Pro Bono and Public Service

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Pro Bono Legacy
Partner, Atlanta

Our Firm's Long-Term and Ongoing Commitment to Pro Bono and Public Service

Sutherland initiated a long and distinguished commitment to pro bono and public service with our founding partners, Bill Sutherland and Elbert Tuttle. Tuttle took Johnson v. Zerbst to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1938. The case established that in the absence of a competent and intelligent waiver, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in a criminal matter is absolute, and that a conviction obtained without counsel in such circumstances is void. Tuttle and Sutherland also represented Angelo Herndon, an African-American communist organizer who had been convicted of an “attempt to incite insurrection” in violation of Georgia law when he attempted to pass out communist literature on the Atlanta post office steps. After lengthy court fights, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Georgia statute unconstitutionally vague and Herndon was freed from his sentence of 18 years on a chain gang. 

The tradition of public service that Sutherland, Tuttle and their colleagues began continues today through the efforts of our many lawyers and staff who provide civic leadership and pro bono legal representation to individuals and institutions within our communities. We are proud that the pro bono and public service activities in which we engage are self-directed efforts of the lawyers and staff who choose to become involved, and that the firm provides strong encouragement for these activities. While our pro bono projects and cases provide significant training for our lawyers, are helpful in recruiting excellent lawyers for whom pro bono work is important, and give us favorable exposure in high profile matters, our commitment to pro bono and public service work derives primarily from our sense of professional obligation. The enormous legal needs of the poor would be unmet if lawyers like us did not help. Our lawyers are deeply gratified to be able to make positive differences in people’s lives.

Whom Do We Serve?

The majority of our pro bono work over the past four years includes death penalty cases, property law, work for non-profit charitable organizations, civil rights, habeas corpus, criminal appeals, immigration and asylum appeals, trafficking litigation, affordable housing, public benefits, domestic violence cases, child custody disputes, wills and probate. A representative list of organizations through which we provide pro bono legal services includes: 

  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
  • Atlanta Legal Aid Society
  • Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation
  • Georgia Legal Services Program
  • DC Bar Pro Bono Program
  • Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta
  • Lawyers Alliance for New York
  • State Bar of Georgia Fee Arbitration Program
  • Bread for the City (DC)
  • Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network
  • Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
  • Georgia State University Tax Clinic

The firm also sponsors, in various legal service organizations, Equal Justice Works fellows with whom lawyers in the firm often participate in pro bono projects.

Recent Pro Bono Highlights

  • We represented an indigent former trustee of a family trust in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Initially at the request of his father (the grantor), the client made loans from the trust to his mother and to businesses he controlled. Although the loans were repaid with interest, and a state court found that the trustee had not acted with apparent malice, that court found a breach of fiduciary duty through self-dealing and awarded the other beneficiaries a judgment against him. A bankruptcy court found this debt non-dischargeable as arising from defalcation by a fiduciary. The district court affirmed, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, noting a split in the circuits on the mental state required for the defalcation exception to discharge. The Emory Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Project asked for our help. We filed a petition for certiorari, which was granted. We briefed the issues, including those raised by the Solicitor General, who joined the case against our client. Our partner, Tom Byrne, argued the case in March, 2013, before a very active Court. In May the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in our client’s favor.
  • In coordination with 10 other major law firms and legal service providers, Sutherland represents a group of Indian citizens in pursuing trafficking claims against a major Southeastern construction firm and the Indian and U.S. recruiters and labor brokers who worked with the manufacturer in supplying a workforce of hundreds from India. The case was initially filed as a class action, but the district court denied class certification, finding that individual issues predominated. Sutherland has taken on 40 individual plaintiffs, and has filed a complaint on their behalf in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas. Other firms have taken on additional cases in various venues, totaling over 200 individual claims. Cumulatively, this probably represents the largest set of trafficking cases yet brought under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2003, and includes several other claims for relief.
  • The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Sutherland filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of seven hearing impaired individuals who sought treatment at Laurel Regional Hospital in Laurel, Maryland. Despite their specific and repeated requests, the individuals were denied in-person qualified sign language interpreter services. The plaintiffs alleged that they were instead provided with inadequate video interpreting, cryptic notes or, most often, no communication at all. As a result of the suit, the hospital now provides adequate services for the hearing impaired.
  • In one of several asylum matters we have handled successfully, we obtained political asylum for our client from Uganda who had suffered brutal persecution by Ugandan military officers due to her membership in the opposition political group, her advocacy on behalf of women who suffered similar abuses and allegations of homosexuality in a country where homosexuality is criminalized. She was unlawfully detained, beaten and raped on multiple occasions. After a particularly violent attack in April 2010, she fled to the United States, fearful of being killed if she remained in Uganda. She was detained upon arrival for entering the country using an invalid visa. After a hearing, the Arlington Immigration Court granted our petition for asylum. Over two and a half years after fleeing Uganda, our client no longer fears deportation and can begin the process of bringing her children to this country.
  • Our pro bono client, Early Learning Property Management (ELPM), develops high quality early learning centers, primarily in disadvantaged neighborhoods, serving children from birth through five years old. Sutherland has represented ELPM in real estate transactions for over a decade as it leased or purchased, and constructed or renovated, numerous properties in the metro Atlanta area. In early 2013, President Obama visited College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, a project developed by ELPM, to highlight a commitment to quality early childhood education.
  • In the most recent of several death penalty cases the firm has handled, we were able to obtain clemency for a death row defendant from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on the day he was scheduled for execution. A number of our lawyers spent hundreds of hours on the case over four years.
  • One of our partners is co-chair and provides pro bono legal services for the New York Center for Children, a non-profit providing onsite medical facilities and a full range of resources to New York children who have been subjected to abuse.
  • The U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia referred a pro se police brutality case to us. Our client alleged that a police detective used an unconstitutionally excessive amount of force against him, resulting in physical injuries. The detective allegedly kicked the client in the knee while in a jail storage closet following his arrest. The case settled on the eve of trial, with our client achieving a substantial settlement.
  • For the past several years, dozens of Sutherland lawyers have partnered with the Prosperity Campaign of the Atlanta Community Food Bank to help prepare income tax returns at a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site, to assist low-income families with the preparation of their federal and state income tax returns.
  • We represented the mother of four children living in Washington, DC, who alleged that the natural father had physically abused the children. At the onset of this case, our client had limited custody of the children. Through the proceedings we were able to help her achieve her goals of obtaining full physical and legal custody of the children and obtaining child support.
  • We did substantial pro bono work for a national grassroots organization that focuses primarily on improving the status and quality of life for midlife and older women through advocacy and education in economic security, health reform, quality of life and mental health care issues. The group was referred to us by the DC Bar Pro Bono Program when several of their local chapters received notices that their tax-exempt status had been revoked for failure to file information returns. The process was complicated by the client’s structure in that it is a national organization with chapters, some of which file for tax-exempt status with the national organization and some of which file independently. In addition to helping the group reinstate tax-exempt status under certain IRS amnesty programs, we provided general governance advice.
  • We serve as outside general counsel to Economic Mobility Corporation, a Lawyers Alliance client, which identifies, develops and evaluates promising strategies that promote economic mobility by enabling less advantaged adults and youth to acquire the education, skills and networks needed to advance in the labor market. Some of the organization’s projects have involved wounded warriors, working family initiatives, immigrant workers and subsidized employment. In addition, one of our partners currently chairs the Board.

Our Policies

The firm has adopted a policy of a minimum goal of an average of 50 hours per attorney per year to be spent on pro bono matters, in accordance with the recommendation of the American Bar Association. Sutherland is a signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, a group of large law firms who commit to contribute annually, at a minimum, an amount of time equal to 3% of billable hours to pro bono work. Sutherland is a founding member of the Pro Bono Institute which supports creative pro bono projects and systems.

The pro bono work at Sutherland is administered by a firm wide pro bono partner and the Pro Bono Committee. The committee includes partners, counsel and associates and is responsible for encouraging and monitoring the firm’s pro bono practice, screening and offering appropriate pro bono matters to the firm’s lawyers. The Pro Bono Committee, practice group leaders and the Executive Committee are each involved in authorizing and encouraging the representations. Much of our work comes through regular relationships with pro bono organizations, but any lawyer can bring a matter to our attention.

For more information on pro bono and public service at Sutherland, contact:

John Fleming at john.fleming@sutherland.com (firm wide pro bono partner)
Lew Wiener at lewis.wiener@sutherland.com (Washington)
Cynthia Shoss at cynthia.shoss@sutherland.com (New York)
Daniella Landers at daniella.landers@sutherland.com (Texas)

Our Story

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP is a law firm helping the Fortune 100, industry leaders, sector innovators and business entrepreneurs solve their biggest challenges and reach their business goals. Dedicated to unfaltering excellence in client service, we are known for our business savvy and industry intelligence, providing creative and custom solutions for each of our clients. Industry and business experience makes the difference for our clients.

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© 2014 Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP.
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