Sheppard Mullin Joins Forces with CAI Professors Robert Fellmeth and Jessica Heldman Seeking Records from Agencies of the Federal Government

Sheppard Mullin

SAN DIEGO (October 23, 2020) – In response to the Trump administration's implementation of the "zero-tolerance" policy at the U.S. border in 2018, the Children's Advocacy Institute (CAI) submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain information about the children and families subject to the inhumane policy of family separation.  The federal immigration agencies failed to respond sufficiently - and in some cases, failed to respond at all - for months.  Refusing to take no for an answer, CAI teamed up with Sheppard Mullin to file a complaint in federal court in San Diego to compel compliance from these public agencies. 

After almost a year of litigation, CAI and Sheppard Mullin were able to win disclosure of an enormous quantity of detailed documents, revealing numerous concerning circumstances of unjustified seizure and unreasonable detention of children apart from their families. CAI is currently working on a publication highlighting the atrocious policies and practices that harmed these innocent children.  Critical to the Freedom of Information Act case was its coordinated prosecution by counsel for CAI and one of the major law firms nationally:  Sheppard Mullin.  Sheppard Mullin Partner, USD law alumnus and former CPIL student, Travis Anderson 09 (JD) headed up the prosecution team at Sheppard Mullin.  Sheppard Mullin Associates Sean Mann-O’Halloran and Bobby Foster 19 (JD) – another USD law alumnus – provided invaluable research and drafting support.  Law students Francesca Sparaco 20 (JD) and Katie Abajian 20 (JD) assisted in this litigation through CAI’s Child Advocacy Policy Clinic and Tabitha Belshee (Yale) and Paul Ammons (St. Joseph’s University) provided assistance through CAI’s Pre-Law Internship Program.  

Following the agencies’ production of long overdue records, the parties negotiated an attorneys’ fees settlement of $60,000, which was understood to be the largest voluntary fee payment by the government in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in the Southern District of California. The U.S. Attorney on the case and the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Rebecca Church, performed with consummate professionalism.   In a remarkable act of generosity, Sheppard-Mullin chose to direct all of the fee recompense to USD School of Law’s Children's Advocacy Institute (CAI). "Every time I look at an incoming class of students," Fellmeth noted, "I try and find someone who reminds me of Travis Anderson, knowing how much that future attorney will make me proud."  

When asked about his experience working with CAI, specifically working with Bob Fellmeth and Jessica Heldman ’04 (JD), Anderson remarked that the two were “a great team.  Jessica’s diligent and incisive approach to obtaining the necessary records resulted in the disclosure of important information about the treatment of children and families detained at the border.”  As for Bob Fellmeth, “he was fantastic!  Everytime he spoke, the government took notice.  His eagerness to tell the Court precisely why this lawsuit was necessary played a pivotal role in the government’s post-lawsuit cooperation and attorneys’ fees settlement agreement.”

“I am glad that our team at Sheppard Mullin was able to play a small role in helping CAI achieve this important outcome,” says Travis Anderson.  He went on to say that working with Bob and Jessica was a “great experience. I look forward to doing it again.”

This is great news for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, founded at USD School of Law in 1989, as one of the nation’s premier academic, research, and advocacy organizations working to improve the lives of children and youth, with special emphasis on improving the child protection and foster care systems and enhancing resources that are available to youth aging out of foster care.  If you would like to support CAI’s work on behalf of children, transition aged foster care youth and improve the lives of children throughout California, please contact Elisa Weichel at (619) 260-4806 or info@calchildlaworg or make a gift now!

About the University of San Diego School of Law

Each year, USD educates approximately 800 Juris Doctor and graduate law students from throughout the United States and around the world.  The law school is best known for its offerings in the areas of business and corporate law, constitutional law, intellectual property, international and comparative law, public interest law and taxation.

USD School of Law is one of the 84 law schools elected to the Order of the Coif, a national honor society for law school graduates.  The law school’s faculty is a strong group of outstanding scholars and teachers with national and international reputations and currently ranks 36th nationally among U.S. law faculties in scholarly impact and 22nd nationally in past-year faculty downloads on the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN). The school is accredited by the American Bar Association and is a member of the Association of American Law Schools. Founded in 1954, the law school is part of the University of San Diego, a private, independent, Roman Catholic university chartered in 1949.

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