A legal team that included three Vanderbilt Law graduates, including Nashville immigration attorney Elliott Ozment ’75, along with Sherard & Roe attorneys Phillip Cramer ’00, John Farringer ’02 and Bill Harbison, was honored with the Tennessee Bar Association’s Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year in January.
The award recognizes private attorneys who have contributed significant amounts of pro bono work and have demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor.
Sherrard & Roe partner Phil Cramer recalls first hearing about the case of Juana Villegas in a Sunday school class discussion soon after Villegas was jailed in summer 2008. An undocumented women from Mexico, Villegas was nine month pregnant when she was stopped by police for a routine traffic violation on July 3, 2008, charged with driving without a license and taken into custody.
While being held in the Davidson County jail, Villegas went into labor. As stated in a ruling by Judge William Haynes Jr. ’73, Villegas’ wrists were restrained in front of her body and her legs were restrained together as jail employees transported her to Metro General Hospital. She remained shackled for several hours leading up to the delivery of her fourth child.
The story of Villegas being shackled to a hospital bed during labor and again after she had delivered her son drew the attention of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which contacted Ozment, a nationally known immigration lawyer, about possible legal action. Cramer, who separately heard about the case from a friend, offered his assistance, with his law partners soon joining the team. As John Farringer recalled, “Bill, Phil and I were in a car on the way to a firm retreat when Phil said, ‘Let me tell you about this case I might take on.’ We talked about it the whole trip.”
The lawsuit filed on Villegas’ behalf by the four attorneys brought international attention to the treatment of immigrants and pregnant women in police custody. In a summary judgment, Judge Haynes ruled that Villegas’ treatment during labor and post-partum recovery violated her civil rights, and she eventually won $200,000 in compensatory damages from Metro Nashville government. The team’s work also put Villegas on a path to obtaining a “U-Visa,” a form of work visa generally granted to immigrants who have been victims of a crime.
“What started as a discussion in a Nashville Sunday school class led to a four-year legal battle that changed the life of one Nashville family and is bringing about reforms to the way pregnant women are treated in jails across the country and around the world,” Barry Kolar wrote in announcing the award on the TBA website
For Ozment, taking on “impact cases” such as Villegas’s is at the core of his practice. “It’s not just enough to handle an immigration case; we advocate for the immigrant population in general,” he said.
Cramer credited Sherrard & Roe’s unwaivering commitment to the case. The three Sherrard & Roe attorneys, along with others at the firm, invested more than 2,260 hours of time on the case and received additional support from the firm’s associates and summer associates. The firm paid the costs of expert witnesses, a jury consultant, focus groups and other tools needed for such a major trial.
The case attracted national coverage, including a July 20, 2008, article in in The New York Times. In Davidson County, the sheriff’s department this fall dropped out of the controversial 287(g) immigration program under which Villegas was initially detained. Promoted as a way to help deport repeat immigration offenders and keep communities safe, it was attacked by critics as a divisive program that led to racial profiling and treated fishing and driver’s license violations as harshly as it did rape charges.
Beyond the county borders, Harbison said, they “had a lot of interest from a lot of quarters,” including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican Embassy. The case has also led to changes in how pregnant women in custody are treated.
“We’re seeing more and more states addressing it through legislation,” Cramer said, “and if not by legislation, then by changes in policies.”
The decision by Judge Haynes to certify that Villegas was eligible to apply for a U-Visa could have a broader impact. “This is the first case we know of in the history of American jurisprudence in which a federal judge has entered an opinion certifying a U-Visa for an immigrant based on prima facie violations of that immigrant’s civil rights, and conspiracy to violate those civil rights,” Ozment said. “This is an important precedent in immigration law, which will have significant and far-reaching consequences for immigrants over the entire country.”
While the case clearly has had broad national and international implications, the attorneys involved have been most touched by how their work is impacting the Villegas family. “I’ve been involved in some pretty big money cases,” Farringer said, “but this is probably the only case where the client has started crying and hugged me when the verdict was read.”
Cramer and Harbison echoed those feelings. “Her reaction when the jury came back — you just don’t get many moments like that,” Harbison said.
As for Ozment, “seeing a judge certify a U-Visa to a person who deserved it and who had no other immigration relief available to her, I literally cried when I got the memo from Judge Haynes,” he recalled.