Two lawyers received The Florida Bar Foundation’s Jane Elizabeth Curran Distinguished Service Award June 14 at the Foundation’s annual reception and dinner.
The award, named for the Foundation’s first executive director, recognizes individuals who, over their careers, have achieved meaningful, effective and lasting increases in access to civil justice for the poor in Florida.
Award recipient Sharon Bourassa is Legal Aid Service of Broward County’s director of special projects. Bourassa has worked at Legal Aid Service of Broward County since 1981. Her interest and compassion for the low-income community began when, as a divorced mother with two young children receiving welfare assistance and a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, she became determined to earn a college degree and go on to law school, not only to help her family but also to help those who faced the same struggles she experienced.
“Sharon has been and remains a stalwart in the selfless pursuit of justice, demonstrating exemplary commitment to solving the legal problems of extremely low-income people,” wrote Anthony Karrat, executive director of Legal Aid Service of Broward County, in his nomination letter. “She has been successful in a variety of forums and is known for providing unwavering support to colleagues and others who work in the legal services community.”
Bourassa pursues and prosecutes cases that impact the low-income community. She has represented families in cases involving federal and state environmental laws, housing laws and local code enforcement laws. Her successful case outcomes often provide class-wide relief to large segments of the low-income population. Most recently, she has developed programs to represent low-income adults whose legal issues prevent them from continuing their education or job training.
Miami lawyer and Executive Director Emeritus of Legal Services of Greater Miami (LSGMI) Marcia Cypen also received the award. Cypen joined LSGMI in 1974 as a law clerk and was hired as a staff attorney two years later. She began serving as executive director in 1983, leading the program as the largest provider of broad-based civil legal services for the poor in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties for the next 30 years.
“Marcia is the rare individual who not only combines compassion for the poor and vulnerable members of our community with legal skill, but she is also an excellent business woman and manager,” wrote Monica Vigues-Pitan, LSGMI’s executive director, in her nomination letter. “While weathering the constant ups and downs of funding and regulations, Marcia’s leadership resulted in Legal Services of Greater Miami becoming a strong institution which will endure well into the future.”
Cypen oversaw a 60-member staff, including more than 25 attorneys, who served 20,000 people a year, resolving the daily legal problems of low-income, vulnerable residents. She challenged issues from Medicaid cutbacks to home care benefit cuts for the elderly, like the case she won for a 73-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease who was denied benefits because of where he lived.
Her vision resulted in one of the first community economic development departments in a legal services program. She also developed innovative programs for veterans, disabled children, people with AIDS, people experiencing homelessness, ex-prisoners and low wage workers. Under her leadership, LSGMI established online intake available in multiple languages, a disaster legal assistance unit in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, and most recently a foundation for LSGMI.