Q&A: Tell us about a memorable pro bono case you've handled.
California Lawyer

Q&A: Tell us about a memorable pro bono case you've handled.

November 2013

John Cu

A few years ago, I represented a client from the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. Our client was a Serbian national who is HIV-positive. After being ostracized from his community and country, he immigrated to the United States, leaving behind his wife and two children. After several years of living in San Francisco as a model citizen -- he was lawfully admitted in the country, he worked, paid taxes, and sent money back to his family in Serbia -- he applied for a green card to live as a permanent resident in the United States. Unfortunately, his application was summarily rejected for a number of reasons, one of which was his HIV-positive status. He hired me, and after more than a year of litigating and negotiating on his behalf, our client prevailed and is now a lawful U.S. resident. More importantly, he has reunited with his family. They are doing very well and living in the Bay Area.

I was drawn to this pro bono case for several reasons. As a commercial litigator who represents mostly corporations, immigration law is not an area where I had any previous experience. I was attracted to the challenge of learning an entirely different area of the law. More importantly, I was drawn to the human side of this case. Simply put, representing this client was the right thing to do. Allowing him to live lawfully in the U.S. with his family was the only result that was acceptable to us.

John Cu is a partner in Hanson Bridgett's San Francisco office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation across many industries, including banking and financial services, commercial lending, and technology.

Joanna Kim

Last November, I handled this Section 1983 case, representing an inmate who had been attacked by a cellmate. It was a one-week trial in the Eastern District of California. In a case like this, the cellmate is not the focused defendant; the correctional officers are the defendants. We were trying to establish whether the correctional officers knew and/or should have known that the cellmate was going to attack the client and whether they disregarded my client's rights. The person that we were representing had been in prison for most of his adult life, and his cellmate had too. They were in a maximum-security prison.

These types of cases are really hard to win. But one of the most satisfying things for me was that I think my client really felt that he had his day in court. He had originally filed in pro per six or eight years before we got the case -- we were assigned the case right after he had survived summary judgment, which really speaks to his perseverance and commitment to doing this. He never thought he would get anything. He just wanted justice and he wanted people to hear his story. Though we didn't win, I was really satisfied speaking to the jurors afterward about how they really struggled making a decision. It's a challenge to piece together evidence to prove what really happened in this kind of situation, and why the defendants should be liable when the correctional officers deserve a lot of credit for the very difficult job they do.

It was also rewarding on some other levels. As far as the trial aspect went, it was fun to stretch my dramatic chops when presenting a compelling opening statement and closing argument. You want the jury to see the evidence the way you see it. I also enjoyed my interaction with opposing counsel, who were cordial and professional, and I felt like everyone involved did the best job they could. I was obviously disappointed that we didn't win, but I did feel that my client couldn't have gotten better legal counsel. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had.

Joanna Kim recently joined First Capitol Consulting, Inc. as its General Counsel and Director of Legal Affairs in Los Angeles. Before that, she was a longtime partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Michael Shortnacy

During my ten years of practice, I've handled several pro bono cases seeking to protect the rights of children, the disabled, criminal defendants, and several cases for victims of torture seeking political asylum in the United States.

But my most rewarding pro bono work was not really a case at all. It was participating in a mentoring program for foster children who were close to "aging out" of the foster care system. In many states, benefits and support to foster children can be abruptly cut off when the child reaches the age of 18. This can pose serious challenges to the foster children, who at 18 are suddenly expected to live on their own, despite not having established the kind of permanent familial support or other adult guidance that many of us take for granted. These young adults are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, become homeless, pregnant, or involved in the criminal justice system.

I mentored several youths who were close to "aging out" of the foster care system. I met with them regularly and tried to be a source of stability and guidance to them as they navigated the transition to being on their own. Though I also assisted them with legal issues, such as obtaining government assistance for housing and credit reporting issues, what was most gratifying to me was the personal connection I made with them and serving as a role model for at-risk youth -- much more so than the application of my legal training to those specific issues.

Michael Shortnacy, an associate in the L.A. office of Loeb & Loeb, focuses his practice on complex commercial litigation with an emphasis on defense of consumer protection actions.

Puneet Kakkar

Along with the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, I represented a Bangladeshi cook who made limited wages and spoke little English. When I heard that it was a matter affecting the community I grew up in, that struck a chord with me. Also, I realized that for my client to have a South Asian attorney was important -- it bridges that gap that a lot of South Asian immigrants have since I was able to speak to her in Hindi. You have faith in someone speaking your own language.

My client was trafficked into the country, and worked at a restaurant in Little India. After several months of sexual harassment from the head chef, she turned to the South Asian Network, a nonprofit advocacy group where I had volunteered since I was in elementary school. The restaurant owners fired her for reporting sexual harassment and sued her the next day for defamation. That's when we stepped in, and filed a clause complaint on her behalf for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. We also filed a separate action for fraudulent conveyance. We were able to settle for her in January 2013 for $45,000. What this did was send a message out in the Little India community that you can't abuse employees, nor can you avoid your obligations under the law.

This was particularly meaningful for me because I grew up in this community. Employers there aren't fully aware of their obligations, and the employees aren't fully aware of their rights. It can be scary for them to embrace their rights. Our client was brave, she was a survivor, and hopefully her example encourages people to stand up for themselves. The story was covered significantly in the local ethnic press that's read widely by business owners. Oftentimes, people just don't realize what they're required to do, so hopefully this helps to change that.

Puneet Kakkar is an associate at Caldwell Leslie in Los Angeles, where he has been involved in a wide range of civil and white-collar criminal defense matters. He also serves as president of the South Asian Bar Association.

Linda Kornfeld

As a litigator, the work I do is intellectually rewarding and quite satisfying, especially when I am able to help my corporate policyholder clients recover multimillions in insurance proceeds, but the matters are financial in nature and do not in literal terms involve life or death.

Then as a third-year lawyer, my colleague and mentor was retained on a pro bono basis to help his client with a breast cancer battle an insurer that was refusing to pay for a critical treatment. He asked that I work with him to convince the insurer to reverse its life- altering decision. Our client's doctor recommended a bone marrow transplant procedure, which the insurer called "experimental." It offered a 25 percent chance of survival.

Our client asked that the insurer pay for this procedure since it would be difficult for her to fund it on her own. Amazingly, the insurer refused, claiming that it expressly did not cover experimental procedures that offered such low success rate percentages. We pressed the insurer to change its position, but got the simple response that we often hear in our corporate matters: the policy says what it says and the procedure is not covered; sorry. While the treatment may have been too experimental for the insurer's actuaries, it offered survival to our client. We performed significant research and had multiple communications with the insurer in our attempt to help the insurer see the impact of its coverage position. We also expressed our strong commitment to tell this unfavorable story to a Los Angeles jury. Ultimately two wonderful things happened. First, and most important, our client underwent the bone marrow procedure and it was a success. Second, we convinced the insurer to reverse its position and to pay for the procedure. I will never forget this opportunity to use my still developing skills as a young litigator to help our client in such an important way.

Linda Kornfeld is managing partner of Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman's Los Angeles office and a litigator with the firm's insurance recovery group.

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