The “Champion of the Year Award” honors a single advocate who has gone above and beyond to provide pro bono services to survivors. Jenner & Block Partner Cynthia “Cindy” J. Robertson and her team successfully handled two complex immigration cases for trafficking survivors, winning T-visas for both of the clients around the Fourth of July holiday this year. The cases – one involving forced labor, the second involving sex trafficking – represented significant challenges. Both cases demanded creativity, tenacity, attention to detail, and excellent legal research to prevail. Through it all, Ms. Robertson supported the clients, providing trauma-informed legal guidance. The award will be presented on November 18, 2020.
Jenner & Block is proud of its 2019 pro bono results:
Our client is a young woman from Kyrgyzstan who fled to the United States seeking freedom from persecution because she was targeted, beaten, and raped for being a lesbian. Kyrgyzstan is a dangerous place for LGBTQ individuals, as the Kyrgyzstan government encourages the harassment of LGBTQ individuals and supports far-right anti-LGBTQ nationalist groups.
Anara knew that she was gay since she was in middle school, but kept it a secret because in her community, to be gay was to be diseased or to be possessed by demons. Anara told her mother about her feelings for some of her female classmates, which her mother dismissed as a “phase.” Anara did not tell her father about her feelings, because he is a stern and deeply religious man. As Anara grew up, she exceled as a student, but was often mocked and ridiculed because she did not wear skirts, dresses, or high heels—all of which were expected of women in Kyrgyzstan. In her first year of college, Anara was elected to be class president, only to be told by administrators that she had to choose between the way she dressed and her position as president. Anara resigned.
Throughout her childhood and through her first year of college, Anara hid her sexuality. But the façade fell apart when she went home for winter break to celebrate her 18th birthday with her family. The family had prepared a large meal to celebrate the occasion, and Anara’s father asked to use her mobile phone to take a picture of everyone. After taking the picture, Anara’s father scrolled through Anara’s screenshots and discovered images of lesbian women, rainbow flags, and depictions from the film “Blue is the Warmest Color.”
Her father flew into a rage, cursing to the heavens for giving him a gay daughter. He repeatedly struck Anara until she fell to the ground. He picked up a cutting board and continued until Anara fell unconscious. He then locked her in an unheated barn overnight—in December. He refused for days to allow her to eat, take painkillers, or seek medical attention. Instead, he gathered leaders and other members of the local mosque, and invited them to the house to “cleanse” Anara. They took Anara outside, threw her into freezing water, and then dumped her into the snow, chanting prayers. They picked her up and pulled her arms and legs in opposite directions, and forced our client’s eyes to remain open so that the “demons” could escape.
Anara was bed-ridden for some time after the beatings and conversion therapy. But once she had some time to heal, she escaped her house. She had no money or support, so she went to a local police station for shelter. She found more persecution instead. Two male police officers took her into a room in the police station and questioned her. Although they seemed kind at first, when Anara told them why her father had beaten her—because she was a lesbian—the officers laughed and mocked her. The officers took Anara down a hallway to another room and locked the door behind them. Despite Anara’s tears and pleas for them to stop, the officers raped her.
The officers released Anara the following day, and she managed to get back to her dorm at college. She knew she needed to flee somewhere safe—somewhere she could be free. To her, that was America. She finished the spring semester at the university and traveled to the United States in May of 2017 on a J-1 visa. She filed her petition for asylum a few months later.
In 2018, Associate Garrett Fitzsimmons and Partner Peter J. Brennan partnered with the National Immigrant Justice Center and lawyers from JP Morgan Chase to take on her case. They collected documentary evidence, drafted a brief, and prepared Anara for an eventual interview, even though the interview was not expected to come for many years. In the middle of this year, the team sought an expedited interview, which was granted. They were given two-weeks’ notice and prepared Anara for her interview and finalized the brief. Anara was calm, brave, and passionate in her interview. Within 48 hours of Anara’s interview, the government granted Anara’s petition for asylum. When the team told Anara that she had been granted asylum, she cried and told them, “It is like a big American family is opening its arms to welcome me in.”
On October 22, a Jenner & Block team partnered with The Legal Aid Society to file a lawsuit pro bono in New York State Supreme Court on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless and single adult New Yorkers who are experiencing homelessness. The lawsuit is against the City of New York, the Department of Social Services, and the Department of Homeless Services for failing to take appropriate action to provide safe shelter for single adults that protects them from aerosol transmission of COVID-19. A press release published by the Legal Aid Society notes that despite the large amount of vacant hotel rooms, and federal funding explicitly available for the purpose of housing adult homeless individuals, the City has taken only half-measures to protect this vulnerable group. The lawsuit seeks to require that the City offer a single-occupancy hotel room to single adult homeless New Yorkers for the duration of the pandemic, among other forms of relief.
The lawsuit was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Due Process Clause of the United States and New York State Constitutions, the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York State Social Services Law and its implementing regulations, and the New York City Human Rights Law.
“To fight the coronavirus effectively, all New Yorkers – including those in need of shelter – need the ability to remain socially distanced,” Ms. Smalls said in the press release, “The City has an obligation under the New York State Constitution to provide safe shelter to our most vulnerable New Yorkers. We intend to ensure they fulfill it.”
Jenner & Block’s long-standing commitment to public service is a vital part of our culture and who we are as lawyers and people. As displayed in our annual pro bono report, The Heart of the Matter, we embrace our responsibility to serve individuals and organizations who would otherwise not have access to justice or legal services. Since we began tracking our pro bono hours nearly three decades ago, Jenner & Block has provided more than 1.6 million hours of pro bono service. We are ready to further our commitment.
Today, we reaffirm our role as an international leader in pro bono through a five-year commitment (2021 – 2025) to provide $250 million in free legal services to those in need of access to justice.
We make this clear commitment today because the need for pro bono representation in the pursuit of social, racial, and economic justice is greater now than ever before.
Our law firm’s passion for service began with the work of Albert E. Jenner, Jr. and Samuel W. Block, and has grown in its reach. In addition to high-profile cases at every level of the judicial system, our lawyers provide pro bono representation in a wide range of legal areas. This includes pursuing asylum for those fleeing persecution; fighting injustice in our criminal justice system, governments and society; advising grass roots and non-profit organizations; advocating for veterans; protecting constitutional rights; assisting victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking; and fighting for environmental protection, among so many other issues that impact people and our communities.
Recognized by The American Lawyer as the top pro bono firm in the United States for the past four years and 10 of the past 13 years, and as one of the top pro bono firms internationally only five years after opening our first international office, Jenner & Block is expanding its commitment to equality, fairness, and justice. We will continue to partner with dedicated legal aid organizations, law school clinics, in-house legal departments, and others committed to providing access to justice and serving the public good. As advocates for equity, we embrace our responsibility to serve those in need, better our communities, and protect our future. Together, we will make a difference.
On September 28, US District Judge Sue Myerscough issued a 55-page order affirming a jury verdict in excess of $8 million for firm pro bono client William Kent Dean against Wexford HealthSources, Inc. The order, which denied the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and motion for a new trial, includes approximately $700,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. In her ruling, Judge Myerscough noted, “This case was about a kind of deliberate indifference that is more subtle and insidious than the kind of deliberate indifference that screams out with obvious, easy-to-find evidence. The skill, resources, and tenacity of Plaintiff’s attorneys are the reason Plaintiff was able to uncover and prove deliberate indifference.”
“We are pleased with Judge Myerscough’s order, which sends a strong message about the systemic deficiencies in medical care involved in this case. Most importantly, we are hopeful that Mr. Dean and his family will now promptly receive the resources necessary to support his care,” said Jenner & Block Partner Joel T. Pelz, who leads the matter for the firm.
In December 2019, a unanimous jury in Springfield, IL returned a more than $11 million verdict for Mr. Dean, who was incarcerated at the time. The jury found that Wexford and several of its employees violated Mr. Dean’s federal civil rights (8th Amendment, deliberate indifference) and committed both institutional negligence and medical malpractice under Illinois law. The result concluded a seven-day trial before US District Judge Sue Myerscough in the Central District of Illinois. Mr. Dean secured early release from prison in January.
Hehas stage-4 metastatic kidney cancer, which is terminal. While imprisoned in the Taylorville Correctional Center in central Illinois, he began showing obvious signs of serious illness, including gross hematuria, or visible blood in his urine, in late 2015. Despite his alarming symptoms, Mr. Dean did not receive proper diagnostic testing for four months and did not receive surgery for seven months. Jenner & Block was appointed as his pro bono counsel in 2017.
In her decision to set punitive damages at $7 million, Judge Myerscough wrote: “This amount recognizes the reprehensibility of Wexford’s conduct and the harm Plaintiff suffered,should be sufficient to deter future similar conduct, and also stays within the bounds of due process, in the court’s judgment.”
Paralegal Kevin O. Garcia assisted Mr. Pelz in the matter.