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Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

The five finalist cases for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include landmark cases dealing with immigrants’, workers’, and civil rights as well as government misconduct and wrongful conviction. 

The award, which celebrates and recognizes the work of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered injustice and harmful abuse, will be presented at the organization’s Annual Gala and Awards Dinner on July 13 in Montreal. Here are the five finalists for the award: 

David v. Signal International

Leading the trial team was Alan Bruce Howard of Crowell & Moring in New York, along with Daniel Werner, Naomi Tsu, Kristi L. Graunke, Meredith B. Stewart and Anjali J. Nair of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Atlanta and New Orleans offices; Chandra Bhatnagar, formerly of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York; Ivy O. Suriyopas and Dahsong Kim of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York; Joseph Bjarnson of Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker in Uniondale, N.Y.; Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute in New Orleans; Chiemi D. Suzuki of Crowell & Moring in New York; and Amal Bouhabib and Hugh Daniel Sandler, formerly of Crowell & Moring in New York.

In 2005, Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused massive destruction throughout the Gulf Coast of the United States. Signal International, a large contractor, was hired to help rebuild following the storms, and recruited nearly 500 pipefitters and welders from India to get the job done. The recruits, who had to pay between $10,000 and $25,000 just to be considered for the work, were lured by the promise of long-term jobs and permanent residency in the United States.

Reality, however, was far from the idyllic picture Signal had painted. Workers were brought into the country on guest worker visas which provided no opportunity to change jobs or pursue permanent residency. They were then charged $1,050, deducted each month from their pay, in exchange for living quarters known as “man camps,” where as many as two dozen workers were forced to live in a single trailer and share one bathroom. These squalid living quarters became known among Signal agents as “the reservation.” All the while, the company was saving more than $8 million in labor costs by paying Indian workers below-market wages.

When the company learned several of the workers were organizing to take action, they locked those workers in a trailer, terminated the leaders of the organizing movement and attempted to forcibly deport them.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with several public interest groups and pro bono counsel, fought Signal for nearly seven years. After a judge did not grant class action status to the case, SPLC recruited nearly a dozen of the nation’s top law firms and civil rights organizations to represent, on a pro bono basis, hundreds of workers in a dozen follow-on lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions. The David case was the first to go to trial, and more than a dozen lawyers helped craft a trial strategy that navigated numerous challenges, including explaining immigration law to jurors and presenting the testimony of workers who did not speak English. Their perseverance resulted in a unanimous jury verdict this year, finding that Signal had engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination, and awarding over $14 million in damages to the first five workers. The trial was the result of the largest labor trafficking cases ever brought in the U.S., and produced one of the largest verdicts ever obtained for trafficking violations.

Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania v. Wetzell

Leading the team were Robert W. MeekKelly L. Darr and Jeffrey M. Skakalski of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, along with co-counsel David Kornblau, Eric Hellerman, Mari K. Bonthuis and Laura Flahive Wu of Covington and Burling, LLP, of New York; David Rudovsky of Kairys Rudovsky Messing and Feinberg in Philadelphia; Angus R. Love and Su Ming Yeh of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Philadelphia; Michael Formichelli, formerly of Covington & Burling in New York; and Witold J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh.

Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for any prisoner. For those with mental illnesses, however, it is especially brutal. Forced to spend 23 hours each day alone, locked in a tiny cell, prisoners with pre-existing mental health conditions often experience exacerbated illness.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania conducted an exhaustive investigation of Pennsylvania’s prisons and discovered that roughly 800 of the 2400 prisoners in solitary confinement had serious mental illnesses, a significantly disproportionate share compared to the general prison population. DRN tried to engage directly with officials at the state Department of Corrections, but when talks proved unsuccessful, they filed a lawsuit—one of only a handful ever brought concerning solitary confinement and its impact on prisoners with mental illnesses.

The lawsuit was so meticulously executed that, within weeks of filing, the DOC announced it was ready to negotiate. The resulting settlement finalized this year was remarkable in its breadth. The agreement ensures prompt and regular mental health evaluation for all Pennsylvania prisoners, ends solitary confinement for those with serious mental illness absent exceptional circumstances. The settlement also establishes three types of new mental health treatment units. In all, the suit led to state-wide reform of mental health treatment for 52,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania, including over 4,000 total prisoners in the system with a serious mental illness. 

Elwin v. NS Home for Colored Children & Province of Nova Scotia

Leading the team was Raymond F. Wagner, Q.C. of Wagners in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with Michael Dull, also of Wagners.

The Halifax Home for Colored Children was founded in 1921 to care for African-Canadian orphans in the province. In 1975, social services placed Deanna Smith in the home, where she would remain for nearly four years. Smith later became one of 60 people who filed individual lawsuits against the home for unspeakable treatment at the hands of those who were supposed to care for them.

Children in the home were routinely told by staff that they were “stupid,” “useless” and “would amount to nothing,” as Smith recalled in her affidavit. She was also fondled by staff members and forced to perform in “sex shows” organized by staff. Sadly, her treatment was typical of the abuse suffered by other children who, over the course of nearly 70 years, were subjected to systemic physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Between 2000 and 2003, the victims brought five dozen lawsuits against the home. Then, in 2011, a class action was filed and certified. It ultimately took 14 years for counsel in the case to finally succeed in having the voices of former residents heard. Once the tragedy that took place became clear, the government and the orphanage agreed to two different settlements totaling $34 million. To date, over 300 former residents have come forward to submit claims in the settlement, which gives victims access to various mental health and financial counseling resources in addition to monetary compensation.

Soon after the settlement, Nova Scotia’s premier issued an apology to the former residents and called on citizens to “do better.” Today, the home remains a short-term residential facility for children of all races.

In re McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam Litigation

Leading plaintiff Yusef Salaam’s team were Myron Beldock and Karen Dippold, of Beldock, Levine & Hoffman in New York, along with Marc A. Cannan and Jonathan Moore, also of Beldock, Levine & Hoffman.

Leading the team for plaintiffs Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, Jr. was Jonathan C. Moore of Beldock, Levine & Hoffman, in New York, along with co-counsel Michael Warren and Evelyn Warren of the Michael W. Warren Law Office in Brooklyn, New York and Roger Wareham of Thomas Wareham & Richards in Brooklyn, New York.

Leading the team for plaintiff Korey Wise were Jane H. Fisher-Byrialsen, David Fisher, of Fisher, Byrialsen & Kreizer, New York, and Alissa Boshnack, formerly of Fisher, Byrialsen & Kreizer, New York.

The beating and rape of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park made national headlines in 1989. Five young boys ages 14 to 16 were arrested for the crime, convicted and sent to prison on the basis of coerced confessions. The boys, all of whom were black or Hispanic, served from 7 to 13 years behind bars and, upon their release, were required to register as sex offenders.

Then, in 2002, a convicted serial rapist came forward and claimed responsibility for the attack. When the District Attorney’s office investigated his claims using DNA analysis, they found he was telling the truth.

For 13 years, attorneys for the wrongfully convicted young men fought New York City lawyers in their quest for justice. Hundreds of depositions were conducted and hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery were exchanged. Finally, in 2014, the city agreed to a record $41 million settlement, amounting to more than $1 million for each person for each year served in prison. Today, the young men continue to speak out about the lessons to be learned from their case and the need to videotape interrogations of juvenile suspects. In 2013, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns featured the five in his acclaimed documentary, the “Central Park Five.”

Navajo Nation v. U.S.

Leading the team were Samuel J. Buffone* of BuckleySandler in Washington, D.C.; and Alan R. Taradash of the Nordhaus Law Firm in Albuquerque, along with Andrew L. Sandler, Brian Kelly and Christopher F. Regan of BuckleySandler in Washington, D.C; Deidre A. Lujan, Thomas J. Peckham, Donald H. Grove and Daniel Rey-Bear of the Nordhaus Law Firm in Albuquerque; and Harrison Tsosie, Dana Bobroff, and Louis Denetsosie, from the Attorney General’s Office for the Navajo Nation.

* Samuel Buffone passed away from cancer just before being nominated for the Trial Lawyer of the Year award.

The United States government holds in trust 14 million acres of land belonging to the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the country. As part of its agreement with the Nation, the U.S. government leases parcels of that land for farming, housing, timber operations and oil and coal exploration. Yet for nearly seventy years, in what one delegate to the Navajo Nation Council called “an egregious breach of trust,” the government continued its operations without any accurate accounting of the Nation’s trust funds. It soon became clear that the federal government failed to get fair market value for what they leased, and also failed to monitor the extraction of natural resources from the Navajos’ land. As a result, the Nation never received the true sum of royalties it was owed.

In a case that lasted for eight years, counsel for the Nation assembled compelling evidence of the government’s startling misconduct over a 50 year period. In 2014, in what then-Attorney General Eric Holder called a “landmark resolution,” the United States agreed to pay $554 million to the Nation in what remains the largest settlement ever obtained by a Native American tribe from the federal government.

The settlement has had a tremendous, positive impact on the 280,000 citizens of the Navajo Nation. “We have so much need,” another Council delegate told The New York Times, noting that the money could be used for critical projects, including “roads, water, housing [and] basic infrastructure.” In recalling the case, attorneys for the Nation noted that “few cases in recent memory have meant so much to so many.”

For more information on the award and its past winners, see our Trial Lawyer of the Year page.

For ticket, program, and sponsorship information for this year’s Annual Gala in Montreal, see our Gala page