In a lawsuit filed May 22 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, an attorney who worked for the Oregon Justice Resource Center alleges that the nonprofit criminal justice organization fired him because he had ethical concerns about the structure of the organization under its direction uttered by CEO Bobbin Singh.
Gabriel Newland, who says in the lawsuit he was hired by the OJRC in mid-2021 to direct and direct a program aimed at convicts serving life sentences for crimes they committed when they were minors, alleges the nonprofit organization regularly engages in ethical misconduct and fosters a culture of misconduct, which he describes as “well-intentioned” but “rogue advocacy.”
Newland claims he repeatedly witnessed “blatant ethical abuses” during his time with the nonprofit. First of all, Newland claims that although he wasn’t a lawyer himself, Singh advised his lawyers on legal strategy. (Singh attended law school but was never admitted to the Oregon bar. According to the lawsuit, Singh once told Newland in a text: “I passed the bar exam twice in 2013 and it only took me a few weeks to graduate… “Almost passed, but I didn’t make it.”
The allegations are notable in part because OJRC is the state’s leading non-profit legal representation 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 manner that violated the Oregon State Bar’s professional rules — specifically, the rule protecting the independence of an attorney representing a client.
Singh co-founded the OJRC in 2011. It provides free legal services to clients in the criminal justice system, including women, minors and immigrants, and those wrongly convicted. The nonprofit’s 2021 tax form shows it received more than $6.4 million in grants and contributions this year, a significant increase from $2.1 million last year. Singh earned $95,000 as executive director in 2021, according to forms filed with the state show.
“[Newland] “Learned that while not a lawyer, co-founder and CEO Bobbin Singh oversaw the legal work of other non-legal associates,” the filing reads. “Newland also learned that non-lawyers were disclosing confidential information without client permission, engaging in harmful conversations with detained clients on recorded phone lines without consulting clients’ attorneys, and even writing and filing ill-advised legal documents about clients ‘ names.”
The filing sets out a number of allegations of patterns of ethical misconduct by OJRC staff.
In one case, Newland alleges that a non-lawyer employee wrote and filed a clemency petition for a client (after obtaining the signature of an OJRC attorney) without first checking whether the inmate already had an attorney, a move he claims “could harm a client by disrupting ongoing investigations and post-conviction litigation, by undermining the chances of success in a possible retrial or new conviction, and by disclosing potentially incriminating information.”
In another case, Newland says he learned that OJRC employees would share confidential information about customers without their permission. Similarly, Newland alleges, staff regularly recorded phone conversations with inmates; “On at least one occasion, one of these phone conversations with a client of OJRC was relevant to the case, potentially damaging to the client and resulting in the non-OJRC co-counsel removing the associate from the relevant legal team.” File is claimed.
Underlying Newland’s examples is a larger claim about OJRC structure: that by coordinating the legal strategies of several attorneys, Singh, while not an attorney himself, violated several Oregon State Bar professional codes.
Newland says he told Singh that repeatedly. “Newland also reported that the overall structure of the organization may not conform to Rule 5.4, as Singh frequently gave instructions to attorneys that conflicted with the attorneys’ professional judgment and professional rules,” the lawsuit reads.
OJRC’s Board of Directors said in a statement: “We intend to respond to Mr Newland’s claims before the appropriate forum – the Court – and will vigorously defend our organization.”
“We are proud of our very high retention rate among many employees who have worked for us for almost a decade. We are also proud to be a second chance employer as 25 per cent of our employees are already incarcerated and that number continues to rise,” the board told WW in an email. “We’re celebrating our twelfth anniversary this summer with a renewed commitment to our mission to provide essential free legal assistance and services to more than 700 Oregon residents each year. We remain committed to bringing about transformative changes in laws, policies and practices that do not ensure justice, health and happiness for all Oregonians and to defending the rights of our customers when violated by the state and other parties.”
According to the filing, Singh fired Newland in November 2022 after Newland questioned the structure of OJRC and whether it was ethical for Singh to serve as chief executive of the company. Newland said he asked Singh to get an opinion from the nonprofit’s ethics advisor, but Singh never provided it, Newland says.
The lawsuit alleges that Singh wrote in Newland’s resignation letter that he was fired because of “fundamental doubts”.[ing] the structure of the OJRC, [Singh’s] role and the work of other employees.”
Newland is seeking $600,000 in damages and is seeking a trial.