By Megan Sando
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Former Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals Judge Carol Hansen remembers when the first Legal Aid Services office opened in Stillwater in 1980.
“Back then, we were not welcome at bar meetings with open arms,” Hansen said.
Local attorneys feared the new business would take away from their own.
Hansen recalls the nonprofit was booming with funds, except Legal Aid attorneys don’t make a profit from clients. It specializes in civil legal problems, serving the low-income and elderly populations. Now there are more than 22 offices statewide.
“Legal Aid is desperately needed by those who cannot afford an attorney,” she said.
Executive Director Michael Figgins said the majority of funding comes from the Legal Services Corporation, AAA and the Stillwater Area United Way.
The Stillwater office serves 50 to 70 clients at a time. Clients are under a significant amount of stress, Figgins said.
Garold Haley of Yale recalls when a local machinery company terminated him. Haley heard about Legal Aid through another attorney’s office in Stillwater. He called requesting an attorney who could help him for a hearing.
“As fate would have it, they were able to help me,” he said. “I am very satisfied because I didn’t know what I was getting into. Without her, there’s no telling what would have happened.”
Brenda Nipp, public benefits advocacy coordinator for Stillwater, took on the case.
The company that terminated Haley stated he couldn’t receive unemployment benefits due to misconduct. Haley said he was let go after working one year, but the company waited until eight months later to fight his unemployment. The company told the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission that he had not met the productivity quota on the job, however, there was no clear definition by the company in writing of what that quota was.
“That’s not his fault,” Nipp said. “How could he be responsible for an unknown product?”
During a phone hearing, the OESC agreed.
Before a couple of months ago, Haley had no experience dealing with the law.
“In a time of need, if stressed and worried and needing legal help, they are a godsend,” Haley said.
For five years, Nipp fought the U.S. Social Security Administration with Payne County Deputy Bob Tillman. At 52, Tillman had a massive heart attack and stomach cancer. He spent 25 days in intensive care unit and three months at the hospital. Soon after, he applied for disability through Social Security in 1997. From 2006 to 2008, Social Security told him that he was overpaid and owed $25,000. Tillman’s supervisor told him to seek out Legal Aid.
“I needed help,” he said.
Tillman and Nipp have appealed three times over five years. On Thursday, a judge ruled in Tillman’s favor. Nipp anticipates the case will be closed in 60 to 90 days.
“I was worried about where I would get $25,000,” Tillman said. “They made me feel like a crook, a criminal. ... It felt like someone took a huge weight off my shoulders. I knew I was right, but I couldn’t get anyone to listen. I needed someone to do the talking for me, and that’s when Legal Aid got involved.”
It cost Tillman nothing for services over those five years.
“Every bit of that money is Mr. Tillman’s,” Nipp said.
The Stillwater office has two attorneys, Nipp and senior attorney Richard Yohn, who oversees litigation matters and is a general legal practitioner on foreclosures. There are two paralegals, Christina Mekina, office manager, and Stacy Boyles, with legal secretary Nikki Kotchka. Mekina helps to navigate the Affordable Care Act in Stillwater and Boyles in Enid.
Mekina said Stillwater’s demographics are mostly white females with children.
Legal Aid takes on critical cases for domestic violence, bad landlords, the disabled, senior citizens, debts, divorce and consumer rip-offs.
Legal Aid sees walk-ins and no one walks away without some advice. The toll-free number is 1-888-534-5243.