Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
Davis Polk (30)


Davis Polk & Wardwell, as cocounsel to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, won a major judgment last October on behalf of 36 current and former deliverymen of Saigon Grill, a popular Manhattan restaurant. The plaintiffs—36 non-English-speaking workers, all immigrants from Fujian Province—were paid as little as $2 an hour and received no overtime for workweeks that Am Law Pro Bono 100lasted as long as 80 hours. The mistreatment didn’t end there: owners deducted pay for infractions ranging from allowing the restaurant door to slam or to failing to log in a delivery. They also forced workers to purchase and maintain their own bicycles. When the workers’ participation in the litigation became known in 2007, the owners retaliated by firing 22 of them.

The bench trial lasted five days, and garnered plenty of press attention locally; two associates, Edward Sherwin and Jonathan Adler, gave the opening and closing statements. Sherwin, Adler, and two other associates also put on all the witnesses at trial.

After the restaurant owners turned over just two days of time sheets during the period under scrutiny, claiming the rest were lost, the judge allowed the plaintiffs to estimate individual damages. The resulting $4.6 million judgment represents as much as $325,000 for a few of the workers, and more than $100,000 for others for many years of work at the restaurant; at press time the judge had not yet issued a ruling on damages related to the retaliation claims.

The firm has handled several workers rights cases for AALDEF, but this one, lawyers say, has precedential value. The judge, Michael Dolinger, in a scathing 79-page decision, established that the statute of limitations on such claims would not begin to run for plaintiffs who had never been informed of their rights. Previously, employees’ claims for minimum wage and overtime violations could be completely or partially barred by a time limit, even if they did not know of their rights, says Davis Polk partner Brian Weinstein, who together with the firm’s special pro bono counsel Ronnie Abrams oversaw the four associates. If Dolinger’s decision withstands review, “now similarly situated plaintiffs will be able to claim for the entire period of their employment.” And on an immediate level, because of the publicity of the Saigon Grill case, “we’ve been hearing that many restaurants have started to pay their deliverymen more,” says Abrams.

In the end, the firm contributed more than 3,000 hours to the federal and state wages and hours litigation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Davis Polk lawyers spent another 3,000-plus hours on five similar claims against other restaurants, with a total of 32 lawyers contributing hours. Four of the claims remain active; one settled favorably last year.

—Julie Triedman | July 1, 2009

Return to The Am Law Pro Bono 100