Oregon Justice Resource Center Sued by Former Staff Attorney Who Alleges Pattern of Ethical Lapses

The plaintiff alleges the nonprofit engaged in “well-meaning rogue advocacy.” The nonprofit says it will “vigorously defend our organization” in court.

Oregon Justice Resource Center regularly represents people incarcerated at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. (Henry Cromett)

In a lawsuit filed May 22 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, a lawyer who worked for the Oregon Justice Resource Center alleges that the criminal justice nonprofit fired him for voicing ethical concerns about the organization’s structure under the leadership of executive director Bobbin Singh.

Gabriel Newland, who says in the lawsuit he was hired by the OJRC in mid-2021 to run and direct a program focused on convicts serving life sentences in prison for crimes committed as minors, alleges the nonprofit regularly engaged in ethical misconduct and a culture of what he calls “well-meaning” but “rogue advocacy.”

Newland alleges he witnessed repeated “glaring ethical violations” during his time at the nonprofit. Foremost among them: that Singh advised lawyers working for him on legal strategies despite not being a lawyer himself, Newland alleges. (Singh attended law school, but was never admitted to the Oregon State Bar. According to the lawsuit, Singh once told Newland in a text that “I took the bar exam twice in 2013, taking only a couple of weeks to study...nearly passed, but I didn’t.”) Newland alleges in the filing that such conduct “clearly—and concededly—violated ethical rules for years.”

The allegations are remarkable in part because OJRC is the state’s leading legal advocacy nonprofit for people behind bars and regularly represents the families of people killed by police officers. Newland alleges that such cases were routinely coordinated in a way that violated the Oregon State Bar’s rules of professional conduct—particularly the rule that protects the independence of a lawyer representing a client.

Singh co-founded the OJRC in 2011. It provides free legal services to clients within the criminal justice system, including women, minors and immigrants, and those who have been wrongfully convicted. The nonprofit’s 2021 tax form shows it received grants and contributions that year totaling more than $6.4 million, a steep increase from the prior year’s $2.1 million. Singh made $95,000 as executive director in 2021, forms filed with the state show.

“[Newland] learned that, although co-founder and executive director Bobbin Singh was not a lawyer, he had been supervising the legal work of other non-lawyer staff members,” the filing says. “Newland also learned that non-attorney staff were disclosing confidential information without the permission of the client, having damaging conversations with incarcerated clients on recorded phone lines without consulting with the clients’ attorneys, and even writing and filing ill-advised legal documents on clients’ behalf.”

The filing lays out a series of allegations about patterns of ethical misconduct by staff at the OJRC.

In one instance, Newland alleges a non-lawyer staff member drafted and filed a clemency petition for a client (after getting the signature of an OJRC lawyer) without first checking whether the inmate already had an attorney, a move he alleges “could harm a client by interfering with ongoing post-conviction investigation and litigation, by undermining the likelihood of success at a potential retrial or resentencing, and by revealing potentially incriminating information.”

In another, Newland says he learned that OJRC staff would share confidential information about clients without their permission. Similarly, Newland alleges, staff would regularly have recorded phone calls with inmates; “on at least one occasion one of these phone calls with an OJRC client had become relevant to the case, was potentially damaging to the client, and led to the non-OJRC co-counsel removing the staff member from the relevant legal team,” the filing alleges.

Underlying the examples that Newland details is a larger allegation about the OJRC’s structure: that by coordinating the legal strategies of multiple lawyers while not being a lawyer himself, Singh was violating several Oregon State Bar rules of professional conduct.

Newland says he repeatedly told Singh just that. “Newland also reported that the entire structure of the organization may not be compliant with Rule 5.4 given Singh’s role, which frequently involved giving directions to lawyers that conflicted with lawyers’ professional judgment and the Rules of Professional Conduct,” the lawsuit says.

The board of OJRC said in a statement: “We intend to respond to Mr. Newland’s claims in the appropriate forum—the court—and will vigorously defend our organization.”

“We are proud of our very strong retention rate with many employees who have worked with us for almost a decade. We are also proud to be a second chance employer with 25 percent of our staff who are formerly incarcerated, and that number continues to grow,” the board told WW in an email. “We celebrate our twelfth anniversary this summer with a renewed commitment to our mission to provide vital free legal support and services to more than 700 Oregonians annually. We remain dedicated to achieving transformative change in laws, policies, and practices that do not ensure justice, health, and happiness for all Oregonians and to defending the rights of our clients when they are violated by the State and other parties.”

According to the filing, Singh fired Newland in November 2022 after Newland questioned the structure of the OJRC and whether Singh was ethically allowed to act as executive director of the firm. Newland says he requested that Singh seek an opinion from the nonprofit’s ethics counsel, which Singh never produced, Newland says.

The lawsuit alleges that Singh wrote in Newland’s termination letter that he had been fired for “fundamentally question[ing] the structure of OJRC, [Singh’s] role, and the work of other employees.”

Newland is seeking $600,000 in damages and requests a jury trial.

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