Civil Rights

Project Overview

Our pro bono practice has had a longstanding commitment — both firmwide and in our local communities — to promoting civil and human rights and social justice. We are dedicated to devoting our time and resources to these matters, using our legal skills to ensure a just and fair society and accelerate the societal change necessary to reach that goal.

Our lawyers worked with the Illinois Prison Project to seek executive clemency for state prisoners serving life terms under “three strikes” laws. We also worked with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York on amicus briefs on behalf of prisoners’ rights advocates. With the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, Sidley investigated whether prisoners’ claims of tortured confessions merit judicial review of their convictions.

Section 1983 Work

Sidley’s Section 1983 practice has been a fixture of our pro bono work for many years. The firm represents numerous clients challenging violations of their constitutional rights. These matters include suits seeking redress for victims of police misconduct and violence, individuals whose rights have been violated while detained in jails, and prisoners who have been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment while incarcerated. Our lawyers also regularly partner with legal service organizations and experts in the field to file amicus briefs advocating for the rights of prisoners and other vulnerable citizens. We represent clients across the country in trial courts, appellate courts, and at the United States Supreme Court. The firm litigated more than 25 active Section 1983 matters in 2021, amounting to more than 14,500 pro bono hours on behalf of our clients. Sidley achieved many important victories in 2021, from defeating summary judgment in multiple cases to helping clients reach meaningful settlement of their claims.

Section 1983 Victory for Prisoner Kept in Solitary Confinement

Sidley won a victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on behalf of a client incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) who has faced extreme hardship in prison, living for years in solitary confinement without access to adequate mental health treatment. The client originally filed suit pro se in September 2016, challenging IDOC’s failure to provide him with constitutionally adequate mental health treatment and alleging that the deficient care he received at Pontiac Correctional Center, where he was housed in solitary confinement, exacerbated his mental illness and would continue to lead him to self-harm. Sidley became his counsel in 2017 and helped the client file an amended complaint and litigate his case through discovery as well as oppose the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

In 2020, as the summary judgment motions were pending, and as the Sidley team was preparing for trial, the district court dismissed the case as a sanction for a “fraud on the court,” based on asserted lies in the original pro se complaint. The appeal challenged that determination. On February 1, 2022, the Seventh Circuit panel reversed the district court’s sanctions order, finding that the district court’s findings of fraud were clearly erroneous — a complete appellate victory, setting up the case for a resolution on the merits.

During the district court proceedings, the Sidley team partnered with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

Sidley Team Frees Innocent Man

Sidley partnered with the Northern California Innocence Project and Covington & Burling LLP to secure the exoneration of Juan Bautista, an innocent man sentenced to 40 years to life for a shooting that he did not commit. Mr. Bautista was 19 years old when he was arrested for attempted murder in 2009 and had spent 12 years wrongfully incarcerated before his release in June 2021.

Mr. Bautista’s release came after a multi-year investigation into the shooting. The Sidley team guided the investigation that unearthed credible and material exculpatory evidence nearly a decade after the shooting. Armed with the newly discovered evidence, in October 2019, Sidley and its partners, NCIP and Covington, filed a habeas corpus petition in San Joaquin County Superior Court seeking a reversal of Mr. Bautista’s conviction under both California and federal law. The petition persuaded the court that Mr. Bautista had made a prima facie showing that he was entitled to habeas relief. In July 2020, the court ordered an evidentiary hearing to decide the petition.

At the evidentiary hearing, conducted in mid-June 2021, the team presented a compelling case for the reversal of Mr. Bautista’s conviction for the 2009 shooting. His conviction was based entirely on the testimony of only two eyewitnesses. The team presented evidence that vitiated Mr. Bautista’s previous identification and identified the real shooter. The team elicited testimony from witnesses that his near-twin brother committed the shooting. Witnesses also testified that eyewitnesses who had previously identified Mr. Bautista as the shooter during the initial investigation were never shown a photo of his brother. The San Joaquin County Superior Court found the newly discovered evidence met the requirements for post-conviction reversal. The court determined that, had the jury heard the newly discovered evidence during his 2011 trial, it was more likely than not that at least one juror would have had a reasonable doubt as to Mr. Bautista’s guilt. The San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office ultimately conceded that Mr. Bautista’s conviction could not be maintained in light of the new evidence. After the district attorney’s concession, the court ordered Mr. Bautista’s release.

Mr. Bautista was released from prison on June 24, 2021 and was reunited with his wife, daughter, and extended family.

Important Win for Survivors of Domestic Violence

In Jane Doe v. Olson, the California Supreme Court issued a powerful decision about the litigation rights of survivors of domestic violence, reversing the decision below and handing our client a substantial anti-SLAPP victory. The case involved whether a generic non-disparagement provision in a “stay away” agreement between a sexual assault survivor (our client, Jane Doe) and her abuser should be construed to forever waive the survivor’s right to bring a civil suit for damages about existing or future harassment.

Doe and Olson lived in the same housing complex; Doe, proceeding pro se, sought a civil harassment restraining order, accusing Olson of sexual assault, harassment, and other misconduct. Using a court-appointed mediator, the parties reached a mutual “stay away” agreement in which they also agreed “not to disparage one another” for three years.

Later that year, Doe filed a civil complaint against Olson, repeating and adding to the allegations at issue in the restraining-order petition. Olson responded with a cross-complaint accusing Doe of breach of contract, on the theory that Doe’s mediation agreement had forever forfeited her litigation rights regarding Olson’s past or future misconduct. Doe filed a special motion to strike (anti-SLAPP motion) Olson’s contract claim. The Superior Court of Los Angeles denied the motion in pertinent part, and the Court of Appeal of the State of California affirmed, but the Supreme Court accepted review, at which point Sidley joined the case.

In early February 2022, the court reversed. In a sweeping decision involving important public policy issues surrounding civil harassment restraining orders and non-disparagement clauses, the court held that simple agreement not to “gossip” about the other person — entered into with no consideration, payment, or acknowledgment of wrongdoing — could not be construed as a full-blown litigation waiver, and that Doe’s lawsuit therefore did not breach the mediation agreement. Thus, the court held, the anti-SLAPP motion should have been granted and Olson’s contract claim should have been stricken. As a result of the decision, Doe will be entitled to recover fees and costs under the anti-SLAPP statute.

A Second Chance After a Life Sentence


Sidley successfully secured compassionate release of an inmate who was sentenced to life in prison on federal drug charges under the outdated and mandatory regime that punished an offender who dealt in crack cocaine far more severely than one who dealt in powder cocaine.

Working alongside corporate counsel, and with the invaluable guidance of FAMM (f/k/a Families Against Mandatory Minimums), the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the E.D. Wisconsin Federal Public Defender’s office, the team drafted a motion for a reduced sentence on behalf of the inmate pursuant to two resentencing provisions of the First Step Act that attempted to address the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine convictions. The motion also argued that extraordinary and compelling circumstances existed because the client’s co-defendant had received only a 20-year sentence and had already been released, while the client, in his 50s, faced decades more time behind bars. In response, the government agreed that the client deserved a sentence reduction to time served, and notified the court that it did not oppose the petitioner’s motion. As a result, the client left prison after 16 years, instead of serving a life sentence.

Victory for Double Amputee Client


A cross-office team of lawyers achieved a significant pro bono victory on behalf of an individual detained at a federal medical penitentiary amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. As a double amputee with myriad medical conditions, including hypertension and type 2 diabetes, the individual was at a severely increased risk of illness from COVID-19.

To date, 20 inmates have died and more than 360 have been infected at the Missouri-based penitentiary. As COVID-19 raged through the federal prison system, the individual became increasingly concerned for his safety, filing a motion for compassionate release in federal court.

The individual argued that his susceptibility to COVID-19 and the failure of prison officials to curb the disease’s rapid spread constituted “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for a sentence reduction. However, a federal district court in the District of Columbia believed itself bound by an outdated policy statement, United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 1B1.13, which bars compassionate release unless the court first finds that the defendant “is not a danger to the safety of any other person or to the community,” and therefore denied the motion.

Following the denial of relief, Sidley was appointed as pro bono appellate counsel for the individual. On May 18, 2021, the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of our client. After briefing and oral argument by the Sidley team, the D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. The court clarified the legal standard for compassionate release motions after the First Step Act, holding that U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 is not applicable to compassionate release motions filed in federal court by defendants — as opposed to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have likewise held that the policy statement does not apply to defendant-filed motions, with only the Eleventh Circuit reaching a contrary conclusion. The D.C. Circuit further explained that the district court’s interpretation of the relevant provision was plainly erroneous, that our client suffered prejudice as a result of the sentencing error, and that a failure to correct this error would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. On remand, the individual will be afforded another opportunity to receive compassionate release.

Due to pandemic-related restrictions on travel and court access, the Sidley team argued the matter virtually before the D.C. Circuit.

National Council For Adoption

Sidley obtained a major pro bono victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on behalf of the National Council For Adoption (NCFA). In 2018, the U.S. Department of State issued a series of guidance documents that effectively prohibited a form of adoptions that was commonly used to advocate for children with special needs and other hard-to-adopt children. The district court dismissed NCFA’s lawsuit for lack of standing. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit unanimously found that NCFA had associational standing and vacated the challenged guidance, holding that the guidance was a legislative rule that was unlawfully issued without notice and comment. In November 2021, NCFA honored Sidley with its “Friend of Adoption Award.”

“Sidley provided a high-caliber team of attorneys to serve as pro bono representation to NCFA’s legal challenge to guidance issued by the Department of State. They put in long hours and significant devotion to ensuring that they heard from the adoption community, understood the relevant legal issues, and represented NCFA and the wider community well. The Sidley team was professional, committed, and very enjoyable to work with. Their legitimate concern for adoption-related policy and their dedication to providing high-quality legal services was evident in every interaction.”

— Ryan Hanlon, Acting CEO/President, National Council For Adoption

Religious Liberties Work

Sidley continued to partner with Yale Law School’s Free Exercise Clinic. Working with Yale students participating in the clinic, Sidley filed amicus curiae briefs in five appellate cases advancing religious liberties protected under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Sidley represented a range of faiths and religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Assemblies of God, the Anglican Church in North America, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Orthodox Union, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Sikh Coalition, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, in trial and appellate matters raising important questions of religious liberty.

Our lawyers advised religious universities, primary and secondary schools, and community churches on corporate organization, by-laws, policies, and procedures to promote compliance with federal, state, and local corporate, privacy, civil rights, and employment laws, and to take full advantage of Constitutional and statutory protections for faith-based organizations.

Major Disability Rights Victory

After three years of intense litigation, Sidley obtained a major victory in the field of disability rights when a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted final approval to a settlement agreement between the state of Ohio and firm client Disability Rights Ohio. The class action was brought on behalf of thousands of disabled persons in Ohio who continue to live and work in segregated institutions, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Olmstead decision. The agreement obligates the state to offer more vigorous “options counseling” for individuals currently housed in, or heading toward, medium and large residential institutions; funding for community housing and employment placements; and US$24 million in capital housing assistance over the next two years. The agreement also establishes criteria by which future funding and placement levels are to be determined.