Nine Engle grants impact thousands of Floridians in Middle District

Engle grant highlightsMegan*, a Seminole County mother of two daughters, was caught in a precarious living situation after the COVID-19 pandemic began taking its toll on Floridians in 2020. She had lost income and owed four months in back rent. By the time she reached out to Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society (SCBALAS), she had received a writ of possession and had 24 hours to move out, with nowhere to go.
But, thanks to the decision of a four-judge panel of the Middle District of Florida to distribute sanctions from Engle tobacco litigation to civil legal aid, The Florida Bar Foundation had created a grant program that funded a lawyer that helped Megan.

“The court made an innovative and heroic move in dedicating these funds to legal aid,” Donny MacKenzie, the Foundation’s executive director,

Asia and Gabby

Asia Anderson, right, sought help from Community Law Program after the father of her daughter, Gabby, left, filed an action against her seeking custody.

said. “In 2019, when these funds were entrusted to the Foundation, no one could have known how desperately so many Floridians would need representation in court as a result of the myriad problems COVID-19 caused. It was serendipitous.”

Megan’s SCBALAS lawyer, funded by an Engle grant, immediately helped her file a notice of appearance and an emergency motion to stop the writ. The judge granted the motion, but Megan was still in jeopardy. Her lease was about to expire, and her landlord did not want to renew it without receiving her back rent first.

SCBALAS advised Megan to apply for Seminole County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. She was approved, paid her back rent and was able to stay in her home with her daughters. Megan’s was just one of 545 eviction cases SCBALAS opened during the two-year period of their grant.

Nine legal aid providers were awarded $3.3 million in Engle grants, and eight have exhausted their funding. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid extended their grant contract and will complete their project in June of 2023. As of January 2023, more than 3,300 cases have been opened as a result of Engle grants.

Community Law Program (CLP), which was awarded $72,600, used their grant to expand the availability of high quality free legal representation in family law proceedings to low-income litigants in the Middle District, particularly in cases where the opposing party was represented so that there was a level playing field in high stakes situations.

CLP recovered $375,121 in financial benefits consisting of child support, alimony, and equitable distribution for their clients.

Brevard lawyers

Brevard County Legal Aid lawyer Ashley Ferrell, in pink, with paralegal Amy Howerter, third from left, with clients who have on an ongoing paternity case with issues of child timesharing and support. Their work is funded by an Engle grant.

They opened 88 cases and helped 10 different clients obtain, preserve, maintain, modify, or enforce custody and timesharing rights.

One of those clients was Asia Anderson, who sought help after her nine-year-old daughter Gabby’s father, who lived in North Carolina, filed a paternity action against her in Pinellas County seeking to have a judge award primary timesharing to him. That would have meant Gabby would leave her younger brother, mom, her school and her friends to live with her father for the majority of her time.

Community Law Program noted that Gabby’s father was a successful engineer, had a larger home, and had hired one of the very best family law attorneys in Pinellas County to represent him. In addition, he had hired a guardian ad litem (GAL), who had investigated both sides of the case and made a recommendation to the court that Gabby should move to live with her father.

“In family law proceedings where a GAL is involved, most judges give great weight to their recommendations regarding timesharing,” Kimberly Rodgers, CLP’s executive director, said.

Tom McGowan

Thomas McGowan, Community Law Program’s lead attorney funded under the Engle Grant, meets with a client.

Despite Asia’s financial struggles, Gabby was doing well in school and was well adjusted. CLP lawyer Tom McGowan provided zealous advocacy, and after a two-day trial, the judge ruled in favor of Asia, allowing Gabby to remain with her mother and younger brother during the school year, with liberal timesharing with her father during summer and school breaks.

“This case was truly an example of an uneven playing field that tipped in favor of the parent with money. Asia certainly is not a bad parent; she just had not had an opportunity to finish school and was struggling financially.”

Three Rivers Legal Services’ (TRLS) Fresh Start project, funded by an Engle grant, helped Jenny, who is married but separated from her abusive husband. While in school and caring for her two children without any assistance from the their father, her only source of income was Social Security for her disabled son, along with school grants and loans.


Jenny turned to Three Rivers Legal Services for help with bankruptcy.

Jenny turned to TRLS for help because she was being sued by seven different creditors. She planned to file for divorce, but wanted to deal with her debt collection matters first. TRLS provided full representation to Jenny in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. As a result, she was able to retain all of her property while her debt of $132,508 was discharged by the bankruptcy court.

Now that she no longer has the stress of the collection lawsuits, she can focus her attention on dissolving the abusive marriage and pursuing child support for her children.

*This client requested anonymity. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.

In December 2023, The Florida Bar Foundation changed its name to FFLA. Posts prior to this date contain our former name.