Small Firm Can't Slip Prisoner's Pro Bono Civil Rights Case

By RJ Vogt | January 10, 2020, 8:53 PM EST

When a judge tells a private lawyer to represent someone for free, does the lawyer have to do it?

According to a Connecticut federal judge’s ruling Thursday, the answer is yes — no matter how under-resourced an attorney is or how far afield the case is from his or her typical practice.

The order by U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant came in a federal civil rights case brought by Joe Ukanowicz, a 31-year-old serving time for first degree larceny in Connecticut state prison since June 2017.

Like many pro se incarcerated plaintiffs, Ukanowicz has struggled to follow rules of procedure from behind bars, filing handwritten motions and amended complaints out of order and trying to submit evidence prematurely.

Last month, Judge Bryant advised him that she would entertain a motion for appointed counsel. When he subsequently filed a bid, she did as promised and assigned someone: Michael E. Satti of Michael E. Satti Attorney at Law LLC.

The only problem? Satti didn’t want the case. According to his firm’s website, he specializes in labor law, employment discrimination, contract law and municipal law — with no mention of whether he’s ever worked on prisoner civil rights disputes.

In asking for relief from taking on Ukanowicz’s suit, he wrote “this appointment would be burdensome and result in an unreasonable financial burden to a small practice comprised of two attorneys, including myself, with limited resources.” He also noted previous pro bono cases he accepted in 2016 and 2018.

But Thursday, Judge Bryant said his excuse was no excuse at all.

“The fact that Attorney Satti is a small-firm practitioner does not alone establish that this pro bono assignment would ‘impose a financial sacrifice so great as to be unjust,’” the judge ruled, quoting from the Connecticut Rules of Professional Conduct.

“Attorney Satti’s motion elicits no facts to show that the burden of representing the indigent plaintiff in the instant action would be unreasonable,” she added.

The unusual case highlights Connecticut’s apparent lack of volunteer pro bono attorneys. Under the state’s pro bono appointment procedure, a “volunteer wheel” is typically used to randomly assign attorneys of the bar who signed up to be considered for such cases.

Only when “no attorney from the volunteer wheel is available” may a non-volunteer attorney be assigned a pro bono case, according to the rules.

Once assigned, Connecticut attorneys have few avenues for relief: they must either show that they have taken on an appointed pro bono case in the past year, or show that they’re at least 70 years old.

Otherwise, the state’s rules explicitly say “relief is unlikely to be granted” on the grounds that a case would be burdensome or interfere with other obligations. They also say relief is unlikely if counsel “lacks experience” in the relevant area of law.

“In the Court’s experience, even an attorney who is inexperienced or unfamiliar with the subject matter can provide valuable assistance to an unrepresented person,” the rules state.

Satti did not respond to requests for comment, but other Connecticut lawyers expressed surprise at the forced case. Tim Aspinwall of Aspinwall and Aspinwall LLC said taking on a complex civil rights case is a tall order for a small firm, especially if the case involves an unfamiliar practice area.

“That could totally inundate you,” said Aspinwall, who has first-hand knowledge of running one’s own practice. “If you don’t know civil rights law, cases or procedure, you’ve got to sit down and learn to ride the bike.”

Aspinwall added that Satti’s initial claim that the case would burden his small firm could have opened him up to a future malpractice suit or grievance case if he fails to win relief for his client.

And winning the case would be no small feat. Prisoner civil rights cases are rarely successful, and Ukanowicz’s is a complicated one. His complaint alleges prison officials improperly denied his bid for protective custody on the grounds that members of the Latin Kings gang were out for his life.

As a result of their mistakes, he claims a Latin King was inadvertently transferred to share his cell and subsequently beat him to “one inch from my life.” The attacker, according to court filings, later revealed he had been offered $30,000 to kill Ukanowicz.

In their answer to the complaint, which seeks $600,000 in damages, Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center Warden Nick Rodriguez and Captain Keith Lizon claimed qualified immunity protection because their actions “did not violate any clearly established law.”

A case administrator for the U.S. District of Connecticut did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.