Firm Wins Illinois Appellate Victory for Pro Bono Client in Car Insurance Dispute
Jenner & Block is proud of its 2019 pro bono results:
A team represented Robert Nixon, a 72-year-old veteran. At issue in the long-running case was Mr. Nixon’s auto insurance policy, which the insurance company refused to honor after he was involved in an accident.
In 2014, Mr. Nixon purchased a used car and acquired an auto insurance policy from Direct Auto Insurance Company. When Mr. Nixon was in an accident a few months later, Direct Auto refused to cover him and rescinded his policy, claiming that Mr. Nixon had lied on his insurance application because he had not listed his cousins as members of his “household.” Because Direct Auto refused to defend Mr. Nixon’s insurance claim, a lawsuit by the other driver in the accident resulted in a default judgment against Mr. Nixon, as well as suspension of his driver’s license for driving without insurance.
Direct Auto sued Mr. Nixon in the Circuit Court of Cook County, seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not obligated to indemnify him in light of its rescission. Mr. Nixon retained the pro bono assistance of another law firm, who took to the case to trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County. After a bench trial, the Circuit Court ruled for Mr. Nixon, holding that Direct Auto was obligated to indemnify him for the accident. The circuit court also held that Mr. Nixon had not lied on his application and that Direct Auto had deliberately made its application confusing and misleading. The circuit court held that Direct Auto’s rescission of the policy was “vexatious and unreasonable” and imposed the maximum allowable sanction under the Illinois Insurance Code, awarding an additional $60,000 to Mr. Nixon.
Direct Auto appealed, and the firm stepped in to represent Mr. Nixon. On September 30, 2019, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the judgment for Mr. Nixon. The appellate court agreed with the firm that even if Mr. Nixon’s cousins were members of his household (which they were not), that purported misrepresentation would have been immaterial and would not have justified rescission of the policy. The time for Direct Auto to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court
elapsed on January 8, 2020.
Associate Leigh J. Jahnig drafted the response brief, with assistance from Associate Nathaniel K.S. Wackman. Partners John Mathias, Jr., and David M. Kroeger supervised the drafting. Paralegal Mary Patston provided invaluable assistance.
Fourth Circuit Revives Maryland-Based Census Suit
The firm secured a pro bono victory on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Prince George’s County, Maryland, and other plaintiffs that are challenging the federal government’s plans for the 2020 Census. Co-counsel with the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School, the firm argues that the Bureau’s deficient plans will lead to an undercount of communities of color, leading to inequities in political representation and federal funding.
Originally filed in 2018, NAACP et al. v. Bureau of the Census was dismissed in 2019 at the district court level. On December 19, 2019, the Fourth Circuit reinstated the suit, remanding it back to the district court to reconsider the plaintiffs’ Enumeration Clause claims. The unanimous three-judge panel concluded that the district court “erred in dismissing the plaintiffs’ Enumeration Clause claims as unripe, and in precluding the plaintiffs from filing an amended complaint regarding those claims after the defendants’ plans for the 2020 Census became final.”
Partner Jessica Ring Amunson argued the appeal with a student from the Yale Law Clinic. The team also includes Partners Susan Kohlmann, Jeremy Creelan and Michael Ross; Special Counsel Seth Agata; Associates Jacob Alderdice, Amy Egerton-Wiley, Logan Gowdey, Alex Trepp, Matthew Phillips, Keturah James and David Clark; Law Clerk Andrew Whinery; and Paralegal Esmeralda Bako.
“This decision gets us closer to a more just 2020 Census and shines a light on the critical issues at stake in the decennial census,” Ms. Amunson said in a press release about the decision.
At the NAACP’s annual meeting in July 2019, the organization honored the team with its “Foot Soldier in the Sand Award” for its efforts in the case.
The NAACP suit is the second suit the firm has filed, pro bono, seeking to ensure that the census adequately counts hard-to-count populations. The firm also represents the Center for Popular Democracy Action and the city of Newburgh, New York, in a suit that seeks an injunction that would require the government to implement a plan to ensure that hard-to-count populations will be enumerated. Filed in November 2019, Center for Popular Democracy Action and City of Newburgh v. Bureau of the Census is pending.
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).
Firm Wins Significant DC Circuit Ruling in Guantanamo Defense Lawyers’ Case
A firm team obtained a significant win for two civilian lawyers who resigned from serving as counsel to Abd al-Rahim Hussein Muhammad al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the attack on the United States Navy destroyer USS Cole who is facing a military trial at Guantánamo Bay.
The civilian lawyers resigned after discovering various intrusions into the attorney-client privilege, including finding surveillance equipment in a client meeting room.
On Tuesday, April 16, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision vacating all rulings from Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, the now-retired military judge overseeing the case, dating back to 2015 in the trial of Mr. Nashiri. Among those rulings were orders preventing the Pentagon-paid civilian defense lawyers, Mary Spears and Rosa Eliades, from resigning.
In October 2017, the chief defense counsel for Military Commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Marine Corps General John Baker, excused Ms. Spears and Ms. Eliades as counsel for Mr. Nashiri. Judge Spath disagreed with that decision, eventually confining General Baker to quarters and ordering Ms. Spears and Ms. Eliades to continue to serve, threatening them with arrest. Judge Spath eventually abated the case to put it on an indefinite hold.
At issue in the January 2019 arguments before the DC Circuit was General Baker’s authority to dismiss the civilian lawyers. In a related case argued during the same hearing, a defense attorney for Mr. Nashiri urged the DC Circuit to toss all of Judge Spath’s rulings, as the judge was seeking a position with the US Department of Justice as an immigration judge while issuing rulings in the military court case prosecuted by the DOJ.
The Court found that his efforts to be hired by the same agency currently appearing before him in court was “impermissible.”
“Spath’s job application, therefore, cast an intolerable cloud of partiality over his subsequent judicial conduct,” the justices note in the opinion vacating Judge Spath’s orders.
The legal proceedings involving Ms. Spears and Ms. Eliades have been complex and involved numerous government branches and court jurisdictions. Please click here for more information about the background of the case.
Partner Todd C. Toral, who led the firm team handling the case, represented Ms. Spears and Ms. Eliades in the military proceedings at Guantánamo Bay and in the US Court of Military Commission (CMCR). Partner Matthew S. Hellman argued the case in front of the DC Circuit. The Jenner & Block team includes Partners Brandon D. Fox and Keisha N. Stanford and Associates Alice S. Kim and Eric Lamm. Partners Gabriel A. Fuentes and Luke C. Platzer are also providing support. Partners Adam G. Unikowsky and Ishan K. Bhabha and Associates Lauren J. Hartz, Andrew C. Noll and Tassity Johnson assisted with moot arguments. Cheryl Olson provided paralegal support, Tyler Edwards provided docketing support, and Beth Gulden provided administrative assistance.
California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal Rules in Favor of Pro bono Client, Removing Improperly Imposed Restraining Order
Jenner & Block represented a pro bono client in removing an improperly imposed restraining order against her. Our client, M. C., had presented evidence to a judge in Tulare County Superior Court that her ex-husband had a history of inflicting serious, and in some cases life-threatening, physical abuse on her. The trial court nevertheless granted mutual restraining orders against both M.C. and her ex-husband, based on an April 2017 incident in which M.C. went to her ex-husband’s home to pick up their two minor children. The encounter became violent; M.C.’s ex-husband grabbed her by the neck and tried to drag her around the house, until she bit him and broke free. As she fled the house, she threw a lamp that she had picked up inside at an unoccupied car in the driveway. Finding that both parties “acted primarily as aggressor,” judge imposed mutual restraining orders against both parties. Despite finding that acts of abuse had occurred, the trial court also maintained a joint custody order of the parties’ two children.
But on September 26, 2018, the Fifth District Court of Appeal lifted the restraining order against M.C. and reversed the joint custody order. In the opinion authored by Justice Jennifer R. S. Detjen, the Court of Appeal noted that M.C. violated no order in going to her ex-husband’s home and that there was no finding that she placed him in fear or otherwise harassed him. The Court of Appeal further found that her conduct was a direct response to abuse at the hands of her ex-husband and occurred because she was fleeing the location where that abuse occurred. Additionally, the Court of Appeal held that the trial court had failed to apply the presumption against granting an abuser joint custody of the children as required by law.
The team representing M.C. included Partner Kirsten Hicks Spira and Associates AnnaMarie A. Van Hoesen, who argued the case in front of the appellate court, and Elizabeth H. Capel. Our firm was co-counsel with Anya Emerson, Jennafer Dorfman Wagner, Cory D. Hernandez and Erin C. Smith of the Family Violence Appellate Project and Jeneé Barnes of Central California Legal Services.
Firm’s Pro Bono Client Featured in Four-Part Sun Times Series
Jesse Webster, the firm’s pro bono client who was granted executive clemency after serving 20 years of a life sentence on charges related to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, is the subject of a four-part series by Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell. The series chronicles Mr. Webster’s run-in with the law at age 26 and how he had been in prison for 14 years and lost several appeals when he “crossed paths” with Partner Jessica Ring Amunson. A federal appeals court appointed the firm in 2009 to represent Webster in his last, and final, appeal. Ms. Amunson is photographed and quoted throughout the series, telling Ms. Mitchell that, “I was honest about how much odds were against” clemency. “But I decided to take on his clemency case because I could not understand why someone like Jesse would be spending the rest of his life in jail for a non-violent drug offense. It just made no sense to me that our criminal justice system would work that way.”
On March 30, 2016, President Obama granted executive clemency to Mr. Webster and 60 other individuals “serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws,” according to the White House. The series tells of Mr. Webster’s work to re-integrate himself in society since his release, including getting a job at Catholic Charities. It also describes Mr. Webster’s first face-to-face meeting with Ms. Amunson, in October at a restaurant in downtown Chicago. “It wasn’t like I was meeting her for the first time,” Mr. Webster says. “I felt like I knew her.” Ms. Amunson is quoted saying, “It was a pretty amazing thing to be a part of helping someone spend the rest of their life with their family, rather than spending the rest of their life in prison.”
In addition to Ms. Amunson, Partner Barry Levenstam and Associate Caroline DeCell worked on the case. The team’s efforts included petitioning Capitol Hill and sharing Mr. Webster’s story with major media outlets such as the New York Times. Ms. Mitchell also wrote several columns about Mr. Webster in the past and published Mr. Webster’s open letter to youth. “It took a lot of caring people to get Webster back home safely,” the series concludes. “Without them, he would still be wasting away behind bars.”