People around the world seek a new life in the United States, pursuing things we often take for granted, like gainful employment and access to competent legal representation. After both of those things were called into question following a man’s mishandled visa renewal, he sought the help of Cooper & Elliott.
Negligence threatens a man and his family
When Sandeep Chaudhry* came to us, he was desperate. An IT professional working legally in the U.S. on an H1B visa, he had reason to believe the lawyer he’d entrusted with his immigration matters had been negligent with his paperwork—leaving him and his family at risk of deportation.
H1B visas have an expiration date and must be renewed in order to maintain legal working status in the U.S. The lawyer who’d been hired by Sandeep’s employer specifically to help employees deal with immigration matters was taking a long time to produce documents verifying the extension. Sandeep diligently delivered whatever paperwork his lawyer requested, and the lawyer continually assured him that everything was in order.
After time went on without clear proof of the extension, Sandeep became suspicious. Even though his lawyer was telling him everything was ok, Sandeep wanted written proof. The lawyer still couldn’t come up with a document. Sandeep turned to his employer, requesting verification from HR.
In the HR files was a document denying Sandeep’s extension because his paperwork had been filed too late.
This was crushing news. Immigration law states that if you’ve been in the U.S. more than a year past your visa’s expiration date, you could face deportation and be barred from coming back to the U.S. for at least 10 years.
What’s more, his wife’s immigration status was linked to his. If he left, she and their two kids would have to leave too.
Sandeep knew he needed help. He first went to another attorney for assistance. His situation only worsened as that attorney sat on his case for almost six months, finally telling him there wasn’t much that could be done. Amazingly, given his previous experiences with lawyers, Sandeep came to us after receiving a referral.
We were determined to do better for him.
The consequences of immigration malpractice
As we began digging into Sandeep’s case, it became obvious that the immigration lawyer had committed malpractice on multiple fronts: He hadn’t filed paperwork correctly, he hadn’t filed it on time, and he hadn’t kept Sandeep, his client, informed of ongoing developments.
What was most devastating, was that he hadn’t told Sandeep that the extension had been denied, and had instead been telling him that everything was fine.
We prepared to sue the lawyer for legal malpractice. And since Sandeep’s employer had represented itself as the facilitator of his immigration matters and had knowledge of the visa denial (it had been in the firm’s files for two years) but failed to inform Sandeep, we sued the company as well.
Yet as obvious as the malpractice may have appeared, actually obtaining justice was tricky. For one thing, the immigration lawyer and the employer were pointing fingers at each other, claiming that the other was responsible for Sandeep’s predicament.
The immigration malpractice had produced a number of life-altering consequences that Sandeep and his family had to face. First, Sandeep and his wife couldn’t leave the U.S. for fear of not being allowed back in. There was an ever-present worry that their family could potentially be split apart, with Sandeep and his wife being deported to India while their children, who weren’t citizens of India, had to remain in the U.S.
If Sandeep was forced to move back to India, his job prospects would be severely limited, since his line of work required him to travel to the U.S. By the time Sandeep came to us, he and his wife (who both had master’s degrees) could not work because the botched visa extension left them in a state of questionable legal working status.
As a result of their unemployment, they were rapidly running out of money. At one point Sandeep was limiting himself to one meal a day to ensure his children had enough to eat. Even Sandeep’s health was suffering—as the case continued, we noticed he looked increasingly haggard and thin. The entire family was enduring a great deal of stress. Between the helplessness of dealing with the immigration problems and the anxiety that comes with unemployment and financial troubles, they all were suffering.
Immigration reinstatement vs. damages
Just what would constitute justice for Sandeep in this situation? Sandeep’s highest priority was ensuring that he could legally stay in the U.S.—but according to immigration law experts, that possibility wasn’t promising. At that point, we knew we had to proceed with a lawsuit.
As is often the case with people who tend to mess things up, the immigration lawyer was essentially “judgment proof”—he and his law firm had very little money to pursue for damages. At that point, we turned our attention to the company.
Besides, the company was equally responsible for Sandeep’s situation. Our investigation revealed damning internal emails within the company’s records indicating that it had known Sandeep’s paperwork had been mishandled, yet it never tried to fix the problems or tell Sandeep of the issue.
Our avenue of pursuit now centered on seeking damages; we went the extra mile for Sandeep. Knowing that his trust had already been broken repeatedly—by two lawyers, as well as his former employer—we made sure to update him with the progress of his case multiple times each week.
When we sat down with the company’s lawyers to hammer out a settlement, we insisted that Sandeep be properly compensated for the negligence that had caused such upheaval for him, his family, and their future.
After a 12-hour mediation session, the company’s attorneys still hadn’t yielded the results Sandeep deserved, so we prepared to walk out. Fortunately, the mediator brought us back and said the defense was finally willing to make an offer worthy of consideration. Sandeep ultimately accepted the settlement.
Mixed results, mixed feelings
The resolution of this case was bittersweet for us. On the one hand, the settlement would help end the privations and immediate money worries Sandeep and his family were experiencing. It would also take some pressure off him and his wife as they sought new employment. At the very least, they wouldn’t be forced to immediately leave the U.S. for financial reasons.
Unfortunately, civil litigation for money damages against the attorney and the company didn’t resolve his immigration proceedings. In that sense, we wish we could have helped more.
There was at least one glimmer of hope, though: Our immigration expert said that the resolution of the lawsuit might help the chances for Sandeep’s visa extension. As part of the settlement, we had insisted that the first immigration lawyer admit in writing that the faulty paperwork had been his mistake, and not Sandeep’s. Our hope is that Sandeep and his family will be able to live in the U.S., recover from their hardship, and thrive.
A true privilege
When people choose to become a lawyer, their reasons are often justice-related: a desire to do good in the world, make a positive change, or help people right wrongs.
The reality is, in practice they often wind up working on cases far removed from those ideals.
It’s not an understatement, then, to say that working on a case like Sandeep’s was an extreme privilege for us as attorneys. Here was this selfless, generous, genuinely good man—honestly, one of the nicest clients we’ve had the pleasure of working with—who toiled and sacrificed to come to the U.S. because he loved everything it represented, only to have the door shut in his face through no fault of his own.
By all accounts, Sandeep should have been bitter and disillusioned. Yet he remained positive, hopeful, and grateful. Like many of our clients, he’s a model for all of us, and we’re honored to have been able to help.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.