Our Pro Bono Commitment
A class action lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois reveals the egregious living conditions for approximately 1,000 prisoners at the Northern Reception Center in Crest Hill, the point of entry for most prisoners into the Illinois Department of Corrections prison system.
Hundreds of prisoners reported appalling conditions at the prison, including infestations of rats, mice, flies, and cockroaches; plumbing that frequently spills raw sewage into cells, communal showers, and even the kitchen; and under-cooked, spoiled, and insufficient amounts of food. Additionally, drinking water is brown, often smells like sewage, and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) testing reveals it has over eight times the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for lead. Prisoners have not received any yard time since November, 2021, meaning they essentially spend all hours of the day, every day, in their squalid cells.
Prisoners are held at the Northern Reception Center in these terrible conditions for months before being transferred elsewhere in Illinois’ prison system.
“Entering prison is always going to be a shock,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), “but forcing people to endure infestation by vermin, undrinkable water, and extended solitary confinement when they first enter Illinois’ prison system is unacceptable and serves no legitimate purpose.”
The lawsuit, filed jointly by UPLC and Jenner & Block on behalf of the prisoners, asks the court to declare that the Illinois Department of Corrections is violating the prisoners’ constitutionally protected rights and require action to improve conditions in the prison.
“Prison officials have known how bad the conditions are for years but they’ve chosen to ignore the situation and shuffle prisoners along in the penal system,” said Jenner & Block Partner Benjamin J. Bradford. “We want to shine a light on the inhumane conditions at the Northern Reception Center; it’s time to amplify prisoners’ voices and force change at this facility.” Mr. Bradford led the Jenner & Block team along with Partners Terri L. Mascherin and Associates Lindsey A. Lusk and Garrett J. Salzman. Other team members include Alexander E. Cottingham, Emily A. Merrifield, Steven Tinetti, Arianne R. Wilt, and Vincent Wu.
The Uptown People’s Law Center and Jenner & Block are working in partnership on this case as part of Jenner & Block’s five-year pro bono commitment (2021-2025) to provide $250 million in free legal services to those in need of access to justice.
For three weeks in December, a team of 26 Jenner & Block lawyers researched the availability of and access to mental health services for children in grades K-12 in 45 different states. Client Inseparable and 16 other organizations joined to form the Hopeful Futures Campaign, which used the data to assess the accessibility of mental health services in all 50 states.
On February 16, 2022, Inseparable released the first national report card that scores every state on policies that support school mental health services, with recommendations for how to improve. The report card was reported by news outlets including MindSightNews, NPR, and USA Today.
The team included Partners Carissa Coze, Alexander M. Smith, and Joseph J. Torres; Special Counsel Danny S. Chami and Emily M. Savner; Associates Karolina L. Bartosik, Sophia L. Cai, Jenna L. Conwisar, Edward Crouse, Allison N. Douglis, Kate E. Fintel, Kevin J. Kennedy, Mary E. Marshall, Lawrence W. McMahon, Eric E. Petry, Annie K. Schoenfeldt, Madeline Skitzki, Tyler G. Westrich, William A. Williams, and Eric W. Wolff; Discovery Attorneys Chuck Downs and Matt Par; and Law Clerks Deanna Krokos, Areeb Salim, Jessica Sawadogo, and Jonathan Steinberg. Legal Assistant Elizabeth Visick assisted, and Partner Gail H. Morse led the project.
For more than 20 years, Jenner & Block has been proud to publish an annual report on pro bono service. The Heart of the Matter highlights the work we have done and the pro bono clients we have been privileged to serve in the past year. This report reaffirms that our pro bono work – whether it is advocating for those caught up in the criminal justice system, counseling nonprofits, or supporting those seeking a way out of high-risk areas – can change lives. This year, we also celebrate the dedicated lawyers from our commercial clients who partnered with us on our mission to help those in need.
Jenner & Block is helping five individuals with disabilities who use New York City paratransit services file a class action lawsuit to end discrimination that excludes them from transit fare discounts.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Transit Authority (together, the MTA) offer substantial fare discounts, including half fares for people with disabilities and seniors, as well as 30-day and seven-day unlimited fares, for bus and subway riders, but not for users of the Access-A-Ride paratransit system, whose disabilities prevent them from riding buses and subways.
The lawsuit, filed on February 15, 2022, in New York Supreme Court seeks to compel the MTA to offer the same discounts to Access-A-Ride users as are available to subway and bus riders. The case also seeks to reimburse AAR riders for the financial harm they suffered due to the unavailability of these fare discounts.
“It’s not fair that the MTA offers these discounts to subway and bus riders and not to Access-A-Ride users. We rely on the MTA to get us around just the same as other mass transit riders, and we shouldn’t be paying more,” said plaintiff Sheila Murray. “The MTA needs to end this discrimination against Access-A-Ride users immediately.”
Access-A-Ride is the MTA’s paratransit service for people with disabilities who cannot use, or are substantially limited in their ability to use, subways or buses. The MTA is legally required to provide this public transit service, which must be comparable to what is available to subway and bus riders. But AAR has long been plagued by unreliable and inflexible service. Nevertheless, AAR riders must pay the full fare of $2.75 for every trip, no matter how many trips they take per month and no matter whether they would qualify for a reduced fare because of their disability or age.
Jenner & Block Partner Marc B. Hankin, Associates Corey E. Schoellkopf and Anna M. Windemuth, and Staff Attorney Ehsan M. Khah represent the plaintiffs as pro bono counsel, along with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Mobilization for Justice.
“We are delighted to work closely with the top-notch and committed lawyers at NYLPI’s Disability Justice Program and Mobilization for Justice’s Disability and Aging Rights Program to help vindicate the legal rights of New Yorkers with disabilities,” Mr. Hankin said.
Jenner & Block represented a man who had entered the United States from Kosovo as a refugee when he was very young, with no memory of living there; nor does he speak the language. Unfortunately, our client later developed a substance abuse problem and was arrested for some minor crimes, including a drug charge – which is a removable offense – that made him inadmissible for legal permanent residence.
At his hearing before the Immigration Judge (IJ), our client sought a waiver of inadmissibility on humanitarian grounds and petitioned for an adjustment of status to legal permanent resident. He arranged to have family members testify about his importance to them and also prepared to introduce evidence about the poor conditions in Kosovo.
After our client’s own testimony and cross-examination, however, the IJ said that he did not need to hear anything else and was prepared to rule. The IJ then asked the U.S. government whether it had anything else to say, and the government lawyer said no. The IJ granted our client a waiver and adjustment of status; the government appealed the decision.
On appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) held that our client’s negative equities outweighed the positive and reversed the waiver. At that point Jenner & Block became involved, on referral from the National Immigrant Justice Center, and the firm appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
In cases such as this, the BIA has unreviewable discretion to reweigh positive and negative equities. No deference is owed to the IJ. Thus, the firm team had to argue that the BIA had committed a legal error not just that it mis-weighed the evidence.
Jenner & Block Associate Illyana A. Green provided critical advocacy, ultimately arguing that our client had been whipsawed by the government, which had not filed a prehearing statement, and although it vigorously cross-examined our client about his criminal record, the government had made no argument at the hearing. Ms. Green argued that the government had preserved no issue for appeal, and our client was prejudiced because of the unusual posture of the case before the IJ: Had the government made any argument at the hearing, our client could have insisted on presenting his evidence to make a full record. The court agreed with the argument and reversed the BIA’s decision.
Although the court attempted to write the decision narrowly, it may have a significant impact on how immigration hearings are conducted. The government rarely files pre-hearing statements due to the volume of immigration cases on their docket. To protect its ability to appeal, the government will be forced by this decision to spend more time getting ready for hearings.
In the meantime, our client was deported to Kosovo, where he has faced homelessness and other challenges. We are hopeful that this positive decision will enable our client to return to the United States. The government will need to bring him back, and on remand, it will be difficult for the government to maintain an appeal, given the Seventh Circuit’s holding.
Others on the firm team for this matter included Partner Matthew E. Price who supervised Ms. Green, with support from paralegal Mary Frances Patston.
A Jenner & Block team secured a life-saving result in a pro bono asylum case before the Chicago Immigration Court. The team included Partner Thomas S. O’Neill; Associates Jonathan A. Enfield and Brian B. Druchniak; Staff Attorney Edmundo Cuevas; Paralegals Charlotte M. Stretch and Sharlean T. Perez; and GCM Grosvenor’s Managing Director Girish Kashyap as co-counsel. The clients were a Nicaraguan political activist and local opposition party official and her 14-year-old daughter. In retaliation for our adult client’s leadership within her community in support of a national movement protesting the authoritarian regime of President Daniel Ortega, she and her family were subject to a series of escalating threats by police and other government agents.
Those threats culminated with a group of heavily armed parapolice coming to our clients’ home with warrants for the arrest of our adult client and her husband. She escaped detention – and the near certainty of violent abuse, torture, death, or disappearance – only because one member of the parapolice took pity on her other infant daughter, who was home alone with our adult client.
Despite that miraculous reprieve, our adult client knew that arrest would follow and inevitably lead to torment, possibly death. Our clients and their family decided to go into hiding elsewhere in Nicaragua. But when the government continued to hunt them, it became clear that hiding would not work, and they had no choice but to flee to the United States. Our clients went first, followed by other family members. Because the journey to the United States was so dangerous, our adult client had to make the heart-rending decision to leave her infant daughter with family in Nicaragua.
The team obtained affidavits from several witnesses after conducting multiple interviews with each, including the client’s former neighbor who is currently in hiding after surviving a brutal machete attack from a pro-government paramilitary fighter. Mr. Enfield was the primary point of client contact, and Mr. Cuevas and Ms. Stretch provided invaluable help as interpreters and translators.
With support from Mr. Enfield, Mr. Druchniak prepared a well-written and comprehensive legal brief that earned praise from the judge and the government attorney. Ms. Perez offered crucial last-minute assistance, putting in long nights to get the brief’s copious exhibits organized and annotated.
The team overcame tremendous obstacles when, two days before the hearing, the court announced that the hearing would be remote rather than in-person. To make matters more complicated, both clients and another key witness fell seriously ill just before the filing deadline.
Despite these obstacles, Mr. Druchniak delivered a compelling direct examination of our adult client – so much so that, during a recess, the government attorney volunteered that the client was clearly credible. The judge agreed, granting both clients asylum, with the government waiving appeal.