BackPro Bono

Paying it Forward: Hitesh Tolani learns an important lesson from the benevolence of Burwell, Dietz, and Firm

Dear Mr. Burwell,
I hope you’re doing well and life is good. My patient is running late so I thought I’d take this time to write you a quick note. My roommate is a Penn Law student, and last night we were talking about the world of lawyers. So, I started telling him how I came across an attorney named Buzz Burwell and how I randomly called him one day to say - Hi, please take my case...

The call from Congressional immigration specialist Brenda Ballard came to Greenville Partner Buzz Burwell some four years ago. Sen. Fritz Hollings, she said, wanted Mr. Burwell to consider the equities involved in the case of Hitesh Tolani, a 20-year-old who ironically already had located and contacted Mr. Burwell through other sources. Hitesh had turned himself and his mother in to the U.S Immigration Services five years earlier when he learned that they might not have lawful presence in the U.S. His Indian mother and father had brought their Sierra Leone-born infant to the United States when he was 2. The family applied for green cards and was approved. But the father died two months before the family’s interview to be admitted as immigrants. The application for immigrant status was denied since the statute required this harsh result when a principal alien dies before the interview.

Years later, when Hitesh learned that the family had never received green cards, he turned his mother and himself in. A younger brother had been born since their arrival and was then a 9-year-old US citizen.

Some two years later, the mother and son got deportation letters.

Their separate cases were taken before an immigration judge, but they failed to make a case for extreme hardship in the event of their deportation, which is the only legal basis for cancellation of removal from the U.S. They appealed the deportation orders to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, which upheld the immigration judge’s decision. The case then was transferred to another attorney who filed to reopen the case based on a change in the law.

Subsequently the case was brought to Mr. Burwell and Senior Paralegal Kellie Dietz to handle the Motion for Reconsideration and to prepare for another trial under the new case law.

“We used a team of paralegals and lawyers and worked on these two cases 20 months, most of which was spent in seeking discovery of the record and documenting the historical and future hardship of the family if deportation were enforced,” Mr. Burwell said. “In addition to the death of the father, the mother’s brother, who was also in the U.S. and who may have otherwise been eligible to sponsor Hitesh, also died. Then the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The younger son was diagnosed with depression brought on by the family’s difficulties. Hitesh was on full scholarship at Wofford College, made possible through the school’s endowment and alumni giving, and was a straight-A student. On weekends he would come home to Irmo (S.C.), work in his mother’s shop, and look after his younger brother.

“We collected cases and obtained medical and psychological profiles of the family and discovered that the younger brother had chronic and severe asthma. We also determined that if the mother and Hitesh were deported, the younger son, a U.S. citizen, would be placed in a foster home and that the mother was ineligible to be employed in India because of the dictates of her caste as it applied to widowers. Further, she had left India more than 20 years earlier, and Hitesh did not speak or write Hindi. So we used the team to document these conditions and entered into yearlong negotiations with the government. They finally stipulated to a cancellation of deportation and allowed the mother and son to stay,” Mr. Burwell said.

"Albeit, I have told you before that I am very grateful for what you and NMRS did for me and my family, last night I think I really understood. My roommate commented how this wasn’t just a project or an extra little thing on the side. How this probably cost the firm thousands of dollars in billable hours. Once again, I knew this, but to have it verbalized was really humbling. I always knew that there were more people working on this than just you and Ms. Kellie Dietz, people I will never be able to thank, but it finally sank in when my roommate said - “Hitesh I am glad you gave up your press rights b/c they truly wanted to win that thing for you. Once they committed to you, it was in their best interest as well. This was a big undertaking for them and it wouldn’t have affected them on any level if they hadn’t had taken it. They did it to do a good thing.”

So this morning before I get started on my day, I just wanted to say - I am sure there are things that I will never know that occurred behind the scenes in order to get me and my family where we are today. For all those things - both known and unknown to me - thank you!
Thank you for being a part of the opportunities that now lie before me."

When the pro bono case ended, the Nelson Mullins attorneys and paralegals issued Hitesh a certificate that was an invoice for more than $110,000 and marked “paid in full.” The certificate also indicated that Hitesh must “pay it forward.” Hitesh is now a 2009 doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, where he serves on the Student Government, and spent a year as a research Fellow at Harvard University. His passion to “pay it forward” has resulted in his work campaigning for the American Cancer Society and his travels abroad to provide dental care to children. He has spent summers in Philadelphia working with inner city children and a school for the deaf and blind. He plans to continue donating part of his time in his dental practice to low-income families.

Hitesh:
Thank you for your kind note which I am sharing with others in our firm. “Paying it forward” is your legacy to teach the generation behind you as we were taught by those who sacrificed for us. There are so many people who are deserving of such support, and your insight now is very reflective of this philosophy which will shape your whole life.

Service to others is about leadership and using your position to inspire others to do good work. Balance your selflessness with ambition for others, and your rewards will be both material and spiritual in true service since others will ask you to assume such responsibility. Don’t hesitate. Thank you for taking a moment to remind us, since that reminder is like spreading hope, a good thing to do. -- Buzz