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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 21, 2000. All rights reserved.
Pro Bono Law for Nonprofits
Nonprofit organizations in New Jersey have a new, free
legal resource at their fingertips. The Pro Bono Partnership, an organization
based in White Plains, New York, that provides free legal assistance
to groups that serve the community, has just expanded its operations
into New Jersey.
Utilizing a squadron of volunteer attorneys from local corporations,
Pro Bono (www.probonopartnership.org) provides legal advice to nonprofits
on insurance matters, fundraising and revenue generating, IRS-dealings,
political activities and legislation, and employment law through workshops
and private consultations.
Pro Bono is offering a workshop on "Hiring, Firing, and Risk Management
for New Jersey Nonprofits," on Friday, June 23, at 8:15 a.m. at
the Center for Nonprofits at 1501 Livingston Avenue, North Brunswick.
Call 732-227-0800. Cost: $15
Founded in 1997 by Robert Healing, corporate counsel for General
Electric, the Pro Bono Partnership has over 300 volunteer attorneys,
primarily inside counsel of corporations in Westchester County (New
York) and Fairfield County (Connecticut), consulting to nonprofits
in the area. The organization currently has more than 200 clients
that it counsels on more than 400 separate legal matters. "As
we expand into New Jersey, where there are 17,000 nonprofits, that
number is really going to jump," says Jennifer Chandler Hauge,
an attorney who works for the New Jersey section of Pro Bono (973-984-1612),
soon to be based in Newark.
Since May 1, the organization has had requests from more than 25 New
Jersey nonprofits. The expansion into New Jersey was initiated by
several Fortune 1000 corporations in the state — Prudential, Schering-Plough
and Honeywell, to name a few — as well as prominent law firms
supporting the Partnership’s role in the state. Among them: Drinker,
Biddle & Shanley, Morgan Lewis and Bockius, both in Princeton, and
Hauge’s former employer, Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch in Morristown.
A native of Princeton, Hauge attended Dartmouth College, where she
earned a BA in English and French, Class of 1982, before getting her
JD from Boston College Law School in 1985. "I probably should
have been a social worker because I wanted to sit across a table and
help someone," she says, "but I found by combining law with
human services, it satisfies my need to make a difference." Hauge
left Pitney, Hardin et al in 1992 to start her own practice, which
focused exclusively on nonprofits.
Over 75 percent of the insurance claims filed by nonprofits are employment
law-related, says Hauge. "One of the greatest risks a nonprofit
has is being sued by an employee or former employee," she says.
A nonprofit’s liability risks are often heightened by the gray area
that exists between the term "volunteer" and "employee,"
and as a result, nonprofits are susceptible to liability in cases
of wrongful termination or other employment related issues.
Take the case of Dale vs. Boy Scouts of America, in which a volunteer
sued the organization for terminating him on the basis of sexual orientation.
"Heretofore it wasn’t clear that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination
(the state equivalent of Title VII) covered volunteers because it
only speaks about employees," explains Hauge. Although the New
Jersey Supreme Court upheld Dale’s right to bring a discrimination
suit against the Boy Scouts despite the fact that he was a volunteer,
the case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will make
a ruling this July.
One of the main goals of the Pro Bono Partnership is to narrow liability
risk through policy planning, says Hauge, who uses something called
the "Fundamental Fairness Formula" to advise nonprofits on
their practical, strategic, and philosophical strategies. "It
can be used anytime a nonprofit has to take a negative employment
action — demotion, or run-of-the-mill discipline," she says.
The Fundamental Fairness Formula emphasizes the importance of the
to the employee what the expectations, and what the consequences will
be if they don’t meet those expectations," says Hauge. "A
lot of employees don’t know that if they don’t show up to work on
time regularly, they might lose their job."
out where performance is not meeting expectations.
policies or a manual that spells out disciplinary steps, and since
the state of New Jersey sometimes views manuals as an employment contract,
nonprofits should stick to it rigorously. "If internal procedure
is not followed," says Hauge, "it opens the door for the employee
to claim breach of contract."
at Pro Bono, for example, or the executive director of another agency,
to make sure your decision has been made with objectivity. "This
should provide you with the perspective required to make you feel
comfortable with the decision you’re making," says Hauge.
many bend over backward to be caring, nurturing, and take care of
employees,. But sometimes they overlook the benefit of having a consistent
personnel policy, she says. Likewise, employees of nonprofits hold
do-gooder organizations to a higher standard than private sector companies.
"The employee has the impression that the nonprofit that exists
to do good will always be fair," says Hauge. "An employee
of a nonprofit who is treated unfairly is therefore outraged. If I
worked for a big bad for-profit, I might say, OK it’s the bottom line."
The bottom line for nonprofits: don’t let your do-gooder money get
squandered indisputes that could easily have been avoided.
— Melinda Sherwood
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