Clinic celebrates 'significant win' before Third Circuit

Months of legal research and writing resulted in a significant win on appeal for ADA plaintiff and engineer Theresa Ellis, assisted by students in the Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic.

When Ellis won an advisory $1.2 million jury verdict and reinstatement based on an ADA claim against her former employer, Ethicon, Inc., the victory was short-lived; she was without counsel when Ethicon appealed the verdict to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Then, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic to serve as amicus, or a friend of the court, representing Ellis’ interests and the correct rule of law. The clinic accepted the assignment.

“You’re basically a party without being bound to represent all of the person’s interests,” said clinic director Michael Foreman, describing the clinic’s role as amicus. “You operate under the jurisdiction’s party rules and urge the court to adopt the correct rule of law.” Professor Foreman teaches Employment Discrimination and has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Following the Third Circuit’s appointment, clinic students parsed their way through thousands of pages of the lower court's record, examined exhibits, and analyzed pre- and post-trial briefs to become experts on the issues involved. The clinic filed two amicus briefs and Professor Foreman argued the case on June 26, to a panel of three judges.

Just weeks after oral argument, the panel affirmed the jury finding that Ellis was a victim of intentional discrimination based upon her disability and affirmed that the lower court had decided upon the correct relief for Ellis. On that point the court was clear "we agree that reinstatement is a proper remedy."

“It was a total vindication for Ellis,” said Foreman.

"It took years for my friends and family to begin to have an understanding of my disability and legal challenges; the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic students and assistants grasped and briefed my realities in less than three months. Amazing work!" said Ms. Ellis. "It's hard to find the words to express my gratitude." 

Current and former clinic students who worked on the case include Asima Ahmad, Heather Bennett, Jessica Brown, Wes Corning, Dave Dambreville, Scott Engstrom, Alexander Kahn, Kate Hynes, Jordan Johnston, Kathryn Steffen, Chris Polchin, Alison Renfrew, Marianne Sawicki, Raman Singh and Mallary Willatt.

"These last four years have been difficult for us. I've described this case as Ellis v. Goliath," said Scott Zukowski, who is the husband of Theresa Ellis. "We have been honored to have the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic involved in Theresa's case."

"Assisting Ms. Ellis and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals with this ADA discrimination case has truly been a fulfilling experience, especially in light of the court's recent decision," said Dambreville, who is studying for the bar exam. "We are all so grateful to have had an opportunity to assist the Ellis family."

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Last Updated July 22, 2015