Our Pro Bono Commitment
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.
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of California recently recognized Partner Kirsten Hicks Spira and Special Counsel Wesley M. Griffith as honorees for their commitment to pro bono during the District’s annual “Night to Honor Service.”
Spira and Griffith were recognized for leading a team that included Associates Elizabeth Avunjian, and Effiong K. Dampha in a Section 1983 civil rights case. The case arose from our client reporting several prison guards for misconduct. In retaliation, the guards took our client to an isolated area of the prison that was closed for construction and beat him until he lost consciousness. The guards denied all wrong doing, claiming that the client had instead slipped and fell to the ground during escort.
The client, who had limited education and financial means, was originally proceeding without counsel and having difficulty making his case in the face of the guards’ denial of any wrongdoing. The firm team, however, was able to secure evidence from the prison confirming that our client was taken to an outside hospital by ambulance for treatment for his injuries shortly after the attack, that the area where the attack occurred had no security cameras or other safeguards to prevent abuse of prisoners by staff, and that the guards involved had coordinated their incident reports before officially filing them. Based on this evidence, the action was settled on the eve of trial on favorable terms for our client.
The Eastern District has one of the highest levels of pro se civil rights litigants in the country, and Jenner & Block lawyers have served on the District’s Civil Rights Pro Bono Panel for many years.
On December 8, Jenner & Block will receive the 2021 Impact in the Courts Award from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIP) during its 50th anniversary event. The firm will be recognized for collaborative efforts on the Irwin Detention Center project, during which a firm team is co-counseling with NIP and a number of law school clinics and others in litigation against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other defendants for forced medical procedures on women detained there.
Partners Debbie L. Berman and Gabrielle Sigel and Associate Miriam J. Wayne continue to lead the effort. Others who have worked on the cross-office, multi-practice team include Partners Robert C. Harmala and Howard S. Suskin, Special Counsel Aaron R. Cooper, Associates Illyana A. Green, Michael R. Greubel, Matthew G. Lawson, Daniel S. McCord, Andrew J. Plague, Laurel A. Raymond, Corinne M. Smith, and Reanne Zheng, and Pro Bono Counsel Nura Maznavi, with valuable support from Debra Abelson, Rob Aponte, Amanda Ellis, Tricia Peavler, Sam Rosen, and Annette Young.
The virtual event will take place at 6:30 pm Eastern. To learn more and register to attend, please click here.