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Students in Complex Federal Litigation Clinic Win Religious Freedom Case

Beverly Forde, a practicing Sunni Muslim incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, will no longer be subject to routine pat searches by male correction officers thanks to the efforts of a team of clinic students at Yale Law School.

Professor Brett Dignam and students from the Complex Federal Litigation and Prison Legal Services Clinics

The students belong to the Complex Federal Litigation Clinic at Yale Law School. They represented Forde in the lawsuit, Forde v. Baird, in which Forde contended that the pat search policy violated her rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. She said being touched by a man outside her immediate family was deeply offensive to her and went against the tenets of Islam.

The case, originally filed in 2004, went to trial in federal district court last December, and on June 25, Senior U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns ruled in favor of Forde, ordering the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury to exempt her from non-emergency pat searches by male officers.

“I was overjoyed when I read the judge’s decision,” said Megan Quattlebaum ’10, a member of the clinic trial team. “This is such an incredible victory for Ms. Forde, and one that will allow her to more fully and freely practice the religion that has given her comfort and strength throughout her incarceration.”

“Representing Ms. Forde was an almost unparalleled opportunity for the many, many students who worked on this case over the past five years, said Robbie Silverman ’10, also on the trial team. “Students filed innumerable motions and briefs, took depositions, and conducted oral arguments in federal court. Going to trial this past December was perhaps the most exciting moment of my law school career.”

Joining Quattlebaum and Silverman on the trial team were Avi Springer ’10 and Adrienna Wong ’10. They were supervised at trial by Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney Brett Dignam, who directs the clinic, as well as Sarah Russell ’02 and Scott Shuchart ’03, both Associate Research Scholars and Clinical Lecturers.

“A rotating group of law students has worked hard on this case for the past five years, but the one constant has been Brett Dignam,” said Silverman. “She has led this case from the beginning, and she has been a mentor, teacher, confidant, and friend to everyone involved. She made sure that we accounted for every possible legal argument, correctly cited every point of law, polished every question, and always kept our client’s concerns foremost…This case represents a huge win for her, another victory in her incredibly successful career representing prisoners and causes that no one else would take on.”

Testifying at trial for Forde as an expert on Islamic Law was Dr. Anver Emon, Assistant Professor on the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. Emon holds a J.S.D. and an LL.M from Yale Law School. Former clinic students who paved the way for the trial team in the case were Alan Schoenfeld ’06 Alison Stocking ’06, Melissa Cox ’07, Murad Hussain ’07, Dawn Hewett ’08, Chris Mandernach ’08, Anand Balakrishnan ’09, Jason Chlipala ’09, Sarah Mehta ’09, Ava Baker ’10, Ryan Sakoda ’11, Robyn Gallagher, Kelly Morrison, and Ilana Ofgang. Fellow Giovanna Shay ’97 also worked on the case.

“Led by our courageous client, a team that ultimately included 18 students and 3 fellows worked tirelessly to establish important precedent under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said Professor Dignam. “Their coordinated and heroic efforts both to settle and litigate the case achieved total victory for our client and secured for her the rights to which she was entitled.”