Team of four recognized for work on Juana Villegas case
NASHVILLE, Jan. 25, 2013 -- Four Nashville lawyers were honored with the state's top pro bono award for their work protecting the civil rights of Juana Villegas, a jailed immigrant who was shackled to a bed while in labor. The team was recognized by the Tennessee Bar Association at a luncheon Saturday that featured award winners in several categories and a keynote address by Deborah Taylor Tate, a Tennessee lawyer and former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.
The four lawyers receiving the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award were Phillip Cramer, John Farringer and Bill Harbison with Sherrard & Roe PLC, and Elliott Ozment with the Immigration Law Offices of Elliott Ozment. The team made national news for its four-year legal battle to obtain justice for Juana Villegas, an undocumented Mexican woman who was nine-months-pregnant when police pulled her over for a routine traffic violation in 2008. Before she was released from jail six days later, Villegas had given birth to her fourth child. But she also had been shackled to the hospital bed during labor and again after she delivered her son. The case brought international attention to the treatment of immigrants and pregnant women in police custody and has led other states to reform how they treat pregnant women in jail.
The legal team put in more than 1,500 hours on the case and incurred thousands of dollars in expenses. They ultimately won $200,000 in compensatory damages and the right for their client to apply for a U-Visa - a work visa given to immigrants who have been victims of a crime. In this case, Villegas was found to have been the victim of civil rights violations.
The Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award is given annually to one or more private sector attorneys who have demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor, and has performed significant pro bono work. The award is named for Nashville attorney Harris A. Gilbert, who served as president of the TBA from 1994 to 1995 and whose dedication to legal services for the poor set a high standard for all Tennessee attorneys. Gilbert was on hand to present the award with Alexandra MacKay, chair of the TBA's Access to Justice Committee and member with the Nashville law firm of Stites & Harbison.
Speaking at the luncheon, TBA President Jackie Dixon congratulated the award winners, saying they had gone above and beyond in their commitment to provide access to justice for those in need. She also commented on the importance of the awards, saying they provide a unique opportunity to recognize the public service commitment of Tennessee lawyers and celebrate the many ways lawyers are reducing barriers to legal assistance in the state. She concluded with a challenge to fellow lawyers in the room to do more, saying the event was also "a reminder of the vast unmet legal needs of the underserved in our state."
• For biographical information about Cramer, Farringer and Harbison visit the Sherrard & Roe website
• For biographical information about Ozment visit his website
• Read more about the team's work on the case in the January 2013 issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal
• See photos of the team at the award luncheon
• Request high-resolution versions of any photo by contacting the TBA at (615) 383-7421