Why you should care

Because if this diminutive millennial can pull off her mission, the legal profession might be about to explode.

Tia Canlas is not what you expect in a trial lawyer. The 29-year-old sometimes swallows her words and peppers her plain speak with “likes” and “ums.” In person, she is fresh-faced and eager, sporting quasi-granny hipster glasses and sparkly gold nails. The tattoo on her wrist quotes The Little Prince, in the Filipino language Tagalog: “Do you collect butterflies?” it reads.

Filipina-American Canlas, who prefers her whole, long name — Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas — is a novice, with just four cases under her belt. Her law offices consist of a rented desk in an architectural firm, and she often meets clients at a coffee shop. But Canlas is worth paying attention to, not for her track record (which is limited) but for her big idea. The young attorney, who represents victims of domestic violence, has a potentially explosive idea about the law: Bring civil suits against domestic abusers, not just criminal ones.

To wit, she sues the jerks instead of trying to lock them up.

Count among their ranks one Clyde Berg, a Silicon Valley real estate mogul.* Canlas represents his former wife, Ellena — she is Canlas’ fifth client ever — in a domestic violence suit. It’s a high-profile case not just because of the millions at stake or the horrific violence Ellena Berg alleges, but also because the strategy is relatively new. While violence victims have found redress in civil court before — think of Nicole Brown Simpson’s family, who won $33.5 million from O.J. Simpson after losing the criminal case — the strategy hasn’t gone mainstream for most domestic violence survivors, who can’t afford the slog through a lawsuit.

“I think she’s filling a huge gap in the legal world,” says Nancy Lemon, Canlas’ former law professor at Berkeley and a leading expert on domestic violence. It’s rare to fight domestic violence in civil court, Lemon says. Some family practice attorneys will do it, but they charge hefty fees. Canlas is pinching pennies to do it the nonprofit way.

Fast Facts

Domestic violence lawsuits:

  • Many plaintiffs sue under grounds of “intentional emotional distress.”
  • Physical abuse is harder to prove, especially without images or doctors’ reports.
  • Damages awarded: usually less than $2 million, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers.

In comparison:

  • Median tort judgments, according to the same BJS numbers: between $21,000 and $24,000.
  • Median intentional tort judgments — meaning hurt or damage was intended (which includes domestic violence): $38,000.
  • The median damages awarded for motor vehicle lawsuits: $15,000.
  • The median damages awarded for medical malpractice: $400,000.

I sat down with Canlas and Berg at a worker-owned café in Oakland (started by Canlas’ fiancé — “I proposed to him in July, and he said ‘of course!’” she wrote in an email). The two women are an unlikely pair: life-worn 38-year-old Ellena, a smooth-spoken, statuesque Scandinavian woman suing her former spouse, and edgy Tia. And their suit is far from a slam dunk. The case was dismissed in criminal court when a judge called Berg’s version of events impossible to believe.

There isn’t much case law — the historical precedent lawyers pull from to justify their claims — to support Canlas’ work. Anti-domestic violence law in the U.S. is itself only a few decades old; marital rape wasn’t even illegal in all 50 states until 1993. Even thereafter, enforcement differed by state. She turns to Lemon frequently for help digging the good stuff up.

The strategy’s untested: Canlas’ first trial was scheduled for September but got postponed a year. That’s not uncommon for trial attorneys, who can wait years for trials or settle before seeing a courtroom. But in Canlas’ case, the issue isn’t defendants seeking to settle. Her defendants, in fact, are willing to go to trial — in part because domestic violence survivors often make poor witnesses in their own cases thanks to emotional trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. Worse, Canlas’ clients can often barely pay their fees. She raises funds, primarily among friends and family, and takes very little money from her clients herself (“a below-market-rate retainer and 10 percent of the money if we win” — no wins yet). Other attorneys would charge between 30 and 50 percent, Berkeley’s Lemon said.

She rarely saw the violence, but sometimes heard it, or confronted the remnants the next day, like “a hole in the closet door or … broken glass.”

Thankless? Perhaps. But Canlas took on an entrepreneurial task partly because she felt she had few people to look up to in her profession. As a second-year law student at Berkeley, she met Lemon, who wrote the first-ever domestic violence law casebook, and recognized her future vocation instantly. Canlas hoped to find more mentors like Lemon whom she could work under in the real world. “But I couldn’t find anybody,” she says.

Tia Canlas's desk inside a Berkeley architecture firm.

Tia Canlas’ desk inside a Berkeley architecture firm

Source Anthony Cruz

Intimate violence has loomed over Canlas’ life, too. In childhood, she followed her mother from New York to San Francisco to the Philippines back to California as they fled her mother’s various abusive partners, including Canlas’ father. A teacher noticed first, thanks to a class assignment in which young Tia was told to write about her family.

“I wrote good things about my mom … about how we would paint together, collect rocks from a creek outside the church — and then I also casually included that she cries a lot at night. And the teacher asked me and then I started to understand that — that wasn’t a ‘natural’ thing, it wasn’t a good thing.”

She rarely saw the violence, but sometimes heard it — or confronted the remnants the next day, like “a hole in the closet door or, like, a broken glass.”

If you believe the defendants’ lawyers, all my clients are lying.

— Tia Canlas

In college, she first learned the term “domestic violence.” The rest of the vocabulary followed: “survivor” instead of “victim,” the “cycle of violence,” “patriarchy.” Yet even with a mission on her back, Canlas almost didn’t make it through law school. A year in, she dropped out, disillusioned, and took up work as a residential counselor for troubled youth, making $13 an hour (she calls this “actually a lot of money, as a young person”). But with a year’s worth of debts from law school, paying $300 a month in loan repayments, she figured she should go back and stick it out. (Today, she’s hoping to qualify for a loan repayment program thanks to her work with an “underserved” population.) And in her second year, she met Lemon.

“If you believe the defendants’ lawyers, all my clients are lying,” Canlas tells me. And later: “I think I have a pretty good read on whether someone is telling the truth or not. And I believed her.” As for Ellena’s trust in the green lawyer? Tia told her client the story of her own mother.

They aren’t close to a trial date. There are depositions they cannot yet afford, there is paperwork to be done.

“People tell me all the time that I’m not forceful enough, that I’m not really aggressive,” Canlas says. “I was self-conscious about that. But I think it makes me more accessible to a jury, that I speak the way I do.”

That is, if she ever gets in front of one.

*Clyde Berg’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

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