February 10, 2015

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP is pleased to announce the winners of the firm’s annual team and individual Frank Wheat Memorial Awards.  The Frank Wheat Award is given every year to lawyers in the firm who obtain significant results for their pro bono clients and demonstrate leadership and initiative that serve as inspiration to others. 

This year, the team award is presented to lawyers in Gibson Dunn’s New York office for their work launching a pro bono program serving clients in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York’s “Alternatives to Incarceration” programs.  The individual award is presented to Washington, D.C. of counsel Melanie Katsur for her work representing a couple in the adoption of their foster children.

“We are immensely proud of this year’s recipients of the Frank Wheat award,” said Scott Edelman, Chair of Gibson Dunn’s Pro Bono Committee.  “As a result of their tremendous efforts and those of their fellow Gibson Dunn attorneys, the firm’s commitment to pro bono is strong and continues to grow.”

“We’re proud and inspired by our attorneys’ accomplishments,” said Pro Bono Director Katie Marquart.  “Whether it’s handling life-changing cases on behalf of low-income New Yorkers, or defending the rights of a family to finally adopt their beloved foster children, these attorneys demonstrate Gibson Dunn advocacy at its finest.”

About the Team Award Project – Alternatives to Incarceration Program

In January 2014, attorneys from Gibson Dunn’s New York office launched a groundbreaking pro bono program serving clients in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York’s “Alternatives to Incarceration” programs.  These programs are designed to offer alternatives to incarceration for certain criminal defendants.  In particular, two programs are pre-sentence supervision programs that focus on criminal defendants who have pleaded guilty to a crime and are awaiting sentence: the Pretrial Opportunity Program (POP), a drug court, and the Special Options Services (SOS) program, which provides intensive supervision for certain youthful offenders.  The other program involves post-sentence drug courts, known as the Supervision to Aid Re-Entry (STAR) courts, which focus on supervisees with documented histories of substance abuse who are attempting to re-enter their communities at the conclusion of a prison term.

Participants in these programs often face legal challenges that are separate from their criminal cases and which create additional barriers to the participants’ successful rehabilitation.  Gibson Dunn’s pro bono program seeks to address these civil barriers.  Lawyers from the firm’s New York office committed to provide pro bono representation to participants in the POP, SOS, and STAR programs on a wide range of civil collateral matters, including issues concerning housing, public assistance benefits, immigration, professional licensing, transactional matters, and family law issues.  The nature and scope of Gibson Dunn’s commitment is unprecedented.  Gibson Dunn attorneys regularly attend each “Alternatives to Incarceration” programs’ monthly court dates; when a need for formal representation of a program participant in connection with a collateral civil matter arises, the Federal Defenders refer the matter to Gibson Dunn attorneys, who are directly retained by the program participant.  During the past year, for example, Gibson Dunn attorneys have prevented a client and her family’s eviction from public housing and obtained significant rental assistance; negotiated the asset sale of a failing business; and represented a client in a federal denaturalization proceeding.

The team includes associates Nicole Amar, Tyler Amass, Matthew Benjamin, Ari Borod, Masha Bresner, Sarah Ciopyk, Sarah Kushner, Jaclyn Neely, Anish Vaishnav and Josh Weisser.

About the Individual Award Project – Melanie Katsur

Washington, D.C. of counsel Melanie Katsur has represented a couple in a hotly contested petition to adopt their foster children since 2009.  The couple served as foster parents when they first met the children, who were 3 months old and 16 months old and severely medically neglected.  The children are now 7 and 8 years old and both are thriving.  In 2011, Katsur first-chaired an eight-day adoption trial in D.C. Superior Court arguing that the couple’s adoption petitions should be granted over the biological parents’ objection; the biological parents favored adoption of the children by a great aunt.  Following trial, during which nearly 20 witnesses testified, including three experts, the judge concluded that Katsur and her team had proven that adoption of the children by their great aunt was clearly contrary to their best interests, and granted the couple’s petitions.  The biological parents and the great aunt appealed the trial court’s decision. 

Katsur led the team that wrote the couple’s appellate brief and presented oral argument before a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals in April 2013.  During that argument, it appeared that the Court was inclined to change adoption law in the District to afford greater weight than was already being given to the desires of biological parents whose rights are being terminated because they neglected their children.  The court’s opinion—released in August 2013—did just that, creating a rule that required trial courts in competing adoption cases to give nearly dispositive weight to the adoption petition preferred by the biological parents (even when the biological parents had neglected or abused the children) and that limited trial courts’ discretion to weigh expert testimony in competing adoption cases.

Under Katsur’s guidance, the Gibson Dunn team immediately filed a compelling petition for rehearing en banc, which was granted in January 2014.  While working with the team to re-brief the matter, Katsur secured two amici: (1) a group of law professors who are experts in children’s constitutional rights and (2) a leading child psychologist on the topic of children’s attachment to primary caregivers and the critical role attachment plays in children’s development (the type of expert testimony the panel’s decision sought to limit). 

Katsur presented oral argument on behalf of the couple and the Guardian ad litem before the full D.C. Court of Appeals in June 2014—the first ever D.C. Court of Appeals argument to be live video-streamed.  She answered questions from every judge on the panel for almost an hour.  During the argument, the court seemed to agree that the prior rule was unworkable and that a new rule would come out of the rehearing—a rule that would focus on the best interests of the child.  The team is still awaiting a decision.

About the Frank Wheat Award

The award is named for the late Frank Wheat, a Gibson Dunn partner who was deeply committed to community service and pro bono work.  A recognized leader in corporate transactions, Wheat served as a commissioner of the Securities Exchange Commission and as president of the Los Angeles County Bar.  He also founded the Alliance for Children’s Rights and served as founder and trustee of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, a leader of the Sierra Club, and a board member of the Center of Law in the Public Interest, which established a fellowship in his name to train young lawyers in public interest litigation.  The award recipients receive $2,500 to be donated to a pro bono organization of their choice.

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