2021-2022 GSCBWLA Leadership


Officers

Nakia RuffinPresident 

April Martindale, President-Elect 

Kadisha PhelpsVice President

Etta Akoni, Secretary
Natalie E. Oce
, Treasurer
Ashley Gantt, Historian
Sheena Benjamin-Wise
Immediate Past President

Directors

Mark Berrios-Ayala

Lotoya K. Brown

Iris A. Elijah

Shantrell Lewis
Janeen Lofton
Lia C. Lopez
Candice Michael
Michelle A. Prescott
Sherria D. Williams


Nakia Ruffin, Esq.• President 

Nakia Ruffin is as an Assistant General Counsel for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida. Ms. Ruffin is responsible for providing legal services to the Administrative Office of the Courts. In addition to advising administration, she also provides advice to the judiciary on administrative and court-related matters. She received her degrees from the University of Florida and St. Thomas University School of Law.

Ms. Ruffin serves on various Florida Bar committees and is active in the community. She is the past Chair of a Florida Bar grievance committee. Currently, she is part of Broward Sherriff's Office Social Justice Task Force. Ms. Ruffin is a member of the League of Women Voters of Broward County where she serves as a Co-chair for the Youth Engagement Committee and serves on the Executive Board for their Education Fund.

April Martindale, Esq• President-Elect

April R. Martindale is the owner/managing partner of Martindale Law, a law practice located in Broward County, Florida where she focuses on Contract Law, Intellectual Property, Business Law and Entertainment Law. April is licensed to practice law in the State of Florida and the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida.

Ms. Martindale earned her Bachelors of Science Undergraduate degree from Florida Metropolitan University, where she graduated magna cum laude in Paralegal Studies. In recognition for her efforts, April was on the Dean’s List or President’s List every semester throughout college.

April earned a Masters of Business Administration in Management from Strayer University where she graduated summa cum laude, and was inducted into Golden Key International Honor Society, and Alpha Chi National College Honor Society in a period of 11 months.

April subsequently earned her law degree from Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law and was chosen by her peers and professors as the December 2015 Graduate Reception Speaker. Throughout law school, April served as treasurer for the Evening Law Student Association and participated in educating 1L’s and 2L’s about the pitfalls to avoid in law school and the tools necessary to succeed.

April is a current member of the Florida Bar, Broward County Bar Association, American Bar Association, South Palm Beach County Bar Association and Gwen S. Cherry Bar Association, IP Law Association of Florida (IPLAF), Florida Association of Women Lawyers and ASCAP-American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In addition to practicing law, April is also a co-founder and managing member and director of a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, New York Wins, Incorporated, headquartered in the city where she was born and raised. New York Wins, Inc. is designed to provide charitable and educational resources that train the mindset of the younger generation to engage with purpose, organize with passion, and contribute to the well-being of their communities, while learning the prerequisites of becoming socially responsible and progressive citizens.

April finds a way to actively balance single parenthood, educational commitments, professional obligations, and personal responsibilities and commitments. April lives in Coral Springs and is a single-divorced parent of three children, Jada (21), Jalen (17), and Jordan (12), and their beloved shih tzu dog, Prince.

Kadisha Phelps, Esq• Vice President 

Kadisha Phelps is an associate of the Miami office of Sweetapple, Broeker & Varkas, P.L. A native of Long Island, New York, Kadisha has worked in both the Miami and Boca Raton offices of the firm since the fall of 2006, after graduating from Washington and Lee School of Law. While at Washington and Lee, Kadisha participated in the Virginia Commonwealth Clearing House, a legal clinic where she assisted court-appointed attorneys in defending capital cases and served as a legal intern at the New York Stock Exchange’s Enforcement Division.

Kadisha completed her Bachelor of Arts in History at Florida State University, with minors in Black Studies and Urban and Regional Planning.

In Tallahassee, Kadisha held prominent government internships with then U.S. Senator Bob Graham and Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, as well as RBBO Public Relations LLC, a leading lobbyist firm at the Florida capitol.

Kadisha has successfully litigated in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, handling both the plaintiff and defense side of matters for numerous business owners, defending various south Florida developers during the recent real estate crash and representing former NFL players in various complex business and investment disputes. Kadisha’s primary practice area is in General Commercial Litigation.

Etta Akoni, Esq.  Secretary 

Etta Akoni is a licensed attorney in the State of Florida. Etta is a South Florida native and has dedicated her career to uplifting and empowering her community. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree with Highest Honors from Nova Southeastern University and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Florida.

Etta currently works for the Sundari Foundation, Inc. dba Lotus House Women’s Shelter. As Associate General Counsel for the Foundation, Etta handles and oversees issues and work pertaining to the Foundation’s quality assurance, continuous quality improvement, risk management, compliance and reporting activities, litigation, organization, and the human resources department.

Prior to her current position, Etta worked as Associate General Counsel in the Subrogation division of an insurance company. But for the majority of her career, Etta was an Assistant State Attorney in and for Miami Dade County, Fl. For nine years, Etta worked in various divisions of the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office including the Traffic Homicide unit and the Community Prosecution Unit, where she worked to address crime and quality of life issue in Miami-Dade County through decentralized, proactive problem-solving within a community. While in law school, Mrs. Akoni volunteered at Three Rivers Legal Clinic in Gainesville, FL helping Domestic Violence victims get civil injunctions from their abusers, The Alachua County Civil Rights Restoration Project helping citizens who had completed their sentences apply for the restoration of their civil rights, and was an intern with the Office of the Public Defender in the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida.

Etta has been a member of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women’s Bar Association since 2016 and previously served on the Board of Directors. Etta is also a member of a local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc for which she has helped to organize community donation drives and scholarships for minority youth.

Natalie E. Oce, Esq. Treasurer

Being the last of seven children, born to Mr. Rastee and Mrs. Lola Oce, has not made Natalie Oce the least in any aspect of her life.  It has in fact, empowered her to serve this community through her skills as a lawyer, educator, and leader. The hard work ethics instilled by her family helped to earn the respect of her peers, judges, and members of the community.  She educated herself at the University of Florida, graduating with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Education.  She later went on to earn a Juris Doctorate from Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad Law Center where she served on the Executive Board of the Moot Court Honor Society.

Ms. Oce’s employment footprint began while she was a law student. As a law student she became a child advocate.  She investigated pending cases which assisted judges in making important decisions regarding the best interests of children.  After finishing law school she was admitted to The Florida Bar to practice law. Attorney Oce accepted a position as an Assistant Public Defender in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her dedication, commitment, and leadership skills were quickly recognized as she represented children and adults who were accused of law violations. Ms. Oce also served as a Special Master in the city of Miami Gardens. Attorney Oce preceded over cases pertaining to city code violations and issued findings of fact based on evidence presented at hearings and conclusions of law.

She is now a private attorney owning her own law office, L and O Law Firm, Pa. and was named a Top Attorney in North America by the Who’s Who Directory due to her zealous and effectual advocacy for her clients. Currently, Ms. Oce is also an Assistant Regional Counsel Attorney for the Third District of Florida. While managing her busy law practice, Attorney Oce finds time to reinvest in the community that nurtured her.  She educates aspiring young adults by teaching as an adjunct professor at Florida International University.

Additionally, Attorney Oce volunteers to help guide teens back to the right track in life through her service as a Judge for Teen Court. She also volunteers her time and is committed to assisting this community in the following ways:

■ Miami-Dade Homeowner’s Association. Member, providing presentations on laws and how those laws impact the community.

■ Concerned African Women: Recognized for Outstanding Leadership

■ Alternative Program Executive Board Member, a program that employs services to give defendants and the court system alternatives to incarceration.

■ North County Citizen’s Association, President, January 2017.

■ Miami Gardens Citizen’s Advisory Commission: Member on panel who advises the police department on current issues.

In addition to her membership in The Florida Bar, Attorney Oce’s career affiliations include being a member of the District Court, Southern District of Florida, 2013; the American Bar Association; and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Attorney Oce commitment to service is embodied in her mantra:

“Service is an Honor that we can all afford to waste sitting on the steps of privilege.”

Ashley Gantt, Esq. • Historian 

Ashley V. Gantt, Esq. was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She was a 2007 Teach for America Mississippi Delta Corps (TFA) member and taught in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a middle and high school teacher. In 2016, Ashley graduated from Nova Southeastern School of law serving as secretary and president of the Nova Black Law Students Association. She competed in the National Black Law Students Association Southern Region Thurgood Marshall Mock Trial Competition and the Texas Young Lawyers Association National Trial Competition. Ashley was inducted into The Order of the Barristers and is currently a Broward County Assistant Public Defender since 2016 and has received a “Hat Trick” Award from the Broward Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys for two consecutive years as recognition for attaining not guilty verdicts in at least three successive trials. Ashley has continued to be active in her community by serving on the executive board of the T.J. Reddick Bar Association as corresponding secretary, recording secretary, and will be inducted at the President-Elect for the 2019-2020 year. She also serves as the treasurer for the Broward Association of Criminal Defense attorneys. Ashley is also a Wm. Reece Smith Jr. Leadership Academy Fellow for 2019-2020. Ashley is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and the University of Florida Association of Black Alumni South Florida chapter.

Sheena Benjamin-Wise, Esq.  Immediate Past President

Sheena Benjamin-Wise practices Marital and Family Law in Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach Florida, serving Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach Counties. Ms. Benjamin-Wise’s work primarily focuses on marital and family law litigation and collaborative divorce cases, parental rights and paternity, and other child-related matters for the past 18 years.

In addition to being the President for Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, she is an active member of the community and current member of the Broward BNI Networking Fortune Builders Chapter since 2015, and a member of the Greater Pompano Beach Chamber of Commerce and Leadership North Broward 2014.

Sheena has been an active member of the Florida Bar Family Law Section Executive Council Member since 2009. She currently serves as the Co-Chairperson of Legislation Committee, and previously served as the Co-Chair of Children’s Issues Committee, Chair of the Ad Hoc Diversity and Inclusion Committee and Section Liaison, Co-Secretary of Legislation, Co-Chair of Ad Hoc Probate Jurisdiction Committee and a member of Finance Committee, as well as the Chair of Membership Committee (2008-2011); Co-Chairperson of Rules and Forms Committee (2010-2011); Commentator Family Law Section Newsletter – Contributor (2008-2009). She believes in her continued work with the Family Law Section to serve the Florida community.

Some of the honors received are Super Lawyer (2020), Rising Star Super Lawyers (2010 and 2011), Rising Star, Florida Bar Executive Council of Family Law Section (2008), Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award (2008) (2009) (2005), Florida Bar Family Law Section Rising Star (2009), Florida Bar Family Law Section Keeper of the Flame Award (2010), Featured in HERLIFE Spotlight, HER Magazine April 2014, Florida Bar Family Law Section Chair’s Award of Merit (2017), and Florida Bar Family Law Section Spotlight Award (2018).

Ms. Benjamin-Wise graduated from the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center. She is of Haitian decent and was born in Brooklyn, New York. She currently lives in Coral Springs, Florida with her husband and her two children.

Mark Berrios-Ayala, Esq. • Board Member

Mark Berrios-Ayala currently is In House Counsel to Jefferson Capital Systems, LLC. Previously, Mark worked at two firms dealing with personal injury and bankruptcy while a student at the University of Central Florida. Mark also worked as the legal intern for the Honorable Migna Sanchez-Llorens of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Miami. Mark also served as a Certified Legal Intern at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. Being a first-generation college graduate, Mark graduated from Florida International University College of Law in the spring of 2017. During law school, Mark was awarded the pro bono medallion for over 200 pro bono hours completed while in law school. Mark obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida in 2014: graduating honors in the major. Mark obtained his Associate of Arts degree from Valencia College in 2011. In his free time, Mark authors articles on trending topics in the Puerto Rican community, is the Vice President of Communications of PROFESA, community organization, and enjoys traveling around the world.

Lotoya K. Brown, Esq. • Board Member

Lotoya K. Brown, Esq. is a Senior Associate at Andell Brown & Associates, a boutique family operated firm in Aventura, FL. She concentrates her practice areas in business transactions, estate planning & legacy building education. She also provides healthcare directives, power of attorney and notarial services. Lotoya has also gained experience in municipal law as the previous Interim Deputy City Attorney of the City of Sunny Isles Beach.

Lotoya earned her Juris Doctor from Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law (2017) and her undergraduate degree from Florida State University. She is a proud alum of both schools. During law school, she was a repeated Dean’s List recipient, Law School Ambassador, Moot Court Member, an Executive Board Member for the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA), PULSE! Health Law Association, and a general member of the Caribbean Law Students Association. Currently, she serves as Board Member for the Caribbean Bar Association, member of the Real Property, Probate & Trust Law section of The Florida Bar and of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. When not working, Lotoya enjoys spending time with her family and cultivating new ways to expand her legal knowledge and community impact.

Iris A. Elijah, Esq.  Board Member

Iris A. Elijah serves as the Associate General Counsel of Florida International University (FIU). Previously Iris was the Assistant General Counsel at the State University System, Board of Governors and the Assistant General Counsel of Florida A&M University. Iris is a graduate of the FIU College of Law and University of South Florida. Iris is active in the civic and legal community serving on the Executive Board of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers (FAWL), as an officer for the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, Board of Governors of The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division, several The Florida Bar committees, committee chair for the Miami-Dade Chapter of FAWL, an active member of the Miami Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and a frequent volunteer with Smile Miami. Iris has been honored with several distinctions including Brickell Magazine Top 20 Under 40, FIU's Charles E. Perry Young Alumni Visionary Award, University of South Florida Outstanding Young Alumni, and the Tallahassee Network of Young Professionals Golden A.C.E. Award. 

Shantrell Lewis, Esq.  Board Member

Shantrell Lewis and was born and raised in Miami, Florida. Ms. Lewis lived in Virginia for a couple of years. She received her law degree from St. Thomas University School of Law and her undergraduate degree from University of South Florida. She currently works as an Attorney for the U.S. Small Business Administration, where she assist small business owners with their loans and ensure their compliance with same. Previously, Ms. Lewis worked as an Associate at a boutique law firm, concentrating on real estate matters, as well as a stint as an Assistant State Attorney in the Miami-Dade Attorney’s Office’s Child Support Enforcement Division. Ms. Lewis is an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Wilkie D. Ferguson Bar Association, and the Immanuel Temple AME church.

Janeen Lofton, Esq• Board Member 

Ms. Lofton is currently an Attorney at Liebler, Gonzalez & Portuondo:  a law firm based in Miami, Tampa and Orlando Florida servicing banking, business, commercial, and real estate law needs throughout the State of Florida, Southeastern United States and the US Virgin Islands.  Her background hails from Wall Street whereas she was an Investment Banker in the area of Asset Backed Securities.  After graduating law school, Ms. Lofton served as an Attorney Advisor for the Washington, DC Court Systems, then transitioned out of public service back into the private sector at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe law firm where she worked in the Fixed Income Group, then later clerked for Honorable James S. Carroll.

Janeen received her B.A. & B.S. from Xavier University and her J.D./M.B.A. through the Howard University/Texas University consortium. Currently, Janeen works in LGP’s Commercial Banking Litigation Group premised on her extensive experience in banking law litigation and regulation litigation practicing USVI matters and managing Florida trials.  She is a community advocate happy to serve as a Board Member of Gwen S. Cherry’s Black Women Lawyers Association, Board Member of Miami’s Bach Society, an active member of the Young Patronesses of the Opera, member of the Bach Miami Symphony as a violinist, a member of Junior League Miami, and actively leads programs for Camillus’ House community.

Lia Catalina Lopez, Esq Board Member

Lia Catalina Lopez is an Attorney with degrees in civil and common law from Colombia and the U.S, respectively and is a member of the Colombia and Florida bar.   Originally from Sincelejo, Colombia, Ms. Lopez graduated from Universidad de Cartagena law school in 2012. During her time at Universidad de Cartagena, she was a Certified Legal Mediator for low-income families and individuals at the school’s legal clinic. In addition, Ms. Lopez was a Research Assistant focusing on consumer rights protection and legislative development. In 2011, she presented a paper on adhesion contracts at a Private Law international Conference in Bogota, Colombia. In 2016, the Universidad de Cartagena Press published Ms. Lopez' thesis on consumer protection. Before moving to the United States, she worked as a Legal Advisor for a public hospital in Barranquilla, Colombia.

In Miami, Ms. Lopez worked in the regional legal department of a national restaurant chain for a year. In 2016, she was admitted to Florida International University College of Law Juris Doctor Advanced Standing Program where she graduated Magna Cum Laude in the top 7% of the 2018 class.

During her time at FIU Law, she completed In-House internships at a global communications supplier and at a corporate investigations and risk consulting firm in Miami. Additionally, she served as Treasurer for the International Dispute Resolution Club and as Parliamentarian for the H.T Smith Black Law Student Association. She was also part of the Public Interest Auction committee, a student led fundraiser supporting students working in the public interest sector.

Upon graduation, she worked as associate attorney at business and commercial litigation firm before joining FIU’s Office of the General Counsel in 2019 as an Attorney Fellow. Currently, she is a Business Development Associate for global company that provides corporate and legal services, fund creation and administration, and business support solutions in multiple jurisdictions across the globe.

Ms. Lopez is actively involved in the Florida Bar and is a member of the Education committee and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. She also currently serves as co-chair of the Diversity Committee for Miami-Dade FAWL. In her spare time she likes to cook and salsa dancing.

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Candice Michael, Esq Board Member 

Candice L. Michael, Esquire is a licensed Florida attorney, practicing marital and family law with a focus on children’s issues, domestic violence, and divorce.  She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology with honors from the University of Florida in 2009, and her Juris Doctor degree from Howard University School of Law in 2014.  Ms. Michael was admitted to license law in the state of Florida in 2014. 

Following graduation, Ms. Michael served as a Judicial Law Clerk in the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, and later developed her career as a litigation attorney while working for Florida Rural Legal Services, Inc. in Fort Myers, Florida, and Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. in Miami, Florida.  Ms. Michael has successfully advocated, and obtained favorable results, for countless clients in marital and family law cases, including but not limited to contested divorces, guardian advocacy, relative adoption, paternity, temporary custody by extended family members, and child support matters.  Ms. Michael also has litigation experience with private and federally subsidized landlord-tenant defense work.

Michelle A. Prescott, Esq.  • Board Member 

Born in Washington, D.C., Michelle Prescott is a graduate of the Catholic University, Columbus School of Law and a fierce advocate for the protection of children and the preservation of families. For nearly twenty years, Ms. Prescott has advanced the cause of children and families through her work as a litigator with Legal Services of Greater Miami, the Department of Children and Families, the Miami Dade Public Defender’s Office, and as a solo practitioner for the Prescott Law Firm, P.L. She has also served as an adjunct professor for the Florida International University’s Family and Education Law Clinic.

Currently, Ms. Prescott is the Director of Compliance and Risk Management for the Center for Family and Child Enrichment, a full case management agency within the foster care system with a Federally-qualified community health care center. Her passion for this work stems from a belief that healthy families produce children who thrive and become productive members of society.

Toward this end, Ms. Prescott has volunteered with various organizations including the University of Miami Children and Youth Law Clinic, the Guardian Ad Litem Program, Girl Scout Troop 1098 of Miami Gardens, and the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees for the Historic Hampton House located in the Brownsville community of Miami, Florida. When not at work, Ms. Prescott enjoys reading, exercising and spending quality time with her family.

Sherria D. Williams, Esq Board Member  

"Where there is no struggle, there is no strength"-Oprah Winfrey  

Sherria Williams born December 8 a proud native of Miami, Florida insists that those words have guided her into some of many personal, professional, and spiritual accomplishments in life. Attorney, entrepreneur, and community supporter are few, of the many hats, worn by Williams.

Williams graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology, from The Florida State University, and later earned her Juris Doctor degree The Florida State University College of Law in 2009. During law school, Sherria worked for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation in the Division of Professions where she prepared and argued cases at the Division of Administrative Hearings. As a law clerk for the Honorable Judge Charles Francis,  ​she reviewed and analyzed writs of mandamus and prisoner petitions. During law school she participated as a regional board member of the Southern Region of the National Black Law Students Association, as well as the American Bar Association representative for her school. 

Sherria was fortunate to return to her hometown as she started her legal career protecting the residents of Miami-Dade County at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. As an Assistant State Attorney, Williams prosecuted cases from criminal traffic infractions to drug trafficking. Williams was persistent and during her four (4) years she tried 100’s of bench trials and over 25 jury trials. Sherria has always enjoyed giving back to others, and was given the opportunity to work in the Community Prosecution Unit where she was instrumental in starting the Junior ASA Program at local high schools, supporting and educating community members about the law and the criminal justice system. Williams practiced as a litigation attorney with Butler & Hosch, P.A., representing national banks in residential foreclosure matters from Monroe County to West Palm Beach. Presently Sherria Williams works at United Automobile Insurance Company​ in Miami Gardens, FL in the House Counsel defending personal injury protection claims and investigating fraudulent automobile accidents and treatment. In addition to her contribution as an advocate of the law she still makes time to serve her community through her quarterly Fatherhood Empowered events.

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