Saturday, May 26, 2007

Third Circuit Publicly Reprimands Immigration Attorney

In the case of In re Chen, No. 06-8037 (3d Cir. May 24, 2007), the Third Circuit publicly reprimanded Eleanor H. Chen, an immigration attorney in Philadelphia with ten years of experience with the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit also ordered one year of proctorship over Ms. Chen, but agreed with the recommendation not to suspend Ms. Chen from practicing before the Third Circuit.

The problem is filing inadequate legal briefs in Third Circuit appeals. From the decision, it appears that Ms. Chen represents many Chinese people from Indonesia who often are seeking asylum. Ms. Chen represents them at fairly low cost and it is difficult to follow up with all of those clients, which suggests that some of them do not even fully pay the low amounts Ms. Chen charges them. At some point, Ms. Chen became overwhelmed by the workload and wound up filing inadequate briefs with the Third Circuit. It seems that Ms. Chen filed virtually identical five-page briefs to the Third Circuit that frequently did not address the key issues in the appeals. The Third Circuit repeatedly criticized her for filing what it thought were cut and pasted briefs that do not address the legal issues and often do not meet the minimum court requirements for legal briefs -- some did not include the required statement of facts.

In one of the Third Circuit's decisions it said in a lengthy footnote that it would refer her to disciplinary authorities, considering how frequently she submitted inadequate briefs. Incredibly, during the disciplinary proceedings, Ms. Chen claimed she did not always read the entirety of the Third Circuit's decisions in the appeals she handled. I guess a big practice tip is to read the entire decisions in the cases you are handling -- not just the last sentence or bits and pieces. Or at least have a colleague or staffer read the entire decision in your cases!

Anyway, the Third Circuit did not believe her excuse, especially because she emailed about the disciplinary issue after she got the decision. What helped convince the Third Circuit not to suspend her was that: she worked for low fees for a group that desperately needs assistance, she did not intend to act in the way that overwhelmed her, she will have a proctoship for one year, and she is remorseful for what happened.

Something we all have to weigh is the difficult balancing act of the desire to help immigrants desperately in need against the ethical duty to represent the clients you accept in a professional manner. What makes it especially difficult is that in a very controversial move, courts have generally ruled that immigrants to not deserve appointed counsel -- so many immigrants are forced to go ahead with fighting deportation without a lawyer!

The case of Ms. Chen is a sad byproduct of the current climate where courts for now believe indigent immigrants can never get a court-appointed lawyer. Congress and the courts should step in and rule otherwise, either based on a new law or a revised interpretation of basic due process rights. If that happens, we will see less cases of lawyers being overwhelmed and less situations of lawyers stretching themselves to the limit (or beyond their limits) to try to provide some legal help to indigent immigrants who are struggling against the threat of deportation.


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