Wiley A. Branton Award Luncheon

2017 Rod Boggs Award

Thomas S. Williamson Jr. 

Awarded Posthumously

Thomas S. Williamson’s career was characterized by a deep commitment to equal justice, civil rights, and diversity in the legal profession. Mr. Williamson’s work with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee began on his arrival at Covington & Burling LLP in 1974 and continued throughout his 40-year legal career. He served as lead counsel in some of the Committee's most notable cases, including federal and private sector employment class actions, and disability rights matters.

For more than 20 years, Mr. Williamson played a leadership role on the Committee’s Board. He was Co-Chair from 1990 to1991 and guided the Committee through the creation of a new program to protect immigrants’ rights. During his tenure, he helped lead the Committee to increase employment discrimination litigation developed through paired testing. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee recognized Mr. Williamson with its Wiley A. Branton Award in 2007.

Mr. Williamson’s impact is best reflected in the remembrances of those who worked with him:

To say that Tom Williamson was a consummate lawyer, advocate and friend of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee would be an understatement. As a trusted advisor and lead counsel in some the Committee’s most challenging and significant cases over four decades, Tom’s contributions to our organization and its clients were profound.  That he accomplished all of this with exceptional grace, intellect and humor are among the reasons he embodies the finest qualities we could imagine for a pro bono attorney.

- Rod Boggs

“His style was low-key and even self-effacing but his lawyering was always outstanding. His legal strategy was often subtly aggressive and even hard-hitting.   Even more striking to me, however, was his exceptional judgment, his genuine wisdom, both as a lawyer and an as a human being, and his recognition of the potential consequences of either success or failure in civil rights litigation.”

- Thomas Brunner, Wiley Rein LLP


“When I was General Counsel of the Equal Rights Center, he took on representation of the ERC in a sensitive matter that could have become a powder keg.  Tom calmly and professionally helped us defuse the situation and resolve the matter amicably.  An organization like the Washington Lawyers’ Committee cannot have enough wise men and women like Tom to steer its course.”

- George D. Ruttinger, Crowell & Moring LLP

“I first met Tom more than 40 years ago, and immediately knew that he was extraordinary in every way. An immensely capable lawyer and the embodiment of the professionalism, dedication, commitment to excellence, and civility to which as lawyers we should all strive to achieve.”

– Roger E. Warin, Steptoe & Johnson LLP

The Board and staff of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs are deeply saddened by Mr. Williamson’s death earlier this year, and honored to posthumously grant him the inaugural Rod Boggs Award for his lifetime commitment to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, its clients, and its values.

2017 Alfred McKenzie Award

ONE DC

ONE DC (Organizing Neighborhood Equity DC) was formed in 1997 to respond to a rapidly changing city. Forces of economic development displaced existing African-American communities to make way for wealthier, often white, new residents. ONE DC organized communities in response, identifying as its purpose to “build sustainable community capacity and leadership so that low-income people of color can speak for themselves. ONE DC promotes leadership that does not tell others what to do but helps them take charge to build their abilities and skills.” It has led the way in effective community organizing, alternative economic development, and community education.

DC has the most unaffordable housing market in the country. Despite the fact that the District has become increasingly diverse, it has also become one of the most segregated cities in the nation. ONE DC is combatting this trend by working with low-income and working class DC residents of color and other organizational partners to preserve affordable housing and help tenants stay in their homes.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is proud to partner with ONE DC. In August of 2016, ONE DC, along with a group of families, filed a class action lawsuit challenging the discriminatory redevelopment of Brookland Manor, an affordable housing complex located in Northeast DC. More than 150 of the units house large families that have made their home on the property for generations. Brookland Manor is one of the few remaining DC communities with the four- and five-bedroom apartments necessary to provide safe, adequate housing for these families. Appallingly, the developer “justified” this discrimination claiming that large families are “not consistent with the creation of a vibrant new community.” The Washington Lawyers’ Committee and Covington & Burling represent ONE DC and the other plaintiffs in this case.

In addition, ONE DC’s organizers have identified important civil rights and racial justice issues facing tenants at multiple DC properties and connected those tenants to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for legal representation. ONE DC has laid the groundwork for building trust between tenants throughout the District and the Committee, without which the Committee’s work would not be as fruitful and effective.

ONE DC’s values and work exemplify the life and spirit of Alfred McKenzie. In his name, we are proud to honor Dominic Moulden and all of his colleagues who make ONE DC a dedicated and courageous partner with which we hope to work long into the future.

 

2017 Branton Awards Luncheon Outstanding Achievement Awards

Akin Gump Hauer Strauss & Feld LLP*

Parole Grant Hearings

Each year hundreds of DC prisoners incarcerated at federal facilities throughout the country go before the United States Parole Commission hoping to gain their freedom after decades in prison. Few are represented by counsel and most are denied parole with little explanation, despite being presumed suitable for release. This unfairly adds years or decades onto their court-imposed sentences.

Over the past year, attorneys and paralegals at Akin Gump Hauer Strauss & Feld LLP represented eight people at parole hearings. Akin Gump representatives travelled to remote facilities in West Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and New Jersey, providing essential legal services. Their involvement increased the likelihood of a fair hearing and a positive outcome for the men they represented.


Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP

Cunningham v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado is the highest security federal prison in America. Prisoners are held for years without meaningful human contact in cells the size of a parking space. Before Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee intervened, conditions for mentally ill prisoners were especially horrific, and included the denial of prescribed psychotropic medications. After more than four years of litigation, the APKS team reached a settlement that requires critical changes to the conditions at ADX.


Jacqueline Cote, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Cote v. Wal-Mart is the first class action filed on behalf of gay workers since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The outstanding settlement in this matter, described below, would not have been possible without the resources and litigation expertise of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.


Doris Nohemi Garcia Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.

No woman should be forced to choose between a prenatal appointment and her job. But that’s exactly what happened to Doris Garcia Hernandez, who was harassed by her supervisor at Chipotle for being pregnant, denied water and bathroom breaks, and ultimately fired after leaving work to see her doctor. Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP took Ms. Garcia’s case to trial. After four days of testimony and three hours of deliberation, a jury returned a $550,000 verdict for Ms. Garcia. In part because of this case, the D.C. Council enacted the Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to ensure that workers are guaranteed pregnancy accommodations.


Bread for the City

Torres, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al.

Bread for the City attorneys drove the important settlement in Torres v. District of Columbia, described below. They recognized the need to bring legal action against DC Department of Human Services (DHS), identified clients who had been harmed by DHS’s lack of language access, and helped craft a settlement agreement that would best serve DHS’s customers. Pursuant to the settlement, DHS will make necessary changes to become language accessible.


GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)

Jacqueline Cote, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

The precedent-setting Cote v. Wal-Mart class action, described below, began when GLAD filed a complaint on Ms. Cote’s behalf with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2014. The EEOC determined that Walmart’s treatment of Ms. Cote constituted unlawful sex discrimination and issued a right to sue letter. This complaint has led to hundreds of current and former Walmart employees being compensated for years of denial of health benefits. GLAD played a key role in the successful resolution of this matter.


Hogan Lovells US LLP*

Torres, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al.

Equal access to government services, regardless of language ability, is critical to a healthy and safe community. The DC Department of Human Services (DHS), however, repeatedly failed to provide language access services as required by law. As a result, Maria Amaya Torres had her food stamps cut after DHS refused her request for an interpreter and Minerva Nolasco was denied medical care when she was seven months pregnant after her health insurance benefits were canceled because she was not given important information in Spanish.

The team at Hogan Lovells US LLP was instrumental in the positive outcome of this case. They wrote a powerful complaint that seized the District’s immediate attention, prompted District officials to come to the negotiating table, and led to a quick and satisfactory resolution of the matter.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP*

Dianne K. Van Rossum v. Baltimore County, Md.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP represented Dianne Van Rossum, a Baltimore County employee, who was sickened by chemicals in her workplace. The County refused to accommodate Ms. Van Rossum, who began experiencing debilitating physical symptoms due to off-gassed chemicals after her department moved to a newly renovated office.

The Kirkland team masterfully told the story of how Ms. Van Rossum’s loyal 30-year career ended when she was constructively discharged 3 months before her retirement date. It took the Baltimore jury only 3 hours to unanimously come back with a record $780,053 verdict for the pain, suffering, and discrimination Ms. Van Rossum experienced.

Equal Rights Center v. SCF Management, LLC

Housing choice vouchers provide rent subsidies to low-income families that allow them to live in neighborhoods throughout the city. Discrimination against voucher holders is prohibited by District law. SCF Management refused to rent to voucher holders, limiting housing options and perpetuating racial and economic segregation.

Thanks to the diligent advocacy of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, SCF Management agreed to Equal Rights Center-led fair housing training for an employee and to implement policies that require it to consider vouchers as a valid source of income to pay for rent.


Outten & Golden LLP

Jacqueline Cote, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Prior to 2014, Walmart did not offer health insurance to same-sex spouses of its employees. That meant Jackie Cote could not insure her wife Dee, who passed away in March 2016 after battling ovarian cancer. Due to Walmart’s policy, Jackie and Dee endured more than $150,000 in medical expenses, calls from bill collectors, and many long nights up worrying.

The team from Outten & Golden was pivotal in obtaining a groundbreaking settlement of $7.5 million to compensate hundreds of Walmart associates who were unable to obtain health insurance coverage for their same-sex spouses from Walmart prior to 2014.


Partnership for Civil Justice Fund

Allan R. Sergeant v. Alfie G. Acol, et al.

In 2014, Allan Sergeant was illegally strip-searched in front of a CVS after a baseless traffic stop by the Laurel, MD police. There was substantial evidence in the case that he was only searched because he spoke with a Caribbean accent. This year, he accepted an offer of judgment for $125,000.

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund fought relentlessly for Mr. Sergeant’s rights and dignity. Their advocacy revealed that the Laurel Police Department had done little to discipline the officer, and brought justice for Mr. Sergeant. As they recognized, a public roadside strip search would often “go unchallenged by victims who may be in a vulnerable position, are not believed, and are without capacity to take on the police and their institutional defenders.”


Perkins Coie LLP*

Powell Elementary School Partnership

Powell Elementary School’s mission is for all of their students—regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or home language—to reach high levels of academic achievement and be prepared to succeed at the high school and college of his or her choice. Volunteers from Perkins Coie LLP have dedicated their time and expertise to help Powell achieve its mission. Each week, reading volunteers tutor first-grade students. The firm judges art contests, supports teacher professional development, and funds field trips. Perkins Coie attorneys also created and maintains a firm-funded 501(c)(3), and contributed to the Committee’s Guide & Toolkit for DC parent teacher organizations to help them make informed decisions about which nonprofit fundraising vehicles best suit the school’s needs and implement those decisions.


Sullivan & Cromwell LLP

David Bryant v. United States Bureau of Prisons, et al.

David Bryant is deaf, communicates only by American Sign Language, and is confined to federal prison. The Bureau of Prisons had refused to provide translation services, which left him unable to participate in prison programming, communicate with medical staff, stay safe in the event of emergencies, and communicate with family and friends.

Mr. Bryant’s case was the first to challenge the BOP’s failure to provide communication devices for deaf prisoners in the federal system. Sullivan & Cromwell LLP attorneys’ perseverance and creative lawyering—including holding a unique hearing in the federal penitentiary to assess the BOP’s technical ability to provide deaf services in a prison complex—means that Mr. Bryant (and eventually other deaf inmates) are safer, are better able to participate in prison programming, and can communicate with the outside world. The case settled in February 2017.


Veris Consulting, Inc.*

Financial Analysis and Damages Expert

The team at Veris Consulting brings its expertise in financial analysis and assessing, calculating, and testifying about the extent of our clients’ monetary damages. Veris has aided the Committee in valuing defendant assets in a loan modification scam, calculating damages in a racial discrimination matter that resulted in a verdict of nearly $800,000 for our client, and more recently has assisted in the battle against wage theft—the practice of not paying workers adequate minimum wages or required overtime hours, or not paying them at all. Their assistance helps ensure that our clients are compensated for the full amount they are entitled to receive. This indispensable service allows us to take on larger collective and class actions thanks to the resources and expertise they bring.


*DC Public School Partnerships
These firms and businesses have also made significant contributions to the Committee’s DC Public School Partnership Program. Schools across Washington, DC struggle every year with limited resources to meet the academic, social, and economic challenges faced by their students, families, and teachers. Our volunteers bring tutors, mentors, coaches, money, supplies, and legal expertise to support their partner schools. In the process, they become an integral part of the school community. Education can be an equalizing force, but not when educational resources are drastically unequally distributed. Our school partners are working with families and school communities to balance the playing field for DC students.

 

2017 Vincent E. Reed Award

U.S. Courts for the D.C. Circuit

For twenty-one years, volunteers from the U.S. Courts for the D.C. Circuit have mentored and tutored students at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast DC. Most students at J.O. Wilson come from working and low-income families and the school lacks enrichment opportunities available in more privileged neighborhoods.

The partnership with J.O. Wilson includes the judges, clerks, staff of the Court of Appeals, the District Court and Bankruptcy Courts, and the U.S. Probation Office for the District of Columbia. Multiple times each month, judges and court personnel tutor students in reading, math, and other subjects. Volunteers also coach a Scrabble club that competes in citywide tournaments.

A highlight of the partnership is the field trip J.O. Wilson students take to the D.C. Circuit courthouse at the end of every year. The students love interrogating judges over lunch and observing the skills of the Deputy U.S. Marshals’ bomb sniffing dog. The U.S. Courts for the D.C. Circuit have also supported J.O. Wilson by raising money to remodel the library, throwing celebratory end-of-year parties, participating in school beautification projects, promoting a book club, and donating computers.

The longest-serving volunteer is Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland, who has tutored students for 19 years. He sticks with a student or two for several years, until they graduate to middle school. He also encourages his law clerks to volunteer. “This is an opportunity to actually affect a child’s life,” says Garland. J.O. Wilson’s Principal Heidi Haggerty says that volunteers like Judge Garland can have a big impact on a student. She explained that, “It's very powerful for a child to have someone—an adult—that's important, and shows them that they're important.”

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is honored to recognize the long-standing dedication of the volunteers of the U.S. Courts for the D.C. Circuit to the students, teachers, and school community at J.O. Wilson. Their commitment, creativity, and consistency have made a difference to the students at the school for more than two decades.

 

2017 Wiley A. Branton Award

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Eric Holder 1Eric H. Holder served as the 82nd Attorney General for the United States from 2009 to 2015. During his tenure as Attorney General, Mr. Holder led the Department of Justice to prioritize critical civil rights issues. He recognized the central role in our democracy of the right to vote and led the Department in repeated initiatives to remove barriers to the ballot and challenge legislation to suppress voter participation. While he was Attorney General, the Department vigorously defended the Affordable Care Act from repeated challenges, successfully ensuring that millions of Americans have access to health care. He defended the rights of LGBT persons, first by determining that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and should not be defended in the Supreme Court, and later in the Department’s briefs supporting a constitutional right for same-sex marriage.

Mr. Holder made criminal justice system reform a key priority as Attorney General. He established the Office of Access to Justice to, among other things, increase the federal role in ensuring that indigent criminal defendants had meaningful access to counsel. His Smart on Crime initiative required federal prosecutors and law enforcement to calibrate their actions to reduce racial disparities in sentencing, effectively use finite resources and limiting excessively punitive sentences for low-level and non-violent offenses. He also made reform of the nation’s law enforcement a priority at a time when communities across the country were calling for change. He personally engaged with community members, rank and file police officers, faith leaders, and political leadership to address the serious questions of trust and accountability.

Mr. Holder’s public service long predates his term as Attorney General. He was the first African American to serve as Deputy Attorney General for the United States, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1997. He was the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia from 1993 to 1997. As a United States Attorney, he implemented a groundbreaking community prosecution program that ensured lawyers in his office had meaningful relationships of trust and confidence with the neighborhoods they served. He was an Associate Judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court from 1988 to 1993, and started his career as a prosecutor in the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice.

In addition to his public service, Mr. Holder has had a successful private practice at Covington & Burling. He led the firm’s representation of a major multi-national agricultural company in related civil, criminal, and investigative matters; acted as counsel to a special investigative committee of the board of directors of a Fortune 50 technology company; successfully tried a complex discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a leading financial services company; and represented several life sciences companies in litigation and investigations. While at the firm, he has maintained an active pro bono practice focused on civil rights and anti-poverty issues.

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