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ECBA Files Supreme Court Amicus Brief in First Amendment Case

On November 16, 2016, ECBA submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf the Asian Americans Advancing Jusice ǀ AAJC and other civil rights and advocacy groups in Lee v. Tam, a first-amendment and trademark case pending before the Supreme Court.

Tam, the Respondent, is the leader of a band called, “The Slants”—a racially derisive term referring to Asian Americans. Tam has stated that his use of “The Slants” is an effort to reclaim that term. Nevertheless, his trademark application for the name was rejected under a section of the trademark law that prohibits registration of derogatory marks. The Supreme Court will consider whether that section is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Though not submitted in support of either the Respondent or the Petitioner, the amicus curiae brief represents the interests of a coalition of groups whose constituents are harmed by the dissemination of racial slurs. The brief sheds light on the complicated nature of the inquiry before the Court, the free speech interests on both sides, and the power and difficulties of reclamation efforts. ECBA attorneys Daniel Kornstein and Alanna Small worked on the brief. You can read the brief here.

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Bronx Defenders honors ECBA and Morrison & Foerster as Pro Bono Partners of the Year

Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, along with Morrison & Foerster, have been named as the Bronx Defenders’ Pro Bono Partners of the Year for their work to end court delays in the Bronx Criminal Court.  You can read more about the class action lawsuit, Trowbridge v. Cuomo, here.

 

 

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City Agrees to Pay $6 million to Settle Wrongful Conviction Suit

The City of New York has agreed to pay $6 million to Derrick Deacon, a man who spent over twenty years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Mr. Deacon was initially convicted in 1989 as the result of egregious misconduct by law enforcement and prosecutors. After new evidence came to light showing that Mr. Deacon was not the perpetrator, he was granted a retrial and acquitted in minutes. This suit, filed after his acquittal, challenged the official misconduct used to initially convict Mr. Deacon. The New York Daily News covered the settlement here.

ECBA attorneys Earl Ward, Andrew Wilson, Hayley Horowitz, and Jessica Clarke represented Mr. Deacon, together with Glen A. Garber, P.C.

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Earl Ward Secures Not-Guilty Verdict for Man Accused of Potsdam Boy’s Murder

After a three-week trial, Oral Nicholas Hillary was acquitted of the 2011 murder of Garrett Phillips, a 12 year old resident of Potsdam, New York.

Hillary’s legal team, led by ECBA partner Earl S. Ward and co-counsel Norman Siegel, argued that the lack of evidence against Mr. Hillary mandated that he be acquitted of all charges.  As Mr. Ward stated in his closing argument, “There is absolutely no direct evidence tying Mr. Hillary to this crime. Nick Hillary is not the type of person that would walk into a room, put his hands around the neck of a child and strangle him, kill that child. That is not Nick Hillary.” Judge Felix J. Cantena agreed, finding Mr. Hillary not guilty of all charges.

The New York Times extensively covered the trial, among other media outlets. You can watch Judge Cantena read the verdict here. You can listen to Mr. Ward’s closing argument here.

 

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Landmark $5.75 Million Settlement in Rikers Death Case

The Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady announced a settlement in the case of Bradley Ballard, whose horrific death at Rikers Island in 2013 was ruled a homicide. The settlement of $5,750,000 is the largest ever entered into by New York City for a death in custody.

Mr. Ballard, 39, was a seriously mentally ill and diabetic man who died in 2013 due to the abuse and cruelty of Department of Correction staff and the medical providers on Rikers Island. From the moment Mr. Ballard arrived at Rikers, on a parole violation for failing to change a report of address, his serious medical and mental health needs were mishandled by the City’s health care contractor at the time, Corizon Health, Inc.  The abuse took a macabre turn when Department of Correction staff illegally shut him in his cell as a rogue punishment for perceived rudeness, leaving him to decompensate without medication or treatment for his schizophrenia and diabetes.  For seven days, until Mr. Ballard died on September 11, 2013, correction and medical staff walked by the locked cell without offering assistance, turned off the water to his cell, and ignored his obvious and fatally deteriorating state until it was too late.

Mr. Ballard’s death was unusual in its gruesomeness, and his suffering was unmatched as reflected by the historic settlement. But the torture he endured resulted from longstanding and known system failures that have plagued Rikers healthcare and supervision of medical and correction staff.  In 2015, Corizon’s contract for healthcare was finally cancelled, though many of the correction staff who so woefully failed in their duties remain in the jails.   Mr. Ballard’s family can only hope that the City can usher in a new era of basic humanity and competence at Rikers.  They hope that the settlement will spark a rigorous review of the cascade of failures and misconduct that caused Mr. Bradley’s premature and painful death.  No other patient, and no family, should have to endure their suffering.

Mr. Ballard’s mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, was represented in this lawsuit by Jonathan S. Abady, Debra L. Greenberger and Hayley Horowitz of ECBA and Jonathan Chasan and Mary Lynne Werlwas of the Legal Aid Society.

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Foster Child Sues Agency Responsible for Placing Him in Home of Serial Abuser

On September 22, 2016, ECBA, along with Ressler and Tesh PLLC, filed a federal lawsuit in Long Island on behalf of a young, special needs child who was improperly placed by the agency SCO Family of Services in the home of an abusive pedophile—Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu. This child, who is originally from Washington State, was transferred through SCO Family of Services nearly 3,000 miles away to Mugaburu in Long Island. Once there, he suffered a fate similar to the many vulnerable boys forced to live with this madman. He was physically and mentally abused, subjected to long periods of starvation, and sexually assaulted. As alleged in the lawsuit, SCO Family of Services ignored repeated complaints about Mugaburu, including those from J.A. himself, warnings from Suffolk County’s foster agency, and numerous red flags about Mugaburu and his home.

Read more about the case and Mugaburu in press coverage by the New York Times and Daily News.

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City Settles Case for $750,000 After Rikers Guards Ruptured Inmate’s Spleen

The City of New York has agreed to pay $750,000 to settle an excessive force lawsuit brought by ECBA and the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project for the assault and beating of Michael Cruz. In June 2014, multiple officers beat Mr. Cruz so badly that they broke his rib, which eventually pierced his spleen and led to massive internal bleeding. The assault and resulting injuries were life-threatening. Mr. Cruz, who was only 20 years old at the time, was forced to undergo emergency surgery to remove his spleen.

ECBA attorneys Jonathan Abady, Ali Frick, and Sam Shapiro represented Mr. Cruz together with Jonathan S. Chasan and Mary Lynne Werlwas of the Legal Aid Society.

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Unreliable DNA Testing Rejected in Upstate Murder Trial

A New York judge rejected prosecutors’ attempts to use controversial DNA methods in the upcoming murder trial of Oral Nicholas Hillary, who is represented by ECBA attorney Earl Ward and co-counsel Normal Siegel.  The August 26 decision is a significant victory for Mr. Hillary, who has maintained his innocence in the 2011 murder of a 12-year-old boy in upstate New York.

Earlier this year, prosecutors stated their intention to use a computer program known as STRmix to analyze a miniscule scraping from the victim’s fingernails, even though previous attempts to link Mr. Hillary’s DNA to the victim were unsuccessful.  Mr. Ward and the defense team challenged the reliability of STRmix at two hearings held in July and August. Judge Felix J. Catena for St. Lawrence County Court agreed with the defense that the program lacked validation and ruled that its results are inadmissible.

The trial is scheduled to begin on September 6 in Canton, New York.

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Class Action Challenges Racially Discriminatory and Predatory Practices by HUD and Private Equity Fund

On August 12, 2016, ECBA and MFY Legal Services filed a federal class action challenging the legality of a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program that sells government-insured FHA home mortgages to private equity funds, leaving these borrowers without insurance-program benefits they are entitled to and putting them at heightened risk of foreclosure. The suit further alleges that HUD’s program violates the Fair Housing Act because HUD is disproportionately selling FHA loans issued to African-American borrowers in New York City for homes in predominantly African American neighborhoods like St. Albans, Queens.

 The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of New York, also challenges the actions of Lone Star Funds, the largest purchaser of mortgages sold through the HUD program. The lawsuit alleges that once Lone Star purchases the mortgages from HUD, it preys on the homeowners: the company makes false and misleading statements to the homeowners, refuses to offer homeowners loan modifications it is legally obligated to provide, and instead offers homeowners exploitative loan modifications that spell almost certain foreclosure for these borrowers down the line. The complaint also alleges that Lone Star violates the Fair Housing Act because its policies disproportionately impact African-American borrowers and predominantly African-American communities in New York City.

 The suit was covered by the New York Times on Monday, August 15, 2016. The putative class is represented by ECBA attorneys, Matthew D. Brinckerhoff and Diane L. Houk, along with co-counsel MFY Legal Services. A copy of the complaint is accessible here.

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