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Fighting for Justice, and Breath

ileta sumner ’90 battles back

ileta SumnerOn the Wednesday before ileta Joseph Sumner ’90 found out that her heart was failing, she met with a new client at the legal office of the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter of San Antonio. The client, a mother of two, had fled California six months earlier to escape her abusive husband. She was afraid that if she returned to California to fight for custody of her sons, her husband would beat her and the boys again, and maybe have her deported. She asked Sumner to argue that a San Antonio judge should hear the custody case.

It was November 2005, and Sumner was at the top of her game. She had been working for eight years at the shelter, during which time she had won six awards and eighty percent of her cases. She had built the legal office herself with grant funds from HUD. She carried as many as 70 cases at a time, despite doing a second shift as a wife and mother of two sons. More to the point, she had just given a lecture to the American Bar Association on the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction And Enforcement Act, and she was confident that her client had the right to be heard in San Antonio.

The right to be heard is, for Sumner, the essence of justice. “Justice means the opportunity to present your case before someone who is going to listen to you, consider all the options, and think about all you’ve been through and where you’re going,” she says. “Justice to me is getting the door open. There are too many people in America for whom that door is not open.” Sumner and family

That vision of justice led Sumner towards public interest law at BC. After a disappointing report card her first year, she sought a way to prove herself outside the classroom. Her second year, she did a clinical with Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which had just accepted a suit by the NAACP claiming that the Boston Housing Authority was placing Caucasian families in brand new projects and non-Caucasian families in dilapidated projects. Sumner says she was “knee deep in it … holding hands with little old ladies who were praying ‘Please don’t let them do this to us.’ It was amazing and I just knew from that point on, public interest, this is it, because I could see how it was changing people’s lives.”

It wasn’t easy. To be prepared to argue her client’s case in November 2005, Sumner went to the office at 2 a.m. on Thursday, then appeared in court later that morning. Her hard work paid off: Sumner prevailed in court, and her client won the right to testify before a San Antonio judge. Thursday night, Sumner drove to Austin to receive a seventh award, this one from Texas Lawyer; she’d been named one of fifty top in-house counsels in Texas. It was a typical schedule for her.

What happened next was not typical. That Sunday night, Sumner awoke from a dead sleep, drenched in sweat, unable to catch her breath. After a night of tests, doctors gave her the diagnosis: congestive heart failure. Sumner was shocked. She had no genetic history of the disease. She logged eight to sixteen hours weekly on a treadmill, ate little red meat and lots of fruits and vegetables, drank plenty of water, had never smoked, and rarely drank.

Sumner’s prognosis is uncertain. Doctors boosted her heart function back to 35 percent by Christmas of 2005, but other systems in Sumner’s body have rebelled—she has two badly pinched lumbar nerves and a gastrointestinal system that torments her with pain, nausea, and a total lack of interest in food. Since her diagnosis, Sumner has dropped eighty-seven pounds; she now weighs in at 100 pounds. She was back in the hospital recently, nearly three years after her middle-of-the-night episode, her vitals in disarray.

After her diagnosis, Sumner could no longer work. Her husband’s paycheck barely covers the family’s needs. Sumner has been denied unemployment and Social Security disability. "Ninety percent of [social security disability] applications get denied on first go-‘round," she says. "You've got to have stick-tuitiveness, you've got to be precise, you've got to use their regs against them and prove to them why you're disabled. Otherwise they will say you can work and they will deny you."

In January, the family returned its Christmas presents to buy milk. Two attorney friends, Rosa Cabezas-Gil and Barbara Slavin, realizing the severity of the situation, started a fund in Sumner’s name with Bank of America (contact name: Matthew Jones, phone 210-212-2346); anonymous donors have helped keep the family afloat. “What we did for her is absolutely minuscule compared to what she’s done for the legal community, for women, for children. She has always been a giver, a giver, a giver,” says Cabezas-Gil.

Illness hasn’t changed Sumner, says Cabezas-Gil. “She still has a smile on her face. Even when she doesn’t smile, her eyes smile, her freckles smile.” And Sumner, indomitable, has a five year plan. She’d like to do mediation and arbitration, taking on occasional “highball” cases, which can be worth up to $15,000 each, in order to fund equally occasional pro bono work for Legal Aid or the shelter. “Because I really don’t want to give it up,” she says. “I love it too much. I work too hard. That’s me.”

It’s hard to imagine how someone with Sumner’s level of conviction could give up her career. It’s even harder to imagine how someone who has dedicated her life to justice can be so cheerful in the face of the obvious unfairness of her situation. “I believe all things happen for a reason,” she says. “Whether this is fair or not, doesn’t matter. All things happen for a reason.”

In her mind, at least one reason is her sons. She stays home with them now, helping her oldest, who is dyslexic, and her youngest, who is bright but sometimes needs motivation, with their homework. She can’t always attend their sports games, but she coaches them on their way out the door. Her oldest, Joshua, gets anxious when he pitches. “I tell him, ‘You put your mitt in front of your face, breathe in through your nose, breathe out through your mouth, pull your hat down so all you see is the catcher’s mitt.’ I don’t know crap about baseball,” she admits.

When her husband saw their son perform this ritual, he said, “What the heck is he doing?”

“Shut up,” Sumner told him. Joshua threw the ball so hard the ump had to turn around to look back at the baseball in the catcher’s mitt. “Strike!” he called. Josh looked up at his mom and flashed a thumbs up. Sumner may refer to her victory in November 2005 as her “last case,” but she is still posting wins for moms and kids, fighting for justice with her signature style.

--Story by Sarah Auerbach