May 12, 2021 Pro Bono Client Released from Prison without Retrial

On May 6, our client Kenneth “Ken” Smith was released from state prison after serving 19 years for a murder and robbery that he did not commit.

The firm first took Ken’s case in 2006 after a state appeals court reversed and remanded his conviction for murder and 67-year sentence for a new trial. Since that time, various teams led by Partner David Jimenez-Ekman have represented the client through a second trial, a direct appeal, a third trial, another direct appeal, and a federal habeas petition.

Following appeals of his habeas petition, the Seventh Circuit sent an order calling for Ken’s immediate release without conditions at the end of April. This means that he is free from prison and will not be required to report to parole or a probation officer.

“We are grateful that, at long last, the justice system recognizes Ken Smith’s innocence, ending his almost two-decade nightmare,” Mr. Jimenez-Ekman told the Northwest Herald upon our client’s release. “The evidence of Ken’s innocence is overwhelming, and it is a tragedy it took so long for the justice system to acknowledge that. Ken looks forward to the hard and bittersweet task of rebuilding his life.”

The charges against Ken stemmed from a botched armed robbery. In March 2001, the owner of a strip mall burrito shop in McHenry, Illinois, was shot to death after he chased two armed, masked robbers out of his store carrying a knife. The state had no physical evidence linking Ken to the crime. There were no fingerprints from Ken at the scene, no DNA evidence, and no blood that could be linked to him. Instead, Ken was convicted based on a “confession” of an alleged co-conspirator, which was (a) procured after police falsely told him that his friends had already confessed and implicated him, (b) riddled with major inaccuracies that demonstrated he had no knowledge of the crime, and (c) force-fed through leading questions that supplied the only correct information in the entire statement. When the firm first took Ken’s case, the Illinois Second District Appellate Court had reversed and remanded his conviction for a new trial on the basis of a blatant Confrontation Clause violation.

Ken’s second trial occurred in 2008, and resulted in a second conviction that was overturned in 2010, when the Illinois Appellate Court held that the trial court had improperly excluded evidence implicating a completely separate group of perpetrators and exonerating Ken.

Indeed, in the years Ken’s case had been pending to that point, compelling evidence emerged showing that the crime was committed by three individuals completely unrelated to our client and his friends. At Ken’s third trial in 2012, the team put on evidence that those other individuals confessed – unprompted – numerous times to friends, family members, and police; they knew details about the crime that had never been made public; and there was physical evidence corroborating those other individuals’ confessions. The other individuals were seen with cuts and scrapes in the days after the crime; they were connected with a gun that matched the characteristics of the bullets recovered from the victim and found at the scene; and they were riding around in a car on the night of the crime that later was found burned in a field with the help of an accelerant. However, the court excluded important evidence implicating the other group, including compelling evidence of their motive to commit the crime, and also limited the defendant’s ability to cross-examine the only eyewitness to the crime. After three days of deliberation, the jury, still only having heard part of the story, convicted Ken again.

After Ken’s direct appeal was denied in January 2015, the firm filed a federal habeas petition for Ken that was assigned to Judge Andrea Wood of the Northern District of Illinois.

In March 2020, Judge Wood granted the habeas petition and vacated Ken’s conviction and sentence, ruling that evidentiary errors violated his constitutional rights. The court found that the Illinois Appellate Court improperly affirmed evidentiary exclusions that violated his right to present a complete defense and his right to engage in effective cross-examination.

The court wrote that “[g]iven the weaknesses of the State’s case,” the evidentiary errors had a “highly significant effect” on the trial result. The court wrote that “the evidence of the [other group’s] involvement is highly compelling if not conclusive,” that the court was “confounded as to how [the] evidence could not give a rational jury reasonable doubt as to [Ken’s] guilt,” and that, “[e]specially in combination with the exceedingly thin evidence supporting [his] convictions, the court is concerned that a miscarriage of justice has occurred here.” The court granted Ken a new trial, which would have been his fourth on the same charges.

Though the court’s habeas decision was a significant victory, the battle to secure Ken’s freedom was far from over. The State appealed Ken’s habeas victory, and Ken cross-appealed, asking for a ruling that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction and that he should be released without possibility of retrial. Mr. Jimenez-Ekman and Partner Katharine R. Ciliberti,presented oral argument on the appeal and cross-appeal in November 2020, at which point the panel of Seventh Circuit judges expressed strong skepticism about the constitutionality of the conviction. Chief Judge Diane Wood commented during the argument that “it [was] hard to imagine a case with thinner evidence” than what was presented against Ken.

On April 29, 2021, the Seventh Circuit went even further than the district court, holding that the evidence was constitutionally insufficient to sustain Ken’s conviction. The Seventh Circuit opinion, which reflects a caustic rebuke of the state appellate court’s decision affirming Ken’s third conviction, notes that the evidence implicating the separate group of perpetrators “casts a powerful reasonable doubt on the theory that Smith and Houghtaling were the robbers that night. . . . With such a serious possibility of a third party’s guilt,we are convinced as an objective matter that no rational trier of fact could have found Smith guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Seventh Circuit concluded that “the trial evidence failed to support Smith’s conviction beyond a reasonable doubt and that the Illinois Appellate Court was not just wrong, but unreasonable, in holding otherwise.” The Seventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to grant the petition for a writ of habeas corpus unconditionally, and ordered Ken’s immediate release from state custody—a tremendous victory for our client after nearly two decades of trying to prove his innocence.

On Thursday, May 6, 2021, Ken Smith walked out of Lawrence Correctional Center as a free man. In the days since, he has been spending time with his family and starting the long process of adjusting to life on the outside.

Several media outlets covered Ken’s release, including Law & Crime

In addition to Mr. Jimenez-Ekman and Ms. Ciliberti, Associate Elena M. Olivieri, and former associate Emma O’Connor. The past trial teams included Partners John R. Storinoand Gregory M. Boyle, and Paralegal Chris Ward.

CATEGORIES: Pro Bono

PEOPLE: David Jimenez-Ekman, Katharine R. McLaughlin, Elena Marie Olivieri

May 11, 2021 Former Pro Bono Client Juan Rivera opens Barber College with Former Prison Guard

The firm represented Juan Rivera in the third retrial of charges for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. That trial resulted in conviction, and the firm assisted Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Marshall, former director of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions, who briefed and argued Mr. Rivera’s appeal from that conviction.

In 2011, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District reversed Mr. Rivera’s conviction, finding insufficient evidence to support his conviction in light of the DNA evidence excluding him as the perpetrator. Years later, in 2014, authorities announced that DNA evidence from the case matched a potential suspect in a separate murder.

Earlier this year, Mr. Rivera opened Legacy Barber College, 1546 W. Howard in Chicago, with his former prison guard, Bobby Mattison. According to an article in the 49th Ward newsletter, Mr. Rivera “returned to his roots in Rogers Park to make good on a promise he struck in prison with a guard: to give back by helping youth in underserved communities carve a path towards a successful career.”

The barbershop has partnered with Evanston Township High School and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines to offer alternative programs and college credits. The program also offers education on financial literacy, customer service, and how to run a business.

In addition to working with Professor Marshall, the firm partnered with the Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions on the case. The firm team included Partners Thomas SullivanTerri Mascherin and Andrew Vail.

In this video, Ms. Mascherin discusses the case.

CATEGORIES: Appellate, criminal defense, T Sullivan

PEOPLE: Terri L. Mascherin, Andrew W. Vail, Thomas P. Sullivan

April 29, 2021 Court Hails “Just Result” for Veterans as an “Example of the Class Action Concept Working at its Best”

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…”

Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy Creelan led this matter, along with Associate Jacob Tracer and former associates Ravi Ramanathan and William Goldstein.

Read more in this press release from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, in this Bloomberg article, and in this Stars and Stripes article.

 

CATEGORIES: Litigation, veterans

PEOPLE: Susan J. Kohlmann, Jacob Lincoln Tracer, Jeremy M. Creelan

April 28, 2021 Illinois Prison Project and Jenner & Block Welcome Home Kensley Hawkins

Kensley “Sonny” Hawkins, who turned 70 years old this year after spending over 39 years in prison, walked out of Shawnee Correctional Center last week a free man. Mr. Hawkins suffered from numerous serious medical issues that made him extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, and we are overjoyed that he returned home to his loving daughter and grandchildren.

Mr. Hawkins grew up in a single-parent household and was one of 10 children. To support his mother, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the United States Army, where he simultaneously earned his GED, worked as a cook, and earned a National Defense Service Medaland and a parachute badge. After leaving the Army, Mr. Hawkins attended Chicago State University with dreams of becoming an electrical engineer but once again faced the overwhelming pressure of supporting his mother and his family. Mr. Hawkins dropped out of school yet again. In the midst of his financial stress, Mr. Hawkins’ brother committed suicide in their childhood home. Distraught and desperate, Mr. Hawkins agreed to be the get-away driver of the van used in a gas station robbery. The van was later traced back to a person who had been killed before the group went to rob the gas station. As a result, Mr. Hawkins was convicted for murder based on the conduct of his co-defendant, under the controversial theory of accountability.

Always industrious, Mr. Hawkins worked throughout his incarceration. He started as an upholsterer and cabinet maker at Stateville Furniture Factory. Skilled with his hands with a knack for engineering, Mr. Hawkins made products like desks, chairs, bookcases, and cabinets and was eventually promoted to “lead worker” at the factory. More recently, Mr. Hawkins ran the “Set Up” department of the Shawnee Metal Factory. If Mr. Hawkins has a product design, he can quickly prepare the sheet metal for welding and painting. Throughout his incarceration, Mr. Hawkins has been repeatedly recognized for his service and high-quality work and hopes to transfer some of the skills he’s acquired to his new life as a free man. Throughout his incarceration, Mr. Hawkins remained close to a large network of family and friends, including his devoted daughter Ramonia.

Mr. Hawkins was zealously represented by Department Counsel Lisa Schoedel at Jenner & Block, as part of IPP’s pro bono program. Ms. Schoedel's commitment and dedication to Mr. Hawkins and his case paid off: Last week, she received a call from the Illinois Governor’s Office, telling her that Mr. Hawkins would be coming home.

CATEGORIES: COVID-19, criminal defense, Illinois, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Lisa Marie Schoedel

April 20, 2021 Working to Provide Outreach Services on Chicago’s West Side

Breakthrough is a non-profit organization that provides outreach services in underserved communities on Chicago’s West Side, partnering with those affected by poverty to build connections, develop skills, and open doors of opportunity. As a board member and long-time supporter of the organization, Jenner & Block Partner Terry Truax will participate in a virtual fundraising event launching the All In Campaign – the first-ever public look at upcoming plans in Breakthrough’s partnership with East Garfield Park. The event will take place April 22 at 7pm CT. To RSVP, please click here.

As co-chair of the Campaign, Mr. Truax has been instrumental in leading Breakthrough during the planning and execution of the program, as well as raising awareness of the growing need of support in the East Garfield Park community. To learn more about Breakthrough’s impact on the Chicago community, please click here.

CATEGORIES: Event

PEOPLE: Terrence J. Truax

April 20, 2021 Jenner & Block Shortlisted in Chambers D&I Awards as “Outstanding Firm for Pro Bono”

The firm is proud to be one of only 10 firms in North America honored for pro bono service in the Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards. As Chambers D&I notes, the awards “shine a spotlight on role models and trailblazers in pro bono and corporate social responsibility as well as inclusion.” The firm is noted for the depth, breadth, and commitment to its nationally recognized pro bono program. Also recognized is Tracy Hannan, associate general counsel at client Exelon, who is shortlisted in the “Outstanding Contribution to Diversity and Inclusion” category. In partnership with the firm, Ms. Hannan secured the early release of a pro bono client who was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile. The awards ceremony will be held virtually on June 17.

CATEGORIES: Awards

PEOPLE: Debbie L. Berman, Michael W. Ross, Matthew E. Price, Christian Tuddenham, Todd C. Toral

April 14, 2021 Firm Team Successfully Represents Transgender Client in Name Change Hearing

On April 7, Jenner & Block Department Counsel Allison N. Glover and Staff Attorney Anthony L. Nguyen successfully represented a transgender client for her name change hearing. The team was introduced to the client through the firm’s partnership with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) and its Name Change Project, which provides pro bono legal name change services to low-income transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people.

Despite the pandemic, Ms. Glover and Mr. Nguyen fully prepared the client for the hearing. As a result, the client effectively and succinctly answered all questions from the judge, who then granted her legal name change petition. The team is currently securing certified copies of the court order so the client can make necessary changes to identification documents. Partner Gail H. Morse supervised the team.

CATEGORIES: LGBTQ, Name Change Hearing

PEOPLE: Gail H. Morse, P.C., Allison N. Glover, Anthony L. Nguyen

March 30, 2021 DC Office Lawyers Honored for Pro Bono Service by DC Courts

Since 2011,the DC courts have published an annual Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll that recognizes lawyers who contributed 50 hours or more of pro bono service to those who cannot afford legal counsel. The 2020 Honor Roll includes 55 DC office lawyers. In a joint letter, DC Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and DC Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring thank all honorees, noting that 2020 presented unique pressures like the pandemic. “We salute you for using your talents and expertise to help those unable to afford an attorney, and rely on your continued dedication and compassion in the face of new challenges that threaten equal access to justice,” the judges write.

The Honor Roll is sponsored by the DC Bar Pro Bono Center and the DC Access to Justice Commission. To learn more about the initiative, read this press release.

CATEGORIES: Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Jessica Ring Amunson, Steven R. Englund, Marc A. Van Allen, David W. DeBruin, Lindsay C. Harrison, Matthew S. Hellman, Cynthia J. Robertson, Luke C. Platzer, Matthew E. Price, Adam G. Unikowsky, David M. Didion, Ishan K. Bhabha, Colleen Marie Reddan, Corinne M. Smith, Zachary C. Schauf, Keisha N. Stanford, Jonathan A. Langlinais (Alex), Matthew L. Haws, Ehsan M. Khah, Grant B. Schweikert, Rebekah P. Goodheart, Lee K. Van Voorhis, Tassity Johnson, Marc L. Warren, David Bitkower, Suedeen G. Kelly, Katie B. Johnson, Sam Hirsch, Roger C. Sherman, Ian Heath Gershengorn, Lauren J. Hartz, Kathryn L. Wynbrandt, Andrew B. Cherry, Caroline C. Cease, Loreal R. Rock, Patricia Cruz Trabanino, Emily M. Savner, Allison M. Tjemsland, Claire M. Lally, Gregory R. Capobianco, Camillie Landrón, Julian P. SpearChief-Morris, Krystalyn Kinsel, William R. Weaver (Will)

March 19, 2021 Judge Reduces Pro Bono Client’s 106.5-Year Sentence to 28 Years

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.

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Seventh Circuit

PEOPLE: Andrew W. Vail, Monica R. Pinciak, Joshua M. Levin

March 17, 2021 Jenner & Block Secures Compassionate Release of Pro Bono Client under First Step Act

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.

CATEGORIES: First Step Act, Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Michael T. Brody, Theo A. Lesczynski, Eric S. Fleddermann

February 26, 2021 Pro Bono Client Patrick Pursley Receives Certificate of Innocence

Longtime client Patrick Pursley received a certificate of innocence on February 26, 27 years after he was convicted of murder in a Winnebago County jury trial. The state had relied heavily on the testimony of a state ballistics examiner that a firearm attributed to Mr. Pursley fired the bullets and cartridge cases found at the crime scene. New evidence, however, showed conclusively that this firearm was not the one used in the crime. For over a decade, a firm team worked on behalf of Mr. Pursley to win a new trial. In January 2019, at the end of that new trial, Judge Joseph G. McGraw acquitted Mr. Pursley.  

Watch Mr. Pursley discuss the impact of the certificate.

Learn more about his case in The Heart of the Matter.

Over the years, the team helping Mr. Pursley included Partners Robert R. Stauffer and Andrew W. Vail, Associates Kevin J. Murphy and Monika N. Kothari, and former associate Kyle Palazzolo.

CATEGORIES: Pro Bono, Wrongful Conviction

PEOPLE: Andrew W. Vail, Robert R. Stauffer, Monika N. Kothari

February 26, 2021 Amicus Brief Urges Seventh Circuit to Reverse Lower Court’s Dismissal of Pro Se Litigant’s Case

In Cordell Sanders v. Michael Melvin, et al., the district court dismissed a plaintiff’s entire case as a sanction based on imprecise allegations the plaintiff — who is mentally ill and had been housed in solitary confinement for years—had included in their years-old, pro se complaint, and did so despite that a pending summary judgment motion showed a factual dispute regarding those allegations. This dismissal is now on appeal.  

Led by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, amici are five legal professors who are experts on civil rights litigation, civil procedure, federal procedure, and the application of pleading standards to pro se litigants. They urge the Seventh Circuit to reverse the lower court’s decision and remand for further proceedings. They argue that affirming such a dismissal would be contrary to the established principles of leniency afforded pro se and inmate litigants, would violate the well-known rule that sanctions be narrowly-tailored to misconduct, and would contravene the policy favoring resolving cases on their merits, among other things. The legal system, they note, is complex and challenging – “especially for those without legal training.” They argue that the Seventh Circuit has held “that courts have an affirmative obligation to ensure that a pro se litigant’s claims are not dismissed as a result of procedural unfairness.” In this case, they argue, the district court was “particularly harsh and unnecessarily punitive.” Regarding sanctions against the litigant, the brief notes that “less draconian” alternatives are available. And dismissal with prejudice, according to the brief, is the “most severe” sanction that should be meted out “only with extreme caution.” “Sanctions should be used as a scalpel to surgically address issues where appropriate, not as a sledgehammer to squash an entire case,” the brief reads.  

The team writing the brief pro bono includes Partner Gabriel K. Gillett and Associates Grace C. Signorelli-Cassady, Jeremy M. Sawyer, and Elena M. Olivieri, with valuable assistance from Paralegal Mary Frances Patston.

CATEGORIES: Amicus Brief, Pro Bono, Seventh Circuit

PEOPLE: Gabriel K. Gillett, Grace C. Signorelli-Cassady, Elena Marie Olivieri

February 23, 2021 Partner David Robbins Helps Pro Bono Client Avoid Risk of Debarment
The US Navy proposed that client Nathan McNutt be debarred after his prior employer submitted a mandatory disclosure alleging time mischarging with bare minimum supporting information.  The risks of debarment are tremendous, including an inability to work in the government contracts community at all.  This can shut even the most well-trained and effective software engineers/tech developers, etc., out of their chosen career and deprive the US Government of their ability to innovate.
 
Mr. McNutt did his best to respond on his own and explain why his former employer's disclosure was factually incorrect, but as is the case with individuals – who bear the brunt of proposed debarment actions – he needed some help to convey the facts in a self-contained, effective manner. 
 
Jenner & Block Partner David B. Robbins assisted Mr. McNutt, gathered facts, crafted an effective response, explained why Mr. McNutt's prior employer was incorrect, and arranged for Mr. McNutt to take ethics and compliance training from Debarment Solutions Institute, a third-party training organization.  Days after submitting matters in opposition, the Navy terminated the proposed debarment with no further action, granting the relief the firm requested.

CATEGORIES: Government Contracts, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: David B. Robbins

December 28, 2020 Team Files Amicus Brief in Case Regarding Forced Separation of a Father and Son at the Border

The plaintiffs are a father and his toddler son who seek redress for their forced separation at the border when they tried to enter the country. The amicus brief was submitted in support of their opposition to the government’s motion to dismiss their claims. Filed on behalf a Stanford law professor and clinicians, the brief argues that the Trump Administration’s forced family separation policy is torture under international law. “Since the inception of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, amici curiae have important experience studying the mental and physical suffering endured by separated families. As a result, amici curiae have a significant interest in Plaintiffs’ allegations that the separation of D.J.C.V. from G.C., his asylum-seeking parent, constituted torture in violation of international human rights law,” reads the brief.

 

The team writing the brief includes Partners Brian J. Fischer, Debbie L. Berman, and Andrew W. Vail; Associates Brandon J. Polcik and Corinne M. Smith; Law Clerk Sara Cervantes; and Senior Paralegal Cheryl Olson.

CATEGORIES: Immigration

PEOPLE: Debbie L. Berman, Andrew W. Vail, Brian J. Fischer, Corinne M. Smith, Brandon J. Polcik

December 10, 2020 Associate Elizabeth Deutsch Highlights Successful Suit against the SBA Regarding CARES Funding

On December 10, Jenner & Block Associate Elizabeth B. Deutsch presented at the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs’ annual John Burke Pro Bono Breakfast, which highlights the pro bono work of the Committee and its partnerships with law firms, including Jenner & Block.  The discussion focused on the firm’s winning lawsuit against the Small Business Administration, challenging the agency’s implementation of the CARES Act’s PPP loan program to arbitrarily exclude from loan eligibility disproportionately Black business owners with criminal histories.  The program also featured plaintiff and client Sekwan Merritt, a Maryland small-business owner whom the lawsuit made eligible for PPP capital.  Ms. Deutsch worked on the case with Partner Kali Bracey, Associate Jacob D. Alderdice, and Paralegal Cheryl Olson.

CATEGORIES: COVID-19, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Jacob D. Alderdice, Kali Bracey

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