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 with the Urban Justice Center to reach a settlement with the Social Security Administration that will provide benefits to more than 4,000 indigent and disabled New Yorkers. The individual award is presented to New York associate Kate Driscoll for her involvement in an ongoing case aimed at preventing the unlawful closure of the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, and for her work spearheading the planning and coordination of the Legal Outreach summer internship Program, which prepares urban youth from underserved communities in New York City to compete at high academic levels. “In 2013, our lawyers handled a wide variety of pro bono matters,” said Ken Doran, Chairman and Managing Partner of Gibson Dunn. “We are pleased to recognize their exceptional work and dedication to pro bono with the 2013 Frank Wheat Awards.” “We are proud and inspired by our attorneys’ accomplishments,” said Scott Edelman, Chair of Gibson Dunn’s Pro Bono Committee. “Whether litigating a groundbreaking class action to properly award social security benefits to disabled New Yorkers or successfully combating the closure of a long-standing public hospital, our lawyers have provided first-rate legal representation and obtained significant results for our pro bono clients.”
One of Gibson Dunn’s notable pro bono projects in 2013 was an innovative challenge to what appeared to be the improper and systematic denial of social security benefits to deserving claimants in the New York area. After analyzing the denials, Gibson Dunn and the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project filed a class action lawsuit that alleged that five administrative law judges, located in the Queens Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, were systematically biased against claimants for disability benefits, and repeatedly violated settled law in order to avoid awarding benefits. The five named judges were among the highest claims deniers nationally and had staggering reversal rates: more than 80% of their cases were reversed on appeal. On October 18, 2013, U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in the Eastern District of New York issued a decision and order approving the terms of a groundbreaking settlement agreement that provides relief to thousands of disabled New Yorkers who were denied full and fair hearings on their claims for Social Security Disability benefits by the five judges in question. The settlement agreement, which was approved by the Social Security Administration, ensures new hearings for at least 4,000 claimants, and also provides for retraining, recertification, and monitoring of the five administrative law judges. Judge Amon’s approval followed fairness hearings held on July 24, 2013, and September 16, 2013, at which numerous potential class members addressed the court in support of the settlement. New York partner Jim Walden and associates Oliver Olanoff, Adam Jantzi and Karin Reiss led the team, and were assisted by associates Tyler Amass, Sharon Grysman, Daniel Harris, William Moriarty and Kyle Kolb.
Driscoll is a key member of the Gibson Dunn team that is fighting to preserve a hospital of great importance to the Brooklyn community – Long Island College Hospital (LICH). Driscoll was involved in the briefing to obtain several temporary restraining orders on behalf of the Office of the Public Advocate of New York City as well as six Brooklyn community associations to prevent the immediate closure of LICH. She also made a presentation to the U.S. Attorney’s office regarding potential federal criminal violations. In September 2013, Justice Johnny Lee Baynes of the New York Supreme Court issued a decision substantially denying the State University of New York’s (SUNY) motion to dismiss the petition and finding in favor of Gibson Dunn’s position, holding that both SUNY’s closure plan and the New York State Department of Health’s approval of that plan to be unlawful. SUNY is now appealing Justice Baynes’s decision in the Appellate Division, where Gibson Dunn will continue to oppose SUNY. Currently, there is a contempt hearing scheduled for February 11, to prove that SUNY acted in willful violation of court orders, in which Driscoll is involved in witness preparation and drafting legal arguments to prove contempt. Driscoll is a crucial member of the Gibson Dunn team that is continuing to litigate in all the relevant courts to preserve a hospital of great importance to the Brooklyn community and to ensure that SUNY and the State Department of Health obey the law. Additionally, Driscoll was honored by the firm for spearheading the Legal Outreach Program, in which she has organized and implemented a week-long internship program for the past two summers. The program immerses New York City youth from underserved communities in intensive legal and educational programs with the goal of giving them the tools to compete at high academic levels and pursue higher education. This past summer, Driscoll organized a mock negotiation and a presentation exercise, in which the students were videotaped and given feedback on their presentation skills and oral advocacy. Driscoll organized sessions for the interns to meet with associates, partners, and other professionals at the firm to learn more about the life of a Gibson Dunn lawyer. In addition, she coordinated a number of experiences outside of the office, including meeting with the General Counsel of the New York Public Library for a private tour.
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.