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Civil Rights Appellate Clinic files amicus brief with Third Circuit Court of Appeals

Most cases handled by the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic are student-identified ones in which they think the clinic could play an important role. Not so in a case on appeal before the U.S. Third Circuit in which the clinic was appointed as amicus in a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“When we are dealing with a pro se party or are faced with a very complicated case, it’s not unusual for the court to approach a clinic and say, ‘We could really use some help on this. Please serve as a friend of the court and provide us with a brief on these points,’” explained U.S. Third Circuit Court Judge Thomas Vanaskie ‘78.

In the months following the Third Circuit’s appointment, clinic students parsed their way through nearly 1,400 pages of transcripts, examined lots of exhibits, and analyzed pre- and post-trial briefs to gain a better understanding of the issues involved. The team of students working on the case include: Heather Bennett ’13, Jessica Brown ’13, Alexander Kahn ’13, Christopher Polchin ’13, Ramandeep Singh ’13, and Mallary Willatt ’13, as well as clinical fellow Wes Corning ’12.

Plaintiff-appellee Theresa Ellis was a senior quality engineer at Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, Inc. when she was injured in a car accident. After it became clear that she had suffered a permanent cognitive injury, a dispute arose with her employer regarding appropriate accommodations under the ADA. After Ellis won an advisory $1.2 million jury verdict, Ethicon appealed to the Third Circuit. Ellis was unrepresented after the jury verdict.

While not officially representing Ellis, the clinic is representing her interests and the correct rule of law in the amicus brief. “You’re basically a party without being bound to represent all of her interests. You operate under party rules,” explained clinic director Michael Foreman.

“The main issue is whether Ethicon’s behavior violated the ADA. If the court says no, then everything else is moot. If they say yes, a whole series of other questions have to be answered. Is she entitled to immediate reinstatement? Is she entitled to the back pay that was awarded by the jury? These are all issues that we tried to address in the brief,” Foreman said.

Ethicon has 30 days to file their response brief after which the clinic has 14 days to file a sur-reply. The panel of judges and date for oral argument is expected to be scheduled early next semester.

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