The Advocate’s Award Goes To Legal Aid Icon Ted Fillette

The Litigation Section has honored Ted Fillette as the 11th recipient of The Advocate’s Award. Presented as merited, the award recognizes “superstars” of the section and the legal profession.

Ted Fillette, right, accepts The Advocate’s Award from Rick Conner.

Rick Conner, section secretary, presented the award during a Litigation Section networking event in Charlotte on Wednesday, Feb. 13.

Fillette retired last year following 45 years of service to the legal aid community in Mecklenburg County and the surrounding region.

Following graduation from Duke University in 1968, he spent two years working for VISTA. He then entered Boston University Law School and undertook an internship in the summer of 1971 in the Charlotte office of attorney George Daly.

Fillette returned to Charlotte in 1973 after graduating from law school. He joined Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County, which later expanded into a five-county program known as Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. Twenty-nine years later the organization split and Fillette joined the newly incorporated Legal Aid of North Carolina, where he served as assistant director of the statewide office and senior managing attorney of the Charlotte office.

Previous recipients of The Advocate’s Award are (2006) Charles L. Becton, (2007) J. Donald Cowan Jr., (2009) H. Grady Barnhill Jr., (2010) James T. Williams Jr., (2011) Alan W. Duncan, (2012) Charlie Blanchard, (2013) A. Ward McKeithen, (2015) James E. Ferguson II, (2016) Bill Womble Jr. and (2017) Janet Ward Black.

A longtime member of the North Carolina Bar Association, Fillette was featured in North Carolina Lawyer last year in conjunction with his retirement. The article follows here in its entirety:

By Russell Rawlings
“The time is always right to do right.”1

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words at Duke University in the fall of 1964, Ted Fillette took them to heart. As an impressionable freshman from Mobile, Ala., he still had much to learn about the struggle of which Dr. King was speaking.

“That was a major turning point for me,” Fillette said. “I was astounded at the systemic racial suppression going on in my home state. I was 18 and didn’t even know it was going on because the white media outlets didn’t report what was going on.”

Fillette had seen Dr. King once before.

“I was attending a Key Club convention in Birmingham when I was in high school, and I saw Dr. King being dragged to a paddy wagon,” Fillette recalled. “I wondered why he was being treated so rough. At the time I didn’t know who he was; it didn’t make any sense to me until Dr. King spoke on campus. That really turned on a new life for me my freshman year.”

Among the millions who have been inspired by the words of Dr. King, the inspirational flame has burned long and bright within Fillette, who retired last month after 45 years of service to Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Charlotte office.

From his initial exposure to the civil rights movement and the plight of the low-income community in Durham, Fillette moved to Boston and spent two years working for VISTA following his graduation from Duke in 1968. The program was conceived by President Kennedy and started under President Johnson in conjunction with the War on Poverty.2

“I was trying to help welfare recipients get food and furniture and clothing for their families,” Fillette said. “Then I went to Boston University Law School and worked in the legal aid clinic, which was located in Chinatown.”

He was a long way from Mobile.

“Probably the other most meaningful experience that I had early on was when I got an internship in the Charlotte office of George Daly in the summer of 1971,” Fillette said. “I was able to help him try several cases in the state and federal courts, and even got to argue a motion in federal court after my first year of law school.

“I thought Charlotte was an exciting place to be.”

Fillette returned to Charlotte in 1973 after graduating from law school. He joined what was known as the Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County, which later expanded into a five-county program known as Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. After 29 years there, the organization split and Fillette joined the newly incorporated Legal Aid of North Carolina, where he has served as assistant director of the statewide office and senior managing attorney of the Charlotte office.

“For over 40 years, Ted Fillette has been a zealous and tireless advocate for the poor and vulnerable in North Carolina,” said LANC Executive Director George Hausen. “It is impossible to overstate his impact: Tens of thousands of families, those facing eviction and homelessness or living in unhealthy substandard and dangerous conditions, have benefitted directly and indirectly from his work.

“Over his extraordinary career his legal work, both as a litigator and as a policy maker, have literally shaped housing law in our state as well as nationally. His advocacy and leadership have helped to create the legislative and common law protections that we now use to preserve decent, affordable housing for low-income North Carolinians.”

Fillette, added Hausen, has also mentored countless attorneys on the nuances of legal services and pro bono representation.

“Ted has extended his reach into the most rarified areas of our profession,” Hausen said. “He has trained hundreds of young lawyers and pro bono volunteers, at some of the state’s most prestigious firms, on the intricacies and subtleties of landlord-tenant and housing law. He is an icon to lawyers throughout the bar.

“We all will miss him greatly and the bar will be poorer for the loss.”

Throughout his tenure, Fillette has been encouraged and rewarded by the volunteer spirit that permeates the bar in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

“I think that it really emerged for me in the early 1980s,” Fillette said. “The first really notable effort that I can recall is when George Hanna of Moore & Van Allen joined us in a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1981. The case was Spinks v. Taylor and George was our co-counsel. He helped with the brief and helped prepare the oral arguments.

“He had been a clerk on the Supreme Court and provided the inside perspective that we lacked. I think it was the first legal aid case in the state to go before the Supreme Court, and it turned out well, which was gratifying.”

Fillette also has fond recollections of Hyatt v. Heckler (ultimately Hyatt v. Shalala).

“I recruited John Wester, a former president of the North Carolina Bar Association, and a couple of other lawyers from Robinson Bradshaw to serve as co-counsel with Legal Services. Jane Harper, who later became a District Court judge, was the first Legal Services advocate. Later Mac Sasser and Doug Sea joined in the litigation.

“It became a statewide class action in federal court, went to the Fourth Circuit four different times and the U.S. Supreme Court once, and lasted 20 years. It was a marathon case that at one point Robinson Bradshaw had put in 3,000 pro bono hours; it was one of the Super Bowls of pro bono performances.”

Wester remembers the case well, and earlier collaborative efforts that were not so successful.

“My earliest memories of Ted run before the Hyatt case began in the mid-80s,” Wester said. “Our firm represented the Charlotte Housing Authority. Ted was lead counsel, joined by other Legal Aid lawyers, in representing tenant groups who filed repeated lawsuits, usually in the federal court, against the Authority – some of them class actions.

“As a junior lawyer in our firm, I ‘drew’ a frequent assignment to defend these cases. Due to significant discovery, most of the trials lasted only a few days. My memory is that I lost every one of them. At the end of each case, Ted, joined by his Legal Aid team, would ask me to join them for drinks and dinner – when they would explain to me, always graciously, why I had lost again.”

Wester’s high regard for Fillette, he added, continued to grow through the years.

“Ted Fillette devoted a professional career to assuring ‘the least of these’ had a real chance for decent housing, safety from domestic violence, receiving the wages they had earned, and similar features of daily living that the blessed among us rarely consider.”

Fillette ranks the Hyatt case as a “high water mark in terms of performance by a particular firm” for which the firm known then as Fleming, Robinson, Bradshaw and Hinson received an ABA Pro Bono Publico Award in 1984.

“It had an enormous impact,” Fillette said. “It helped inspire other firms to make more substantial commitments, and at the same time that was going on, we had an extraordinary pro bono program in our Gaston County office that was largely initiated by members of the bar there who felt an ethical commitment to help people in need.

“They were willing to do whatever it was that we needed and at one point had a participation rate of about 75 percent of the members of the Gaston bar. I don’t know of any other bar in North Carolina that has come close to that. The highest level ever reached in Mecklenburg was around 18-19 percent.”

The Gaston County Bar effort, Fillette added, was especially noteworthy because it involved child custody matters.

“They took on the most difficult type of case to sell to pro bono lawyers as their primary focus, and they did that for many years. Many of them were general practitioners, which was sort of disappearing in the metro areas, they did a little family law, business law, criminal defense, so they were not afraid to take on things that might not be their specialty.

“They won the ABA’s Harrison Tweed Award, and three of them went to San Francisco to the ABA Annual Meeting to accept it. That was a pretty high mark!”

Another career highlight, Fillette noted, was the opportunity to work with Henry Frye to secure passage of the Residential Rental Agreements Act in 1977.3 The first African-American to serve on the N.C. Supreme Court, Frye was serving in the General Assembly at the time.

“He was one of only three African-Americans in the House, and there were no black senators,” Fillette recalled. “He had agreed to be the bill sponsor for the bill that would create an implied warranty of habitability for all residential tenants. It was a very important law because it changed the common law of caveat emptor, in which the tenant had no right to any repairs but still had to pay rent.

“A lot of tenants were living in unsafe, unhealthy houses, some without indoor plumbing, and this was all allowed under common law. Frye grew up in Richmond County in a house without indoor plumbing and needed little persuasion to agree to be the sponsor, but it was a very difficult undertaking because the vast majority of the General Assembly were landlords.”

Fillette described the legislation as one of Frye’s “signature achievements” in the General Assembly, and “one of the single-most important steps toward modernizing the law for the protection of families from unsafe and unhealthy conditions in North Carolina.”

“It was also important because we began to see the General Assembly as another forum protecting the needs of low-income people. Before that we went through the courts, which is what lawyers do, but we learned that lawyers need help making rights when people don’t have rights so there is something to enforce.

“Rep. Frye was a pioneer in that.”

Fillette alluded to a “cloud of reality” when explaining his decision to retire.

“My age was an undeniable factor,” Fillette said, “and even though it didn’t seem like I was necessarily unable to continue, it just seemed to me that it was inevitable, and it would be better to go out when things are going well.”

The office, he added, will not miss a beat.

“Cindy Patton has served as the managing attorney of the Charlotte office for 15 years and will continue to do so. As the senior managing attorney, I had supervised her and the managers in the branch offices in Gastonia and Concord.  LANC has decided not to replace my role as senior managing attorney; Cindy does not need a manager now, and the branch office managers can operate without me.

“It is all part of our effort to be as lean and efficient as possible.

“A lot of what I have done the last 15 years is to recruit and train and support volunteer lawyers who do pro bono work for us locally and across the state. We are fortunate to have Tommy Holderness from Robinson Bradshaw to take up most of that role. Tommy had been one of our most outstanding volunteer lawyers for a long time, receiving the award from Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Legal Aid’s Charlotte office as well as the statewide NCBA award as the outstanding pro bono attorney of the year.”

Still, the legal services community will not be the same without Fillette’s presence in the Charlotte office. No one knows this better than Ken Schorr, his counterpart at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (formerly Legal Services of Southern Piedmont) for the past 30 years.

“For me,” Schorr said, “Ted was, from the beginning of my long association with him, a transparent and unvarnished advocate for low-income people, especially as tenants in private or subsidized rental housing but in any context in which he saw them, as applicants for government assistance or services, victims of fraud or crime, consumers in the commercial marketplace or otherwise.

“He had a practical mind and orientation, to remove the barriers to their full participation in society, using all of the tools available to lawyers and advocates. He was creative, determined and persistent, working for many years to achieve these goals.”

Exiting the stage, Fillette expressed his gratitude to the North Carolina Bar Association and the North Carolina Bar Foundation for their longstanding support of legal aid effort in general and the Mecklenburg region in particular.

“I have been a follower, I haven’t been a leader in the NCBA, but I have appreciated how the Foundation has provided financial support for some of our projects where we just simply needed an infusion of additional money to make something work.

“This was particularly true when some of the law schools started offering fellowships for their graduates, which would only pay part of the salary to work for us. We had to try to raise matching money and the Foundation helped us do that with a number of fellowships, starting with Charlotte School of Law but most recently with Georgetown.

“We really get top-notch talented people.”

May they remember, as Ted Fillette always has, that “the time is always right to do right.”

King at Duke, Duke University website.
2 AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) website. website.