An article in Rochelle’s Daily Wire features Jenner & Block’s pro bono efforts to assist a “hapless debtor” who endured a trial, two appeals and a remand proceeding to discharge $112,000 in student loans. Thanks to Partner Catherine L. Steege and Special Counsel Carl N. Wedoff, along with firm alum and retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff, the debtor is on the brink of discharging her loans. “Without pro bono counsel, this debtor never would have discharged her student loans... This writer submits that something is wrong with a system that requires a debtor to go through so much for so long and with no chance of success were it not for the generosity of distinguished lawyers from the top ranks of the bankruptcy bar,” reads the article.
Our Pro Bono Commitment
The US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association awarded several of our lawyers with the 2021 Award for Excellence in Pro Bono Service for “providing outstanding pro bono and public interest representation in civil and criminal matters before the district court.” The award recipients were recognized for successfully completing three different cases:
- In Conley v. US we represented Mr. Conley, who was convicted of conspiring to rob a fake drug stash house even though he was not a target of the prosecution, in a federal habeas challenge in the district court and on appeal. The team also presented a petition for compassionate release, which the court granted, ordering his immediate release from prison. The award recipients included Jenner & Block Partner Mike Brody; Associates Eric Fleddermann and Theo Lesczynski; and former associate Leigh Jahnig.
- In USA v. Rollins, we represented Mr. Rollins, who was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time, in a reduction of a de facto life sentence. Partners Andrew Vail and Monica Pinciak, and Associate Josh Levin successfully argued for a reduction in sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The judge wrote in his opinion that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
- Paralegal Cheryl Kras, and former colleagues US Magistrate Judge Gabriel A. Fuentes, Christine Bowman, and Hon. Judge Brewer (ret.) also received the award for their work in Traharne, et al v. Illinois DCFS, et al., which was litigated and settled while Judge Fuentes and Ms. Bowman were with the firm. Judge Summers was the mediator on the matter.
Along with Legal Service NYC as co-counsel, Jenner & Block secured a settlement with the New York City Housing Authority, requiring the public housing agency to reform its rent adjustment system to prevent wrongful evictions and benefiting more than 400,000 NYCHA residents.
The agreement ensures that thousands of NYCHA tenants will have their rents reduced if their incomes were to decline – a process required by federal law that has become more urgent during the pandemic. The settlement also enhances protections for low-income residents by requiring that NYCHA may not prosecute nonpayment or chronic rent delinquency cases until they first resolve interim rent reduction requests or rent grievances. The settlement comes after a group of twelve families, who have lived in public housing anywhere between five and 50 years, sued NYCHA in federal court alleging illegal rent overcharges above 30% of income and eviction proceedings for unlawful amounts of rent.
NYCHA has agreed to pay tenants close to $190,000 in damages, lawyers’ fees, and rent overcharge claims and has six months to implement changes to its system-wide operations concerning rent readjustments and eviction cases. NYCHA is also subject to monitoring by the federal court for three years.
To learn more about the plaintiffs and the settlement, click here.
On July 15, the firm submitted an amicus brief, pro bono, on behalf of 16 iconic Chicagoland museums and cultural institutions that oppose efforts to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
The plaintiffs inProtect Our Parks, Inc., et. al. v. Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, et. al., No. 21-cv-2006 (N.D. Ill.) sought a preliminary injunction to stop the center. The brief argues that the court should deny that request. On August 5, Judge John Robert Blakey issued a one-page opinion denying the request, writing that the plaintiffs “have not met the standard for injunctive relief on their federal claims.”
“The Chicagoland Museums believe the Obama Presidential Center will be a cultural and economic treasure for Chicago that will benefit the public by bringing new amenities and positive development to the surrounding community, boosting the local economy, and serving as a magnet for visitors to the City and the region. It will serve as an enduring and powerful symbol of the promise of America and the American Dream. In other words, the public interest strongly favors allowing construction to move forward without any further delays,” the brief reads.
The brief highlights the area’s long and rich history of featuring these world-class institutions: “Museums provide major educational and economic benefits and advance the public’s interest in knowledge and understanding. The Chicagoland Museums offer benefits to the public, the City, and the Chicago Park District—and offer benefits to each other when they are clustered together. Each museum is truly a treasure and Chicagoland, its residents, and visitors are fortunate to have them.”
The Chicagoland museums and cultural institutions that joined the brief include the following: Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bronzeville Children’s Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Architecture Center, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Field Museum of Natural History, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Lincoln Park Zoo, Millennium Park Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Science and Industry, National Museum of Mexican Art, The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, and Shedd Aquarium.
This is the third brief the firm submitted in support of the Obama Presidential Center. In 2018, the firm submitted a brief in the district court on behalf of 11 museums in Protect Our Parks, Inc. v. Chicago Park District, and submitted a brief in the Seventh Circuit when the plaintiffs appealed their loss. WTTW reported on the latest brief.
The US District Court for the District of Connecticut has granted final approval to a class action settlement in which the US Army agreed to reconsider the less-than-honorable discharges of thousands of veterans with service-related mental health conditions.
Jenner & Block, with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, represents Iraq war veteran Steve Kennedy and Afghanistan war veteran Alicia Carson, pro bono, in a nationwide class action against the Army. Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Carson alleged that after the Army discharged veterans with less-than-honorable status on account of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, and other mental health conditions developed during their service time,the Army Discharge Review Board failed to account for those symptoms when it denied them upgrades in their discharge status.
On Monday, the court granted final approval to a settlement reached by the parties in November. In its opinion, the court described the settlement as “an example of the class action concept working at its best” because it “achieves a just result for many veterans, and for the Army they served.”
Under terms of the settlement, the Army will automaticallyreconsider thousands of discharge status upgrade applications under a lenient standard of review. Additionally, the Army will adopt procedural reforms, such as a universal telephonic hearing program, that will make it easier for veterans to applyfor upgrades in their discharge status and participate in related hearings.
During the final fairness hearing on the settlement last month,Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. had high praise for our pro bono work, saying on the record: “It's a fine thing … to see one of the great firms like Jenner & Block devote considerable resources to the pro bono representation of groups like these army veterans…”
In a victory for pro bono client Robert Rollins, United States District Court Judge Gary Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ “stupendously long” sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The decision means that rather than serve the remainder of his life in prison, Mr. Rollins should be free in a couple of years.
When he was 25 years old, Mr. Rollins was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time. No one was hurt during the offenses, and he stole less than $10,000. In 2001, he was convicted of these offenses under a mandatory sentencing scheme whereby the trial judge sentenced him to 106.5 years.
Jenner & Block joined with a team from New York-based Debevoise & Plimpton to file a motion to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act. Last year, Judge Feinerman initially determined that he did not have authority to grant Mr. Rollins’ motion for a reduction in sentence. The firm and Debevoise team appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which upon agreement of the parties, vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for further consideration.
In the district court, the government continued to argue that Judge Feinerman was not empowered to reduce Mr. Rollins sentence under the statute, and that even if he was, the sentence should remain 106.5 years. On March 17, Judge Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ sentence. The court ruled that Mr. Rollin’s sentence was “exceedingly rare, resulting from the combination of the Government’s charging decision and Rollins’s decision to proceed to trial rather than cooperate and plead.” While acknowledging the seriousness of Mr. Rollins’ crimes, the judge wrote that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
Judge Feinerman expressly noted that Mr. Rollins has a clean prison disciplinary record, voluntarily participated in a course focused on helping inmates appreciate the severity of their crimes and the impact they had on their victims, and has worked as a cook in prison.
“In short,” the judge wrote, “he has demonstrated that he is committed to living a law-abiding life should he be given that chance.” Mr. Rollins, a veteran, very much looks forward to rejoining his family, the workforce, and contributing to society.
The firm team included Partners Andrew W. Vail and Monica R. Pinciak, Associate Joshua M. Levin, and Paralegal Katherine Mehaffie. Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Reid J. Schar, and Dean N. Panos assisted with the team with a Seventh Circuit moot court.
Recently, US District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman exercised her powers under the First Step Act and granted the petition for compassionate relief we filed on behalf of our client, Tracy Conley. By this ruling, Judge Coleman released Mr. Conley from prison more than five years before the end of his sentence.
Mr. Conley was convicted of participating in a conspiracy to rob a drug “stash house.” The stash house was entirely fictional, however, as were the drugs it supposedly contained and the armed men who supposedly guarded it. This case was one of many in which an undercover government agent presented a target with the opportunity to get rich. The scheme began in 2011, when a government agent presented Myreon Flowers with the opportunity to rob a fictional stash house. To trigger steep mandatory sentences, the agent stated the stash house contained a huge quantity of drugs and encouraged Mr. Flowers to recruit others and bring guns.
Mr. Conley became involved only because of what the Seventh Circuit described as two strokes of bad luck: On November 1, 2011, Mr. Conley went to work as usual, but was sent home because a piece of machinery had broken at the factory where he worked. On his way home, he stopped at a gas station where he ran into an old acquaintance. Unbeknownst to Mr. Conley, that acquaintance had joined Mr. Flowers’s group, which had planned the robbery for that very day. Mr. Conley agreed to go with his acquaintance, Mr. Flowers, and the others to what he thought was a job to clean a vacant apartment. On the way, government agents surprised the men and arrested everyone.
All of Mr. Conley’s co-defendants accepted plea deals for lesser charges. Mr. Conley maintained that he knew nothing of the plan to rob a (fake) stash house, but was convicted after a jury trial. Because his charges carried mandatory minimum sentences, Mr. Conley was sentenced to 15 years in prison – twice as long as any other co-defendant. In the years following Mr. Conley’s conviction, the fake stash house program received significant scrutiny. As more prosecutions emerged, so too did evidence suggesting that the government’s selection of targets for the scheme may have been racially motivated. Under increasing criticism, the government abandoned the program. One by one, Mr. Conley’s co-defendants served their lesser sentences and were released, but Mr. Conley remained in prison.
In 2018, Mr. Conley filed a pro se habeas petition, and Judge Coleman appointed Mike to represent Mr. Conley. Leigh joined the team at the start, as did Theo, who was part of the team for the habeas briefing. Eric joined the team last fall. Judge Coleman denied the habeas petition, but certified for appeal the argument that Mr. Conley’s conviction should be reversed on due process grounds, and because the fake stash house scheme targeted people of color. The team is continuing to prosecute that appeal.
With the habeas appeal being briefed, the team filed a motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, also known as compassionate release. Leigh and Eric argued the motion in January, under Mike’s supervision. On March 4, Judge Coleman granted the motion and ordered Mr. Conley’s sentence reduced to time served. Judge Coleman accepted the team’s arguments that the circumstances demonstrated extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release. She noted that Mr. Conley had never even met Mr. Flowers before the day of the planned “robbery,” and that Mr. Conley’s sentence was driven by the government’s decision of what charges to bring, not the Court’s decision of what sentence was warranted. That sentence was “grossly disproportionate,” “devoid of true fairness,” and served “no real purpose other than to destroy any vestiges of respect in our legal system and law enforcement that this defendant and his community may have had.” His disproportionate sentence was a “trial tax.” She concluded that “if there ever was a situation where compassionate release was warranted based on the injustice and unfairness of a prosecution and resulting sentence, this is it.”
Mr. Conley was released on March 17, after serving nearly 10 years in prison. He is now home.
Partner Michael T. Brody and Associates Leigh J. Jahnig, Eric S. Fleddermann, and Theo A. Lesczynski represented Mr. Conley in this important matter.
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.”
On July 16, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that a state historic preservation law prevents local authorities from demolishing the nearly 125-year-old Rock Island County Courthouse. Justice William E. Holdridge wrote in a 46-page opinion that neither Rock Island County, nor the Chief Judge of the Rock Island Circuit Court could order the courthouse demolished without first complying with the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act. Under that Act, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency must undergo a process to look for alternatives to demolition. The Appellate Court enjoined any demolition until the county complies with the state law.
The Appellate Court decision is an important step forward in saving the historic landmark. The Rock Island County Courthouse, constructed in 1896 and determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, is included on Landmarks Illinois’ 2018 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.
Jenner & Block represents, pro bono, all of the plaintiffs against the Rock Island County Public Building Commission and County Board; they include Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Rock Island Preservation Society, the Moline Preservation Society, the Broadway Historic District Association, Rock Island Justice Center, and bondholder Fred Shaw. Associate Thomas E. Quinn argued the appeal. The firm team includes Charles W. Carlin, Hope H. Tone, Bill A. Williams, and Co-Managing Partner Randy E. Mehrberg.
In 2012, our client was sentenced to 252 months in prison for a non-violent drug offense, a sentence that was 12 months longer than the minimum sentence. He has been an inmate at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana, despite being tried in the Northern District of Illinois and residing in Illinois. Oakdale has experienced a severe outbreak of COVID-19 and has a staggering 18.5% confirmed infection rate. This percentage is about 22 times worse than the United States overall. Furthermore, Oakdale has faced heavy scrutiny (including media attention) for its wardens’ negligent handling of the pandemic and endangering inmates. Our client has three of the most common COVID-19 comorbidities, making him highly susceptible to severe illness if he were to contract the virus. Out of fear for his life, he filed a pro se petition with Judge Lefkow for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).
On June 18, Judge Lefkow appointed Partner Paul B. Rietema to assist our client with his petition. Associate Maliha Ikram quickly worked to gather necessary information to support the petition. Maliha spoke to our client on June 19to glean information on his friends, family and community members. Maliha contacted dozens of these individuals over the course of 10 days. On July 1, Paul and Maliha were able to make an evidentiary submission that included 22 letters and affidavits in support of our client’s release.
On July 7, our client’s motion was granted and his sentence was reduced to time served. He has been ordered to be released from custody at Oakdale as soon as practicable. His term of supervised release will commence immediately upon his release, with his first six months to be served in home confinement. Though our client’s prison sentence would have otherwise run until 2028, the court released him to home confinement with the remainder of his term to be served on supervised release.
In granting his motion, the court noted that our client does not pose “a danger to individual or community safety” and, while incarcerated, has shown remorse for past conduct, earned his GED, and enrolled in several self-bettering courses. To have kept him imprisoned at Oakdale would have been to put him at “extraordinary risk” for his life.
The team was assisted by Legal Assistant Mirella Marquez, Manager of Docketing Services Na’eem Conway, and Docket Assistant Dylan Doppelt, who were instrumental in compiling and filing documents on our compressed timeline.
The Court of Appeals reversed a lower court and ordered a new trial for firm client, David Lang, finding that the trial court had improperly substituted a juror mid-trial. Mr.Lang, now 78 years old, was convicted in 2012 of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his brother on the farm where they lived together in upstate New York. As a result of that conviction, Lang was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.
The firm appealed first to the New York Intermediate Appellate Court, which affirmed the conviction. The firm then petitioned the New York Court of Appeals to hear the case, and the Court of Appeals agreed to do so. Review by the Court of Appeals review is extremely rare—the court took only 34 cases out of about 2,500 criminal applications in 2019.
At issue in the appeal was the court’s substitution, on the ninth day of the trial, of a sitting juror with an alternate juror. On the morning of that ninth day of trial, the trial judge announced that he had been told by a court official that a juror couldn’t be there because a family member had a medical appointment in Rochester, which was several hours away by car. The court, when ordering the juror substitution, provided inaccurate (and limited) reasoning as to why it believed the juror might have suddenly become unavailable, and never actually made an inquiry into whether the juror was unavailable or likely to appear within a reasonable amount of time.
The Court of Appeals found that the trial court failed to conduct the requisite “reasonably thorough inquiry” before substituting jurors. “Not only did the court provide only limited – and inaccurate – reasons to support a finding of unavailability, there is nothing on the record reflecting that it made any inquiry into Juror Number 9’s whereabouts or likelihood of appearing prior to ordering the substitution of Juror Number 9 with Alternate Number 1,” reads the opinion.
The court reversed Lang’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial.
Partner Matthew S. Hellman argued before the Court of Appeals. Associate Caroline C. Cease was also on the team. They were supported by Legal Assistant Beth Gulden, Senior Paralegal Cheryl Olson, Associate Manager of Docketing Services Tyler Edwards and Manager of Docketing Services Na’eem Conway. Partners Jessica Ring Amunson and Zachary C. Schauf and Law Clerk Rachel Wilf-Townsend mooted the team. Associate Samuel C. Birnbaum and former associate Marguerite Moeller assisted with the Third Department appeal, and the original team on the long-running case included former partner Peter Pope.
On May 7, Jenner & Block Partner Devi M. Rao and Associate Emily S. Mannheimer filed an amicus brief on behalf of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, the New York Civil Liberties Union, National Women’s Law Center and 49 additional organizations committed to gender justice.
The case, Francis v. Kings Park Manor, involves whether or not a housing provider is obligated under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to address tenant-on-tenant harassment if the provider had known about discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it. A Second Circuit panel held that an African-American tenant plausibly alleged that his landlord had discriminated against him under the FHA by failing to address severe race-based harassment by another tenant.
The brief addressed the consequences that the Second Circuit’s decision will have for tenants’ housing protections; particularly, for women facing sexual harassment. Citing testimonies of women involved in sexual harassment cases, the brief observed that this widespread problem jeopardizes individuals’ access to a safe and stable home. The brief noted how intersecting forms of harassment, which are “based on multiple aspects of a person’s identity, such as race, national origin, religion and disability” pose significant concerns for women tenants, who have often indicated that “they wereharassed precisely because of their race and stereotypes about women of color.” It also explained that housing providers are empowered to take reasonable steps to address tenant-on-tenant harassment in accordance with the FHA and the First Amendment.
The Francis case is currently before the Second Circuit en banc. The court will hear oral arguments in September 2020.
On January 16, 2019, an Illinois judge acquitted pro bono client Patrick Pursley of first-degree murder.
In this video, Mr. Pursley and his Jenner & Block lawyers reflect on the decades-long fight to prove his innocence.
Read more about the case in The Heart of the Matter .
When two civilian lawyers attempted to resign as counsel to a Guantánamo Bay detainee on ethical grounds, they were threatened with arrest to force them to defend their client.
In this video, hear from members of the cross-office Jenner & Block team about their work ensuring the defense lawyers’ right to resign from the case without arrest..
Read more about the case in The Heart of the Matter.