Four Law Firms to Receive State Bar Pro Bono Award for Work with LACBA AIDS Legal Services Project
In spring of 2007, the project began to hear anecdotes about HIV-positive detainees in immigration proceedings who were being held at the federal San Pedro Detention Center on Terminal Island. The project soon placed the first detention asylum case with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and later three similar matters with the other three firms. The situation became headline news after the death of an HIV-positive transgender detainee who had died while in custody. Family and fellow detainees said Victor Arellano, who went by the name Victoria, was denied the medication and treatment she needed to stay alive. Each of the pro bono clients, also HIV-positive, had lived in the same pod as Arellano, and were moved out of state, so they couldn’t be interviewed by an investigator from Human Rights Watch, further complicating the representation. They were finally returned to San Pedro only to be sent to Pearsall, Texas when the San Pedro Detention Center was abruptly shut down in October 2007.
Efforts to find and assist the clients required a frustrating series of motions, letters, and phone calls. “Tremendous effort was spent by the pro bono attorneys locating their clients and worrying about their medical care,” said Laurie Aronoff, LACBA Barristers AIDS Legal Services Project Director, and Director of Volunteer Programs for HALSA.
Although they served different clients, the attorneys experienced a collaborative spirit as their cases shared the common challenge of representing clients with a host of difficult and unpopular legal concerns compounded by unexpected, multiple relocations to remote immigration detention facilities. Each matter was fraught with thorny and complicated scenarios demanding more time and services than anyone originally anticipated.
Although the attorneys are accomplished in their own practice areas, none had extensive previous experience in immigration, detention, or asylum cases. “No lawyer likes to work in an unfamiliar legal area. The fact that these are all non-immigration attorneys diligently working on cases that even the experts have been stymied by is a real testament to their dedication and skill,” Aronoff said.
The firms will receive the State Bar President’s Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award—given to attorneys who have provided or enabled the direct provision of legal services to individuals or to legal aid organizations—at the bar’s Annual Meeting in Monterey this month.
“The pro bono awards reflect the very best of our profession in every sector—small and solo firms, larger firms, public sector, in-house, and every other combination,” said State Bar President Jeff Bleich. “Regardless of where or how these lawyers practice, they share a common commitment to doing the greatest thing a lawyer can do; they give a voice and a chance at justice to those who would otherwise go unheard.”
In addition to the State Bar award, the firms received the Hon. Benjamin Aranda III Outstanding Public Service Award at LACBA’s Installation Dinner last June for their handling of these cases.