Dorsey & Whitney

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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
50
Dorsey & Whitney (73)
62.9
65.0
60.8

 

Dorsey & Whitney won a favorable custody settlement last December for a former member of The Family International, a worldwide cult with approximately 10,000 members. Amy Bril, an Orange The Am Law Pro Bono 100County woman who had been born into the cult, had battled her former husband and current Family member, Nathanael Bril, for custody of their three children for more than a year and a half.

Dorsey took the case in June 2007 after associate Eve Brackman learned about Bril's plight from a local newspaper story. Bril had separated from her husband in 2001 and left the cult the following year. The former couple originally followed an informal custodial agreement. But when Bril began speaking out in the national media in early 2007 about the physical, sexual, and mental abuse she suffered while in The Family, Nathanael Bril cut her off from her children, then ages eight to 13, and sued her for full custody. Bril, who says she was given away by her parents at age eight to be the cult leader's sex slave and was often held in captivity, was concerned about alleged reports that her children were being threatened by other cult members residing in her ex-husband's communal home. She also feared that Nathanael Bril might kidnap the children and take them to Brazil, the couple's former residence. Having recently lost her job as a tax preparer, Bril was unable to afford a lawyer. "This is what pro bono is for," Brackman remembers thinking. Three days later, after a conversation with California litigation head Steven Allison, Dorsey took the case pro bono. The firm asked Sheasby & Middleton partner Ronda Middleton, a family law lawyer, to assist as cocounsel.

Bril had warned Brackman that the custody battle would be contentious. And she was right. Although Dorsey immediately obtained temporary orders giving Amy full custody and the court ordered a full custody evaluation at the father's expense, Mr. Bril refused to respond or even acknowledge Dorsey's discovery requests until sanctioned in April 2008. After a four-month custody evaluation, extensive discovery, a nine-day evidentiary hearing, and several rounds of settlement negotiations, the judge scheduled a ten-day trial to start last October. On the eve of trial, Nathanael Bril offered to settle, giving his ex-wife full custody. Ms. Bril accepted but then negotiated with her lawyers an agreement that would give her custody of the two younger girls and Nathanael primary responsibility for their now 15-year-old son. Ms. Bril was elated as were her lawyers. "Amy is one of my heroes," says Dorsey's Brackman, who along with a six-lawyer team devoted more than 800 hours to the case.

Dorsey lawyers also took on another challenging case last year. Hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans return home to face another battle—huge delays in securing their benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. With a backlog that is approaching a million disability claims, the VA often takes six to 12 months to provide an initial response and up to five years to resolve appeals. In an effort to end these delays, a team of Dorsey & Whitney lawyers filed a lawsuit last November against the Department of Veteran Affairs on behalf of two veterans groups, the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Modern Warfare. The lawsuit demands that the VA make an initial decision on claims within 90 days and resolve appeals within 180 days.

The suit, filed in district court for the District of Columbia, was the product of an almost two-year effort started by Dorsey litigation partner and former special counsel to the secretary of the Navy Robert Cattanach. His pro bono work on a slew of individual veteran's cases had convinced him that the VA benefits system was mismanaged and broken. Veterans usually receive no benefits while waiting for the VA to respond to their claims, and this delay can destroy a veteran's ability to sustain a home, care for a family, or gain employment. There was a personal component to Cattanach's concern as well: His son had served two tours of duty in Iraq and had friends who came home disabled only to encounter horrible delays in securing benefits.

"I wanted to make an impact beyond one suit at a time," the Minneapolis-based partner says. He set up an informal office lunch for lawyers interested in the problem ("We were still providing lunches back then," he jokes) in the spring of 2007, and was heartened to see about a of dozen colleagues show up. Out of that first meeting, an informal working group of about eight lawyers started gathering weekly, brainstorming ideas for improving the administration of benefits. The biggest hurdle for the group was jurisdictional: the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims had exclusive jurisdiction over the administration of benefits, which made a lawsuit in federal district court a long shot if not impossible. Over the course of the next fifteen months, the group proposed and researched ideas ranging from creating a clearinghouse to deal with individual veterans benefits claims through a consortium of law firms to filing a mandamus action, asking the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to order that the VA process claims more quickly. The former, however, never coalesced, and veterans groups convinced the Dorsey team that the latter was a big gamble—the Court of Appeals was unlikely to entertain such an action.

In the summer of 2008, the team settled on a different course: they would file a federal lawsuit based on the veterans' constitutional right to due process. Morrison & Foerster had filed a similar federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California the previous summer against the VA on behalf of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. That suit was ultimately dismissed in June 2008, but it had survived an initial motion to dismiss in January, convincing the Dorsey team that a due process claim was cognizable in federal court.

The Dorsey team decided that the D.C. circuit court was their best prospect. While federal courts can't order benefits or sanction the VA, there were good precedents in the D.C. federal court for ordering supplemental equitable relief when government agencies failed to adhere to court orders, says Cattanach. He and his colleagues spent the summer and fall furiously drafting a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction. The Vietnam Veterans and Veterans of Modern Warfare agreed to join as plaintiffs. On November 10, the day before Veteran's Day, the group filed the complaint and motion for injunctive relief. The suit asks that if the VA is unable to meet the 90- and 180-day deadlines requested, it should provide interim relief equal to approximately 30 percent of the disability benefit, a "lifeline" to veterans, says Cattanach.

In mid-December, a D.C. federal judge denied the motion for injunctive relief, saying that it was the responsibility of Congress to determine if the VA is handling claims in a timely matter. The judge stated that he couldn't "conclude all claims result in irreparable harm if not adjudicated in the time frame requested." The judge has yet to set a hearing for or rule on the government's motion to dismiss the case.

Sixty Dorsey lawyers spent almost 3,000 hours on the Veterans matter in 2008. Despite such Herculean efforts, Cattanach says he's happy for the case to remain in limbo, for now. The Obama administration began a pilot program this winter, requiring approximately 20 percent of the VA regional offices to try processing benefits claims in the time frame demanded by the suit. Part of the intention of the suit, Cattanach says, was to shine a light on the unacceptable way the veterans are treated. And he's hoping the new administration will pave the way for a more "collaborative" effort with the VA, rather than the current "win-lose situation" in court. Close to a million disabled veterans are hoping for the same thing.

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