2016 Awards of Merit

The LAAC Awards of Merit are the California legal services community’s opportunity to recognize the importance of legal services and to particularly honor a few of the many who have made contributions to the field during the past year. More about the Awards of Merit

The 2016 Awards of Merit were presented on October 25, 2016 at Traveling Training in Riverside.

This year’s Awards of Merit recipients include Fernando Gaytan, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Gloria Ho, Citizenship Network Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA and Rita H. Smith, pro bono volunteer at Inland Empire Latino Lawyers’ Association, Inc. LAAC joins the California Commission on Access to Justice in recognizing Lollie Roberts, supervising family law facilitator at the Sacramento Superior Court, as the Joint Award of Merit recipient.

The LAAC Awards of Merit are the legal services community’s opportunity to recognize the importance of legal services and to particularly honor a few of the many who have made contributions to the field during the last year.

LAAC recognized the honorees with a luncheon on Tuesday, October 25 at University of California Riverside Extension.

“LAAC is proud to continue its tradition of recognizing excellence in the legal services community through the Awards of Merit,” said Salena Copeland, LAAC executive director.

“Fernando, Gloria, Lollie, and Rita represent the outstanding work that advocates do to expand access to justice for all Californians.”


About Fernando Gaytan

Gaytan began his career as a Skadden Fellow with the Los Angeles Center on Law & Justice. There, he protected low income immigrants by filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of people defrauded by unauthorized document preparers. As an associate at a private civil rights firm, Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP, he co-counseled with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) to protect families with substandard housing, inspiring him to join LAFLA in 2008.

Now the managing attorney for the South Los Angeles office, Gaytan oversees civil rights litigation regarding the rights of homeless people, and fair housing litigation. He works closely with community partners and was recently honored by Inquilinos Unidos, a low-income tenants organizing group.

In addition to motivating grassroots partners, Gaytan leads LAFLA’s Housing and Communities Workgroup, which seeks to preserve and create affordable housing, promote healthy living conditions, and promote environmental justice. He also represents the Child Care Law Center as a member of the board of Housing California. Gaytan’s passion for social justice also led him to join the Child Care Law Center Board in 2012.

“Fernando has an unparalleled passion to win safe and decent homes for low-income people, and to bring the voices of traditionally underrepresented people to the forefront of policy debates,” said Kim Kruckel, executive director of Child Care Law Center.

“His considerable litigation skills and commitment to community lawyering have positively impacted his clients, colleagues and everyone he comes into contact with. Fernando demonstrates his commitment to delivering legal services to the poor every day, and in all his interactions with his colleagues.”

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles seeks to achieve equal justice for poor and low-income people in greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change, and community education. For more information, visit https://lafla.org/.


About Gloria Ho

During her time with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, Ho has held many positions, always exhibiting her passion, commitment, perseverance, and dedication to the immigrant community.

Starting as a community legal advocate, Ho provided in-language support to the Chinese community on Advancing Justice – LA’s national helpline, always finding a way to communicate with callers in a professional, kind, and respectful way. Two years later, Ho was promoted to housing coordinator, where she focused her attention on serving low-income Chinese communities who needed support with unlawful detainers. Transitioning into the citizenship unit as a network manager, she developed innovative ways to meet community needs, expanding Advancing Justice – LA’s volunteer base over 300 percent, doubling service to the community in the last year.

In September, Ho received her accreditation from the Board of Immigrant Appeals and is now representing Chinese clients with complex naturalization cases before the Department of Homeland Security.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Los Angeles (Advancing Justice – LA) is the nation’s largest legal and civil rights organization for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (NHPI).

Founded in 1983 as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Advancing Justice – LA serves more than 15,000 individuals and organizations every year. Through direct services, impact litigation, policy advocacy, leadership development, and capacity building, Advancing Justice – LA focuses on the most vulnerable members of Asian American and NHPI communities while also building a strong voice for civil rights and social justice.

Advancing Justice – LA is based in downtown Los Angeles, with satellite offices in Orange County and Sacramento. For more information, visit http://www.advancingjustice-la.org/.


About Lollie Roberts

As the supervising family law facilitator for the Sacramento Superior Court, Roberts has been instrumental in establishing organizational structures and technological innovations to make her self-help program more accessible to the thousands of litigants seeking assistance.

One of Roberts’ many innovations is the development of the one-day divorce program. Through this program, litigants can start a divorce and obtain a final judgement all in the same day, allowing parties to get a painful part of their life behind them with little stress. This program has become one of the most popular programs in the Sacramento Superior Courthouse.

In addition, Roberts routinely provides ethics trainings to self-help attorneys and family law facilitators throughout the state. Colleagues have described her presentation style as engaging, allowing attendees to think deeply about the ethical dilemmas they face on a regular basis.

“Her tireless commitment to self-represented litigants is evidenced by her ongoing efforts provide innovative, accessible, and meaningful services designed to help litigants navigate the family law court system at every step of the way,” said Kelly Meehleib, analyst at the Judicial Council of California and former colleague.

“In a world where too often people focus on what is wrong with our court system, Lollie Roberts is a shining example of what is right,” said Gary Slossberg, attorney at the Judicial Council of California.

“In an environment filled with conflict and drama, she is a constant source of support for her staff, rarely seen without a smile and words of encouragement.

“Her positive attitude, ability to innovate, willingness to mentor and encourage others, and focus on helping litigants makes her a true public servant.”


About Rita H. Smith

Smith has dedicated her career to serving the poor and underprivileged. For 41 years, she worked for the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office as a trial attorney and supervisor. After retiring from the Public Defender’s Office, Smith continued serving the community by volunteering for Bet Tzedek Legal Services of Los Angeles.

Smith currently supports the Inland Empire Latino Lawyers’ Association (IELLA) by providing pro bono services. Since February 2016, Ms. Smith has volunteered 215 hours at IELLA’s legal clinics. During those hours, she has counseled and advised clients in family law, evictions, collections, and criminal law. In addition, she has participated in IELLA co-sponsored events such as the One Justice Expungement Clinic and fundraisers.

Smith’s colleagues speak of her as an inspiration with the ability to create relationships with clients who specifically request that they speak with her during legal aid clinics.

“I am inspired by her spirit of generosity and compassion she demonstrates to our clients,” said Diana Lopez, client services manager at Inland Empire Latino Lawyers’ Association.

“Along with her spirit of generosity, Ms. Smith also has an easygoing spirit that allows our clients to feel at ease during such a stressful time of their life.”


About Legal Aid Association of California

Founded in 1983, the Legal Aid Association of California (“LAAC”) is a nonprofit organization created to ensure the effective delivery of legal services to low-income and underserved people and families throughout California. LAAC is the statewide membership organization of 91 nonprofit legal services organizations in the state. Our members provide high-quality legal services to our state’s most vulnerable populations.

These services to low-income and other underrepresented individuals form an essential safety net in California and often ensure that the programs’ clients have access to life’s basic necessities, such as food, safe and affordable housing, freedom from violence, health care, employment, economic self-sufficiency, and equal access to justice through the legal system.