Setting Legal Precedent

Samahon Lyon and students
Left to right: Daniella Horn, Melissa Hensinger, Professor (and Plaintiff) Tuan Samahon, Professor Beth Lyon, Mary Emily Pagano, Matthew Nicodemo

For law students, studying and interpreting important legal precedents is an everyday occurrence. But it’s not often that students get the chance to work on a case that could set an important precedent of its own. Nineteen current Villanova Law students and recent alumni did just that, under the guidance of Professors Tuan Samahon and Beth Lyon, in the case Samahon v. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 2010, Samahon, a separation of powers scholar, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a memo he thought would provide material for a book he is researching on former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. The Department of Justice initially released the document but redacted a name because it could reveal embarrassing details about a private citizen. Samahon challenged the rationale, arguing there was no legal reason to withhold the name and that the FBI was chiefly trying to avoid embarrassment for improper conduct. When the FBI would not concede, he enlisted the assistance of fellow Villanova Law Professor Beth Lyon and 19 Villanova clinic students, who litigated the case. For more than two years, the students represented Professor Samahon and handled all facets of the case, including researching, drafting and filing numerous federal court pleadings, negotiating with opposing counsel and participating in a telephonic hearing.

Working on Samahon v. FBI opened my eyes to the difficulty of achieving government transparency even in a free society,” said Landon Synnestvedt '14. “This experience gave me the confidence to tackle unconventional and difficult legal problems in my future career.”

In August 2014, United States District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled in Samahon’s favor and ordered the redacted name to be released. The Court’s ruling is a victory for freedom of information. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Samahon, Lyon and the students, the case creates a persuasive precedent favoring transparency and thereby political accountability.

The Villanova Law students who worked on the case are Michael Bowers, Matt Coin, Russell Crotts, Anthony Frattone, Jimmy French, Nil Ghosh, Gabrielle Gomez, Melissa Hensinger, Daniella Horn, Andrea May, Tyler Morris, Matt Nicodemo, Chad Odhner, Mary Emily Pagano, Matt Setzer, Tim Sharkey, Landon Synnestvedt, Arthi Venkatadri and Joe Wolfe.

Read The Philadelphia Inquirer's August 31 article on the case here.