CHARLOTTE, July 13, 2015 – The North Carolina State Bar has selected Theodore O. “Ted” Fillette, a leading advocate for the housing rights of poor North Carolinians and a leader of Charlotte’s civil legal aid community for more than 40 years, to receive its prestigious John B. McMillan Distinguished Service Award, which honors exemplary service to North Carolina’s legal profession.
Bar President Ronald L. Gibson, an attorney with the Charlotte-area law firm of Ruff, Bond, Cobb, Wade & Bethune, L.L.P., will present the award to Fillette on Friday at a Bar meeting in Charlotte.
Since 1973, Ted Fillette has been a practicing civil legal aid lawyer in North Carolina. For all but one of those years, he has worked in Charlotte, providing free legal representation to low-income people confronting serious civil – i.e. non-criminal – legal problems. Over his career, Fillette has established himself as one of the state’s leading practitioners and fiercest advocates for the housing rights of the poor.
Ted has represented innumerable individual clients, served as counsel or co-counsel on precedent-setting cases in the state’s highest courts and federal court, and fought in the policy arena to establish more just and equitable housing laws for all North Carolinians.
In his letter to the Bar supporting Fillette’s nomination for the award, Henry E. Frye, North Carolina’s first African-American supreme court chief justice, wrote of how he relied heavily on Fillette’s expertise while attempting to reform the state’s landlord-tenant laws as a member of the General Assembly in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Ted Fillette was the most dedicated and reliable resource for me during those years,” Frye wrote. “I could rely upon him for, not only the accurate state of the current law, but also for information as to how the law operated in practice.”
At the time, landlord-tenant laws were based on English common law and tenants had few rights. Landlords were not required to provide safe, habitable premises, and tenants were obligated to pay rent regardless of the property’s condition. There was no grace period for evicted tenants. They could be locked out and have all their possessions left outside with little notice.
When Frye failed to reform the state’s landlord-tenant law wholesale, Fillette convinced him to change the law piecemeal. “We were successful in doing so, and a lot of the credit was due to the hard work of Ted,” Frye wrote. “His efforts to improve the law in North Carolina are worthy of national recognition!”
Fillette, a native of Mobile, Alabama, earned his bachelor’s from Duke University in 1968 and then served in the Volunteers in Service to America program in Boston until 1970, when he started law school at Boston University. In 1973, after earning his juris doctorate, he came to Charlotte to start his career as a civil legal aid lawyer.
That year, he joined the Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County as a staff attorney, a position he held until 1981, when he moved to New Bern to serve a one-year stint as litigation director at Pamlico Sound Legal Services. He returned to Charlotte in 1982 to work for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont as litigation director and deputy director, positions he held for the next 20 years.
In 2002, Legal Aid of North Carolina was founded when independent legal aid offices around the state joined forces to form a unified organization with a statewide mandate. Fillette joined the new organization as its assistant director and senior managing attorney of its Charlotte office, a position he holds to this day.
“Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of low-income North Carolinians, who may never have met Ted, nevertheless owe him a debt of gratitude for his decades of dedicated advocacy,” said George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina.
“Largely as a result of Ted’s tireless efforts over more than 40 years, North Carolina landlord-tenant law has been dragged – often kicking and screaming – out of the dark ages and into the modern era,” Hausen said. “There is still work to be done, but Ted is largely responsible for getting us this far.”
Fillette lives in Charlotte with his wife and has two children.
Learn more about the North Carolina State Bar’s John B. McMillan Distinguished Service Award.
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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and remove legal barriers to economic opportunity.
Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, 919-856-2132