Judge Rejects Motions to Dismiss, Orders Discovery in Class Action for Veterans with PTSD
Jenner & Block is proud of its 2019 pro bono results:
On November 7, a Jenner & Block team secured a significant pro bono victory on behalf of thousands of Navy and Marine Corps veterans when a federal judge rejected the Secretary of the Navy’s request to dismiss a nationwide class action against the Navy Discharge Review Board (NDRB) and the US Department of Defense for issuing less-than-honorable discharges to veterans suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.
In addition to denying the government’s motion, Senior Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. of the District of Connecticut ordered the case to proceed discovery and directed the Navy to reconsider the requests to upgrade to Honorable the discharge characterizations of firm client Tyson Manker and of John Doe, a member of the organizational plaintiff National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR).
“Today’s ruling, in time for Veterans Day, reaffirms the rule of law and brings us one step closer to getting justice for every veteran who was unfairly dismissed from the military with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma, and denied their honorable discharge,” said Manker in a press release announcing the judge’s order to proceed.
In March 2018, Manker, a veteran of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and NVCLR filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of former Marines and sailors suffering from PTSD, who were unfairly dismissed from the military and denied their honorable discharge. The lawsuit seeks to ensure the fair treatment of veterans who have or would be subjected to unfair procedures during the review process in front of the NDRB.
On November 16, 2018, a judge certified the class action against the NDRB and US Department of Defense. The government went on to advance multiple arguments that, as the Court summarized, “seem to relate exclusively to the individual circumstances of Tyson Manker and John Doe.” But Judge Haight rejected these contentions, emphasizing that in fact thousands of veterans would likely be affected by the litigation: “Manker and Doe play important roles in this opera, but there are other soloists, a chorus, and a full orchestra—a fair analogy, given that the Court has certified a class of Navy and Marine Corps veterans…”
“As many as one-third of the more than two million men and women who have served since September 11, 2001, suffer from PTSD or other mental health conditions in relation to their service. Many of these veterans obtain less-than-Honorable discharges, often for minor infractions related to their mental health,” said Garry Monk, executive director of NVCLR. “Veterans with ‘bad paper’ are often cut off from the very benefits that would allow them to successfully transition back to civilian life, and instead suffer a lifetime of stigma, barriers to employment, and ineligibility for crucial state and federal benefits.”
“When veterans seek to correct these unjust discharges, the Navy denies the vast majority of their applications, contrary to statute and to Department of Defense policies designed to provide relief to veterans with service-related PTSD and other conditions,” said Samantha Peltz, a law student intern in the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “Despite its claims of improved compliance with Defense policies, over the past two years, the Navy has granted less than 20% of discharge upgrades for applicants with mental health claims. The court’s decision today is another step towards justice for veterans who served their country and came home only to face daunting hurdles in seeking care for the wounds of war.”
Acting as co-counsel with Yale Law School’s Legal Services Organization Veterans Clinic, Jenner & Block represents veterans who say they were denied the Honorable upgrade because they had undiagnosed mental health issues, such as PTSD. Associates Jessica A. Martinez and Jeremy H. Ershow have led the firm team since the complaint was filed in early 2018. Associate Nicole Taykhman also made the oral argument in federal court on the motion. They are overseen by Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy M. Creelan.
Seventh Circuit Affirms Ruling for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin in Access Restriction Dispute
A firm team representing Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin achieved an important victory in the Seventh Circuit when the court unanimously affirmed a district court ruling that declined to permit Wisconsin’s Legislature to intervene as a party in the firm’s ongoing challenge to certain abortion access restrictions in that state.
Wisconsin’s Attorney General Joshua Kaul, a Democrat, is defending the statutes and regulations and has denied that the statutes and regulation are unconstitutional. However, during the December 2018 lame-duck session, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a statute purporting to give it the power to intervene in state and federal court in any lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Wisconsin statute. Arguing that Mr. Kaul was unlikely to defend the statutes as vigorously as he could, and arguing that the state statute gave it the right to intervene, the Legislature moved to intervene as a party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24 as of right or, alternatively, with the court’s permission.
The district court denied the Legislature’s request to intervene, holding that the Legislature had not shown that it had a unique interest in the lawsuit beyond its interest in defending the law, which was already being adequately protected by the attorney general’s defense of the statute. The district court also held that permitting the Legislature to intervene as a duplicative party to also defend the law would complicate the litigation. The court did invite the Legislature to participate as an amicus.
The Legislature took an interlocutory appeal of the district court’s ruling. The team representing Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, pro bono, included Partners Alison I. Stein and Susan J. Kohlmann, with Associates Jessica Martinez, Danielle Muniz and Nicole Taykhman.
The team drafted a compelling brief that dealt with complicated issues of first impression concerning the interplay of Wisconsin’s state statute, Rule 24, and the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of that rule. Associate Andrew C. Noll argued the appeal. Paralegals Esmeralda Bako and Mary Patston provided invaluable assistance.
On November 7, 2019, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court in all respects, adopting the team’s arguments that the circuit’s existing precedent applied to the question of whether a second state entity could intervene in an ongoing lawsuit where the attorney general was already participating. The circuit held that the Legislature had not shown it could intervene as of right or that the district court abused its discretion in denying intervention.
The case, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Kaul, now returns to the district court, where litigation remains ongoing.
Firm Team Achieves 11th Circuit Victory in Pro Bono Voting Rights Case
On August 22, a Jenner & Block team won a significant victory when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision entering judgment against the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), in its lawsuit against the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, Dr. Brenda Snipes. The appellate court rejected ACRU’s arguments as contrary to the statutory text of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and discerned “no clear error in the district court’s factual findings.”
In ACRU v. Snipes, ACRU alleged that Snipes failed to make reasonable efforts to conduct voter list maintenance programs, violating Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The ACRU also claimed that Snipes failed to respond sufficiently to written requests for data regarding the offices implementation of programs and activities for ensuring the accuracy of official lists of eligible voters for Broward County, further violating Section 8 of NVRA.
After finding that the ACRU’s notice letter to Snipes was the only correspondence sent and did not disclose potential NVRA violation or probationary time to remedy it, the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed the allegation, sua sponte.
In July 2017, a five-day bench trial proceeded solely on the ACRU’s contention that Snipes failed to make “reasonable effort” to remove ineligible voters by reasons of death or change in address. The court found every piece of evidence offered by ACRU unconvincing, concluding that the organization’s accusations were thoroughly unfounded and held that Broward County’s voter list maintenance program was fully compliant with federal law.
On March 30, 2018, Judge Beth Bloom ruled in favor of Dr. Snipes and SEIU. In doing so, the judge wrote that Dr. Snipes “implemented a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters by reason of death or change of address.” The judge also held that the ACRU failed to prove a violation of Section 8 of the NVRA. “The court recognizes that the NVRA has a nationwide application, and for that reason, it declines to apply a subjective approach that would vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” she wrote. Partner Kali Bracey and Associate Tassity Johnson, joined by former partner Carrie Apfel and former associate Marina Jenkins successfully tried the case.
In March 2019, Partner Jessica Ring Amunson argued the appeal in the 11th Circuit. The appellate court affirmed the district court in full. On appeal, the ACRU argued that the NVRA’s mandate to remove voters ineligible due to relocation or death extended to other categories of potential ineligibility, that the HAVA also broadened the NVRA’s list maintenance obligations, and that National Change of Address procedure outlined in the NVRA for removing relocated voters from the rolls did not create “safe harbor” of reasonable list maintenance. The appellate court found that all three arguments were completely contrary to the language and purpose of the NVRA and HAVA. Moreover, after “thorough review[ ]” of the record, the court “discern[ed] no clear error in the district court’s factual findings.”
In addition to Ms. Amunson, the firm team on appeal included Partner Kali Bracey and Associates Tassity Johnson and Manuel C. Possolo. Paralegal Cheryl Olson and Docketing Assistant Tyler Edwards also assisted at the trial and appellate levels.
Precious Jacobs and Garrett Fitzsimmons Named “Pro Bono Superstars” by The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
Jenner & Block Partner Precious S. Jacobs and Associate Garrett Fitzsimmons will be honored as 2019 “Pro Bono Superstars” by The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). The award recognizes and celebrates all CAASE pro bono partnerships and the exceptional representation CAASE pro bono lawyers have provided to survivors of sexual exploitation and harm. Ms. Jacobs and Mr. Fitzsimmons are being recognized for their work in successfully resolving a dispute on behalf of a woman who was brought to the United States under false pretenses, exploited and sexually assaulted.
CAASE will present the honorees with the “Pro Bono Superstars” award at a ceremony at the CAASE office on Thursday, September 5.
Jenner & Block Associates Secure Five-Figure Settlement in Civil Rights Case
Three associates based in the firm’s Los Angeles office led a team that obtained a five-figure settlement for a wheelchair-bound prisoner in a civil rights claim against a prison physician.
Associates Wesley M. Griffith, Alexander M. Smith and Effiong K. Dampha led the team, which included support from Partner Kirsten Hicks Spira.
Our pro bono client filed a Section 1983 lawsuit against a physician at the California Medical Facility, a state prison, for not providing him adequate pain medication following second-degree burns to his face, neck, arm and chest. Despite our client’s repeated statements to the defendant that he was in severe pain, and the conclusion of four other doctors who examined him that day that he was in pain, the defendant did not administer medication or inquire if the client was in pain, in violation of prison policy.
The case settled a week before it was scheduled to go to trial in the Eastern District of California. Although one in ten lawsuits filed in federal court is a Section 1983 claim, these are frequently dismissed early and are known to be difficult cases to advance so close to trial.
The settlement judge overseeing the case thanked the team repeatedly for its dedication to pro bono, which is a core value of the firm, and its willingness to commit extensive resources to the matter.
Firm Secures DC Circuit Decision Overturning Convictions on 6th Amendment Grounds
A Jenner & Block team of Partner Lindsay C. Harrison and Associate James T. Dawson succeeded in persuading the D.C. Circuit to overturn the convictions of pro bono client Pheerayuth Burden and his export business, Wing-On LLC. Mr. Burden was charged with exporting gun parts without a license in violation of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). At trial, the testimony of a key prosecutorial witness was admitted through videotaped deposition; he was unavailable for questioning becausethe US government had deported him prior to the trial. The firm argued that the admission of the deposition constituted a violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right of the defendants to confront the witnesses against them at trial. On August 20, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit agreed, ruling that “the district court erred in admitting the deposition testimony” and vacating all charges. The firm also won a second issue related to the jury instructions for a willful violation of the AECA, which criminalizes willful violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).