Attorney Stephen Woodruff has withdrawn as counsel for a Filipino mother who has two U.S. children and is challenging an order for her removal from the CNMI.
Woodruff said that, based on his observation, Amalia Abo Guanlao is now unable to accept his advice, think clearly about her case, or grasp his explanation of matters related to her case.
Woodruff said that Guanlao has repeated errors in her perception and understanding of matters.
Even after several explanations and attempts to disabuse her of her misconception, she keeps returning again and again to the same errors, he said.
This is extraordinary frustrating for him, Woodruff said.
Guanlao is suing then-U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson and several U.S. immigration officials.
Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona of the U.S. District Court for the NMI has put on hold Guanlao’s removal from the CNMI while the court hears her petition.
In his request to withdraw filed last week, Woodruff expressed fear that the conduct of a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer has permanently damaged the attorney-client relationship between himself and Guanlao. He described that conduct as “improper.”
In the event the court grants his motion to withdraw, the respondents’ motion to disqualify him as counsel for Guanlao should be denied on the merits, not as moot, he said.
It is important that the court establish clear precedent as to the inappropriateness and lack of merit of these kinds of motions as litigation tactics, said Woodruff, referring to the respondents’ motion to strike and the motion to disqualify him.
Woodruff said at the hearing last Feb. 14, he was shocked when, at the end of the proceeding, Guanlao, after being offered an opportunity to address the court and encouraged by him to do so, offered two documents to the court.
He said the documents are the engagement agreement between him and Guanlao, and the draft declaration he had prepared for purposes of supporting her opposition to respondents’ motion to disqualify him.
Woodruff said it was the draft declaration that Guanlao had declined to sign or discuss and thus was never submitted to the court—and stated emotionally that the contents of the two documents were “very different.”
Woodruff said Guanlao also referred to the declaration as being one he “wanted” her to sign.
Woodruff said not having any idea what Guanlao was talking about or why, and not having a clear recollection of the contents of the two documents, he promptly asserted attorney-client privilege.
The lawyer said he insisted on an opportunity to discuss the matter with Guanlao before any waiver of the privilege and potential irreparable harm occurred.
He said the court then received the documents in a sealed envelope.
Woodruff said having now examined the documents and met with Guanlao, and finding himself in the position of needing to withdraw, he takes no position on the question of attorney-client privilege for these documents.
At the hearing, Woodruff said, the court correctly observed that attorney retainer agreements are generally not privileged.
Moreover, he said, the privilege belongs to the client, not the attorney.
Woodruff has no objection if the court wishes to examine the documents.
He said what he can say categorically is that there is no inconsistency between these two documents and that it is not true that they are “very different.”
“The only area of overlap is the subject of the limitations on my ability to practice law. In this area, the draft declaration is more detailed than the engagement agreement, but the substance is identical,” he pointed out.
Woodruff said Guanlao is highly emotional.
At one point, Woodruff said, Guanlao cried, saying the litigation was affecting even her children and her relationship with them.
Woodruff said Guanlao stated that if it were not for her children and the difficulty it would present for them, she would just go back to the Philippines.
Woodruff said he believes that Guanlao to have been very poorly served by her previous lawyers.
Woodruff said he is firmly convinced that the removal proceedings against Guanlao were illegal and that there is really no legal or moral justification for the way she has been treated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and DOJ’s Office of Immigration Litigation.
“Ms. Guanlao has suffered a fundamental injustice and her family has taken collateral damage,” he said.
Last Jan. 12, the DOJ filed a motion to disqualify Woodruff, who has been disbarred from practice in CNMI courts. A disciplinary case against Woodruff is pending in the district court.