on her behalf.

How has pro bono affected your practice/life personally?

As a lawyer, it is easy to get bogged down in the details of our day-to-day deadlines and the stress that accompany those. I value being part of the Appellate Practice section. I read every single email that gets sent out requesting pro bono help. And while I cannot always volunteer to help, I think the reminder of how many people need help combined with the realization that other colleagues (with similar case loads and stress) are stepping up to help, one by one, is a good way to stay grounded on what is important.

Describe a pro bono appeal that you worked on that impacted you.

Last year, I was lucky to secure a reversal of an order in a family law case where the Judge refused to provide clarification on a final judgment. My client had been divorced for many years; however, had recently moved out of her marital home because her youngest child turned 18. The former husband and his attorney were taking the position that my client was not entitled to 50% of the equity in the house (and had gone so far as to transfer title of the home to the former husband’s brother) because the Final Judgment did not specifically state so. However, the Final Judgment did state that the home was a marital asset. The day I got to tell my client (who was living with a friend because she could not afford her own place) that she still had a chance to fight for her share of the money from the sale of her former home was a good day. In that case, I have committed to staying on as counsel in the trial court, have filed an amended petition for clarification of the Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, and we are headed to mediation in the next month.

What advice do you have for volunteer lawyers eager to take on a pro bono appeal but hesitant to accept a case?

I try to commit to handling one case at a time. Once I have finished the briefing, I commit to volunteering to another case. Also, I try to watch for cases where I have a foundation knowledge re: the substantive law (for example, ones that involve real estate law). But, I have found that even when issues come up where I am less familiar with the substantive law (for instance, family law), it is very easy to find colleagues who will help you when you explain that you are handling the appeal pro bono.

The Pro Bono Spotlight is a regular feature on The Record highlighting the important contributions our Section members make to pro bono service. The Pro Bono Spotlight is a great way to introduce yourself to other members of the Section and to share your experience with Pro Bono appellate work. Please submit your article here.