From the case files

Clinic students reflect on recent cases and projects

CIVIL JUSTICE CLINIC

Meghna Batra ’20 and Jared Shadeed JD/LLM ’21

What they did:   A client who had been receiving assistance from the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) voucher program that helps very low-income families to pay their rent, was rendered homeless after her landlord declined to renew her lease that ended Oct. 31 and her voucher was terminated due to a criminal charge her minor daughter incurred the previous May. Her attempt to avoid the loss of her voucher by vacating her rental early was unsuccessful. Following direct negotiation with the DHA’s attorney, Batra and Shadeed secured the reinstatement of the voucher, giving their client a chance to secure private rental housing.

What they learned: “Without access to justice through the Civil Justice Clinic, a client such as this one would likely be left with no real avenue to advocate for herself,” says Shadeed. “We had to be purposeful advocates, and that entailed using many different skills, from legal research to drafting arguments to effectively advocating in an actual hearing. The value of persistence was quite evident because we had to come back from the negative decision and find an alternative way to ultimately achieve success for our client.”

CHILDREN’S LAW CLINIC

Tom Yu ’20 and Zack Kaplan ’21

What they did: In Bruno v. Northside Independent School District, a child with autism whose family moved from Florida to Texas in the middle of the school year due to his father’s military relocation had his instructional time cut in half, causing him to regress in his education. Yet the Fifth Circuit found it met the standard required by the “comparable services” provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the supervision of clinic faculty, Yu and Kaplan drafted an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari in the case, arguing that current interpretation and enforcement of the comparable services provision is inconsistent between courts and often strays from its statutory purpose, resulting in potentially severe harm to students with disabilities.

What they learned: “We were each writing different sections that needed to meld together into a broader and important message,” says Kaplan. “The process taught me the importance of taking a step back from the specific facts of this litigation, and this student in particular, to consider the broader context and broader impact of the matter.”

START-UP VENTURES CLINIC

Patrick O’Connell JD/LLMLE ’20 and Neil Datar ’20

 

What they did: Protect3d, a company started at Duke by engineering students who also played football, had already secured grants and garnered buzz for its product — custom-fit athletic pads made through 3D scanning and printing. With the founders ready to start raising money, adding personnel, manufacturing, and selling, O’Connell and Datar got to work on a range of matters, including drafting customer contracts and employee agreements, navigating securities regulations to help organize a first fundraising round, and registering a medical device with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

What they learned: “I knew the clinic was in line with what I wanted to do and that it would teach me useful skills but I had no idea the degree to which it would give me practical experience in contract drafting, in working with entrepreneurs, in working with supervisors, and getting and implementing feedback in transactional law,” said Datar. “It has been my greatest avenue for learning and for growth, and for adding value as a future lawyer.”

FIRST AMENDMENT CLINIC

Neil Joseph ’20 and
Harrison Newman ’20, et al

 

What they did: In 2017, Kevin Hennelly, a retired utility worker, posted comments on Facebook and a newspaper website that were critical of a wealthy businessman’s efforts to rezone Hilton Head National Golf Course for residential and mixed-use development, prompting claims from the businessman for defamation, negligence, and injunctive relief. Building on work conducted by several teams of prior clinic students, Joseph and Newman drafted a summary judgment brief. When in-person arguments were canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the judge in the federal district court in South Carolina decided to rule on the parties’ briefs, ultimately awarding summary judgment to Hennelly and praising the clinic students for the quality of their representation.

What they learned: Lecturing Fellow and Supervising Attorney Nicole Ligon ’16 and Professor H. Jefferson Powell, the clinic’s director, “invested much time and effort into making our case the best it could be, while also empowering Harrison and myself,” says Joseph. “I felt like an integral part of a team, an equal part of Kevin’s defense. This experience prepared me for being a lawyer more than anything I’ve done at the Law School.”

ENVIRONMENTAL LAW AND POLICY CLINIC

Victoria Rose JD/MEM ’21 and Hannah Smith MEM ’21

 

What they did:  The clinic has represented Yadkin Riverkeeper since 2009, working to ensure adequate cleanup around a shuttered Alcoa aluminum smelting plant in Badin, N.C. Almost a century of large-scale production with improper waste disposal has seriously polluted soil and water in the former company town, particularly in the largely Black community of West Badin. In addition to comparing site conditions in Badin to those in Massena, N.Y., where Alcoa had conducted a more rigorous cleanup after closing a smelter, Rose and Smith began an ArcGis StoryMap, an online tool illustrating the source of Badin’s toxic legacy and results of research conducted by successive clinic teams. The client will use the StoryMap in public education and advocacy campaigns.

What they learned:  “While lawyers play a key role in the environmental justice movement, it is the voices and stories of our clients and the communities we serve that really give the movement strength and push it forward,” says Rose. “As I move forward in the field of environmental law, I will continue to be mindful of the power of storytelling and look for opportunities to share the stories of my clients to help them achieve their goals.”

IMMIGRANT RIGHTS CLINIC

David Gardner ’20, Amanda Ng ’20,
and Nick Lynch ’20

What they did:  The client, whose relationship to a witness in a prosecution tied to a public official made her a target for violence in her home country, was seeking asylum in the United States. Gardner, Ng, and Lynch and their clinic supervisors collectively invested more than 700 hours over eight weeks on the case, which challenges new nationwide restrictions placed by the U.S. attorney general on asylum based on family relationships. In addition to compiling 800 pages of documentary evidence and crafting a 25,000-word brief to preview a possible appeal, each student identified and secured an academic expert to provide key testimony and argued a portion of the four-hour hearing. [The client’s asylum application was denied in late June but is now on appeal and will make use of the substantial record the students established.]

What they learned:  “It was difficult at first to navigate the language barriers and to balance the need to understand our client’s story against the need to understand the substantive law around asylum eligibility,” says Ng. “But the further we got in the process, the more strongly I felt that genuine and effective legal advocacy requires a partnership with our client.”

The Immigrant Rights Clinic team with their client. From left: Hila Moss (co-counsel), client, Kate Evans, Nick Lynch, David Gardner, and Amanda Ng. (The photo is used with the client’s permission; her face is obscured to preserve confidentiality.)

INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS CLINIC

Michelle Jackson ’20

What she did:  To prepare the clinic’s May 7 submission to the U.S. Secretary of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights that was co-signed by individuals associated with human rights clinics at 20 law schools, Jackson, an advanced clinic student, attended and monitored all five of the commission’s public meetings. Working with two other students, she kept meeting records and engaged in advocacy, research, and analysis that involved delving directly into many of the most pressing and timely questions regarding human rights law and its institutions. Jackson helped frame the submission that puts forth eight principles of international human rights law that the commission should rely upon, including that “there is no hierarchy of rights,” that sexual and reproductive health are “human rights guarantees,” and that rights such as the right to food, work, and social security are “equal to civil and political rights.”

What she learned:  “Monitoring the commission taught me the importance of the small things — showing up, paying attention, and taking good notes,” says Jackson. “Our meticulous notes provided a more timely and accurate record than the official minutes and enabled us to support our partners’ advocacy efforts. This project also required strategically selecting the right time, audience, and mechanism for our advocacy efforts. Finally, drafting the final submission was a challenging exercise in messaging, as we distilled comprehensive legal doctrines into concise summaries, balancing academic rigor with accessible language to create a document instructive for both the commission and the public.”

APPELLATE LITIGATION CLINIC

Farrah Bara ’20, Ellie Hylton ’20, Mark Rothrock ’20,
and Spencer Scheidt ’20

   

What they did:  The team represented Gerald Howell, a Pennsylvania inmate serving a life sentence without parole for a 1982 Philadelphia murder he has long maintained he did not commit, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Howell, who has been incarcerated since the age of 18, presented new evidence of his innocence in the district court. At issue on appeal is whether this evidence fulfills the Supreme Court’s actual-innocence standard for overcoming the statute of limitations governing habeas petitions. The students, who researched and briefed the appeal under the supervision of Clinical Professor Sean Andrussier ’92, the clinic director appointed by the Third Circuit as pro bono counsel for Howell, argued that it does. Scheidt argued the appeal via telephone conference on June 17 before a three-judge panel, having been assisted in preparation by his clinic teammates. All have accepted offers for post-graduate appellate clerkships.

What they learned:  “Working in the appellate clinic taught me that law is a team sport,” says Scheidt. “Although everyone in our group was brilliant on their own, because each person brought something different to the table the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. Bouncing strategies, arguments, and syntax off of each other for almost a year made our briefs and oral argument stronger than anything any of us could have accomplished working alone in twice that time.”