Pro Bono Bulletin | March 2019

Bob Paul

Bob Paul

Volunteer Spotlight: Bob Paul

When Bob Paul was in Law School at NYU, he had a keen interest in criminal law. His course load was heavy on criminal law and he even represented clients from Legal Aid in Manhattan Criminal Court through a clinical program. But upon graduation, he found that he was unable to find a good job in criminal law. He went to work for a firm and spent nearly 40 years practicing law for a variety of employers, including law firms, banks, and the federal government focusing on the regulation of financial markets and derivatives. As his career in financial services was winding down, he looked for opportunities to give back to the community, and discovered the Attorney Emeritus Program (AEP). Through AEP he found a placement with The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP).

His volunteer work focuses on advocating on behalf of people incarcerated in prisons throughout New York State. For his very first case he wrote a letter to the Superintendent of Upstate Correctional Facility requesting medication for a client. Just one week later, the client reported that the medication had been received. This was an impressive outcome considering that similar claims are often denied, and a great victory for the client. He also joined Legal Aid attorneys on a trip to interview potential plaintiffs for a class action lawsuit on behalf of imprisoned people with mental health disorders, which was filed in January. He noted that is gave him the opportunity to see how his “PRP colleagues used the individual experiences of potential plaintiffs to develop large scale impact litigation.”

Asked about the impact his volunteer service has had, he said “Through my work with PRP I feel like I am making at least a small contribution to improving how our individual clients are treated in DOCCS custody. It is rewarding when I have a client transferred to safe housing or treated more respectfully by staff.” He also noted that he enjoyed the camaraderie he has with the PRP staff.

Bob has been able to expand the work the Prisoners’ Rights Project can do through his volunteering. He is a terrific addition to the team.

Legal Aid, Cravath Announce Settlement for Client Who Was Raped and Sexually Abused by Doc Officers on Rikers Island

The Legal Aid Society and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP announced a substantial monetary settlement today on behalf of their client, “Jane Doe,” who was repeatedly raped, sexually abused, and sexually harassed by two New York City Department of Correction (DOC) officers while she was a pre-trial detainee on Rikers Island.

This lawsuit was filed in August 2018 against the City of New York and DOC Officers Jose Cosme and Leonard McNeil, in both their individual and official capacities. Cosme pled guilty to a Criminal Sex Act, a felony charge, which required him to register as a sex offender. McNeil is still employed by the DOC.

In 2015, Jane Doe was a detainee awaiting trial at Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC.) There, she suffered brutal rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment by Cosme after McNeil conspired with Cosme so Cosme could rape her. McNeil separately also raped, sexually abused, and sexually harassed Jane Doe. As a result of Cosme’s and McNeil’s criminal acts, Jane Doe suffers from severe trauma. After Jane Doe reported the rapes, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment, correction staff and inmates retaliated against her. This retaliation included threats to her life and other verbal abuse, as well as denial of the most basic necessities, such as soap.

“No compensation will ever come close to righting the sexual violence our client suffered at the hands of Jose Cosme and Leonard McNeil while at Rikers Island,” said Marlen Bodden and Barbara Hamilton, Staff Attorneys with the Special Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “This settlement delivers some justice and further underscores the culture of impunity that exists among correctional staff at NYC jails. We hope other people who have suffered similar trauma at Rikers Island or other local jails will speak out and seek justice.”

“No individual should ever be subjected to the abuse and trauma that our client experienced,” said Brittany L. Sukiennik, associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. “This settlement is a small measure of justice for an exceptionally strong woman who has experienced unfathomable trauma. We are hopeful that cases like this will persuade the City to take any and all steps necessary to ensure that the constitutional and human rights of individuals in custody are protected and held sacrosanct.”

Plaintiffs Praise SDNY Ruling That Preserves Vital Humanitarian Program

On behalf of their clients, the Legal Aid Society and Latham & Watkins praised a decision rendered today by United States District Judge John Koeltl on litigation brought last June which preserves a vital humanitarian program – Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) – utilized by thousands of abused, abandoned, or neglected children in New York State and others nationwide.

The lawsuit, filed as a class action by five young adults who applied for but were denied SIJS by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS), challenged a 2018 policy change in which USCIS unilaterally reinterpreted the law in a manner that effectively precluded minors between the ages of 18 and up to 21 from qualifying for SIJS.

The agency’s unannounced policy change, which impacted thousands of immigrant youth across the country, was first reported in April 2018. The Plaintiffs are represented by The Legal Aid Society and Latham & Watkins.

“This sweeping decision leaves no doubt that USCIS deliberately violated the rights of the most vulnerable, young immigrants – those who were abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents,” said Beth Krause, Supervising Attorney in the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “We are relieved that the federal courts have once again been willing to rein in the arbitrary and capricious policies of the Trump Administration.”

“It is our duty as lawyers to protect those who are most in need. Congress created the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program in 1990 to protect a particularly vulnerable group – young immigrants who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by a parent. We are pleased with the court decision to uphold the program on a classwide basis,” said Latham & Watkins partner Robert Malionek, who filed the class action with the Legal Aid Society and argued the cross-motions for summary judgment. “Our class, made up of thousands of abused, abandoned, or neglected young immigrants, once again have a path to citizenship.”

Specifically, the lawsuit challenged USCIS’s new position that New York State Family Courts are not “juvenile courts” for young people aged 18 to up to 21, and are therefore not authorized to issue the orders that must support SIJS applications. This policy change ran counter to a decade of practice. Plaintiffs successfully argued that the agency’s new policy violates the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA) because it contradicts the statute that created SIJS and misinterprets New York law.

SIJS Background

Since 2008, SIJS has served as a legal pathway for unaccompanied minors under the age of 21, who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents, to obtain lawful permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship. However, under the Trump Administration’s policy change, individuals who are over 18, but not yet 21, no longer qualify for SIJS, despite there being no change in the law or regulations related to SIJS. This is a sharp departure from a decade of consistent policy, where SIJS applications filed by young immigrants between 18 to up to 21 years of age who were placed under guardianship by New York Family Courts were consistently, and properly, granted.

For a young person in New York to apply for SIJS, a New York Family Court must first determine that the applicant was abused, abandoned, neglected or subjected to similar maltreatment under New York State law, that the applicant cannot reunite with one or both parents, and that it’s not in the applicant’s best interest to be returned to the applicant’s country of birth. The court must also declare that the applicant is dependent on the court or place the applicant in the custody of a caretaker. This order is then submitted to USCIS as part of the SIJS application.

Without any prior announcement, USCIS narrowed its interpretation of the law starting in 2017, ultimately documenting its new policy in February 2018. The policy change provided that in cases where applicants are over 18, they no longer qualify, incorrectly reasoning that the state court’s authority ends at 18. This new policy had the practical effect of depriving immigrant youth of the opportunity to regularize their immigration status, and caused tremendous uncertainty, anxiety and other harm to children who have, by definition, already suffered emotional trauma. As the US District Court for the Southern District of New York recognized, the agency’s new position had no basis in law.

You can read the decision here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59578aade110eba6434f4b72/t/5c8c65894785d34f4980665c/1552704910483/special_immigrant_juvenile_status.pdf