Seyfarth Shaw Pro Bono Gets Big Win for Inmate

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By Carolina Vargas

It was an amount they had not expected. After two long years and over 2,000 pro bono hours by a team of about 10 attorneys, all the work had paid off.

Seyfarth Shaw came out of the second of two settlement conferences with a big win for their client, Mr. M, who’d been injured while in custody at a supermax state prison in California.

They walked in to the conference with the full intention of trying the case and ended up settling for “an unbelievable amount” given that Mr. M had no permanent injuries, Mike Wahlander, senior associate at Seyfarth Shaw in San Francisco said.

Wahlander and firm partner, Francis Ortman III, spoke to Bloomberg BNA about the pro bono work.

“The reason we got the settlement we got was because we were prepared to try the case. We viewed this as an opportunity for junior associates to try the case,” Ortman, partner in the Labor and Employment Department at Seyfarth Shaw said.

The attorneys would not disclose Mr. M’s identity, citing confidentiality for his safety, and would not disclose the amount of the settlement.

The Attack

About six years ago, Mr. M was returning to his cell in the Secure Housing Unit, the most secure location for inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison, when another inmate, described as a rival gang member, left the yard and entered his cell, the Seyfarth Shaw attorneys said.

Guards allegedly neglected to close Mr. M’s cell, providing the reputed gang member with plenty of time to enter before the cell door closed behind the two men. Mr. M was repeatedly stabbed by the other inmate with a makeshift knife and, several minutes later, was pepper sprayed by guards trying to break up the fight, according to the account.

Mr. M filed a lawsuit against prison officials in 2012 seeking monetary and injunctive relief.

He alleged the guards violated his constitutional rights by being deliberately indifferent to his safety, the lawyers said. The suit also alleged that the guard’s response was delayed.

State prison officials didn’t return a request for comments.

Seyfarth Takes the Case

Mr. M was representing himself when Seyfarth Shaw got involved in May 2015.

Wahlander had been looking to do pro bono work when he came across the case in an update from the Justice and Diversity Center’s Federal Pro Bono Project in San Francisco. The project provides help to litigants without representation in the Northern District of California.

The lawyers said Seyfarth Shaw discovered that the state attorney general’s office had not produced all relevant evidence to Mr. M. when he was handling his own case. The firm reopened discovery and began litigating.

“The water got deep very quickly as we waded into this case,” Ortman said.

The case provided a training opportunity for young lawyers to develop and enhance their skills. Junior associates took their first depositions, performed site inspections, and deposed guards and sergeants. They also worked with experts, argued motions, and made court appearances.

Collaborative Experience

Ortman said that Mr. M got more than just the settlement money.

“The recovery we were able to help our client secure gave him peace of mind that the litigation was behind him and he could dedicate his entire energy to his education and bettering himself,” Ortman said.

Mr. M, now in his late thirties, has been in the Pelican Bay prison since he was 17. Involvement in gang activity landed him behind bars and once there, he remained part of a gang as a form of protection, said Ortman.

“It was a very collaborative experience working with him,” Wahlander said, adding that Mr. M is not only very smart, but substantially contributed to the case.

The Life to Come

Mr. M, with the aid of Seyfarth Shaw’s effort, will be paroled in two to three months. Awaiting is his settlement money, his family in Sacramento, Calif., and an opportunity to restart his life in the community.

During his time in jail, Mr. M renounced gang involvement. He now regularly attends narcotics and alcoholics anonymous meetings, church, and obtained his paralegal certificate, according to Ortman. He is also working toward obtaining a college degree.

“There is nothing more important to Mr. M than his freedom, and for the attorneys involved in the process who helped secure that freedom, this work was life-changing and for many of us, reminded us why we went to law school in the first place,” said Ortman.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carolina Vargas in Washington at cvargas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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