In what was a generally disheartening year for the world at large, Morrison & Foerster nevertheless managed to change many lives for the better through pro bono legal services. Here are some highlights.
MAJOR COURTROOM WINS
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, MoFo pro bono teams hit several home runs in U.S. courtrooms.
When Georgia’s vote tally took center stage in the drama surrounding the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Elections, state election officials were quick to cite paper ballots as a key means of validating the electronic vote count. Secretary of State Raffensperger acknowledged that the reason Georgia had those paper ballots was because a federal judge, in an injunction issued in August 2019, ordered the state to scrap its old paperless system. That critical ruling arose from a lawsuit led by MoFo on behalf of Georgia voters seeking secure, reliable elections in the state. The 2019 ruling in the long-running elections security case led by MoFo, Curling v. Raffensperger, made clear that Georgia had to replace its fully electronic voting system and adopt procedures for paper back-up ballots. Voters in Georgia, and across the United States, were the beneficiaries of that ruling this year.
In collaboration with several public interest groups, the firm secured a landmark decision in which a federal district judge in Arizona granted a permanent injunction requiring all Customs & Border Protection (CBP) facilities in the Tucson Sector to provide immigration detainees who are held for more than 48 hours with a bed, blanket, shower, potable food and water, and a medical assessment, because the conditions under which former detainees suffered violated the U.S. Constitution.
In the first civil rights lawsuit brought under any state constitution to secure students’ right to achieve literacy, Morrison & Foerster and its co-counsel, Public Counsel, reached a groundbreaking settlement on behalf of school children across the State of California. The settlement, among other things, assigns $53 million in funding to advance literacy for children in California’s lowest-performing schools. MoFo and its co-counsel filed the suit, Ella T. v. State of California, alleging that, in 2016–17, the reading proficiency rates at the schools attended by plaintiffs were between 4% and 11%.
Morrison & Foerster litigator Mark Zebrowski reached a $1.475 million settlement on behalf of pro bono clients Brandon Duncan and Aaron Harvey for a wrongful arrest lawsuit involving the two California men who were arrested in 2014 and spent seven months in jail before a judge dismissed all charges against them. The suit alleged that the gang-related charges brought against our clients were based solely on speech that was protected by the First Amendment.
Stopping the virus in its tracks—as opposed to mitigating its impact—was the focus of Technology Transactions Group partner Matt Karlyn’s efforts. Matt and several other MoFo partners have been advising Survivor Corps, an organization with its sights set on contributing to terminating the pandemic. Survivor Corps’ initiatives are taking several forms, from investing in the research associated with finding a cure and treatment options for COVID-19, to mobilizing COVID-19 survivors to donate blood and plasma that would be used in treatment options for those currently infected.
SOCIAL & RACIAL JUSTICE
In collaboration with the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), Morrison & Foerster this year began representing five people incarcerated by non-unanimous juries in Louisiana, a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in April 2020 in its Ramos v. Louisiana opinion. Non-unanimous jury trials are considered remnants of Jim Crow laws, which Jamila Johnson, Managing Attorney of the Jim Crow Juries Project, describes as “systemic racism defined: a law written by white supremacists that continues to deprive thousands of predominantly Black Louisianans of their liberty.”
MoFo is also bringing hope to individuals serving harsh sentences for non-violent crimes in Mississippi, where, under the state’s “Three Strikes Law,” a person convicted of a third non‑violent felony can be sentenced to decades in prison, regardless of the severity of his or her crimes. Beginning in January 2020, MoFo’s Tokyo office has been assisting the Southern Poverty Law Center with its Three Strikes Project, which affords certain prisoners who have served at least 25% of a no-parole sentence the chance for a parole hearing. Since then, at least five other MoFo offices have gotten on board, collectively filing nearly 100 petitions.
MoFo issued a series of Helping Handbooks as devastating wildfires spread across California during the summer, offering individuals, families, and small businesses affected by the fires access to county-specific information and assistance to help with recovery. The handbook contains information on subjects including housing, government benefits, insurance, FEMA assistance, replacement of lost documents, and fraud prevention.
The very embodiment of MoFo’s pro bono ethos, federal tax lawyer Linda Arnsbarger and litigation associate Chanwoo Park received the ABA Business Law Section’s 2020 National Public Service Award and the Thurgood Marshall Award for Exceptional Pro Bono Service in the Rising Star category from the Federal Bar Council, respectively.
A 30-year veteran of the firm, Linda has donated 3,300 hours of pro bono legal work to MoFo’s nonprofit and social enterprise clients, assisting entities at every level and as diverse as the Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association and the Nature Conservancy. The legal advice she donates spans the areas of tax, governance, contracts, and intellectual property, and spans the globe.
Another area of Linda’s pro bono practice involves helping nonprofits benefit from the increasing popularity of impact investing without sacrificing the tax-exempt status that the U.S. Internal Revenue Code affords to public charities.
As passionate as Linda is about her corporate work for organizational clients, she says she’s especially proud of having collaborated with members of MoFo’s appellate group in the earlier years of her career to work on special education issues, which interest her on a personal level.
Chanwoo Park has provided more than 2,700 hours of pro bono service since becoming a summer associate at MoFo in 2014. Since April 2019, he has been working with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) on the headline-grabbing I.S. v. Binghamton City School District, a lawsuit challenging school officials’ illegal, intrusive, and non-consensual searches of four 12-year-old Black and Latina middle school girls.
Earlier in his career, Chanwoo represented a couple who were the lead plaintiffs in a federal RICO class action lawsuit against a landlord, who, at the time, owned approximately 15,000 apartments across New York City and was accused of intimidating and harassing tenants in rent‑regulated apartments in an attempt to empty these buildings to make way for higher‑paying tenants. While most damages awards in the case were less than $5,000, the claims administrator granted Chanwoo’s clients a six-figure damages award.
Chanwoo’s other pro bono contributions include appealing a federal court decision that denied disability benefits to a woman repeatedly hospitalized because of sickle cell disease and traveling to an Albany, New York jail to help immigrant detainees prepare for their credible fear interviews as the first step in seeking asylum.
Watch MoFo’s latest pro bono video to see the remarkable work our lawyers have undertaken to help make an impact during this unprecedented year.