We at The Legal Intelligencer recognize the hard work being done across Pennsylvania by attorneys dedicated to helping their communities through pro bono representation. However, these efforts are too often unnoticed and underappreciated. In an effort to bring some attention to these attorneys and honor them for the pro bono service they have given over the past two years, we reached out to law firms, public interest organizations and bar associations across the commonwealth and asked them to tell us about these “unsung heroes.”
We received dozens of responses, each sharing the heartfelt stories of attorneys who shared their time and expertise with the community— all of whom were deserving of being honored. The editorial staff of The Legal selected the stories below, each of which demonstrates the work of an individual or group of attorneys, for standing out above the rest. They are in no particular order.
Over the past two years, Kathryn Kenyon handled protection from abuse and custody conciliation cases on a weekly basis. In most of these cases, Kenyon represented women and children, often helping victims of domestic violence obtain protection from abuse orders to prevent them and their children from further mistreatment. In custody conciliation cases, Kenyon’s clients were parents who couldn’t afford to hire private counsel. She represented them in a conciliation to effectuate a consent custody order to increase the amount of time her clients could spend with their children.
In addition to her personal pro bono representation in these cases, Kenyon works hard in the Pittsburgh community to recruit fellow lawyers to help those in need. In 2010 and 2011 she was vice chair of the administrative board of the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership and was on the board of directors of the Neighborhood Legal Services Association.
Kenyon is a partner at Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti and is a past recipient of the firm’s Nora Barry Fischer Award, which recognizes attorneys who have given back to the legal profession and the community at large.
Every other month, Wesley Payne organizes a group of attorneys who go to their chosen homeless shelter, Our Brothers Place, and provide legal advice and representation to the residents. The group usually handles more than 200 cases each year, and Payne himself handles about 30 of them, many of which are Social Security cases. Over the past two years, Payne has also begun to take on mortgage foreclosure matters on a pro bono basis, contributing to more than 250 hours of pro bono work he performs each year.
As the chairman of White & Williams’ homeless advocacy practice group, Payne has a hand in a number of different pro bono organizations. He is chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s veterans committee and the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s veterans and military affairs committee, through which he assists veterans with their civil legal issues. He is also a member of the Homeless Advocacy Project board and the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network board and will be the PLAN vice president this year.
Cheryl Jacobs has donated more than 500 hours over the past three years through her work with Philadelphia VIP, where she assists low-income Philadelphia homeowners who would otherwise not be able to afford legal services to help protect or save their homes. In one recent case, Jacobs was representing a widowed client whose lender wouldn’t allow any modification to her loan. The woman had been out of the workforce while raising her family and had paid off her original mortgage before taking a loan with a finance company to consolidate her bills.
She didn’t know until a foreclosure action was filed that the loan was actually a mortgage. Jacobs filed an answer claiming the loan was predatory, as her client didn’t earn enough to pay the monthly mortgage payments — something that was obvious at the loan’s inception. The company had also required the woman to purchase insurance to protect them in case of death or disability. With Jacobs’ assistance, an agreement was reached that allowed the client to keep her home and begin making affordable payments.
Jacobs works on dozens of cases each year with Philadelphia VIP, helping to save families from homelessness and give low-income Philadelphians peace of mind about their homes in the face of the mortgage foreclosure crisis.
David Denenberg’s contributions to the community range from direct representation of low-income seniors to assisting in the creation of a help center for landlord-tenant disputes. Denenberg has spent the past two decades helping to find safe shelter for hundreds of individuals and families who were in need of pro bono assistance. In the past year, that work often included clients who were illegally locked out of their homes, public housing tenants facing eviction and tenants who wanted to assert their right to abate their rents when facing serious housing violations.
Denenberg helped in the development and creation of a court-based Landlord-Tenant Help Center, launched in January 2012 in the Philadelphia Municipal Court behind sponsorship from the SeniorLAW Center along with court leadership and pro bono leaders. Denenberg and colleagues will staff a virtual help desk to provide legal advice and information to low-income landlords who are renting parts of their homes and are at risk of abuse or exploitation. He is readily available to assist and prioritizes requests from the SeniorLAW Center in its effort to raise visibility and awareness of the plight of the poor in an effort to prevent homelessness.
B.D. was born to a mother with a history of mental health issues and drug addiction; the father was unknown. Marguerite Gualtieri was appointed to represent B.D. as an infant and argued that she should be removed from her mother’s care and placed in a safe home with supervised visits. But Gualtieri learned that the mother’s mental health issues were escalating and endangering B.D. during visits. Gualtieri argued for the termination of the mother’s visitation rights and prevailed.
The placement of B.D. was a major issue in the case. She was originally placed with an elderly woman who was caring for five children, all under the age of 5, and who could not meet B.D.’s daily needs. Gualtieri advocated vigorously with the Department of Human Services to find a more suitable placement for B.D., who was eventually placed with her current caregivers. DHS would not commit to them as the adoptive resource, but Gualtieri’s efforts helped B.D. to be adopted in late 2011.
Gualtieri is the managing director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, where she oversees service delivery for more than 850 children each year, as well as the practice of more than 300 active volunteer attorneys and in-house legal staff. Her relentless effort to improve the lives of children in crisis makes her an unsung hero.
Michael Phillips devotes more than 200 hours every year to pro bono work, including volunteering at the Homeless Advocacy Project and Trevor’s Place Next Door. He also takes on one or two litigation cases pro bono each year.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Phillips has been involved in the litigation case of a Moroccan woman seeking to gain custody of her two children in order to keep them away from her abusive husband. Though the woman speaks little English, Phillips has represented her throughout a long process of hearings, and he continued to represent her when he was unsatisfied with the court’s decisions regarding her case. He even helped her find a place to live when she was in danger of becoming homeless.
Phillips also recently represented a client who was in need of SSI benefits. It was a complex case, and he gained a successful outcome for his client. Through his work at the Homeless Advocacy Project and Trevor’s Place Next Door, Phillips has also worked with many other clients who were homeless and needed benefits or social security numbers.
A member of Obermayer’s litigation department and government relations practice group, Phillips practices in a wide range of areas, including business disputes, real estate, intellectual property, consumer fraud, election law, civil RICO, personal injury and sports law.
Sam Silver & Bruce Merenstein
In May 2010, a team led by Sam Silver and Bruce Merenstein successfully represented William J. Barnes, who had been charged with the murder of Walter T. Barclay, a Philadelphia police officer whom Barnes had shot and partially paralyzed in 1966. The team, which also included Leah Snyder Batchis, Julie Randolph, Chris Haaf and Emily Hanlon, obtained a full acquittal for Barnes.
After Barclay died in 2007 due to sepsis caused by a urinary tract infection, Barnes was arrested and charged with his murder. The prosecution alleged that the injury Barclay had suffered in the shooting 41 years prior directly led to his death.
The Schnader team acknowledged that Barnes had shot Barclay and pointed out that, in fact, he had already served a 20-year prison term for the shooting. However, the team argued, in the decades since the shooting, Barclay had experienced other significant events that contributed to his poor health and eventual death. The team tracked down and gathered evidence from medical records and providers, some of which were decades old.
The team brought to light evidence surrounding Barclay’s three auto accidents and two wheelchair accidents, as well as abuse and neglect that he had suffered from live-in caregivers. Because of all this, there could be no clear, direct link between the shooting and Barclay’s death, the team said. The jury deliberated for six hours over two days and returned with a verdict of acquittal.
Since 2010, Suzanne Root has been representing a non-English-speaking couple in an adoption case. The couple had been taking care of their niece since she was 6 years old because her mother was unable to provide for her and her father had never been present. After her mother passed away, the couple decided to formally adopt the girl.
Root represented the couple throughout the adoption process, using an interpreter when necessary. Toward the end of the process, however, she discovered that the uncle had a criminal record, although the charges had been withdrawn. Concerned that this would hurt the couple’s case for adoption, Root worked to have the record expunged and, after the adoption was granted, worked to have the girl’s birth certificate changed to reflect the surname of her new permanent family.
An experienced volunteer with Philadelphia VIP, Root has handled 37 cases, many of which were complicated family law cases. In addition to her own pro bono work, she often assists volunteer attorneys on other cases, providing advice or mentorship to younger attorneys working on adoption cases. She also maintains a solo practice in Merion Station, Pa.
Brian Gregg has successfully taken on two landlord-tenant dispute cases in the last two years. In 2010, Gregg represented a tenant whose apartment became infested with bedbugs shortly after she moved in. The landlord had not complied with the lease, which required pest treatment prior to the tenant taking possession of the apartment. After reviewing the lease and speaking with the landlord’s representative, Gregg suggested some options that could serve as an alternative to his client simply filing a claim. In the end, the client decided to hire an exterminator herself to take care of the problem and worked with the landlord to be reimbursed.
In 2011, Gregg worked with another client who had recently been evicted. The client, who was disabled and had three children, had been thrown out for refusing to pay for plumbing and other repairs that he said were caused by the property’s poor condition, rather than his own negligence. The landlord also claimed that the client hadn’t paid his rent and utility bills on time and owed late fees. Gregg found these claims to be untrue, and he appealed the eviction long enough for the client to find another place to live. The parties are currently working on a settlement.
Gregg practices in the intellectual property, food industry and alcoholic beverages and liquor license practice groups at McNees Wallace & Nurick.
Carl Hittinger has devoted more than 500 hours to the case of Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, in which the plaintiffs allege that Lower Merion discriminated against its black students by placing them disproportionately in its special education and lower-level classes. Hittinger and his team argue that the black students have faced “procedural irregularities” during class placement, and they are working in partnership with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia to place the students into their appropriate educational level.
Hittinger personally works with seven families in the Lower Merion School District, and he actively seeks a solution to the systemic problems that prevent such students from gaining a fair and equal education. Although a judge has ruled that the students were not discriminated against, Hittinger continues to represent the students and is still moving the case forward.
A partner in the firm and chairman of the Philadelphia litigation department at DLA Piper, Hittinger focuses his practice on commercial and civil rights areas, including antitrust and unfair competition cases.
Since 2004, Megan Spitz has worked as a volunteer child advocate attorney with the Support Center for Child Advocates. In her most recent case, Spitz worked with a client who had experienced major trauma as a young child and had recently been treated at a mental hospital.
When the client was discharged, Spitz advocated for the child to be placed with relatives, rather than into foster care, as the child welfare agency planned. The agency complied, and the client today still lives under the care of relatives and still continues to receive needed treatment.
However, Spitz recently became involved with the client again when the family received notification that the caregiver’s fingerprint clearances had expired. In fact, the clearances had not expired, but due to this error, the child was in danger of being removed from the family. Spitz stepped in and contacted the child welfare agency, the fingerprinting company, the state representative’s office and the Department of Public Welfare. She alerted them to the error and prevented the child from being removed. Spitz also found that the systemic error could have affected many other children; her advocacy kept that from happening.
Spitz is an associate at Blank Rome who focuses on intellectual property.
Margaret Morris became involved in the adoption case of a 19-year-old mother when the girl reached out to her during adoption proceedings. The girl, who had gone into labor on a SEPTA train, had contacted an adoption agency after the birth of her daughter. She told the agency’s representative that she was unprepared for the baby and wanted to give her up for adoption.
As the proceedings moved forward, the girl changed her mind and decided she was uncomfortable with the adoption agency. But after she told the representative that she did not want the agency to be involved with her case anymore, the agency filed a complaint with the Department of Human Services that claimed she was suicidal. DHS then took the baby and placed her in a temporary foster home owned by the same adoption agency.
When the girl found out what had happened, she contacted Morris. Morris alerted DHS officials to the agency’s actions and requested that the baby be temporarily released into the custody of the girl’s parents. DHS investigated the agency’s complaint and found the allegation to be untrue, so an order was issued for the baby to be returned. However, the agency responded that because it was late in the day on a Friday, the girl and her parents could pick up the baby on Monday.
Morris contacted the agency and told them she would inform the police and the media of their actions if they did not release the baby immediately. Upon her demand, the agency returned the baby to the custody of the girl’s parents. The baby was later put up for adoption through a different agency.
Morris practices at Reger Rizzo & Darnall’s Philadelphia office in the business services practice. She is also chairperson of the firm’s utility law group.
The Dechert Team
A team of lawyers from Dechert partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania to represent students who had been forced to consent to random drug testing in order to participate in extracurricular activities in two Pennsylvania public school districts. The students, who had refused to sign forms consenting to urinalysis drug testing, were barred from joining clubs, participating in sports or attending their senior proms.
The Dechert team constructed the cases by examining school disciplinary records and school board meeting notes to uncover the disconnect between the school groups being tested and the alleged purpose behind the testing program. The team deposed the schools’ superintendents and produced testimony from the students themselves regarding the consequences of the policy.
In both cases, the team successfully secured a ruling that said the testing policies were unjustified and unconstitutional, as well as an injunction that called for the students to be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities.
Since these cases, the Dechert team has taken up cases against two more school districts with similar drug testing programs. The team has devoted more than 900 hours to the cause of student privacy.
Urmika Devi began her involvement with pro bono service when she was working as a summer associate at Duane Morris and performing intellectual property work with a local theater company in 2008 and 2009. When she joined the firm in 2010, she started working on cases with the Nationality Services Center, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, VIP/Law Works and Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.
Along with a team of other Duane Morris lawyers, Devi represented Reverend Emmanuel Morris, a refugee who came to the United States in 1993 after fleeing civil war in his home country of Liberia. The team filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court; it was the first petition to seek clarification on the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel, post-conviction relief and the intersection of immigration and criminal law. The petition was denied, but the Duane Morris team continues to represent Morris in a clemency petition.
In addition to her pro bono work, Devi practices in the areas of intellectual property and immigration law.
Ashely Chan has a long history of volunteer work with the Homeless Advocacy Project, in addition to serving as vice president on its board of directors. She currently works as the “adopt coordinator” for Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. Chan arranges volunteer work for the firm’s staff at the Homeless Advocacy Project.
She also represents clients associated with the Homeless Advocacy Project, including a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who was struggling to escape his lease after he began to feel unsafe in his apartment building. The man suspected that someone had tried to break into his apartment while he was asleep, and he asked his landlord to allow him to break the lease. The landlord refused, claiming that the man was suffering from delusions because of his PTSD.
The man, who was not comfortable sleeping in the building anymore, began spending his nights outside or at friends’ houses, and he met with Chan at a Homeless Advocacy Project legal clinic to inquire about his problem. Chan spoke to the landlord and convinced him to allow the man to break his lease so that he could begin searching for a new apartment.
Chan is a member of Hangley Aronchick’s insurance coverage and bankruptcy practice groups. She also created a women’s networking group that supports young women gaining experience in bankruptcy law.
Maura McInerney successfully represented homeless children who were being forced to leave their schools in the cases of A.E. v. Carlynton School District and L.R. v. Steelton-Highspire School District.
In A.E., Carlynton schools tried to remove four homeless students who lost their home after their father became unemployed. Because the students were sleeping in churches in different school districts, one of which was Carlynton, school officials said that they should not be allowed to attend Carlynton schools. Under that theory, McInerney argued, the students would not be allowed to attend school anywhere. Under McInerney’s lead counsel, the Education Law Center filed a federal lawsuit, and in settlement the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued a directive that stated children who have no fixed residence can go to school in any district with which they have a significant connection.
In L.R., the school district had removed a homeless student who had been in the school since kindergarten and had special needs; the student ended up missing five months of classes. Again, under McInerney’s lead counsel, ELC filed a federal lawsuit, and was granted a preliminary injunction that ordered the school to re-enroll the student.
McInerney, who is a staff attorney at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, focuses on the legal rights of students in foster care.
James DeAngelo headed the custody attorney campaign of the Dauphin County Bar Foundation in 2010 and 2011. The campaign has raised $281,775 to hire a custody attorney for the MidPenn office in Dauphin County for five years, and in December 2010 the attorney was hired.
The custody attorney now works with low-income families who are in dispute of custody and has helped more than 200 families so far. The cost of the program has been lowered to $325 per case, with no administration fees. The addition of a custody attorney also allows other legal aid lawyers to focus on other issues faced by the county’s impoverished population.
In addition to presiding over biweekly meetings, DeAngelo secured donations from many organizations, including law firms, government officials and local businesses. A few of the top donors were the Dauphin County Bar Foundation, which donated $100,000, the Dauphin County Commissioners, which donated $50,000, and Metro Bank, which donated $25,000.
DeAngelo joined McNees Wallace & Nurick in 1992 as a business litigator and has since become co-chairman of the firm’s litigation practice group, handling a wide range of litigation projects. He was president of the Dauphin County Bar Association in 2010 and on the board of both MidPenn Legal Services and the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.
Chad Kurtz joined Cozen O’Connor in 2008 after earning his law degree from Temple University that spring. In 2009, Kurtz began representing an African immigrant seeking asylum due to having HIV/AIDS. The man, who had first approached Cozen O’Connor in 2003, was one of the first people to apply for asylum in the U.S. due to HIV/AIDS. He was unable to find a job because of his immigration status and he did not want to return to Africa because of the stigma of HIV/AIDS in his home country.
Kurtz prepared as much literature as he could about the man’s home country and the conditions surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including the persecution of those afflicted and the availability of drugs to fight the disease. He also brought together fact witnesses to testify regarding the country’s attitude toward and treatment of HIV/AIDS. The case was complicated by the fact that in the years since the man’s original request for asylum his home country had begun developing programs to provide more drugs for the treatment of the disease.
The case went to trial in March 2010, and in August 2011 the Immigration Court reached a decision granting the man asylum on the grounds of his condition. The court’s opinion consistently referred directly to Kurtz’s pretrial brief containing the information and testimony he compiled.
Kurtz is a partner in Cozen O’Connor’s Philadelphia office and focuses on the area of commercial litigation.
Carrie Rosen has worked as a volunteer child advocate attorney with Philadelphia’s Support Center for Child Advocates for the past decade. She has represented victims of abuse and neglect who reside in the Philadelphia foster care system, and she works to ensure that their social, educational and medical needs are being met. She devotes time to visiting the children she represents at their schools and placement homes, and she appears before social service agencies and in court in order to secure a safe and permanent home for them.
In the cases of children who are in unsafe or inadequate situations, Rosen has made the sometimes difficult decision to advocate for change or removal. In one case, a child had grown up living with the same foster parent since he was an infant. He had a very good relationship with his foster mother and she planned to adopt him. However, when disconcerting information came to light regarding the foster parent, Rosen and the Department of Human Services quickly decided to remove the child from the home. She advocated for his relocation during court and social service proceedings, and the child was eventually placed in a new home, where he currently resides happily.
In addition to her work with the Support Center for Child Advocates, Rosen practices in Cozen O’Connor’s labor and employment group, with a focus on the representation of management in discrimination and employment law cases.
John Whitelaw and Jennifer Schultz
John Whitelaw and Jennifer Schultz of Community Legal Services’ North Philadelphia office successfully represented a 64-year-old North Philadelphia resident who lost her Social Security benefits when she collected too much income from her part-time job as an aide to her wheelchair-bound brother. She did not know how to get her benefits reinstated, and she was unable to pay her mortgage and other bills.
Beginning in April 2011, Whitelaw represented the woman in her fight to regain Social Security benefits, and he counseled her on how to avoid losing them again due to her part-time work income. After the client won back her benefits, Schultz advised her in the process of making up her missed mortgage payments. She applied for help from the federal government’s Emergency Homeowners’ Loan Program, but she was initially denied. Under Schultz’s representation, the client filed an appeal and was eventually accepted when she was granted a last-minute interview that resulted in approval.
Whitelaw is co-director of the aging and disabilities unit. Schultz is a supervising attorney who specializes in representing clients in danger of losing their homes.
Nichole Humes and Stephie-Anna Kapourales Ramaley
In September 2010, Nichole Humes and Stephie-Anna Kapourales Ramaley took on the defense case of a man charged with sexually assaulting his 6-year-old daughter. The child was in primary custody of her mother and lived, along with her sibling, at the home of her mother, her significant other and his family. The mother sought custody of the two children and a permanent protection from abuse order.
Humes and Kapourales Ramaley had only two weeks until the case’s final hearing, and there were many complications to the case. The child underwent two physical examinations with inconclusive results and a psychiatric examination that indicated she was easily
suggestible and could not be completed due to the child’s attention problems
and possible developmental problems. In addition, there were concerns
about the children’s activities with the children of the plaintiff’s significant other, which included games that had a sexual nature.
In preparation for the hearing, Humes and Kapourales Ramaley brought together testimony from key witnesses and medical experts, reviewed the child’s physical and psychiatric examination records, and helped the father get ready to testify. The hearing resulted in the dismissal of the permanent protection from abuse order and the restoration of the father’s child visitation rights. Humes and Kapourales Ramaley also successfully motioned to grant partial custody to the father’s sister.
Humes works in Burns White’s litigation group with a focus on insurance defense litigation, and Kapourales Ramaley is an associate at Burns White who concentrates on construction and environmental law.
Jay Levin and Reed Smith’s Pro Bono Insurance Recovery Team
In December 2009, Reed Smith’s pro bono insurance recovery team, led by Jay Levin, began representing Philadelphia’s Germantown YMCA, which had closed in the summer of 2008 due to damage from flooding, a lightning strike and a burglary. The team, which also includes Jeremy Heinnickel, Lisa Szymanski, Nora Sooy, Karen Frankel and Michelle Todd, successfully obtained a favorable settlement in November 2011, and the YMCA has since reopened.
The YMCA, which offered classes, activities and outreach services to the local community, had been closed for more than a year when the Reed Smith team took over the case. They also faced the issue of relying on a public adjuster who had little interest in working with them. The team eventually garnered a partial payment from the insurance company, but it was not nearly enough to make the repairs needed to reopen. The YMCA instead had to use its own resources and volunteer labor, and the organization ended up spending approximately $250,000 to finish the repairs. They estimated the total amount of lost revenue over the course of the closing to be $550,000.
The Reed Smith team moved the case forward into litigation, and the YMCA finally settled with the insurance company for more than $200,000. This provided enough funds for the facility to reopen. •