Time well spent-- Attorney values experience on pro bono civil rights case

By Mike Scott

Legal News

Todd Mendel never imagined himself getting involved in a jury case that dealt with representing a prisoner in the state's correctional system.

But the Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker lawyer estimates that he spent more than 400 hours of his personal time, and more than 500 hours of the firm's time as plaintiff's counsel in Reeves v. Wallington, a case heard by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan this May before U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn, Eastern District of Michigan. Mendel represented Fred Reeves, a long-time prisoner that sued his captors, including guards, the warden and other correctional administrators for allegedly exposing him to a chemical agent used to subdue neighboring prisoners.

That agent, Reeves claimed, had an adverse effect on his health.

Mendel, a partner at the Detroit-based firm since 2000, was first assigned the case back in 2007 at a time when he thought his volunteer work would require minimal time. As it turns out, the discovery process had not even begun, and that alone took him more than a year of research and work before he even began preparing for a trial.

But ultimately Mendel admits that he is a better lawyer for the experience. Mendel and his law firm colleague Hayley Rohn-Dave were given a certificate of appreciation by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for their pro bono work as part of an award that is given out to lawyers around the state who donate their time to represent individuals who otherwise would not be able to afford high quality counsel.

Fellow Barris Sott lawyer Rebecca Simkins received recognition from the same court for her volunteer efforts as part of Law Day earlier this year.

"No matter what you feel about a particular case or the prison system in general I think that it says a lot about our society that we make an effort to represent people who not only can't afford such legal counsel, but may have been convicted of a crime," Mendel said. "It is important in our society to still offer these individuals such representation because as Americans they still have rights."

This in essence was a civil rights case and it was an unusual one in that it was a jury trial. Many civil rights cases that involve prisoner rights are thrown out because of non-meritorious reasons or other technicalities, Mendel said. A small percentage of such cases proceed past the stage where a jury is selected and actually hears evidence.

Courts are always looking for lawyers to offer their time to represent prisoners, Mendel said. In this situation Judge Denise Page Hood from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan asked for volunteers and Mendel was one of the lawyers who expressed interest. But even though the time commitment became more extensive than he ever would have dreamed, Mendel admits that the time spent was worthwhile.

As part of his role as plaintiff's counsel Mendel not only had to conduct all of the discovery, but along with Rohn-Dave wrote the briefs and prepared for depositions. He knew going in that such cases were difficult to win because getting the proof to support a civil rights violation in a correctional facility tends to be a low-percentage possibility.

"We did everything that we would do as part of a large civil trial," said Mendel, who typically specializes in commercial litigation and trial work relating to business disputes. "We used some technological evidence that we felt would support our case.

"I'll be honest, it was a tremendous amount of work but I put as much in as I got out of it on a personal and professional level," Mendel said.

Reeves, who has since been released from his term, appreciated the guidance and counsel provided by Mendel and his staff, which included computer and technology consultants and professionals and firm paralegals. In fact, Reeves recommended Mendel to other inmates who were considering similar types of lawsuits, although because of other responsibilities and caseload with Barris Sott, Mendel wasn't able to accept any of the inquiries.

"I think what (Reeves) really appreciated most is that he was treated like a human being and that we considered his case important and really did our homework," Mendel said.

The case also proved to be a teaching experience for Mendel and his colleagues about the prison system. He admits that it can be easier to volunteer your time for a worthy charitable cause because as a lawyer you are sure to get significant support for the work. But working with one or more prisoners can be much more difficult to justify in the minds of some.

"I think it's one thing that separates us here in the United States from other countries because we are truly guaranteeing some basic rights," Mendel said.

Ultimately Reeves lost his case despite the hard work Mendel put in, and while the recognition Mendel received from the court, his peers and partners was nice, it was the experience of the case that will last Mendel for the rest of his professional career.

"You don't get to argue in front of too many jury trials and that is especially true in a civil rights case," Mendel said. Most lawyers who try such cases receive pressure to settle them because of the high cost and significant amount of time they can take to try.

Keeping his jury trial skills sharp was another outcome of trying the case.

"I think about it as keeping myself mentally fit except in a legal way," Mendel said. "If you don't use these skills in court and in front of a jury you will lose them. It was fun and exciting and it's an experience that I'll never forget as a trial lawyer."

Published: Fri, Nov 20, 2009