Ann Juergens: achieving justice for clinic clients

William Mitchell’s clinical program won a substantial victory in Minnesota’s Court of Appeals, helping a woman receive unemployment compensation and renewing her faith in U.S. institutions of justice.

“Often for our clients, Mitchell’s clinical program is their last best chance at achieving justice,” says William Mitchell Professor and Co-Director of Clinics Ann Juergens. Such was the case with a recent client, a woman who had taken a leave from her factory job to travel to Ethiopia to care for her sick mother. The woman was supposed to return to work within 30 days or contact her employer to let them know exactly when she would return. But conditions in Ethiopia were not as she expected.

The client’s initial journey to see her mother took at least four days. She traveled by plane, then bus, and then walked for four to five hours before she reached her mother in a rural part of Ethiopia where there was no electricity, telephone, Internet, or mail service. Additionally, the country was experiencing much civil unrest due to national elections and travel was risky. Still the client took her mother to see the doctor—on horseback, while she walked beside—only to find  that no doctor was available at the medical facility and may not be for several weeks. Staff at the facility would not sign her family medical leave paperwork since they were not doctors.

The client needed to stay with her mother longer than 30 days and, though she tried, was unable to contact her employer due to the communication and travel difficulties in Ethiopia. When she returned to the United States, she discovered that her employer had fired her. The Department of Employment and Economic Development found her ineligible for unemployment benefits because her employer had fired her for “misconduct.”  Mitchell clinic students took the case to hearing, but an administrative law judge agreed that the client had committed “misconduct.”

The following semester, Mitchell clinic students prepared the client’s written appeal argument and then, since they were studying for the bar exam, turned the case over to Juergens, who argued the woman’s case to the Court of Appeals. The Court reversed the administrative law judge’s decision and granted her client unemployment benefits. It found that the woman’s difficulty in communicating from rural Ethiopia to the United States was not misconduct and awarded her unemployment benefits.  The woman will now be able to collect back benefits for her period of unemployment.

“This client told us that she had given up hope that she would ever be treated fairly by people in authority such as employers,” Juergens says. “This decision not only renewed her faith in our government but also taught our students the value of persistence in client representation.”