Jenner & Block Pro Bono Representation Inspires New Law Protecting Free Speech in Zoning Matters
The firm’s pro bono representation of a group of Park Ridge residents sued for speaking out against a development project in their town led to Illinois legislation that will become law in January 2018. The new law will protect all Illinois residents from being sued for voicing their opinions at zoning board meetings.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 731 in August. The bill amends an obscure provision of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure that was said to require lawsuits for administrative review of local zoning decisions to name as defendants anyone who spoke publicly at the zoning board meeting. The amendment provides that the “parties of record” who must be named as defendants in these zoning lawsuits include only the zoning board and applicants before the board – and not members of the public who attended a board meeting and took the microphone.
State Sen. Laura M. Murphy and Reps. Martin J. Moylan and Mike Fortner sponsored the legislation after a builder sued the Park Ridge zoning board and a group of residents who had spoken at public meetings on the builder’s proposal in May and September of 2014. The builder’s lawyers asserted that the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, 735 ILCS 5/3-107, required the residents to be named as defendants because the statute’s wording indicated they were among the “parties of record” in the proceeding, and the statute required all parties of record to be sued.
Partner Gabriel A. Fuentes and former associate Daniel Truesdell stepped in to represent 11 Park Ridge residents named as defendants, including Park Ridge Ald. Frank Wsol. After the builder refused to dismiss the residents voluntarily, the firm filed a motion to dismiss on their behalf, arguing that Section 3-107 did not require the residents to be sued, and that if it were construed to do so, it violated the residents’ constitutional rights by punishing them for speaking. While the motion was pending, the builder eventually dismissed the residents.
Mr. Fuentes later worked with Mr. Wsol and fellow Park Ridge Ald. Marty Maloney to draft language for a proposed amendment to Section 3-107, and the aldermen brought the language to their state legislators for inclusion in what became Senate Bill 731, enacted this summer.
Firm Named to PILI’s 2017 Pro Bono Recognition Roster
Jenner & Block is one of 47 law firms and corporations in Illinois named to the Public Interest Law Initiative’s (PILI) Pro Bono Recognition Roster. Law firms named to the Roster met at least two of the following criteria: an average of 35 pro bono hours per legal professional; a 5 percent increase in Illinois office(s) pro bono hours from the previous year; pro bono participation by 60 percent or more of the firm’s Illinois lawyers; participation in The Chicago Bar Foundation’s Law Firm Leadership Circle or one of PILI’s Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee Pro Bono Pledges; and/or innovative steps to expand the firm’s pro bono program.
“Through the collective efforts of law firms and corporations like yours, more low-income and under-represented individuals across Illinois have access to the justice they deserve,” expressed Michael G. Bergmann, PILI executive director.
Jenner & Block has been on the roster since 2010.
To learn more about Jenner & Block’s pro bono program, visit our pro bono page or read The Heart of the Matter newsletter.
Firm Secures Victory for Brooklyn Tenants Displaced After 2015 Fire
Jenner & Block Associate Carl N. Wedoff and Partner Brian J. Fischer secured a victory on behalf of six Brooklyn residents who were displaced from their homes for years after their landlord refused to repair the damage caused by a February 2015 fire in the building. The tenants, some of whom were undocumented immigrants, were forced to find alternative housing, including homeless shelters. Despite agreeing to repair the building, the landlord, on multiple occasions, failed to meet court-ordered deadlines or offer any explanation as to why he could not complete necessary repairs. In May 2016, the court held the landlord in civil contempt of court for his ongoing failure to return the tenants to their apartments, and in October 2016, the court imposed civil penalties. The case partially settled on May 5, 2017. The resulting settlement includes a schedule of repairs that will hold the landlord accountable as well as $15,000 in compensation for each client. Jenner & Block is co-counsel to Legal Services NYC (LSNYC), the largest civil legal services provider in the United States; South Brooklyn Legal Services served as co-counsel to the tenants. Mr. Wedoff is a member of LSNYC’s Pro Bono Associate Advisory Board.
Firm Team Secures Asylum for Pro Bono Client
On August 7, 2017, Associate Irene Ten Cate, Staff Attorney Danielle Nicholson and Partners Matthew D. Cipolla, Marc Hankin and Matthew E. Price secured asylum for pro bono client Abdul K. in immigration court in Harlingen, Texas. The grant of asylum eventually turned on a legal issue on which no clear precedent exists: whether the statutory firm resettlement bar, which excludes from asylum applicants who found refuge in a third country before arriving in the United States, applies to individuals who face persecution in the country of resettlement.
Abdul had settled in South Africa after escaping clan-based violence in his native country Somalia. He resided in South Africa for more than a decade and was granted a refugee permit, but was forced to flee after being subjected to severe attacks by South Africans who were targeting Somali immigrants. Abdul arrived in the United States in 2015 and was placed in detention. After his individual hearing, the immigration judge denied Abdul’s applications for asylum and withholding of removal and ordered him deported to South Africa or Somalia.
Retained to appeal from this ruling, the firm won a partial reversal from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Specifically, the BIA held that Abdul established that he had been persecuted in Somalia and in South Africa, and remanded the case to the immigration judge for a new hearing on whether Abdul was entitled to withholding of removal. The BIA affirmed, however, the immigration judge’s ruling that Abdul’s stay in South Africa rendered him ineligible for asylum under the firm resettlement bar. The team represented Abdul on remand, and obtained a ruling granting his application for withholding of removal. After one and a half years in detention, Abdul was released.
The firm then filed a petition for review in the Fifth Circuit, seeking reversal of the BIA’s ruling on firm resettlement. In its opening brief, the team argued that the firm resettlement bar does not apply to applicants like Abdul who were persecuted in the country in which they resettled. This is apparent from the plain meaning of the words “firmly resettled” and also flows from the bar’s purpose, which is to discourage “country shopping” by one-time refugees who have found safety in another country. The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic filed an amicus brief arguing that the interpretation advanced by the firm rendered the statutory firm resettlement bar consistent with the Refugee Convention and Protocol.
Instead of filing a responsive brief, the government requested a remand to the BIA and then sought another remand to the immigration court. Eventually, the government agreed to stipulate that Abdul was not firmly resettled in South Africa. The immigration judge accepted the stipulation shortly thereafter and granted Abdul asylum.
Since his release from detention a little over a year ago, Abdul has begun to make a life for himself in the United States. He found a job, signed a lease on an apartment and enrolled in community college. The asylum status, which offers greater security than withholding of removal and provides a path to permanent residency and citizenship, gives him tremendous peace of mind.
Jenner & Block Lawyers Win Asylum for Eritrean Woman
A team of Jenner & Block lawyers recently won a grant of asylum for a pro bono client who was forced to flee Eritrea because of persecution by its military regime. Born in Ethiopia to an Eritrean family, the client and her family were deported to Eritrea when a border war broke out between the countries in the late 1990s. But because they had lived in Ethiopia, the Eritrean military regime viewed them with hostility and suspicion. The regime killed our client’s father and when her two brothers raised questions about his death, they were arrested in the middle of the night. She has not seen them since and suspects they are dead.
The military also harassed our client, including making many attempts to conscript her into military service, where sexual abuse of young women is rampant. She ultimately fled to a monastery that helped smuggle her into Sudan. From there, she went to Brazil, eventually arriving in the United States.
Because our client left Eritrea without any identification documents or other paperwork and was no longer in contact with any witnesses who could identify her, questioning by the court and opposing counsel focused on whether she was actually from Eritrea or from a less oppressive country such as Ethiopia. An expert witness on Eritrean country conditions convinced the judge that she was from Eritrea, and a forensic medical expert testified to her physical and psychological trauma.
After weighing the evidence presented by Partner Casey T. Grabenstein and Associates Leah K. Casto and Henry H. Cornillie, the Immigration Court judge handed down his decision immediately upon the conclusion of the case, and the government waived any appeal rights.
Firm Team Wins Disability Benefits, Including 11 Years of Back Benefits, for Client
Jenner & Block recently won a victory in a denial of Social Security benefits case when, in a rare move, Judge Thomas Durkin of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois remanded the case to the Social Security Administration for the sole purpose of calculating and awarding benefits to the firm’s pro bono client, retroactive to 2005. Partner Craig C. Martin accepted the court appointment by Judge Durkin to represent the client in her appeal of the denial of disability and SSI (supplemental security income) benefits. Mr. Martin and Associate Elin I. Park moved for summary judgment and persuasively argued that based on the record below, which included extensive detail about the client’s medical history as well as testimony of a vocational expert, she was entitled to benefits and further proceedings were unnecessary. In a rare win of its kind, the court reversed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge, who had twice denied the claims, and found the client incapable of working and entitled to benefits.
Team Wins Seventh Circuit Appeal for Defendant who Struggled with Mental Health Issues
A pro bono client will have an evidentiary hearing on claims that he was not competent to plead guilty to a firearms possession chargeand that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to seek a competency evaluation or hearing before he pled guilty, thanks to a Seventh Circuit decision on August 2, 2017. The client, Denny Anderson, suffered from a host of serious psychiatric disorders, including chronic schizophrenia. He pleaded guilty to a firearms possession charge. The district court accepted the plea and sentenced him despite his psychiatric problems, irregularly administered medical regimen, and unusual behavior in court.
Mr. Anderson moved for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. s 2255 on the grounds that he was not competent to plead guilty and be sentenced and on the ground that his counsel was ineffective for failing to seek a competency evaluation and hearing. The district denied Mr. Anderson’s claims without an evidentiary hearing. In a published opinion, the Seventh Circuit unanimously reversed the district court, ruling in favor of the client, and remanding the case for a hearing on his claims. “Because the district court lacked a full picture of Anderson’s mental health, its finding that Anderson had the capacity to plead guilty rests on a flawed factual foundation that must be explored in a hearing,” Chief Judge Wood wrote in an opinion for the court.
The team representing Mr. Anderson included Partner Barry Levenstam and Associate Joshua M. Parker, who argued the appeal before the Seventh Circuit. Paralegal Mary Frances Patston provided invaluable assistance.
Cities Initiative Settlement Helps Safeguard Valuable Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River Water Resources
Jenner & Block has been representing, pro bono, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (Cities Initiative) in its challenge to a decision by the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council (Compact Council) that allows the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin to divert water from Lake Michigan. The Council’s decision was the first-ever approval of a diversion of Great Lakes water to a community outside the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha lies in a county that straddles the basin.
As part of its challenge, the Cities Initiative sought clarification of the standards used to evaluate the Waukesha diversion application as well as the standards that the Council would use to evaluate future diversion requests. On August 2, 2017, the Cities Initiative announced it was settling its challenge pursuant to an agreement with the Compact Council that calls for a rigorous review of the Council’s process for considering diversions, with extensive stakeholder input in determining formal rules and revised guidelines for the future.
“This agreement will help protect the long-term integrity of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River for future generations,” said Cities Initiative Secretary Régis Labeaume.
John Dickert, Cities Initiative president and CEO, added, “This mutually beneficial settlement agreement has set the foundation for meaningful progress to safeguard our valuable water resources.”
The firm’s team in this matter was led by Partner Jill M. Hutchison, assisted by Partners E. Lynn Grayson, Steven M. Siros and Allison A. Torrence; Of Counsel Stephen H. Armstrong and Anne (Andi) Samuels Kenney; and Associates Alexander J. Bandza and Laura C. Bishop.
Firm Joins Fight against North Carolina’s Revised “Bathroom Bill”
Jenner & Block, as co-counsel with Lambda Legal and the ACLU of North Carolina, on July 21, 2017, filed an amended complaint that challenges North Carolina’s replacement “bathroom bill.” At issue is HB 142, which replaced controversial HB 2 in March. The plaintiffs include a group of LGBT individuals who work at various North Carolina public institutions. The defendants include North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and other state officials. According to the plaintiffs, HB 142 bars the “regulation” of access to restrooms and other facilities in schools and other state or local government buildings in North Carolina, leaving transgender people vulnerable to discrimination and even possible arrest. It also prevents cities from passing any protections against discrimination in private employment or places of public accommodation until 2020.
“By deterring transgender individuals from using restrooms and other single-sex, multiple-user facilities that accord with their gender identity and preventing local governments from extending protections in employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, HB 142 violates the United States Constitution and federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex,” the complaint reads.
Partner Scott B. Wilkens leads the firm team, which includes Partner Luke C. Platzer and Associates Andrew C. Noll, Benjamin J. Brysacz, Lorenzo G. Di Silvio and Thomas D. Garza.
Jenner & Block Team Assists Tahirih Justice Center in Protecting Immigrant Victims of Crime
Jenner & Block Partners David Bitkower and Mary Ellen Callahan, Staff Attorney Danielle J. Nicholson, Associate Sati Harutyunyan and Summer Associate Meenu Krishnan assisted the Tahirih Justice Center (TJC) in ensuring the removal of confidential information about immigrant victims of crime from a publicly-accessible database managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Tahirih Justice Center is a national organization that provides legal services to immigrants and refugee women and girls fleeing violence.
The ICE database, called the Victim Information and Notification Exchange, permitted members of the public to elect to receive notifications about the whereabouts of immigrants in ICE detention. But the database included information about detained immigrants who were themselves victims of crime, including human trafficking and domestic violence. The database thereby risked placing those victims in danger, including from those who had previously victimized them and could now track their physical location. Under federal law, DHS is prohibited from disclosing information about a survivor of violence seeking protection under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 or the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000.
After multiple requests from TJC to remove the confidential information – and after the information had been publicly available likely for months – ICE promptly resolved the database problem once the firm team took on the matter. There was no litigation involved.
Elizabeth Edmondson Discusses Strategies to Integrate Pro Bono Service in Careers
Jenner & Block Partner Elizabeth A. Edmondson spoke recently in a panel discussion sponsored by the Harvard Law School Women’s Alliance and the Harvard Law School Alumni Association. Titled “Combining Public Interest with Private Practice,” the program featured Ms. Edmondson and other Harvard alumni sharing the ways in which they have integrated pro bono service into their careers. The event was held on July 18, 2017, in New York. The panel was moderated by Judge Elizabeth S. Stong of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Ms. Edmondson’s pro bono work focuses on vindicating the civil rights of individuals in the criminal justice system. She has obtained substantial settlements for a man whose brain tumor went untreated in prison and for a man repeatedly arrested on an invalid warrant. In addition, she has successfully represented multiple refugees in removal proceedings.
Associate Kevin Murphy Profiled by Notre Dame Law School
Associate Kevin J. Murphy is featured in an article on the University of Notre Dame Law School website. Titled “ND Law Alumnus Part of Big Pro Bono Victory,” the profile explains that Mr. Murphy was part of a team that secured the release this spring of pro bono client Patrick Pursley, who had been incarcerated for more than 23 years. Mr. Murphy is a 2014 graduate of the law school. In the article, he is quoted saying, “With a few words, the conviction that had kept him in prison for 23 years was wiped away. It was great to be there to see the look on Patrick’s face, the look on his fiancée’s face, and to be a part of that moment.”
Please click here to read more about the Patrick Pursley case.
Jenner & Block Named No. 1 Law Firm for Pro Bono in American Lawyer’s Annual Survey
Jenner & Block has once again been recognized as the No. 1 law firm in the country for pro bono service by The American Lawyer magazine. This marks the eighth time the firm has achieved the top spot in The American Lawyer’s annual survey of pro bono commitment among Big Law firms. Jenner & Block was also named No. 1 in 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 1999. The firm has placed among the leading 10 pro bono programs nationwide every year since the survey began in 1990.
The 2017 rankings are based on pro bono hours performed in 2016. Jenner & Block lawyers provided 141 pro bono hours per lawyer on average and 95 percent of them contributed more than 20 hours to pro bono matters. Overall, Jenner & Block lawyers performed more than 75,500 hours of pro bono work in 2016. The American Lawyer notes that the firm’s most significant pro bono matter in hours in 2016 was the court challenge to North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which required that access to restrooms and changing facilities in all public buildings be restricted based on whether users are shown as male or female on their birth certificates -- thus effectively barring use by transgender persons. As co-counsel with Lambda Legal, the firm represented transgender students and employees at University of North Carolina institutions and devoted more than 1,800 hours toward the case. Last August, a federal district court judge enjoined the University from enforcing the bill, holding that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the claim that the bill conflicted with requirements of Title IX.
The American Lawyer’s July edition includes an article in which Pro Bono Committee Co-Chair Andrew W. Vail is quoted saying that the firm has a longstanding commitment toward LGBT rights cases, along with immigration rights and death penalty cases. “We’re very proud, and not in the ranking itself, but that it’s a reflection of and a recognition that pro bono is in Jenner & Block’s DNA. And, as the firm has grown in size, diversity, reach and practice, our pro bono program – and its numbers, impact and scope – has grown,” Mr. Vail says.
In another article about the survey, Mr. Vail observes that the reason the firm’s lawyers do so much pro bono work is that they like it. “Our attorneys are diverse and have a diverse range of passions and take on matters that they are passionate about,” he says.
For more information about Jenner & Block’s recent pro bono efforts, we invite you to check out the latest edition of The Heart of the Matter.
Jenner & Block Lawyers Win Asylum for Pro Bono Client
Jenner & Block Associate Nayiri K. Pilikyan recently won asylum for pro bono client Souraya “Sam” Semaan who fled to the United States from Lebanon to escape persecution.
Ms. Semaan, a lesbian, experienced police harassment in her native country, which has laws that are used to discriminate against the LGBT community. Several of her friends were arrested and subjected to physical abuse as a result of their sexual orientations. Ms. Semaan fled to relatives in California and sought asylum in 2014 with the assistance of Public Counsel, which enlisted the support of Jenner & Block’s on her case.
Ms. Pilikyan represented Ms. Semaan throughout the entire asylum process, which included spending several years on a waiting list. In February 2017, Ms. Pilikyan received a call asking her and Ms. Semaan to come in to the immigration office the next day for an administrative hearing. Although Ms. Pilikyan and her client had only one night to prepare, they were successful, and three months later, Ms. Semaan’s asylum application was granted. She is looking forward to her new life in the US, where she hopes to start her own business and continue writing for her blog.
Other Jenner & Block lawyers contributing to the case included Partner Andrew J. Thomas and Associates Christina Avedissian Aryafar and Max T. Selfridge.
Second Circuit Rules in Favor of Firm’s Investigative Journalist Client Seeking DEA Video
A Jenner & Block team secured an important appellate win in a long-running pro bono Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) matter.
In August 2012, investigative journalist Mattathias Schwartz filed a FOIA request with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), seeking video footage of a May 2012 DEA operation in rural Honduras that resulted in the shooting deaths of four Honduran civilians. The DEA refused to release the video, claiming it was exempt from disclosure under FOIA because it would reveal law enforcement “techniques or procedures.”
In September 2013, a firm team filed suit against the DEA on behalf of Mr. Schwartz, and in January 2016 – after multiple rounds of briefing, two rounds of oral argument, numerous additional submissions, and in camera review of the video – Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment in Mr. Schwartz’s favor and directed the DEA to release the video to him. The DEA appealed.
On April 6, 2017, Associate Carl N. Wedoff presented oral argument to the Second Circuit, and on June 6, the appellate court affirmed the district court. It concluded that the alleged law enforcement techniques and procedures DEA relied on to withhold the video (i) are disclosed in publicly available materials, (ii) are not disclosed by the video, or (iii) are not law enforcement techniques or procedures at all, but rather are only the circumstances in which publicly known techniques and procedures were employed.
In addition to Mr. Wedoff, the team consisted of Partner Brian J. Fischer, Associate Brittany R. Lamb and Summer Associate Alexandra Bursak, with help from Law Clerk Nicole Taykhman, Paralegal Amanda E. Factor and New York Office Managing Clerk Na’eem A. Conway.