Joseph Drake was cleaning his cell at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute when he slipped on the wet floor and sliced a 4-inch gash into his forearm.
He hit his arm on the frame of his bunkbed that had been damaged by another inmate who cut out a portion of the metal to craft a weapon. The prison had spray painted the sharp-edged cutout orange but did not repair the frame.
About three hours after he injured himself, Drake was taken to the prison nurse who cleaned the wound with saline, bandaged it and gave him a tetanus shot. He eventually healed but for a long time he feared his diabetes would lead to an infection and he might lose his arm.
Drake filed a tort claim in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, alleging the penitentiary caused his injury by negligently placing and leaving him in an unsafe cell. The federal inmate litigated the lawsuit himself, serving discovery, working with U.S. attorneys and responding to motions.
When he successfully defeated the government’s motion for summary judgment, Drake was provided with pro bono counsel. The volunteers, Andrew Campbell and Haroon Anwar, both attorneys at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, did additional discovery and took the case to a bench trial in December 2015.
It was Campbell’s first case where the U.S. government was the defendant and Anwar’s first trial experience. The pair prepared the case and prepped their client, advising him not to waste his time in court taking out his frustrations but to maintain a professional demeanor.
After the one-day trial, Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled in favor of Drake and awarded him $10,000, the amount he originally requested in his complaint.
For their work on the case, Campbell and Anwar were honored during the Southern Indiana District Court’s volunteer appreciation breakfast Feb. 18. The third annual event in a jury room at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis was a thank you to all the attorneys who provided pro bono help in 2015 to pro se litigants in either the Civil Trial Assistance Panel or the Mediation Assistance Program.
In the Southern Indiana District alone, more than a third of the civil litigants are pro se.
“Your efforts greatly contributed to the court’s efforts to do justice in all cases regardless of the litigant’s financial resources,” Chief Judge Richard Young told the gathering.
Listening to their stories
Attorneys say the volunteer work is rewarding. They get experience litigating in federal court and have the opportunity to meet and help clients who are very different from those they usually represent.
Tracy Betz, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, remembered a Christmas card from her first pro bono client. She, along with Taft associates Melissa Gardner and Krysta Kaye Gumbiner, had helped Aaron Isby-Israel, an inmate at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, through a Pavey hearing. The team was able to show the prison guards were not giving him the forms he needed so he was unable to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a complaint in federal court.
In the holiday card, Isby-Israel told his legal team he was very appreciative of their work and that they made the world a better place.
The lawyers can provide assistance to litigants either at trial or during settlement conferences. Magistrate Judge Mark Dinsmore works regularly with the volunteer attorneys in the mediation program and said the pro bono counselors are crucial in helping plaintiffs place a dollar value on their cases. Not only do the litigants benefit from having a lawyer help them maneuver through the settlement process, but judges gain as well.
Dinsmore said although the settlement process could happen without the attorney volunteers, it would be much more difficult. “I could do it but part of the mediation process is testing the strengths and weaknesses of a case, and it’s very difficult to do that with pro se parties without them thinking that you’re criticizing their case,” he said.
Speaking at the breakfast, Judge Sarah Evans Barker told the attorneys their volunteer work was valuable regardless of the outcome. In particular, she noted many of these clients are used to being discredited but by listening to their stories and strategizing with them on their case, the attorneys give these individuals validation and credibility.
In 2015, Betz and Taft associate M. Zach Gordon represented an inmate from Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility. Like Isby-Israel, Tyree Creer was trying to convince the court he could not move forward with the administrative remedies to his complaint because the prison guards would not mail his documents to Indiana Department of Correction officials.
The hearing gave Gordon his first opportunity to sit first chair. He has often sat second or third chair but because corporate clients are reluctant to have associates leading their cases, he never before had the chance to run a trial.
“To be the guy who steps up to the podium for all the hard questions, it’s a lot of fun,” Gordon said.
Anwar spotted the Drake lawsuit while looking through the list of available pro bono cases at the district court. He showed Campbell, who was intrigued by the description and realized the litigation would be manageable even if it went to trial.
In their preparation, Campbell and Anwar had to rely on video conferences and phone calls because meeting in person was not always feasible in the federal prison. A settlement was briefly discussed but did not progress much beyond an offer and counteroffer.
“He wanted to go to trial,” Campbell said, noting for Drake the case was about not only the money but also about ensuring inmates are treated properly. “He truly believed he had a great case and he would win.”•