VANCOUVER — Something funny happened to Peter Fels on the way to becoming a social worker: he became an attorney instead.
It was an accident, he says.
“I majored in Spanish at Berkeley,” says the 67-year-old Fels. “Then my first job was in legal aid as a volunteer translator with VISTA. This was in Salem. I got the job because their first choice got a real job. So my job was to interview people and see if they had an issue the lawyers could handle. Then I assigned them to the right lawyer. And I watched these lawyers help people. Every day. And I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
So he did.
Fels went to the University of Oregon Law School, earning a J.D. in 1978. He spent the next 15 years representing migrant farmworkers and low-income clients through Oregon Legal Services. He has spent the last 23 years in private practice — and volunteering with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon and the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program (CCVLP),which provides free legal services for low-income people in Clark County.
He is also president of the Board of Directors of Share, a Vancouver nonprofit organization serving hungry and homeless people in the community.
In 2008, Fels was named Champion of Justice by the Washington Alliance for Equal Justice. In 2011 he was named CCVLP Volunteer of the Year. At CCVLP he helps staff legal advice clinics offered once a month at Share House. He gives advice on non-criminal issues including consumer debt, landlord-tenant law, and family law.
Fels also handles three to four Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) cases a year. HAMP helps financially struggling homeowners keep their homes by reducing monthly mortgage payments to levels they can afford and sustain over the long-term.
In September, Fels, with co-counsel Moloy Good, won a class action suit against Clark County on behalf of eight homeless clients who had had their belongings seized and disposed of by the county. The initial client, Terry Ellis, originally talked to Fels at a CCVLP legal advice clinic at Share House in December, 2012.
“I started my career working with migrant farm workers,” says Fels. “So I’m good at helping people understand the law.”
Fels began by explaining to Ellis how to file a complaint with the county. Then he followed up.
“I tried to resolve it pro bono,” says Fels. “But the county wasn’t interested. They basically dared me to sue them.”
So he did.
Fels and others went to meal times at Share and other places where homeless people were meeting, asking if anyone had had property seized by county crews. They heard from several hundred people, who had lost everything from tents, sleeping bags, cookstoves, and clothes to legal documents, prescription medications, and glasses. One man lost his photo of his now-deceased child. A woman lost her mother’s ashes.
Fels and Good filed suit in federal court on behalf of nine clients, one of whom later dropped out. In December they reached a $250,000 settlement with the county after District Judge Robert Bryan granted the motion, filed by Fels and Good, for summary judgment in regard to six of the eight remaining clients.
Fels told the Vancouver Business Journal earlier this year that in all his years of volunteering, he was proudest of his work on this case.
Fels and his wife have two adult daughters and a granddaughter. He enjoys cooking, and has been an organic gardener since the early ‘70s.
“I lived in Santa Cruz,” he says, “and I got a job as a laborer for family friends of my grandparents, who had a 20-acre mini-ranch. Their father was a third-generation English nurseryman. He was in his 90s, strong as an oak. But he wanted help with digging. He taught me double-digging, and it had to be just so. And how to prune fruit trees.”
“The current division of labor is I do fruits and vegetables, my wife does the other stuff. Flowers and landscaping. We have one and a half acres in town, a former orchard. So we have lots of room for vegetables. It’s what keeps me out of trouble. And keeps me healthy. We put up a lot of food. Dry a lot of food. Can.”
One of his goals is to get back to music when he retires.
“I used to play the guitar and harmonica, before the kids got big enough to mess with the guitar. I enjoy playing music with other people. I used to do hootenannies in high school. I don’t know if anyone will even know what that is. But (it’s) playing folk music together. Peter, Paul, and Mary. The Beatles. I’m a lousy musician, but I enjoy that connection of playing with other people.”
People. It’s a word that pops up a lot in Fels’s conversation.
“I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people,” he says on his website. And for 38 years, he has done just that.