Students Argue Federal Appeals Involving Civil Rights Violations

The Appellate Advocacy Clinic provides law students with the opportunity to brief and argue civil rights cases in the United States Courts of Appeals, led by Lecturer in Law Steve Alagna, JD ’16. A graduate of WashULaw, Professor Alagna returned to teach legal practice while at BCLP and quickly realized his love of teaching. That passion and his experience clerking for Fourth Circuit Judge Albert Diaz give him enthusiasm and knowledge that his students appreciate. Clinic student Marc Poissonnier, JD ’24 says, “WashULaw is very, very lucky to have him. He is a great mentor and leader. He treated the clinic as a law firm experience and would guide us in our experience, but we were really doing the real legal work, the legal research, the legal writing.”

The clinic currently has five active cases for clients who have experienced civil rights violations while incarcerated, in addition to amicus brief clients. According to Professor Alagna, “Beyond the experiential legal work, the clinic enables students to see themselves in their community and the legal system while they are developing a professional identity.”

Earlier this year, students traveled with Professor Alagna to Richmond, Virginia for Hodges v. Meletis, No. 22-6427 (4th Cir.). Students Kay Groneck, Roger Han, and Noah Smith developed the appellate strategy and drafted the opening brief for the case during the fall semester. In the spring, Rudy Rosenmayer, Sydney Everett, and Matt Nussbaum drafted the reply brief and prepared for oral argument. In Richmond, Rudy argued the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit with behind-the-scenes support from Professor Alagna, Matt, and Sydney. His argument earned compliments from the judges. The appeal involved a clinic client’s Eighth Amendment rights related to COVID-19 and the conditions of confinement he experienced while serving a sentence in a Virginia prison.

Rudy Rosenmayer, Matt Nussbaum, and Sydney Everett.

Clinic students were back in Richmond just a few months later for an appeal from summary judgment against a client’s excessive-force claim in Simmons v. Whitaker, No. 22-6233 (4th Cir.). In the fall, Alice Gorman, Patrick Northrup, Marc Poissonnier, and Zach Taylor developed the appellate strategy and drafted the opening brief. They also participated in court-appointed mediation. In the spring, Jacob Cogdill, Ashvanika Dodwani, and Jack Whitney drafted the reply brief and prepped for oral argument. Jacob presented the oral argument to the Fourth Circuit in Richmond where Ash, Jack, and Professor Alagna also appeared for the argument.

The Appellate Clinic also works on appeals closer to home. Lamar v. Payne, No. 22-2164 (8th Cir.) was a summary-judgment, First-Amendment-retaliation appeal before the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis. Derek Froman, Alison McDonald, and Elizabeth Randall developed the appellate strategy over the course of the last year, and Derek argued the case before the Eighth Circuit. “Derek did a great job. He got difficult questions and kept his cool. He received nice comments from the judges about how the case was presented,” notes Professor Alagna.

Derek Froman, Alison McDonald, and Elizabeth Randall with Professor Alagna.

All three cases are submitted and remain pending.

In addition to the teams working on court arguments, another team of Clinic students (Alex Adams, Nick Blum, Lauren Rothenberg, and Madeline Wingert) drafted and submitted a merits-stage amicus brief on behalf of Equal Justice USA to the U.S. Supreme Court in Thornell v. Jones, No. 22-982, a capital case that was argued in April.