It's All in The Name

We all know it’s the Justice For All Ball – that’s the event name. At the same time, each year we work hard to give it a theme name that enables us to create invitations and other materials that give the Ball its pizazz. As mentioned in an earlier Tales of the Ball post, we often create the theme around our Honorary Chair, or around an important happening, and of course, it’s always tied back in some way to our mission and access to civil justice for all.

In recent years, we’ve had Hungry for Justice (Chef Leah Chase), Flying High (Mrs. Gayle Benson), Light Up the Night (Marcus Brown), Rockin’ on the River (Walter Blessey, Jr.), Raising the Bar in honor of the late Dermot S. McGlinchey, and so on. This year we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary focusing on Thirty Years. Thirty Stories.

Names are important for many reasons – they give us information about who we are, how we’re related to others, and often a look into our heritage. Without a name, who would we be?

Today, we share an unusual client story from a previous post called, What’s In A Name? * to highlight how different The Project’s client cases are - how even the simplest request for civil legal help can lead us on an unplanned journey of mystery and intrigue.

What’s In A Name

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," said the bard William Shakespeare. But, when it comes to the law, your name must legally be your name, or you simply don't exist.

This was the legal issue facing our client, Jack Berks**, whose mother had allegedly changed her name from Bernhardt* to Berks years earlier and by extension had changed his. Mr. Berks, had used this name for much of his life, but there was no record of him under that name.

Catherine Gracia of Entergy's Legal Department, thought that this was going to be a simple name change. On the surface that's the way it looked, but it took some twists and turns before the case, and the mystery, was fully resolved. 

"It was a strange case. Mr. Berks had been a resident of Georgia for much of his life and had recently returned to Louisiana. He wanted to use his real name, Bernhardt, and thought he could do this by requesting a name change - but he had no legal proof of either name," said Ms. Gracia

He had in his possession a long-expired Georgia driver's license, which had him listed as Jack Bernhardt, his birth name. But, he knew himself only as Jack Berks. He couldn't remember how he got that name, or if he had ever had any documentation to prove that was his legal name.

He wanted his birth name back so that he could claim his Social Security, Medicare and housing benefits. He needed some official form of identification to prove that Jack Bernhardt was his legal name.

Ms. Gracia took the bull by the horns and researched him in the Office of Vital Records, finally uncovering his birth certificate, showing him legally to be Jack Bernhardt. With this in hand, she proved to Mr. Berks that indeed his legal name was Jack Bernhardt, and that when his mother allegedly changed her name to Berks, she never changed his name.

During the course of unraveling this mystery, Mr. Berks' brother had also uncovered some documentation that indicated he was legally Jack Bernhardt. With that and the expired Georgia driver's license, he was able to access his Social Security and Medicare benefits as Jack Bernhardt.

However, the agency working with him on housing benefits, would not accept these documents because the Georgia license, with his legal name, was expired. They would only accept a currently valid state issued identification card or driver's license with his legal name. The Office of Motor Vehicle needed a birth certificate to issue a state identification card, which Ms. Gracia had finally gotten for him.

With his birth certificate and the expired Georgia license - both now in his legal name of Jack Bernhardt - he finally got his valid Louisiana issued ID.

With the help of The Pro Bono Project and volunteer lawyer Catherine Gracia of Entergy's Legal Department, Mr. Berks became Mr. Bernhardt - without ever having to go to court. He is now receiving the benefits and recognition for who he legally was born to be: Jack Bernhardt.

Help us to continue to open the doors for clients like Jack Bernhardt, support us by purchasing tickets for the 2018 Justice For All Ball or by making a direction donation.

If you have pictures from the early years of the JFAB, 1989 to 2004, please send them to CC Kahr. Likewise, if you have a client or JFAB story to share, please send it to CC Kahr

* This story originally appeared in News Highlights, August 27, 2014.

** The client's names were changed to protect confidentiality.