Partner Michael Mervis And Senior Counsel Russell Hirschhorn Honored For Pro Bono Efforts

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 11:40

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has recognized Proskauer with its first annual Legal Service Award for the firm’s pro bono efforts in defense of religious freedom. The award, which honors the work of Proskauer Partner Michael Mervis and Senior Counsel Russell Hirschhorn on behalf of the Swartzentruber Amish community in Morristown, NY, was made at the organization’s 18th Anniversary Canterbury Medal Dinner, held at the Pierre Hotel in New York City on May 16. 

In 2008, the Becket Fund sought Proskauer’s assistance on behalf of the Amish, who believed their civil rights were violated when Morristown began targeting their homes for inspection and charging them with criminal violations of local building codes. The Amish, who had lived in the Morristown area for decades without any such actions being taken against them, are known throughout the world as master craftsmen and builders and have followed their traditions to achieve safe construction for centuries. 

Over the next four years, more than a half-dozen Proskauer lawyers worked on the matter pro bono. In addition to Messrs. Mervis and Hirschhorn, Associates Benjamin Rattner and David Munkittrick and Paralegal Winston Martinez worked on the case and were paid tribute for their contributions as recipients of Proskauer’s 2013 Pro Bono Golden Gavel Awards for extraordinary pro bono commitment and leadership. 

In October 2012, the parties reached a favorable settlement that included the dismissal of all criminal complaints and the issuance of certificates of occupancy for previously built Swartzentruber Amish homes and classrooms. The settlement also allowed the Amish to continue their traditional religious building practices without fear of further criminal prosecution, in addition to serving as a template for Amish in other towns to reconcile their traditional religious practices with modern law. 

Proskauer’s Pro Bono Initiative provides legal services to low-income and disadvantaged individuals, not-for-profit organizations and public interest causes. Clients include community groups, refugees seeking asylum, domestic-violence victims, struggling artists and musicians and Holocaust survivors. In 2012, the firm contributed more than 40,000 pro bono hours working on more than 700 matters. 

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a Washington, DC-based public interest legal and educational institute focused on protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.

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The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) has honored four Proskauer lawyers with its 2013 President’s Pro Bono Service Award for the First Judicial District. 

Proskauer Partners Bettina (Betsy) B. Plevan and Steven E. Obus, Senior Counsel Russell L. Hirschhorn and Special Counsel Brian S. Rauch were recognized for their work in Clark v. Astrue, a successful class-action lawsuit that challenged the U.S. Social Security Administration over its practice of denying old age and disability benefits to otherwise eligible people based solely on their having outstanding probation or parole warrants. The case led to a federal court order restoring up to $1 billion in benefits to more than 140,000 Americans. 

The Proskauer team was nominated by Gerald McIntyre, Directing Attorney of the National Senior Citizens Law Center. Proskauer worked with both the National Senior Citizens Law Center and the Urban Justice Center on the case. At its annual Golden Gavel Awards this March, Proskauer recognized each group with donations of $205,000 representing attorneys’ fees awarded to the firm in the case. 

This past January, NYSBA recognized Proskauer for its outstanding pro bono contributions for the third consecutive year, honoring the firm with the 2012 Empire State Counsel Silver Supporter Award and designating 85 of its lawyers as Empire State Counsel for their pro bono work on behalf of low-income New Yorkers and community groups that promote justice and equality. Together, these lawyers contributed 13,280 hours to pro bono matters in 2012. 

Proskauer’s Pro Bono Initiative provides legal services to low-income and disadvantaged individuals, not-for-profit organizations and public interest causes. Clients include community groups, refugees seeking asylum, domestic-violence victims, struggling artists and musicians and Holocaust survivors. In 2012, the firm contributed more than 40,000 pro bono hours working on more than 700 matters.