Feature

Class Action

UB’s law clinics give students firsthand legal experience—and the disenfranchised a fighting chance in court

Thomas Barden, astride a motorcycle

Vietnam vet Thomas Barden turned to a UB School of Law clinic for help in protecting himself and other veterans from fraudsters.

Story by Luke Hammill  |  Photographs by Douglas Levere

THOMAS BARDEN was sitting in a Tonawanda, N.Y., meeting of the Vietnam Veterans of America last January when his ears perked up. He was listening to a presentation by Jonathan Manes, an assistant clinical professor at the UB School of Law, and a group of his students.

The U.S. Department of Defense, they were saying, maintains a website that offers private details of veterans’ military service to anonymous third parties, potentially exposing millions of vets to an increased risk of identity theft and scams. “Hey,” Barden thought to himself, “that sounds like what happened to me.”

Barden, a retired Air Force master sergeant who served 21 years in the military, approached Manes and told him his story. He had received a phone call in March 2016 from somebody trying to sell him computer software. The man persuaded him he was legitimate, Barden said, by thanking him for his military service and providing details about his Air Force career that Barden thought only a vetted, government-affiliated company would have.

“Of course, I’m not the most computer-literate guy around,” Barden concedes. “My wife will verify that.”

Barden bought the software—and before he knew it, he’d been hacked. The scammers, he says, took control of his computer and held it for ransom. He had to get rid of it, putting him out at least $1,000.

Barden enlisted Manes and his students in the School of Law’s Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic, which Manes launched soon after his arrival at UB in 2016. The result was a 46-page lawsuit Barden and the Vietnam Veterans of America filed in August against the Department of Defense, alleging that the agency’s website violates the federal Privacy Act. Barden believes the phone scammer who knew details about his military service likely obtained that information from the site.

“It’s not about me recouping a thousand, fifteen hundred bucks,” Barden says. “My concern is for other veterans, especially these young guys today fighting over in Afghanistan on three, four, five deployments. They shouldn’t come home and have to deal with an identity problem. The government has to put in protections for that stuff.”

Manes agrees. “It affects millions of veterans across the country,” he says of the lawsuit, which is awaiting adjudication. “So we’re hopeful that the Department of Defense will be reasonable and work with us to fix the site.”

So far, it’s not clear that it will. In a statement responding to the suit, Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, defended the website, asserting that it “helps to ensure service members on active duty are provided the full protections they are entitled to under the law.” In the meantime, media coverage of the lawsuit is growing. Barden noted that a friend sent him an article on the case from the Miami Herald.

“I think now there’s going to be more service members and ex-service members who are going to come forward,” he says. “It’s getting people’s attention.”

Laura Gardiner, Arthur Heberle and Jonathan Manes

PRO BONO: Third-year law students Laura Gardiner and Arthur Heberle confer with Jonathan Manes (in necktie) about the cases they’re handling.

THE VETERANS CASE IS just one example of the pro bono work the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic, along with UB’s other law clinics (see sidebar), provides the Buffalo region. The clinics collectively operate as a public-interest law firm within the law school, allowing students to get hands-on experience under the supervision of experienced professors across a range of social justice issues, from press freedom to animal rights.

The faculty-student ratio within the clinics is about eight to one, which means students get a lot of individual attention. Enrolling in one of the clinics is not required to graduate, but the clinics count toward the six credit hours of experiential learning students need to earn their degrees.

And it is a truly experiential education. All the cases undertaken by UB’s various law clinics are led by the students, who have been granted a limited license by New York State to practice in court while they’re still in school. They typically do the majority of the work on a case, and their names are listed on the case alongside their professor’s.

The Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic focuses on defending individual civil rights—especially free speech, privacy, due process and nondiscrimination—and presses for greater transparency in government through litigation and other legal advocacy. According to Manes, it is one of only a handful in the nation focusing specifically on civil liberties, press freedom and access to public information.

“The clinic serves to fill a gap in legal services that is of fundamental need to society, particularly at this moment in time where the public perception of the rule of law is fraying,” says Aviva Abramovsky, the dean of the law school. “What they’re doing is very, very important.”

Other examples of the clinic’s projects include ongoing work by law students Arthur Heberle, Suzanne Starr and Michael Castillo to obtain information from the U.S. government about open-air burn pits on military bases, which could pose health risks to active service members and veterans, and successful efforts by third-year law students Jessica Gill, Sebastian Sekhon and Hassan Mirza to help an Iraqi refugee obtain his green card after five years of delays. “That’s the most rewarding thing ever, knowing you’ve given someone more security than they had months prior,” says Gill. “He was just so thankful and so happy.”

Another student-led project, with potentially wide-ranging ramifications, seeks increased transparency in the federal court system. The clinic is undertaking the work on behalf of the Columbia University-based Knight First Amendment Institute.

“Too often, the parties to a lawsuit will agree to have details of their case kept secret and put under seal, and too often judges sort of rubber-stamp those orders and close off public access to court proceedings,” Manes says. “And that’s a problem, because oftentimes a dispute in court matters not just to the parties in court but to people who would be affected by the outcome.”

Manes’ students came up with a proposed rule that would “entrench constitutional standards” in legal proceedings and submitted it to the U.S. District Court in Albany. While they await a response, they’re trying to come up with ways to expand the effort to other federal courts across the country.

“The best part of the experience has been getting to work with these motivated, hard-working students,” says Alex Abdo, senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “They’ve put in many hours of work, and it shows in their product.”

 Jonathan Manes and Nicole Hallett

MARRIED TO THE LAW: Jonathan Manes, who leads the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic, and Nicole Hallett, who leads the Community Justice Clinic, are husband and wife.

MANES, THE SON OF Chilean parents, grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and graduated in 2003 from Columbia University, where he majored in biochemistry and the philosophy of science. The next year, he earned a master’s degree in the philosophy of the social sciences from the London School of Economics. In 2008, he earned his law degree from Yale University.

His professional experience aligns nicely with his clinic’s mission. Manes worked as a legal fellow from 2009 to 2011 for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, a unit that “defends civil liberties in the face of various national security programs,” he explains. “Everything from surveillance programs to police programs that target the Muslim community to targeted killings abroad, drone strikes and that sort of thing.”

He won a John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, N.J., where he litigated cases involving prisoners’ rights, immigrants’ rights and marriage equality. He worked on the case that resulted in same-sex couples being allowed to marry in the state.

In 2013, he returned to his alma mater, serving as the Abrams Clinical Fellow at Yale and co-teaching the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. “The model of clinical teaching seemed to fit my interests perfectly,” he says. “I could continue to do good work in the world but also be in the scholarly environment of the university, where I could do research, write papers and have academic freedom to pursue those interests.”

He stayed at Yale for three years before UB lured him (along with his wife, Assistant Clinical Law Professor Nicole Hallett) to Buffalo. The law school was not looking specifically for a Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic, says Kim Diana Connolly, director of clinical legal education at UB. School officials simply “put an ad out, saying we want an excellent clinician.” Manes was “one of many hundreds who applied,” Connolly says. “He made it to the very top because he had great ideas. [We knew] he could deliver an amazing education to students.”

And so can Hallett, who directs UB’s Community Justice Clinic. That clinic represents low-income Western New Yorkers on issues relating to workers’ rights, consumer justice, immigration, civil rights and government benefits. Hallett's clinic worked jointly with Manes' clinic to help the Iraqi refugee obtain his green card.

The two clinics are different, but Manes and Hallett approach their work with the same spirit. “We both see ourselves as public interest lawyers who are sticking up for the little guy and trying to make some good in the world through the law,” Manes says.

IT’S A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON at the beginning of the fall semester, and about 35 law students are gathered in O’Brian Hall’s Cellino and Barnes Conference Center, a boardroom with wood-paneled walls and a large projector screen at the front. Hallett and Judith Olin (JD ’85), assistant clinical professor of law and director of the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic, are acting out a skit for the student attorneys during a joint session of UB’s various legal clinics.

Hallett and Olin are pretending to be busy clinical students, talking to each other on a hypothetical weekend. A fictional client, they say, wants to drop her asylum case because she doesn’t want to testify. Worried about the client being in danger of deportation, Hallett and Olin decide to advise her to marry her boyfriend so she’ll be allowed to stay in the country.

The skit ends, and the question is put to the students: Did Hallett and Olin act ethically?

Discussion ensues, and the students decide that advising a client to get married goes beyond the role of a lawyer—a position with which the professors agree. But, Hallett says, student lawyers can give clients advice about the legal implications of decisions like marriage.

The room also agrees that the fictional students should have called their professor, weekend or not. “You shouldn’t be making big decisions without speaking to us, let alone changing the entire strategy of the case,” Hallett says.

The session ends with an exhortation from Connolly. “Go out,” she tells the students, “and be amazing.”

For the Public Good

Students at the Clinical Legal Education office in O’Brian Hall.

Students at the Clinical Legal Education office in O’Brian Hall.

The history of UB’s legal clinics dates back to the early 1950s, when Professor Charles W. Webster established a student-run defense organization to aid indigent defendants charged with a misdemeanor. But, says Kim Diana Connolly, professor of law and director of clinical legal education, the clinics really took off in the ’70s—part of a nationwide movement at law schools seeking to address what the Fordham Law Review described as a “large, unmet need for legal representation for the poor in both criminal and civil cases.”

Today, says Connolly, UB has made “a big commitment to experiential learning and practical legal training” through its pro bono legal clinics. Some students work in the clinics for four semesters, notes Nicole Hallett, director of the Community Justice Clinic. “They might be graduating with two years of legal experience under their belts.”

In addition to the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic, the law school has six other clinics* focusing on topics ranging from animal law to conflict resolution:

  • The Animal Law Clinic, led by Connolly, works on local, state and national policy addressing animal welfare issues, like puppy mills, treatment of feral and community cats, and corporate formation and policy support for animal groups.
  • Connolly also directs the Environmental Advocacy Clinic, which focuses on state, national and international environmental policy issues that have direct impact on Western New York.
  • Led by Assistant Clinical Professor Nicole Hallett, the Community Justice Clinic represents low-income Buffalonians on issues relating to workers’ rights, consumer justice, immigration, civil rights and government benefits.
  • Assistant Clinical Professor Judith Olin (JD ’85) helps students fight for justice and safety for victims of intimate partner violence in the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic.
  • Directed by Assistant Dean Danielle Pelfrey Duryea, the Health Justice Clinic works on health-related matters, like providing legal assistance to patients at Roswell Park Cancer Institute who don’t have access to a lawyer.
  • Adjunct Professor Steven Sugarman (JD ’85) helps students in the Mediation Clinic navigate the world of conflict resolution as they work on cases referred by local courts or other mediation agencies.

*Additionally, in response to Hurricane Maria, the law school added the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, a special one-month program to run in January 2018. The clinic, directed by Connolly in consultation with Professor Luis E. Chiesa, will teach students about the legal issues surrounding disaster recovery and enable them to travel to Puerto Rico to provide free onsite assistance to hurricane victims.

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Luke Hammill (BA ’11) has reported for news organizations across the United States, including The New York Times, The Oregonian and Chicago Tribune, and now writes for The Buffalo News’ Hamburg Sun newspaper.