DOJ wants lawyer disqualified

The U.S. Department of Justice wants the federal court to immediately disqualify attorney Stephen Woodruff from serving as counsel for Amalia Abo Guanlao in her lawsuit against U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and several others.

Guanlao, a Filipino mother who has been in the CNMI for 23 years now, has two minor U.S. citizen children but was deemed by U.S. Immigration as removable from the CNMI.

Kimberly Helvey, senior litigation counsel for the DOJ Office of Immigration Litigation District Court Section and counsel for Johnson and co-respondents, said that Woodruff’s immediate disqualification in Guanlao’s case is “of paramount importance” to ensure the integrity of the bar, the integrity of the proceedings, and the interests of justice.

Helvey asked the U.S. District Court for the NMI to give Guanlao more time to obtain a new lawyer.

Saipan Tribune sought comments from Woodruff yesterday via email but he had yet to reply as of press time.

Helvey said Woodruff was disbarred by the CNMI Supreme Court in 2013 and lacks a law license in another state or territory.

Helvey asserted that although Woodruff remains a member of the U.S. District Court for the NMI’s bar pending reciprocal discipline proceedings, he has failed to adhere to his duties to report disciplinary action by other tribunals, and he misrepresented his bar status to Johnson and co-respondents.

Helvey pointed out that Woodruff’s conduct suggests that he will not be readily answerable to the district court, and that his continued participation in the case will impair the proceedings, which have their base in allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Woodruff filed Guanlao’s immigration case in federal court on June 21, 2016.

Shortly after, Helvey said assistant U.S. attorney Russell Lorfing, another then-counsel for respondents, sent an email to Woodruff inquiring about the current status of his admission to the CNMI bar.

She said Woodruff did not provide the status of his appeal, but responded via email that he was authorized only to practice before the district court, the Ninth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court, and described the flaws he perceived in the CNMI disbarment proceedings.

The DOJ litigator said Woodruff specifically told Lorfing during their conversation that he had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and was awaiting the outcome.

Helvey said the district court dismissed most of Guanlao’s original complaint, but the court instructed Guanlao to file a second amended petition limited to the alleged ineffective assistance of counsel by Alice Rae.

Guanlao filed her second amended petition on Nov. 4, 2016.

Helvey said the respondents revisited the question of Woodruff’s bar status, and discovered that no record appeared of Woodruff having filed a petition for a writ of certiorari or other appeal to the CNMI Supreme Court.

She argued at the Nov. 18, 2016, hearing that Woodruff was no longer an attorney who may sign pleadings under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and that the second amended petition was defective for lack of a valid signature.

At the Dec. 15, 2016, hearing, the district court questioned Woodruff about his disbarment.

Helvey said Woodruff admitted that he never completed the petition for certiorari during the 90-day time period, and that his extension of time was not granted.

Helvey said Woodruff further admitted that he did not file anything else, such as mandamus, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The DOJ litigator said that in the course of preparing the motion to strike and to stay proceedings, respondents learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had suspended Woodruff from practice before it, indicating that “a rule will issue, returnable within 40 days, requiring him to show cause why he should not be disbarred from the practice of law in this court.”

To respondents’ knowledge, Helvey said, Woodruff had never notified the district court of this suspension.

Helvey said at the hearing on the motion to strike, the District Court specifically questioned Woodruff regarding his status before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The litigator said Woodruff stated that he is suspended before the U.S. Supreme Court and that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a rule to show cause, to which Woodruff responded and which remaining pending.

She said Woodruff admitted that the suspension took effect on Oct. 31, 2016.

Helvey said the District Court noted that the suspension took effect before the Nov. 14, 2016, filing of the second amended petition.

Helvey said Woodruff contended that he was not in violation of his duty to inform the district court.

The district court differed with Woodruff but denied the respondents’ motion to strike without prejudice in favor of a motion for disqualification, which respondents now bring.

Helvey said that on Oct. 11, 2016, before the U.S. Supreme Court suspended Woodruff and more than a month before the filing of the second amended petition, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a reciprocal discipline disbarring Woodruff.

In that order, the Hawaii Supreme Court reviewed the record, including Woodruff’s arguments, and determined that Woodruff did not establish any of the four grounds available to avoid reciprocal discipline, Helvey said.

The disbarment took effect 30 days later, on Nov. 10, 2016, four days before Woodruff filed the second amended petition.

However, Helvey said, Woodruff has never notified respondents of this disbarment, or disclosed it. Instead, Helvey said, she discovered it via an Internet search when looking into Woodruff’s qualifications online.

She said that on Feb. 9, 2016, the Executive Office for Immigration Review disbarred Woodruff, finding that he had not made a prima facie showing that he was deprived of due process during the CNMI disciplinary proceedings.

Helvey said when the Supreme Court of Hawaii imposed reciprocal discipline disbarring Woodruff on Oct. 11, 2016, and again when the U.S. Supreme Court suspended him on Oct. 31, 2016, Woodruff demonstrated a disregard for the District Court’s Rules and the Model Rules.

“This disregard should disqualify him from continuing in this case,” Helvey said.

Aside from Johnson, Guanlao is suing U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement supervisory detention and deportation officer Gerald Zedde, DHS Enforcement and Removal Operations acting supervisor M. Samaniego, ICE immigration officer G. Andersen, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services district director David Gulick, USCIS/DHS Guam/CNMI field office director Stephen P. Green, USCIS/DHS Guam/CNMI acting field office director Irene Adame, USCIS/DHS California Service Center directors Rosemary Langley Melville and Kathy A. Baran, and USCIS/DHS California Service Center acting director Donna P. Campagnolo.

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona has stayed pending further court’s order the removal of Guanlao while the court hears her petition on the merits.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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