February 2019 Volunteer Spotlight: City Bar Justice Center’s Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project Celebrates Sullivan & Cromwell Pro Bono Attorneys’ Win for a Rikers Detainee
By Dylan Lee, Project Coordinator, City Bar Justice Center
On July 31, 2014, Kenneth Moore sat in his cell at Riker’s Island, wondering why he was still in jail. Mr. Moore had been arrested for allegedly violating his parole in late June. The underlying sentence—for a narcotics offense—had a “maximum expiration date” of July 31. According to allegations in Mr. Moore’s federal lawsuit, NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS) had no authority to hold him beyond July 31 without a conviction on his alleged parole violation. Yet July 31, 2014 came and went, and Mr. Moore remained incarcerated.
Mr. Moore filed a civil rights lawsuit pro se in the EDNY, alleging that NYS DOCCS held him thirty-nine days beyond the expiration of his sentence—without any legal justification. He also alleged that prison officials ignored Mr. Moore’s and his father’s repeated pleas for an explanation and information about his release date. Those thirty-nine days were deeply anxiety-producing to Mr. Moore. “To be held when you don’t know why you’re in jail or when you’re getting out—it’s unimaginably stressful,” said Director of City Bar Justice Center’s Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project, Cat Itaya, who met with Mr. Moore before connecting him with pro bono counsel at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.
“Mr. Moore was a capable and focused pro se litigant, but the emotional toll and the time involved in researching and drafting really wore on him,” said Ms. Itaya. “I worried he might lose his case—not on the merits, but because he couldn’t afford a lawyer to pursue it the way he needed to succeed,” she continued.
That’s when pro bono heroes Wen-Ying Angela Chang and Yevgeniy Zilberman from Sullivan & Cromwell stepped in. Angela had first been introduced to Mr. Moore’s legal claims when she volunteered in the pro se clinic. Angela felt stirred to help Mr. Moore further and brought the matter to Jessica Klein, Sullivan &Cromwell’s pro bono counsel, for official approval. “Angela is a regular volunteer with our twice-a-week pro se clinic,” Ms. Itaya said, “so we were thrilled that she and her team at Sullivan & Cromwell volunteered to take Mr. Moore’s case pro bono.”
With his pro bono team’s help, Mr. Moore reached a settlement with NYS DOCCS for $45,000. Mr. Moore said, “My case was much more than just winning some money. It was about restoring my faith in our legal system.” Ms. Itaya said, “We are so happy that Mr. Moore’s case settled, but even more that the settlement was public. Because settlement agreements are usually subject to gag orders, there’s a real democracy-enhancing aspect to having the settlement terms part of the public record, especially for allegations of civil rights abuses like those in Mr. Moore’s case.” Angela was equally pleased with Mr. Moore’s settlement and the opportunity to do meaningful pro bono service. She remarked, “Taking on Mr. Moore’s case was a great experience for us.” Angela continued, “We believed that Mr. Moore had a strong, meritorious case, and we are very pleased that we could obtain a great outcome for him.”
Mr. Moore added, “In my opinion every District Court should have a Pro Se Legal Assistance office. That would surely go a long way in terms of evening up the playing field.”
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