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 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.
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.
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.
Jenner & Block Named to National Law Journal “Pro Bono Hot List”
For the fourth consecutive year, Jenner & Block has been named to The National Law Journal’s “Pro Bono Hot List,” as one of only 12 law firms across the United States selected for this recognition.
A feature article published by the NLJ spotlights the excellent results firm teams achieved in six pro bono cases won in the US Supreme Court in 2015-2016, as well as the significant transactional work done by a multi-disciplinary, cross-office team for the Young Center, a nonprofit that represents unaccompanied immigrant children.
The article also notes that more than 75,000 pro bono hours were contributed by firm lawyers in 2016 alone, representing an average of 138 hours per lawyer. Nearly 94 percent of lawyers performed 20 hours or more of pro bono – an all-time firm record.
Pro Bono Client Released From Prison Pending Appeal and Retrial
On April 27, pro bono client Patrick Pursley was released from prison on bond after being incarcerated for more than 23 years on a murder conviction that was recently thrown out.
Earlier this year, lawyers from Jenner & Block won Mr. Pursley a new trial based on new ballistics evidence establishing that a gun recovered from his residence did not—contrary to evidence presented at his 1994 trial—fire bullets and cartridge cases found at the crime scene. 17th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Joseph McGraw further ruled that new testimony and conclusions by the State of Illinois’ own examiners, who refuted Illinois State Police testimony presented at Mr. Pursley’s initial trial, entitled Mr. Pursley to a new trial. The State is appealing Judge McGraw’s decision.
The firm’s lawyers appeared before Judge McGraw on April 13 and argued that, given the likelihood Mr. Pursley would be acquitted of the charges against him at a retrial, he should be granted a low monetary bond pending the appeal. The judge set a bond of $50,000 for Mr. Pursley, a fraction of the $500,000 to $1 million bond sought by the State. The judge’s decision required Mr. Pursley to post bail of $5,000, which he did with the help of friends and family. The Rockford Register Star published a story Mr. Pursley’s release, in which he said that the Jenner & Block team and other lawyers representing him were “doggedly determined and excellent.”
Jenner & Block, along with Steven A. Drizin of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, has represented Mr. Pursley since 2008, winning on appeal a reversal that he was entitled to new ballistics testing under the Illinois Post Conviction Act. You can read more about that work in The National Law Journal article titled, “This Win Required a Trip to the Legislature.”
The Jenner & Block team representing Mr. Pursley includes Partners Andrew W. Vail and Robert R. Stauffer and Associates Kevin J. Murphy and Monika N. Kothari.
Pro Bono Partnership with Allstate Yields “Rarely” Granted Gang-Based Asylum
Our client owned a small business in El Salvador, and one of the country’s most violent and powerful gangs began extorting him and his family in 2013. When he refused to hide their guns in his business, gang members beat him into unconsciousness. While our client was in the hospital, the police raided one of the gang’s safe houses and arrested multiple gang members. The gang began accusing our client of collaborating with the police and threatening to kill him, and he and his family fled to the United States and found their way to the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) in Chicago.
At the outset of the hearing in 2016, the immigration judge told our client that gang-based asylum claims are at the “cutting edge” of asylum law and “rarely” granted. The judge urged him to consider a government offer of administrative closure – a procedural mechanism that would stop him and his family from being sent back to El Salvador but leave them with no status in the United States. When, after consultation with his lawyers, our client declined that offer, the hearing proceeded. On September 26, 2016, the judge granted asylum to our client and his family, who expressed gratitude to the United States for giving them a “second chance” at life.
Allstate in-house counsel Dolores Ayala partnered with the Jenner & Block team, which included Partner Wade A. Thomson and Associate Alan J. Iverson, Staff Attorney Veronica Maldonado, and Summer Associate Vaishalee Yeldandi.