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Making an Impact

Students argue cases in federal appellate court

Students in Professor Jon Romberg's Impact Litigation Clinic of the Seton Hall Law Center for Social Justice take a vital role in providing legal representation in the federal appellate courts and in preparing amicus briefs in the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The Impact Clinic is an intensive experience in sophisticated legal writing, and often oral argument, in real appellate cases on behalf of real clients in appellate cases that present cutting-edge legal issues. Students work under Professor Jon Romberg's close supervision in small teams on pro bono, public interest cases for poor or otherwise disadvantaged litigants who cannot afford an attorney.

Over the years, students have briefed and argued dozens of federal appellate cases, including multiple cases before Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Samuel Alito when they sat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second and Third Circuits. The Clinic's cases generally focus on civil rights and civil liberties, including discrimination claims, inmates' claims of unconstitutional prison conditions, and applicants for asylum and disability benefits. Impact Clinic students have used the skills and experience they have gained in the clinic to go on to clerk for judges on the Second and Third Circuits, along with numerous other federal courts and the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Two teams of Impact Clinic students argued cases in the Second Circuit on June 20. Will Findlay ('13), Jason Angelo ('13) and Amanda Grossi ('13) briefed the appeal in Jamison v. Metz, and Will and Jason argued in court. The case involved Jamison's Fourth Amendment claim for excessive use of force during his arrest. Jamison, a pro se inmate working in the trial court without any assistance from an attorney, put evidence into the record demonstrating that police officers, in the course of arresting Jamison for stealing a car, shot him repeatedly in the back after he had raised his hands in the air and surrendered. The district court, however, dismissed Jamison's claim at summary judgment, refusing to consider any of the facts Jamison had put into the record because of his unintentional failure to comply with the formal requirements of a local rule concerning summary judgment procedures.

The district court held that Jamison's failure to number his paragraphs and provide citations, as required by the local rule, meant that it would refuse to consider the actual disputes of fact in the record that, as a substantive matter, precluded summary judgment on Jamison's Fourth Amendment claim. The Clinic argued that this application of the local rule to dismiss Jamison's case was legally improper.

Jason Angelo said, “Working on an appellate case for the entire year afforded us the opportunity to see the entire process surrounding federal court appeals, including procedural issues and how to properly frame an argument on appeal. Our team worked together to produce briefs and meet deadlines, keep in contact with an incarcerated client, and ultimately prepare for oral argument. Through numerous Google Hangout video sessions and meetings at school, we honed our points and polished our arguments with the aid of Professor Romberg. 

"Arriving at the courthouse in downtown Manhattan and standing at the podium before the panel, we were confident not only that we had the law on our side, but that we were fully prepared for anything the court might throw our way. We're hopeful that we'll receive a favorable ruling from the court in the near future, but regardless of the outcome, it was an honor and an incredible experience to prepare for and argue a case before the Second Circuit." In the fall, Jason will serve as a clerk to Honorable Marie Simonelli in the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court.

Bill O'Brien ('13) and Lauren Repole ('13) briefed and argued the second appeal, Jones v. New York City Department of Corrections. Jones alleged an Eighth Amendment violation because of prison medical officials' deliberate indifference in refusing for 16 days to treat Jones' objectively serious medical need of a broken wrist. Jones' complaint asserted that he informed prison medical doctors that he had fallen on his outstretched wrist while exiting the shower and heard an audible snap. His wrist immediately became swollen and extremely painful. The prison doctors, however, failed to make any serious assessment of his wrist or to take an x-ray for eight days, at which point the x-ray confirmed that his wrist was broken. Nonetheless, Jones' wrist was not placed into a cast for a further eight days. Over the 16 days in which prison doctors were aware of the substantial risk of that Jones was seriously injured, they did not provide any treatment, despite Jones' severe pain; the delayed treatment resulted in permanent limitations on the range of motion in Jones' wrist, along with other lasting neurological symptoms.

The district court dismissed Jones' pro se complaint on the pleadings because Jones did not have direct evidence of the prison doctors' state of mind, in particular, that Jones' complaint did not assert when the doctors definitively learned that Jones' wrist was broken. The Clinic argued that it was entirely unreasonable and unnecessary for a plaintiff to have direct evidence of defendants' state of mind at the complaint stage, prior to any opportunity for discovery, and also took on defendants' arguments on appeal that the court was authorized to consider Jones' medical records in resolving a motion to dismiss on the pleadings. 

Lauren Repole said, “I can’t think of a better way to begin my legal career than arguing before an esteemed panel of the Court of Appeals. I’m grateful for the opportunity to step outside of the classroom to gain practical litigation experience while advocating for the rights of our client in the hopes that he may have his day in court.” In the fall, Lauren will clerk for the Honorable Kevin McNulty of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Decisions on the cases are pending as of June 25.