The Court Will Not Abide Your Pregnancy, Counsel

Nicole Girard points out a pretty mind-boggling case from an Atlanta Immigration Court, where a judge refused to grant a continuance an attorney that recently had a baby:

Earlier this month, Judge J. Dan Pelletier Sr. of the Atlanta Immigration Court denied attorney Stacey Ehrisman-Mickle’s motion to delay a hearing which she requested due to the fact that she was on maternity leave. In his refusal, the judge stated there was “No good cause.” Even though the opposing counsel was fine with it and hearings are routinely delayed for lesser reasons.

Having no available family, an out-of-town husband, and no other options since her local day care does not allow children under 6 weeks, the new mother–under her pediatrician’s direction–securely strapped her tiny baby to her chest and proceeded to the hearing. There she was lambasted by Pelletier who called her “unprofessional” as he questioned her mothering abilities in front of the entire court.

“I was embarrassed,” she said. “I felt humiliated.”

Ehrisman-Mickle filed an eminently adequate motion that provided the judge with more than enough legal authority to grant the motion.  Opposing counsel did not oppose the motion.  Ehrisman-Mickle’s motion states that it was the first time Ehrisman-Mickle requested a continuance in these proceedings.  Apparently, another attorney who was present in the courtroom confirmed her story, but asked to remain anonymous so the judge wouldn’t retaliate against his clients.

Nonetheless, Judge Pelletier denied the continuance, citing “no good cause” in his order, on account of the fact that that the hearing date was set prior to Ehrisman-Mickle’s agreement to represent the client.  He even went so far as to claim that Ehrisman-Mickle was at fault for accepting the case when she knew she was due to have a baby soon—which is pretty outrageous, given that opposing counsel didn’t oppose the motion, and there was no evidence that her client was simply trying to delay the hearing to avoid adjudication of their case.  Also, according to Ehrisman-Mickle, “two other immigration judges had already granted similar motions based on letters from her doctor.”  Making Judge Pelletier’s refusal to grant a continuance even stranger.

This is pretty mind-boggling stuff.  Continuances are a regular part of law practice.  Judges grant continuances all the time—often multiple in the same case.  The fact that Ehrisman-Mickle accepted representation after the client’s hearing date was set is the exact opposite of my experience.  I’ve represented clients in administrative hearings before, and the ALJ’s who presided over my cases actually considered it “good cause” to grant a continuance if a client sough legal representation after their hearing date was set.  The judge in this case did the exact opposite: he cited the client’s decision to seek legal representation after the hearing date was set as “no good cause.”

The Judge’s reaction would be understandable if the client had already been granted a continuance prior to getting a lawyer, and the judge was trying to prevent the client from using their recent decision to seek legal counsel as an excuse to delay the hearing further.  But that didn’t happen here.  It was the first continuance requested in the case, opposing counsel didn’t oppose it, and there’s no evidence that the continuance was requested because the attorney or the client were unprepared or trying to put off the hearing for its own sake.  ”

In light of all this, refusing to grant the  Ehrisman-Mickle’s continuance seems like an abuse of discretion by the judge.  It looks like judge Pelletier did eventually agree to the continuance when Ehrisman-Mickle appeared in court with her newborn in tow, but not before verbally berating her in front of everyone else in the room, and humiliating her in front of her peers.  There’s no excuse for that sort of behavior from a judge.  It looks like Ehrisman-Mickle filed a complaint with the court.  Hopefully something will come of it down the line.

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