Staff Bios

Staff Biographies

Vicki Acker, Bookkeeper
Vicki has been balancing LAA’s books since 2007. She is a former small business owner and attended the Stone School of Business. Vicki makes cupcakes that look and taste like they came from a specialty bakery. She enjoys spending time with her husband, Don, her 17-year-old daughter, Bethany, and her Shitzhu, Levi.

James Bhandary-Alexander, Staff Attorney
James represents low-wage workers and their organizations before administrative agencies, in state and federal courts and in the legislature. He graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in 2005, where he was a Public Interest Law Scholar, and was admitted to practice in Connecticut and New York. He subsequently worked for the National Labor Relations Board and as the Thomas Emerson Fellow at David Rosen & Associates. James served as co-chair of Connecticut’s Low-Wage Employer Advisory Board and served on the state’s Task Force on Domestic Workers. He is a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and is the Past-President of the New Haven Association of Legal Services Attorneys. In 2016, James received the Micah Award from the Naugatuck Valley Project and the Brazilian Worker Center, and was one of four finalists for the Connecticut Law Tribune’s statewide Attorney of the Year award during that same year. In 2019, he received the Unsung Hero Award from the Morris and Irmgard Wessel Fund. James has been interviewed about his cases and worker rights more broadly by the New York Times, Bloomberg News, Sports Illustrated, In These Times, the Hartford Courant, and many other publications. He has presented at trainings and conferences across the country on the topic of community and movement lawyering in the context of worker rights advocacy. James speaks English and Spanish.

Diana Blank, Staff Attorney
Diana practices both family law and immigration law at NHLAA. She became a staff attorney in the family unit in May of 2014, after spending eight months here as a legal fellow working across organizational units to expand NHLAA’s representation of undocumented immigrants. Diana attended the Yale Law School, where she devoted herself to representing indigent non-citizens, through her participation in two of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization’s  clinics: Legal Services for Immigrant Communities and the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic. She was awarded the Yale Law School’s 2013 Stephen J. Massey Prize for that clinical work, as well as the 2013 Raphael Lemkin Prize for her writing on human rights. Diana holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley and a Bachelor’s Degree in the Humanities from Stanford University. She is admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. Diana speaks fluent Russian and French, and is working hard to speak grammatical Spanish.

Laura Clark, Controller
Laura has been with the organization since 2000. Before she was Controller, she worked as Bookkeeper and Assistant Controller/Office Manager. She is a Southern Connecticut State University graduate and has been working in accounting since 1989. She is married and the mother of two teenagers, and enjoys gardening, reading and photography.

Francis X. Dineen, Senior Counsel
Frank is one of the longest-serving legal services lawyers in the country, and a Clinical Lecturer at Yale Law School. Frank was instrumental in the founding of New Haven Legal Assistance in 1964  and served as its Deputy Director for over 30 years. He is credited with reinventing landlord/tenant practice in Connecticut and has been involved in many landmark cases. He has argued two cases before the United States Supreme Court: Simmons v. West Haven Housing, challenging the substantial bond requirement as it affected indigent persons in their eviction appeals; and Kelly v. Robinson, involving the dischargeability of monetary criminal restitution obligations in bankruptcy. Frank is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Distinguished Service Award from Yale University and Yale Law School for his work in legal services and with law students; the Charles J. Parker Legal Services Award from the Connecticut Bar Association for his work in legal services; the Yale Law Women’s Award for Teaching Excellence;  the Connecticut Law Tribune Award for Pro Bono Legal Services; and the Access to Justice Award from New Haven Legal Assistance. He was designated a James W. Cooper Fellow by the Connecticut Bar Foundation in 1994. Frank’s other responsibilities and titles at LAA have included Acting Executive Director, Director of Training, and Director of the Legal Aid Bureau. He has an A.B. from Dartmouth, and an LL.B. from Yale Law School.

Renee Dineen, Paralegal
Renee has worked at New Haven Legal Assistance since 1973. She began as an administrative assistant at the Legal Aid Bureau in the City Hall Annex, under the supervision of Francis X. Dineen.  Renee became a paralegal in 1978, and along with Attorney Sherry Bellamy, opened the new child law Unit at LAA.  In that position, Renee represented children in schools, ensuring that their special educational needs were met appropriately and in the least restrictive environment possible.  In 1981, Renee became a bankruptcy paralegal, preparing bankruptcy petitions for indigent clients who sought relief from their debts and an opportunity for a fresh start.  Then in 1984 she became a paralegal in the Housing Unit, where she remains today.  Under attorney supervision, Renee specializes in negotiating with utility companies to keep service on for her clients, and represents clients who are being threatened with termination of their housing subsidies. Other duties Renee has performed at LAA include working as a “screener” (taking applications from potential clients), representing clients in unemployment compensation hearings, and pitching in to help out by performing the duties of the Pro Bono Coordinator, the Community Legal Education Program Coordinator, and the Community Development Coordinator.  Renee is an avid knitter, especially in the winter months, and can often be found showing other LAA staff members how to knit.

Kerry Ellington, Community Organizer

Kerry Ellington is a freedom fighter, grassroots community organizer and radical educator, recently recognized by Connecticut Magazine as, “Connecticut’s 40 Under 40: Class 2018”. Kerry currently serves as a Community & Economic Development Community Organizer at New Haven Legal Assistance Association and has held positions at non-profit organizations including Teach Our Children, Youth Rights Media, Common Ground High School, Congregations Organized for New Connecticut, and New Haven Public Schools. As native of New York City, she originally came to Connecticut to study journalism at Quinnipiac University as a first generation undergrad. She spent almost five years teaching at Common Ground High School, Urban Farm and Environmental Education Center where she engaged the student body in political education and social justice work organizing experiential learning programming for students to attend culturally relevant plays, lectures, conferences, protest and events that helped to deepen their consciousness, broaden their lens and language for social justice, liberation and anti-racist work. She played a key leadership role in advancing conversations about institutional bias, anti-racism and racial justice and led efforts to transform the school culture, curriculum and organizational practices to lead to greater access and equity for Black and Brown students and staff. As a founding member of the school’s diversity committee, she advocated for culturally competent pedagogy, and worked to build inclusive organizational systems and policy and practice. Prior to her work at Common Ground, Kerry was a youth organizer at Youth Rights Media, where she supported young people to run organizing campaigns around alternative schools and the school to prison pipeline. She began her organizing career as an AmeriCorps member and Public Ally at Teach Our Children, a parent-led organizing group in New Haven working to eradicate punitive school based discipline policies and practices that uphold the school to prison pipeline. Kerry has maintained a deep personal commitment to grassroots community organizing outside of her professional work. Her watershed moment came in 2010 when friend and fellow organizer Jewu Richardson, who was unarmed, was shot by New Haven Police. Ellington helped found People Against Police Brutality, a grassroots organization that fiercely organizes victims, families and communities impacted by police violence and advocates for police accountability across our state. Since then she has advocated for victims while helping to raise money for sufficient legal defense and bail funds. She is a key leader in the Justice for Jayson Negron coalition, fighting for greater police accountability, oversight following the death of 15-year-old Jayson Negron, who was fatally shot by Bridgeport Police officers in 2017.

Amy Eppler-Epstein, Staff Attorney

Amy Eppler-Epstein has been an attorney with NHLAA since graduating law school in 1986. She works primarily with tenants in our housing unit, but she has also worked on domestic violence family law, immigration, and is one of the attorneys running our Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration clinic to help immigrant youth.  She has represented tenant organizations, has successfully litigated a discrimination case in federal court for a non-profit developer who was being blocked from developing housing for people with disabilities, and has helped influence state and federal law to protect the rights of tenants after foreclosure.  She also wrote and successfully lobbied for legislation to encourage tenants in bringing fair housing litigation by exempting such awards or settlements from state liens.   She has argued three times before the CT Supreme Court, attempting to establish a state constitutional right to shelter, and successfully arguing that tenants cannot be put out by banks after foreclosure unless they are named in the foreclosure or eviction case.  She is currently on the boards of HOME Inc., Columbus House Shelter, and the Grants Committee of the Guilford Fund for the Education. She volunteers with the Community Dining Room and Habitat for Humanity, and over the years has been a volunteer with Domestic Violence Services, Mutual Housing, and the girl scouts.  She speaks competent Spanish, and loves her job at New Haven Legal Assistance. She can’t think of anywhere else she would rather work!

Kate Geruntho Frank, Web and Publications Manager,
Kate writes self-help booklets in plain language so that people who can’t afford a lawyer can have access to justice through self-advocacy. She also manages, a self-help website that provides low-income people with free civil legal information. Kate and the statewide website project are housed at LAA and supported by grants from the Connecticut Bar Foundation and the Legal Services Corporation. Kate has worked for newspaper and magazine websites (including the New Haven Register and Fine Gardening magazine) since 2000. In her spare time, Kate enjoys spending time with her two sons, knitting, yoga, and gardening.

Connie Frontis, Staff Attorney
Connie has been a staff attorney at NHLAA since December, 1983.  She works in the Family Law unit and represents victims of domestic violence in restraining orders as well as custody actions and divorces. She also advocates for and represents them in criminal court. She has been supervising the Yale Temporary Restraining Order Project, providing training and ongoing support to the student participants, from its inception in 1984  until now. She teaches a seminar affiliated with the Yale TRO Project each semester; she also teaches a Domestic Violence Clinic for Yale law students. She is a long-time member of the Greater New Haven Domestic Violence Task Force and its Police/Court Response Committee as well as its Legislative Committee. Connie has been actively involved with legislative advocacy – both drafting proposed legislation and working to ensure passage as well as opposing legislation harmful to our clients.

Joanne Gibau, Staff Attorney
Joanne assists clients in the areas of Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) and Social Security Administration (SSA) benefits. Her first priority is to represent “O” income and “O” SNAP benefits clients who have been improperly denied or discontinued from TFA cash assistance, SAGA cash assistance and SNAP. Joanne also represents clients in TFA cash assistance cases where a medical or mental health exemption from the TFA time limit has been denied or discontinued, and she represents clients in SAGA cash assistance cases when their “unemployability” status has been denied or discontinued. Joanne is the LAA contact person for Raymond v. Rowland disabled class members for whom DSS has not afforded reasonable accommodations, such as scheduling a medical or mental health appointment and obtaining a report, to show that class members meet disability criteria for DSS benefits. In the area of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, Joanne represents disabled child and adult recipients of TFA cash assistance who have been improperly denied SSI. Joanne received her B.A. from Boston College in 1980 and her J.D. from George Washington University Law School in 1983.  She is a member of the Bar of the State of Connecticut and a member of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Carolyn Gontarski, Office Manager/Administrative Assistant
Carolyn joined LAA in 2002 and is responsible for keeping the office running smoothly. She is a former secretary for the criminal, housing and family units. She also worked for the Office of the State’s Attorney in New Haven and attended Stone School of Business. Carolyn and her husband are very proud parents of their three children. On the weekends they can be found traveling the state to watch swim meets and hockey games.

Ming-Yee Lin, Staff Attorney
Ming-Yee is a staff attorney in the Community Economic Development (CED) unit at LAA. Using tools outside of the courtroom, she collaborates with and works to empower local residents and community organizations committed to advancing social, racial, and economic justice in New Haven. During her time at Yale Law School, Ming-Yee worked with local nonprofits as a member of the CED clinic and supported individuals seeking temporary restraining orders (TRO) through her work as a student director of the TRO Project. Ming-Yee spent three long years in private practice in Los Angeles, gaining experience as a transactional real estate attorney. As a first-generation American, Ming-Yee is committed to helping others overcome linguistic, cultural, and legal barriers that often impede access to equal opportunities and rights. An avid language learner, Ming-Yee is bilingual in English and Chinese, conversational in Japanese, and a continuing student of Korean and Spanish. Ming-Yee enjoys cooking, travelling, practicing yoga and mindfulness, and watching movies with her husband and fur babies.

Caitlin Maloney, Community Organizer
Caitlin is a Community Organizer in the Community and Economic Development (“CED”) Unit. Through her work, Caitlin assists in building partnerships between neighborhood groups and individuals for the purposes of empowering the community to work toward equitable economic development opportunities. Prior to NHLAA, Caitlin worked at the YMCA fundraising for health and education initiatives. Her focus has been to advocate and connect with others around social, economic, gender and racial justice issues. Caitlin co-founded a New Haven County based grassroots organization, which empowers mothers to work on issues at the local, state and national level, and is also the co-founder of West Haven Progressive Action Network. Caitlin loves spending time in nature with her two daughters and exploring new restaurants with her husband, Ryan.

Ben Martin, IT Administrator
Ben Martin joined LAA in 2018 after working in IT at a regional accounting firm for 9 years. He got his Bachelor’s degree at Albertus Magnus College (Go Falcons!) and his Masters at SCSU. When he’s not at work, Ben spends his time with his wife and two children and reading altogether too many books recommended on the podcasts to which he listens.

Amy Marx, Staff Attorney
Amy joined LAA in 2002. Her work in the housing unit includes representing tenants in state housing court eviction cases; representing public housing tenant groups who live in buildings facing demolition; representing tenants with federal and state housing subsidies at administrative hearings; and representing tenants in federal court. Amy is also a national leader in assisting tenants living in foreclosed properties. Before she came to LAA, Amy was a staff attorney with Connecticut Legal Services in the benefits unit. Amy received her J.D. from Yale Law School and clerked for the Honorable Kimba M. Wood at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Amy is admitted to practice in Connecticut. She serves on the Executive Committee of the ROOF Project, a collaborative project of city leaders dealing with the regional foreclosure crisis. She is a board member of New Haven Youth Tennis and Education and the Calvin Hill Daycare Center.  Her hobbies include raising backyard chickens.

Ellen Messali, Staff Attorney
Ellen Messali is a new staff attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance and began working in the family law unit, doing family and immigration work, in August, 2016.  Prior to coming to NHLAA, Ellen worked as the staff attorney for the Survivor Services Program at the International Institute of Connecticut for nearly four years. There, she represented torture survivors in their applications for asylum, and other humanitarian relief, and also represented survivors with U Visa and VAWA Petitions.  Before beginning her work at the International Institute of Connecticut, Ms. Messali served as a civil clerk at Waterbury Superior Court for the Honorable Wilson Trombley, and as a family clerk at Milford Superior Court for the Honorable Robert Malone.  She holds a BS in Legal Studies and Political Science from Roger Williams University, and a Juris Doctor and Human Rights Certificate from University of Connecticut School of Law.  Ellen enjoys yoga and tap dancing and is working on speaking both French and Spanish conversationally.

Katherine M. Peccerillo, Staff Attorney
Kate practices family law with an emphasis on representing domestic violence survivors.  She is also a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School where she co-teaches the Gender Violence Clinic. Previously, she was in-house counsel at Innovations for Poverty Action, a Skadden Fellow at New Haven Legal Assistance, and an intern with The Honorable Stefan R. Underhill, United States District Judge (now Chief Judge) for the District of Connecticut, the ACLU of Connecticut, and the Federal Defender’s Office for the District of Connecticut. She also represented asylum applicants through the University of Connecticut Asylum and Human Rights Legal Clinic and Special Immigrant Visa applicants through the International Refugee Assistance Program. Prior to her legal career, Kate held numerous leadership and management roles with the global non-profit Save the Children addressing the needs of vulnerable women, children, and families in the U.S. and around the world.

Elizabeth Rosenthal
Lizzie joined LAA as Deputy Director in May 2017, after more than ten years at Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago. Lizzie was an undergraduate at Yale and attended Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, from which she graduated cum laude with a Law and Social Policy concentration. Before LAF, Lizzie clerked for the Honorable Benson E. Legg, the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in Baltimore. In 2016, Lizzie and her litigation team, which included attorneys from a private law firm, were awarded the Seventh Circuit Bar Association’s Pro Bono and  Public Service Award for litigating a Fair Housing Act case in federal court that led to securing 1800 units of public housing in a desegregated opportunity area in Chicago. In her free time, Lizzie enjoys spending time with her extended family, traveling abroad, and catching up on news and politics from her native Washington, DC.

Daisy Ruiz, Secretary
Daisy has been with LAA since 2008 and works as a secretary in the family/child/immigration law units. She has a B.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of New Haven. Daisy is the proud mom of a 19-year-old son who is studying electrical engineering at her alma mater. She enjoys going to tag and estate sales for antique picking and then researching the value or story behind the item, taking long walks with her dog, Spooky, touring old historic homes and towns, scrapbooking, and reading.

Erin Shaffer, Staff Attorney
Erin has been with LAA since 2004. She currently works in the education unit with students experiencing educational difficulties due to social, emotional and/or academic concerns. She also represents students at risk of expulsion due to disciplinary action, and students in need of special education and supports. Prior to working at LAA, she worked as a housing attorney at Connecticut Legal Services in the New London office and at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in the benefits unit. Erin attended Boston College for her undergraduate degree and got her J.D. at Fordham University School of Law. She’s admitted to practice in Connecticut and California and is a member of the New Haven County Bar Association. In her free time, Erin enjoys rollerblading and hiking.

Alexis Smith, Executive Director
Alexis Smith is currently the Executive Director at LAA. Alexis served as LAA’s Deputy Director from 2012-2017 and prior to joining LAA she was a staff attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, where she practiced in the education and employment units. Alexis obtained her B.A. from Duke University and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School. Alexis is admitted to practice in Connecticut, the District of Connecticut and the U.S. Supreme Court. She has served as president of the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association and Secretary of the Connecticut Bar Association. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (CONNCAT), New Alliance Foundation, Discovering Amistad, Highville Charter School, The YMCA, and Elm City Internationals. In her spare time, Alexis enjoys running, refereeing youth soccer and basketball, and keeping up with her three small children.

Ingrid Swanson, Staff Attorney
Ingrid is one of four attorneys in LAA’s juvenile matters unit.  JMU attorneys are court-appointed to represent children and parents in child protection proceedings before the Juvenile Court.  The JMU evolved from LAA’s former child protection model project, and the unit strives to continue providing high quality representation to children and parents involved with DCF (the Department of Children and Families), through comprehensive legal, administrative, educational, and clinical advocacy.  Ingrid graduated from Dartmouth College and went on to teach elementary school in Charlotte, North Carolina, through Teach For America.  She then attended UConn Law School, and received a Skadden Fellowship which enabled her to begin working at LAA three years ago. Ingrid is admitted to practice law in Connecticut. She enjoys cooking, running, traveling, and spending time with family and her adorable dog, Roxy.

Sheldon V. Toubman, Staff Attorney
Since 1991, Sheldon has been a staff attorney in the benefits unit, concentrating on issues related to access to health care, particularly under the Medicaid program. He is involved in individual client representation, class action litigation, and legislative and administrative advocacy. Sheldon is currently advocating to have the state of Connecticut adopt a Basic Health Program for all non-elderly individuals between 133% and 200% of the poverty level, an option under federal health care reform, so that they can be included in the same efficient non-risk system as Medicaid enrollees below 133% of poverty, with the same benefits, cost-sharing protections and provider network even as their income fluctuates. Sheldon also led a campaign to convince legislators and other state officials that the previous capitated Medicaid HMO system was under-performing and was more expensive than alternative state-run options with patient-centered medical homes, ultimately persuading Connecticut’s new governor, shortly after taking office, to terminate the Medicaid HMO contracts. Sheldon is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Engineering and the University of Pennsylvania Law School and is admitted to practice law in Connecticut. He is an avid kayaker.

Nhi Tran, Staff Attorney
Nhi joined LAA in October, 2010, and is staff attorney in the juvenile matters unit. She graduated from New York University School of Law in 2005, where she particpated in the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic.  After graduation, Nhi was hired as an AmeriCorps Access to Justice Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and subsequently, as a staff attorney.  There, she specialized in issues concerning public housing and Section 8 and spearheaded a partnership with the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to construct an implementation plan to ensure the Authority’s compliance with the Violence Against Women Act. Nhi relocated to Connecticut in 2008 and became the lead attorney in the Immigrants and Refugees New Arrivals Advocacy Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. Nhi is admitted to practice law in Connecticut and speaks Vietnamese and Italian.

Maria Velez, Paralegal
Maria has worked as an intake paralegal since 2014, and as a secretary in LAA’s housing unit since 1999. She previously worked for Attorney Sharyn D’Urso and is a Stone Academy graduate. She enjoys spending time with her husband and two children, going shopping, reading, singing, and helping others.

Jamie Wallack, Secretary
In her role as secretary, Jamie Wallack provides support for elder consumer and probate cases, employment issues, and benefits matters involving the Department of Social Services and the Social Security Administration. She also assists with developmental work and fundraising events. Prior to working at LAA, Jamie worked at Zeldes, Needle & Cooper in Bridgeport, Senie, Stock & LaChance in Westport, and Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg & Knuff in Milford. Jamie holds a B.A. in studio art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She loves working for LAA because it gives her the opportunity to help the people of New Haven, where she was born.

Natasha White, Staff Attorney
Natasha represents children in the juvenile matters unit and has also worked in the benefits unit. She joined LAA in 2001 after graduating from Brigham Young University/J. Reuben Clark Law School. She is admitted to practice law in Connecticut.

Shelley White, Litigation Director
Shelley has been fighting for the civil rights of low-income people with LAA since 1987. She develops, manages, and supervises all federal cases, state court class actions, and appeals. She also coordinates amicus work done by LAA on cases raising issues of concern to our client community. She currently sits on the board of directors at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and is a past president of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project. Shelley received the David H. Neiditz Professional Writing Award, 1994 (for best appellate brief in a Connecticut case), was a James Cooper Fellow and is a Connecticut Bar Foundation life member. For the last decade, she has been on the faculty for an Affirmative Litigation course for legal services attorneys currently sponsored by the Shriver Center in Chicago, IL. She worked for the Connecticut ALCU from 1982-1987, and at Georgia Legal Services in the Douglasville office. Shelley graduated from Boston College Law School and is a member of the Bar of the State of Connecticut and a member of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Yonatan Zamir, Staff Attorney
Yoni joined NHLAA in 2014 as a staff attorney in the housing unit, where he represents clients in a wide range of housing matters, including eviction proceedings and preserving access to affordable housing. Before joining NHLAA, Yoni served as a Fellow with Hofstra University School of Law’s Law Reform Advocacy Clinic, and previously, as Counsel to a Member of Congress and to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to working in Congress, he was a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of New York. Originally from Chicago, Yoni earned his B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his J.D. from Hofstra University School of Law, where he received the Excellence in Housing Clinic Award. Yoni is a proud AmeriCorps alumnus. He is admitted to practice in Connecticut, New York, and the District of Columbia.

New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Inc.
205 Orange Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06510-2069
Phone: 203-946-4811 | Fax: 203-498-9271

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