Joint Press Release
(LOS ANGELES) (December 9, 2010)—The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLS), through their attorneys at O’Melveny & Myers LLP and Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps LLP, respectively, working pro bono, have filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court in the State of California, Los Angeles County, against Sovella Gardner, a Los Angeles business owner. The lawsuit seeks to prevent Gardner from illegally using the term "legal aid" and other similar terms to conduct business and attract potential clients, mostly poor and low-income individuals. It is understood that Gardner has done business under the names Legal Aid, Legal Aide, Legal Aid A Low Income Service, Father’s Rights Hotline Legal Services, and Legal Assistance Hotline.
Despite a warning letter sent to Gardner on March 12, 2010, by attorneys for LAFLA and NLS asking her to cease and desist using the illegal names and advertisements, the defendant continued to advertise and do business under one or more of the names listed above. The action asserts that Gardner’s conduct has caused and will continue to cause harm to consumers of legal services. Gardner’s efforts to trade on the name "legal aid" and other similar names also significantly harms the professional reputations of legitimate legal aid firms, which are leading advocates for poor and low-income individuals.
LAFLA and NLS brought this action to enforce a new law that went into effect on January 1, 2010. The new law prohibits anyone from using the name "Legal Aid", "Legal Aide,"’ or any confusingly similar name unless it is "a nonprofit organization that provides civil legal services for the poor without charge." (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 6159.5, et seq.) It allows any consumer injured by such activity to sue the phony legal aid provider for damages and to seek a court order requiring them to stop using the name. It also permits legitimate legal aid programs to file a lawsuit to stop the misuse of the name.
"The California legislature attempted to solve a serious problem for low-income consumers of legal services by making clear that the term ’legal aid’ in California means providing legal services to the poor free of charge. That law will help protect these individuals who need help the most from those who would prey on them and offer phony services and empty promises," explained LAFLA General Counsel Toby Rothschild. "At legitimate legal aid organizations like LAFLA, services are provided at no cost, whereas illegitimate operations take the client’s money and don’t deliver services."
"We continually have clients come to us for help after a phony legal aid has taken their money, provided inaccurate information, and not delivered any substantive legal services. Often times, these businesses are not even staffed by attorneys. They create great distrust in the community for true legal services organizations, which is a difficult barrier to overcome," said Neal S. Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is the largest frontline law firm for poor and low-income people in Los Angeles. For more information about LAFLA, please visit www.lafla.org.