In November’s AIM, AILA members and recipients of the Washington State Bar Association’s 2015 Award of Merit Manuel Rios and Deborah Neidermeyer discuss winning their lawsuit under the Washington State Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act and how members can replicate their success.
Recently, Manny Rios was awarded with the highest award from the Washington State Bar Association. With attorney, Deborah M. Niedermeyer, they received the award for creating an unprecedented case against notarios, unlicensed law practitioners. This is what the NW Lawyer Magazine had to say on the award’s behalf:
This award is the WSBA’s highest honor and is given for a recent, singular achievement. It is awarded to individuals only — both lawyers and non-lawyers.
This award is in recognition of Deborah M. Niedermeyer and Manuel F. Rios’ work in filing the first-ever lawsuit against unlicensed immigration consultants under Washington’s 2011 Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act.
Unlicensed immigration law practitioners, also known as “notarios,” prey on unsophisticated immigrants with limited knowledge of English and the U.S. legal system. The processing of immigration cases by these unlicensed practitioners of law violates both criminal and civil laws in the state of Washington. Due to errors and false statements by these unlicensed practitioners, their victims are often left exposed to serious adverse legal consequences, including detention, deportation, and/or permanent separation from family in the United States. Moreover, because unlicensed immigration law practitioners frequently claim or imply that they are attorneys, their operations undermine the reputation of and the public’s confidence in the legal profession, especially within vulnerable immigrant communities.
In 2014, Niedermeyer and Rios filed a consumer protection suit on behalf of a family which had been defrauded and seriously injured by a pair of notarios. After over 80 hours of pro bono representation, Niedermeyer and Rios reached a settlement with the defendants, who agreed to pay in full what the law anticipates: triple damages to the plaintiffs, plus costs and attorneys’ fees. Niedermeyer and Rios have donated 100 percent of their attorney fees to WA-AILA to set up a revolving fund to finance service of process and filing fees for future cases, to help promote the use of a “private attorney general” strategy to protect vulnerable immigration clients, and to educate immigration lawyers on how to successfully file similar consumer protection actions.
Niedermeyer is a contract attorney specializing in immigration, consumer protection, civil rights and Indian law. Her pro bono work includes nonprofit corporate governance advice and autism-related civil rights issues. She is the chair of the WA-AILA Professional Responsibility and Consumer Protection Committee.
Rios, a partner at the firm of Rios & Cruz, P.S. in Seattle, has practiced immigration law since 1997 and has been a consultant attorney for the Mexican Consulate in Washington for immigration matters since 2002. In 2009, Rios received the Latino Bar Association of Washington’s Miembro Exceptional Award for his pro bono work against notarios in the Latino community, and in 2013 he was awarded the Premio Othli by the Mexican government for his work on behalf of Mexican immigrants in the United States.
Paulo Chavez Mendez paid more than $1,000 to a Lakewood company for help with his immigration case but saw his fight to stay in the United States go from complicated to potentially catastrophic.
“I think that, but for our intervention and the cooperation of (the federal Department of Homeland Security) to help these people who were victimized, that yes, he would have faced definite deportation,” said Chavez’s attorney, Manuel Rios.
Chavez’s wife and three minor children have legal permanent residency in the United States, and the 41-year-old Midland man hoped several years ago that the Lakewood company, E.C. New Horizons, could help him get the same.
“He’s just a guy that’s trying to be with his family,” Rios said.
Now Chavez is trying to avoid deportation to Mexico, and recently settled a lawsuit against New Horizons, which allegedly prepared his paperwork and gave him unauthorized legal advice.
Chavez’s case for legal permanent residency was complicated to begin with because of two prior deportations, and the actions of New Horizons had him dangerously close to being sent back to Mexico, Rios said.
No one answered the phone when The News Tribune called the company several times last week, and no one answered the door when a reporter stopped by Thursday.
According to Chavez’s lawsuit:
The business is registered with the state Department of Revenue under the name of Edwin Cruz as a portrait photography studio and under the name Mauricio Terry as an administrative management consulting service.
A Better Business Bureau accreditation sign was in the window of the office at one point, though E.C. New Horizons is not accredited by the BBB.
An online ad on the Lakewood-JBLM Patch website used a statement from Terry, saying the business provides “consultation services for immigrants who are looking to start the process of gaining permanent residency, citizenship or a Work Authorization Document.”
The ad also said: “Rather than attorney fees, we provide the extra service.”
In 2011, Cruz and Terry were accused of misleading advertising and agreeing to give legal advice and prepare immigration-related documents for customers. They settled with the state Attorney General’s Office for $2,000 in civil penalties and $6,000 in attorney fees and legal costs.
NOTARIOS INSTEAD OF ATTORNEYS
Businesses that provide immigration consultation without adequate legal training are called “notarios,” in Spanish.
In Latin America, the title reflects someone who is a licensed attorney, and in some places indicates the person is even more credentialed, said Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
In the United States, it translates to notary, someone qualified to oversee the signing of documents.
It’s hard to say how many operate in Washington, but Adams estimates his office each year sees a couple hundred people who seek his office’s help after notarios first tried to handle their cases.
Part of the issue, he said, is that the need for immigration legal services is greater than his nonprofit and others can fill. If someone can’t find help they can afford, a notario might be cheaper.
“There are people out there who are trying to just help people who can’t afford attorneys,” Adams said. “There’s not necessarily an intent to deceive on the part of some.”
The price range for notarios varies, and some charge about as much as a qualified attorney would, Adams said. But in general, a notario costs roughly a third or less of what an attorney would charge, he estimated.
“What ends up happening is that while some people might go through without any problem, many people end up submitting applications for which they don’t qualify,” he said.
$1,300 BILL BUT NO HELP
That’s what Chavez said happened to him. The complaint filed in Pierce County Superior Court gives this account:
In 2011, Chavez and his wife, Esmeralda Ruesgo Loera, turned to E.C. New Horizons after being referred there by Chavez’s brother.
The office at 4102 110th St. SW then had signs that stated: “Nuevos Horizontes” and “Notario Publico.”
Cruz, who was named in Chavez’s lawsuit, told the couple Chavez was eligible for legal status, and had the right to apply for it. Chavez’s two prior deportations wouldn’t be an issue, Cruz said.
The charge for Cruz to prepare the application for permanent residency for Chavez was $1,300. He asked the couple to come back with documents and the payment and filing fees.
When they returned, Cruz spent two hours with them, filling out a form for Ruesga to file on her husband’s behalf. The couple gave Cruz $300 and signed the paperwork, though Cruz did not put his signature on the documents as the preparer.
Cruz said he had worked in the “office of immigration,” and made the couple think he had inside knowledge about immigration matters. Diplomas and certificates on the walls also gave the couple confidence in Cruz, who told them to have faith.
About eight months later, the couple got word that the application had been approved. The next month, they gave Cruz another $300 to put together a naturalization application for Ruesga.
In November 2012, Cruz filled out more paperwork for Chavez’s bid for permanent residency, and the couple paid him another $500 toward the $1,300 tab.
Two months later they learned they would be interviewed by the government about his application, and Cruz told them how to prepare.
When the couple went to the interview on Feb. 21, 2013, the interviewer said the application was being denied because of Chavez’s prior deportations, and that the family should get an attorney.
They went back to Cruz, who told them he didn’t think an attorney was necessary, and appealed the decision for them for $585, which he said he would charge them later.
The appeal later was denied because it was filed with the wrong division of Homeland Security.
In February 2014, Chavez told Cruz he was considering getting a lawyer. Cruz said he shouldn’t do that, and that “only the easy part was left.”
The next month the couple got a notice for Chavez to meet with a deportation officer.
They took the notice to New Horizons, where Terry, also named in the lawsuit, reviewed it. Ruesga asked whether they should get an attorney.
Terry said yes.
90 DAYS AND COUNTING
That’s what they did, eventually working with Rios, who helped them win the settlement in their lawsuit against New Horizons. Rios said his client’s part of the settlement is about $25,000.
The lawsuit was the first time, Rios thinks, that a plaintiff has used the state’s Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act, designed to help target notarios posing as attorneys.
Chavez now has an order that gives him 90 days to get ready to leave the country. His attorney, Rios, said the hope is that Chavez will be able to stay in the United States without fear of deportation when President Obama’s executive action takes effect.
“My feeling is that at least he has a temporary reprieve,” Rios said. “We’re ready to go. As soon as that comes out, he’s ready to file.”
“We agree with the respondent that the Immigration Judge’s analysis overlooked the discussion in the DRI report regarding the use of long-term physical restraints, and how the physical pain caused by such use may constitute torture. … The Immigration Judge also did not consider the report’s statement, “The placement of a person in long-term restraints over a life-time can meet the intent requirement [of the CAT] because staff knowingly places a person in this condition” (Respondent’s Br. at 14; Exh. 8 at 332), We acknowledge that the Ninth Circuit has concluded that the conditions “in the Mexican mental health institutions exist not out of a deliberate intent to inflict harm, but merely because of officials’ historical gross negligence and misunderstanding of the nature of psychiatric illness.” Villegas v. Holder, supra, at 989. However, Villegas was rendered before the 2010 DRI report, Thus, based on the record before us, we conclude that a remand is warranted for the Immigration Judge to consider the overlooked aspects of the DRI report regarding the CAT’s intent requirement and the use of long-term physical restraints in mental health institutions as torturous conduct. …
We conclude that a remand is warranted because the Immigration Judge considered only the efforts of the Mexican federal government to combat gang violence (Respondent’s Br, at 25~27). She did not consider whether those efforts have been effective, including whether public corruption at the state and/or local level precluded those efforts from being effective.
In this regard we note that the Department of State report for 2012 contained in the record indicates that the Mexican government did not enforce its anti-corruption laws effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity (Exh. 8, Tab E at 530), Thus, the Immigration Judge did not fully consider whether a public official would acquiesce in the torture of the respondent based on his affiliation with the as indicated by his gang-related tattoos) by the same gang or a rival gang, or by the drug cartels (Respondent’s Br. at 20~21, 27, 28-31). The Immigration Judge also did not sufficiently consider the respondent’s claim that he would more likely than not be tortured by the police or other Mexican authorities either because of his mental illness or because of his gang affiliation (Respondent’s Br. at 17, 19, 28-31). …
Hence, the respondent argues that he will likely be detained within the Mexican criminal justice system, which is not equipped to handle an individual with his mental illness and may result in his being subjected to abuse amounting to torture as a means of controlling his behavior (Respondent’s Br. at 17, 30~31; Exh, 10 at 5, 27). On remand, the Immigration Judge also shall make necessary findings of fact pertaining to this aspect of the respondent’s CAT claim.
For these reasons we reverse the Immigration Judge’s determination that the respondent did not establish that he more likely than not would be tortured if returned to Mexico. See 8 C.F.R. § 1003.1 (d)(3)(i). On remand, the parties shall have the opportunity to present further evidence regarding all aspects of the respondent’s application for deferral of removal under the CAT. Accordingly, the following orders will be entered. ORDER: The appeal is sustained. FURTHER ORDER: The record is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion and for the entry of a new decision.” – Matter of E-M-, Sept. 5, 2014, unpub. (Hats off to Erica Schommer!)