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The Juana Villegas case looks bad for Metro — but will it look worse if the city appeals the damages?

Chain of Fools

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It didn't take a Clarence Darrow to tell things were probably not going to go well for metro Nashville last week in the damages trial of Juana Villegas, the Mexican immigrant who went into labor in July 2008 while shackled under the authority of the Davidson County Sheriff's Office.

Metro Nashville Legal Department attorney Kevin Klein had just begun his opening statements when something unusual happened: The judge stopped Klein mid-sentence, then ordered the seven-person jury out of the court. Once they were safely out of earshot, he gave the young lawyer a tongue-lashing that left even seasoned courthouse veterans agog.

Only minutes into Klein's remarks, U.S. District Court Judge William Joseph Haynes Jr. sternly addressed the immaculately coiffed Metro attorney, whose argumentation and behavior during the trial's two-day stretch were dubbed "mystifying" by Haynes and an embarrassment by multiple observers seated in the gallery.

"I have never seen something like that happen, where the judge dresses somebody down like that," said David Esquivel, an attorney for Bass, Berry & Sims and a 14-year trial-law veteran who attended Villegas' trial. "And I've never seen counsel antagonize a judge the way Metro's lawyers have in this trial."

From the start, Klein drew the judge's ire by violating the directive of an April summary judgment handed down by Haynes. In part, the judge ruled that the sheriff's office violated Villegas' constitutional rights by repeatedly shackling her over the Independence Day holiday weekend — for a minor traffic violation — during the labor of her fourth child, Gael. In addition, she was subsequently denied a breast pump given to her at Metro General Hospital, which caused an aggressive case of mastitis.

"My breasts that night were hurting very bad," Villegas told the court via an interpreter about her post-partum stay in the Davidson County Jail. "I was lying face-up, couldn't lie on my side, because if my breasts touched anything they were hurt me very bad."

But that wasn't the directive boundary that Klein kept trying to cross. Haynes' summary judgment prohibited any mention of Villegas' status as an illegal immigrant, due to the clouding and incendiary political effect that might have on an American jury's ability to remain impartial. Klein repeatedly attempted to circumnavigate that roadblock, but that only prompted frequent rebukes from Haynes. That left Metro's counsel to attack the credibility of Dr. Jill DeBona, Villegas' psychiatrist, as well as Villegas herself.

On the trial's final day, Klein scrutinized Villegas' medical history, and downplayed the post-traumatic stress syndrome she developed while shackled at her hands and feet in the custody of the sheriff's office. After nearly a half-hour, a visibly irritated Haynes halted Klein for rehashing established facts.

"I don't understand what deciding to have or not have an epidural, or electing to breastfeed has any relevancy here," Haynes said.

Immediately after the trial's conclusion, Haynes dismissed the jury and laid into Klein once more before briskly exiting the courtroom.

"You have mystified the court with your behavior," he chided. "I am amazed that you would ask Villegas, a woman who can barely understand English and who has a sixth-grade education, if she agreed with the functional psychiatric assessment of a trained medical professional."

The next day, Thursday, Aug. 18, brought closing arguments from both parties. After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury awarded Villegas $200,000 in damages — a far cry from the $1.2 million that Villegas and her attorneys originally asked for, which when broken down included $308,000 for future treatment and $924,000 for emotional, physical and psychological harm.

That $1 million difference can be regarded as a kind of Pyrrhic victory for Klein, who is amassing an unenviable track record of defending the city in high-profile litigation — and losing. In February 2010, Klein defended Metro against former Nashville Public Schools payroll coordinator Vicky Crawford, who successfully sued for sexual harassment and was awarded $1.5 million. Since 2008, he's represented Metro Nashville Public Schools in its rezoning case against the families of students alleging that the new assignment plans constitute a form of re-segregation.

Sources close to the case allege that Villegas never wanted any money, only a change in policy at the sheriff's office and the opportunity to stay in the country in the form of a settlement (which Metro flatly denied). Sue Cain, director of the Metro Legal Department, confirmed that a judicial settlement conference did occur, but declined to comment any further.

According to various media reports, few were pleased more with the diminished award than Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, whose office's implementation of the federal Immigration & Custom Enforcement's 287(g) program has run afoul of ICE guidelines and courted controversy by detaining low-risk, nonviolent criminal offenders like Juana Villegas since it started in Nashville in 2007.

"When the summary judgment came down, we were going to appeal it anyway," Hall told The City Paper on the day of the damages verdict.

Hall added that the amount of the award mattered little "whether it was a dollar or a million dollars" because of the appeal his office plans to file with the Cincinnati 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. In this case as before, Metro will again argue on behalf of the sheriff's office that it did nothing wrong in its treatment of Villegas, in what amounts to a taxpayer-funded attempt to save face.

"I think it's a bad reflection on Metro government if they go to Cincinnati and talk to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and argue that there was something constitutionally permissible about chaining someone to her bed during labor," says Esquivel, who also serves as president of the board of the nonprofit organization Conexion Americas. "I don't want to see Metro government in that position, arguing such things that there was some sort of flight risk for a woman who was in active labor. It's just ridiculous."

For his part, Mayor Karl Dean has tried to stay above the fray. The day of the verdict, he issued a brief statement.

"This case as it has been portrayed does not represent what Nashville is about," Dean said. "We are a diverse, welcoming city. In fact, we have received national recognition because of our increasing diversity and expanding immigrant population. The Sheriff's Office has already changed its policy regarding pregnant inmates. They now wear different-colored uniforms so they may be easily identified, and they are never restrained unless they are likely to harm themselves or others. That was the right thing to do. It is likely this litigation will be ongoing, and the Metro Department of Law will continue to handle the case."

But in an email sent to Dean on Aug. 22, Esquivel took the mayor to task over his perceived lack of leadership on the issue.

"This case 'as it has been portrayed?' You insinuate that Juana and her advocates have taken some benign set of circumstances and unfairly portrayed them in a negative light," Esquivel wrote. "These facts don't need any 'portrayal' to make them horrific and offensive. They do that quite well on their own."

Due to the pending appeal, the mayor's office declined to offer a comment.

In an Aug. 23 post on his blog, former Metro Councilman and mayoral contender David Briley also chimed in, musing that the decision of the city to appeal this case is "about Nashville's future."

"It is not about blaming anyone for what happened to Ms. Villegas. The past cannot be changed," wrote Briley. "The sheriff, to his credit, has changed the policy and this type of treatment should not happen again. However, we still have an opportunity to change the future for Ms. Villegas. We can choose to put this embarrassing moment behind us and pay her for our error. That's one way for us to apologize for what we did even if it took us three years to do so."

Indeed, the past cannot be changed. And Villegas, best she can, is looking to the future. Her immigration attorney, Elliott Ozment, plans to file a motion for Villegas this week seeking what is called a "U-Visa" — a form of work visa that is granted to only 10,000 immigrants each year on the basis that they have been the victims of a crime in the United States. Although Ozment is confident about the prospect of obtaining the visa, Metro's pending appeal virtually guarantees she won't be removed in the near future. That means she can continue her job as a McDonald's manager and raise her young family of four with her husband in the home they've made in Nashville.

"It still hurts her a lot to talk about what happened, so I still think it's going to take some time for her to get over the emotional damage that was caused by this, because she does break down and weep," Ozment says. "But other than that I think she's just fine. She's a person of remarkable good humor when she doesn't think about what happened to her."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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