For the six weeks Abreham Zemedagegehu — an Ethiopian deaf man charged with theft — was jailed in Arlington County, he was not given access to a sign language interpreter. This caused him to miss meals, recreation times and announcements from his jailers, he alleged in his complaint.
Zemedagegehu, who speaks with American Sign Language, has limited English writing skills and was homeless, said that he didn’t know why he was being detained and was not given access to his medication or phone calls.
Akin Gump attorneys, who met Zemedagegehu in a soup kitchen where they were volunteering, filed a complaint against the Arlington County Sheriff on his behalf in January 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
In November, Akin Gump reached a reported $250,000 settlement for Zemedagegehu. The settlement also highlighted the need to protect the rights of deaf inmates in the future.
“His rights were clearly violated there. He was detained without any access to communication,” said Akin Gump’s pro bono partner Steven Schulman.
Of the settlement ultimately reached, he said, “Our lawyers also made sure that it really did have a greater impact.”
The settlement, in addition to compensating Zemedagegehu, requires the sheriff’s office to appoint a coordinator to oversee compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, train staff and ensure that detainees aren’t denied services. Zemedagegehu pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge in exchange for a sentence of time served and now lives in Florida.
This past year, Akin Gump also influenced policy — advocating for both cancer research and immigration reform on Capitol Hill. The firm helped the Smashing Walnuts Foundation increase funding by $12.6 million for rare childhood cancer research through the Senate Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee.
The foundation was formed by a Virginia family whose 9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer.
Other cases included representing a first-grader in California who did not have access to a wheelchair-accessible bathroom at his school in a case that settled in May 2016. The district agreed to implement an emergency preparedness plan that considers the needs of children with disabilities.
Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Appleseed, which has worked with the firm for decades in advocating for low-income people reflected on Akin Gump’s service record. “They are doing pro bono work because they love it and are motivated by it.”