The Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project litigates appeals on behalf of Legal Aid clients and also files “friend of the court” briefs in cases involving matters of importance to people living in poverty. Beyond litigation, the Project provides appellate instruction, consultation, and advice to the larger D.C. legal services community. Although most of the Project’s work involves cases before the District’s highest court – the District of Columbia Court of Appeals – the Project also gets involved in administrative appeals and cases before the District of Columbia Superior Court and the federal courts.

Fighting Age Discrimination

Johnjerica Hodge and Ms. Gdula


Rita Gdula was fired from a local university with no explanation for her termination after 31 years of employment. She filed an action with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) asserting that her termination constituted age discrimination. After working with three different law firms over the course of several years, OHR dismissed her case. 

Ms. Gdula was not ready to give up. She filed an appeal in the DC Court of Appeals, but, at this point, she was working without representation. Although Ms. Gdula did not know about Legal Aid, our Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project monitors the cases filed in the DC Court of Appeals. They found her case, and reached out to her. Legal Aid's Appellate Director, Jonathan Levy, referred Ms. Gdula's case to a team at Katten led by litigation partner Johnjerica Hodge.

The appellate case was challenging. Ms. Gdula was now going up against both the university and OHR. Additionally, there were some critical facts that were not in the lower court record and therefore would not be considered on appeal. Fortunately, thanks to Johnjerica’s skilled advocacy, the Court ultimately decided to remand the case back to OHR. 

I admired Ms. Gdula’s courage to stand up. Even when the odds were against her, she never gave up.
Johnjerica Hodge

Partnering to Help DC Workers Secure Unemployment Insurance

Melinda Gray and CAP honorees


Pictured, from left to right: Nicole Dooley, Supervising Attorney at Legal Aid; Tonya Love, Director of the Claimant Advocacy Program; Lolita Martin, Staff Attorney at the Claimant Advocacy Program; and Melinda Gray, former client and Partnership Award honoree

When Melinda Gray lost her job in 2019 providing home health care services for an elderly individual, the system worked, and she was awarded unemployment benefits. However, her former employer appealed, twisting the words of the statute to argue that workers like Ms. Gray, who are employed directly by an individual in need of care rather than though a health care agency, could not receive benefits. The Claimant Advocacy Program (CAP) represented Ms. Gray in her administrative appeal, and the Administrative Law Judge agreed that Ms. Gray was entitled to benefits. Undeterred, Ms. Gray’s former employer filed a judicial appeal before the District’s highest court – the D.C. Court of Appeals.

With help from CAP, Legal Aid represented Ms. Gray before that Court, and Ms. Gray again prevailed. The Court of Appeals decision in Ms. Gray’s case finally settled her entitlement to benefits. The Court also definitively rejected all of her former employer’s legal theories and firmly established that the unemployment system covers home health care workers regardless of whether they are employed by an agency or directly by a patient. Thus, Ms. Gray’s victory was not only a personal one, but will also benefit the many members of Legal Aid’s client community who do the essential work of providing home health care services which allow elderly individuals and those with disabilities to remain in their homes and communities. 

At the 2022 Servant of Justice Awards Dinner, Legal Aid honored Ms. Gray and the Claimant Advocacy Program, including attorneys Tonya Love and Lolita Martin, with the Partnership Award.

Legal Aid's Impact

Organizational Information & Acknowledgments