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Pro Bono Litigation
Pro Bono Litigation

Litigators in Debevoise’s NY, D.C. and London offices are engaged on a full-range of pro bono activity, from individual representation in criminal defense, immigration or housing, to high-impact litigation that is changing the law and the status of low-income or marginalized communities across the country. Below are some highlights.

Civil and Human Rights

Debevoise secured the release of pro bono client Ibrahim Idris, a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In October 2013, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the U.S. government to take all necessary steps to release Mr. Idris from Guantanamo. It was the first habeas grant to a Guantanamo detainee by the District Court since 2010, and Mr. Idris was repatriated to his native Sudan in December 2013.

A team of Debevoise lawyers reached a permanent injunction settlement on behalf of two Texas physicians, resulting in the reinstatement of their hospital admitting privileges with University General Hospital Dallas (“UGHD”), which had revoked their admitting privileges in March 2014. The doctors were required to obtain admitting privileges under H.B. 2, a new Texas state law, which added to Texas’s extensive regulation of the practice of abortion a requirement that doctors who provide abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

Debevoise, along with co-counsel from the Urban Justice Center and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, achieved an important victory in New York State Supreme Court on behalf of a class consisting of thousands of inmates receiving mental health treatment while in New York City jails. In April 2014, a judge ruled that the city must comply with an earlier settlement that requires the city to provide services during incarceration and specific discharge planning, among other things, for the next two years.

Debevoise represents the United States Human Rights Fund (USHRF) regarding the adverse environmental and public health impact of industrial hog production practices in Eastern North Carolina to two local advocacy groups. In July 2012, a lawsuit was filed against a hog feeding operation for violating federal environmental laws by illegally disposing of and discharging waste into creeks, rivers, ditches and lands in North Carolina.

Education Equality

Working with the Education Adequacy Project at Yale Law School, Debevoise represents the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding in a lawsuit it has brought in Connecticut state court against various state officials alleging violations of the state constitution’s guarantees, related to public elementary and secondary education.

In partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Louisiana, Debevoise represented a mother and her two minor children to challenge an unlawful program in which middle school students were segregated by sex for their core academic classes. After Debevoise lawyers pursued a preliminary injunction in federal district court in the Western District of Louisiana and a subsequent appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a settlement was reached and the school voluntarily ceased conducting the unlawful program.

Amicus Advocacy

Debevoise, as counsel to a group of 91 members of the House of Representatives, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the pending case of Hobby Lobby, Inc. v. Sebelius, a consolidation of two cases originally brought by three for-profit corporations who are challenging the contraceptive coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) as a violation of their right to free exercise of religion. Debevoise was asked to work on this matter by the National Women’s Law Center, which coordinated the filing of numerous amicus briefs.

On behalf of the firm’s longstanding pro bono client, The Committee to Protect Journalists, in November 2011, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued its decision in the landmark case of Fontevecchia & D’Amico v. Argentina. The Court considered whether press reports on matters of public concern can violate the privacy of a public official. Debevoise submitted an amicus brief in support of the two Argentine journalists who brought the case to the regional court. In a resounding victory for the petitioners and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Court ruled that Argentina’s highest court had violated the journalists’ right to freedom of expression by imposing civil liability for reporting on issues related to the suitability for office of the country’s highest elected official.

In July 2013, Debevoise filed an amicus brief in the Superior Court of New Jersey on behalf of several LGBT rights organizations in El’Jai Devoureau v. Camden Treatment Associates, LLC. The litigation concerns the discriminatory firing of a transgender male urine monitor from a drug treatment facility. The amicus brief provides the court with the appropriate terminology needed to craft the decision, and presents the social implications of widespread employment discrimination against transgender persons.

In July 2013, Debevoise filed an amicus brief in the administrative appeal before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services challenging Medicare’s ban on coverage for sexual reassignment surgery to treat gender dysphoria. The brief provides a comparative review of the range of other insurance programs at the private, state, and international level that cover transition-related treatment. This perspective reflects the advances in both the scientific understanding of gender since 1981, the year in which HHS made its initial determination to deny Medicare coverage for sexual reassignment surgery.

Death Penalty

The Avena and Medellin cases invoke the international treaty rights of 50 Mexican nationals on death row in the United States, and represent one of the firm’s longstanding class action matters. Debevoise entered appearances on behalf of two nationals who were facing execution dates in 2013. Despite pleas from Secretary of State Kerry, one Mr. Edgar Tamayo, was executed in Texas on January 23, 2014. Debevoise also represents Mr. Cesar Fierro, another member of the Medellin case. Mr. Fierro has been on death row in Texas for more than 30 years.

Working with Georgia counsel as part of the Georgia Federal Defender Program, Debevoise is representing a Georgia death row inmate petitioning for habeas corpus relief. After a week-long evidentiary hearing and extensive post-hearing briefing, the Georgia Superior Court concluded that misconduct by the bailiff and jurors during the sentencing phase of the client’s trial deprived him of his state and federal rights. As a result, the court vacated the client’s death sentence. The team is now waiting for a re-sentencing hearing.

Debevoise is representing Jerry Michael Wickham, a 68-year-old Florida death row inmate who suffers from schizophrenia and brain damage. Mr. Wickham is fighting his 1988 conviction and death sentence on the grounds that the State withheld crucial exculpatory evidence that would likely have negated a death sentence; that Mr. Wickham’s trial counsel was ineffective; and that his mental health issues made him unfit to stand trial and incapable of planning a premeditated murder. The Debevoise team is currently preparing Mr. Wickham’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court in the Northern District of Florida.

Referred by the Equal Justice Initiative, Debevoise represents Aundra Marshall and Roderick Byrd in their post-conviction proceedings in the Alabama state courts. They were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Debevoise has represented Mr. Marshall since early 2010 and Mr. Byrd since early 2012. Debevoise has filed petitions arguing that each client’s counsel provided ineffective assistance in violation of state and federal constitutional rights. Debevoise continues to investigate the evidence and is preparing for motion practice and evidentiary hearings.

Criminal Defense

Working with organizations such as the Federal Defenders, the Office of Appellate Defenders, Bronx Defenders, Equal Justice Initiative, the Legal Aid Society and more, and through our appointments via the Criminal Justice Act Panels on the Southern and Eastern Districts, Debevoise advocated on behalf of more than 50 individuals in the criminal justice system. This resulted in over 12,000 pro bono attorney hours in the New York and D.C. offices alone.

In 2012, the NY Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision in a case shaping the country’s definition of terrorism. In 2007, Edgar Morales was convicted and given an enhanced sentence under NY’s Anti-Terrorism Act, passed days after 9/11, for a gang fight and shooting of two bystanders. The Debevoise team argued that the state legislature never intended to sweep in gang conduct under the Anti-Terrorism Act, and that the Bronx District Attorney’s use of the Act was an unconscionable stretch of terrorism as it is commonly understood. The Court agreed, and ordered the terrorism convictions reversed with a new trial.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of two juvenile petitioners on whose behalf Debevoise lawyers filed an amicus brief signed by 46 academics who focus on criminology and juvenile crime trends. The Court considered the sentences of two 14-year-old boys, convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. The Court concluded that a mandatory sentence of life without parole precludes hallmark features like immaturity and the failure to appreciate risks and consequences. The Debevoise amicus brief showed there is no empirical evidence that a constitutional ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles would lead to an increase in juvenile crime.

In 2013, Debevoise achieved an important victory for a defendant, securing a significantly shorter prison sentence than requested by the government for his role in a conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. The accused turned to the Criminal Justice Act panel after he had already pled guilty while represented by a court-appointed attorney. The Debevoise team argued that based on the inhumane conditions of the client’s pretrial confinement in Colombia while awaiting extradition to the U.S., the client should be granted a reduced sentence. The court reduced the sentence by two years.

Wage and Hour Violations and Unemployment Matters

Debevoise represented W.G., an elderly social worker who became unemployed after having brain surgery, in an ALJ proceeding brought by her former employer to disqualify W.G. from receiving unemployment insurance benefits. The employer argued that W.G. was not entitled to benefits because she was an independent contractor rather than an employee. Because the ALJ found W.G. to be an employee, W.G. will retain her benefits. In addition, the employer is liable for unpaid unemployment insurance contributions for W.G. and other similarly situated workers.

Debevoise secured a substantial settlement for five Chinatown waiters whose employer had systematically underpaid and misappropriated their tips for a decade. In 2004, Debevoise filed suit seeking damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and relevant New York state law for, among other things, the restaurant’s failure to pay minimum wage and overtime and the owners’ misappropriation of plaintiffs’ tips. While vigorously preparing for trial, the team pursued intensive settlement negotiations, including several marathon sessions before the magistrate judge. Debevoise ultimately secured settlements that together represent one of the largest per-plaintiff awards in employment cases of this kind. As a result of this litigation, working conditions have dramatically improved at the restaurant, where our clients still work.

Debevoise represented three delivery workers in a case against a group of restaurants that failed to the pay minimum wage and overtime, and violated other wage and hour laws. In 2012, Debevoise filed a complaint under the FLSA and New York labor law seeking damages and penalties for minimum wage, overtime, New York spread of hours and various notice and record-keeping violations. The parties reached a favorable settlement for Debevoise’s clients on February 24, 2014, one week before the trial was scheduled to commence.

Asylum and Immigration

In 2013, Debevoise represented over 40 individuals in their immigration matters from asylum, to cancellation proceedings, to temporary protected status applications to U-Visa work, resulting in 2,400 pro bono attorney hours. Some specific, recent highlights include:

Debevoise successfully obtained asylum for two of the firm’s pro bono clients. The clients, twin brothers from Macedonia, fled their home country because they feared persecution based on their sexual orientation. The Debevoise team worked closely with both brothers to document the abuse and was able to overcome some difficult facts in a novel area of asylum law. The Debevoise team succeeded in showing that the clients feared persecution at the hands of individuals whom the Macedonian government was unwilling or unable to control.

Debevoise successfully obtained asylum for S.B., a young gay man from Russia. S.B. experienced repeated incidents of physical and emotional abuse in Russia as a result of his sexual orientation. When he came to the United Stated in 2013, he contacted Immigration Equality after realizing that there was no safe haven in Russia for him, especially after a controversial anti-gay propaganda legislation was enacted, defining such “propaganda” in the broadest terms. In December, Debevoise filed an affirmative asylum application on S.B.'s behalf. S.B.'s application for asylum was granted in March 2014.

Debevoise secured political asylum in the United States for pro bono immigration client MST, a Nepalese activist who faced repeated threats and attacks for his outspoken activism against Maoist political violence. In reprisals against MST, he was targeted both in public and at his home on multiple occasions by Maoist gangs through public beatings, and brutal assaults on MST and his family in their home. MST fled to the United States, and requested asylum after being detained at the airport. Debevoise received MST’s case from Human Rights First, after deportation proceedings had begun and one week before a scheduled hearing. The team obtained an extension, filed a brief, and also filed extensive supporting material, and MST’s asylum application was granted.

Debevoise lawyers secured victory for a pro bono client, Ms. G, who was referred to Debevoise by Her Justice. Ms. G entered the United States from Ghana and suffered brutal beatings at the hand of her boyfriend, which were witnessed by her two children. Ms. G reported his abuse to the police and assisted the Bronx County District Attorney’s office in prosecuting him. Debevoise lawyers drafted affidavits to establish eligibility and submitted a U-Visa application. Ms. G was granted the visa and can now work legally and will become eligible for a green card in 2016.

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