Southern Indiana District honors pro bono attorneys

As an environmental attorney, Tom Barnard had not represented a prison inmate and had never had a case involving the Eighth Amendment but when the Southern Indiana District Court called, recruiting pro bono counsel to help with a settlement hearing, he volunteered.

The partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP began digging into the case and unexpectedly discovered he had something in common with the client – both had had total knee replacements. In fact, the claims in the case arose from the replacement. While Barnard reviewed the law and combed through the stacks of medical records, he had a personal connection, knowing the kind of pain and suffering that leads to knee surgery.

However, the settlement negotiations faltered, and Barnard could have walked away.

“By then, I became invested and … there was no way I was going to leave our guy,” he said. “I’m not going to stop representing him. We’re in for the duration now.”

Barnard shared his story as part of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana’s Fifth Annual Volunteer Appreciation Breakfasts. Judges of the Southern Indiana District and a couple dozen attorneys gathered on the third floor of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse Friday to enjoy a buffet eggs, fresh fruit and an assortment of sweet rolls.

Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson thanked the attorneys for volunteering their time to help settle cases and help unrepresented litigants prepare their cases for trial.

“Allowing our litigants, particularly our prisoners, to have lawyers to talk to gives them a sense of being heard which is often lacking in their lives and then also (gives them) a dose of reality about the strength of their case or about the potential extent of their recovery,” Magnus-Stinson said. “I think that your service in those ways really does help us and advances justice.”

The Southern Indiana District is an overworked court. In 2017, the court recruited 120 attorneys to provide pro bono help for 70 cases. Much of the need for volunteers comes from the number of lawsuits filed with the court by inmates. The court had 1,317 prisoner petitions filed last year, up from 1,163 in 2016.

In addition, because of the high caseload, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts authorized the Southern Indiana District to hire two and half more staff attorneys.

Magnus-Stinson said the volunteer attorneys had helped settled claims involving Kosher diets, medical care and excessive force. Also they had assisted litigants with conducting discover, drafting responses to motions for summary judgment and participating in exhaustion hearings.

Stephanie J. Hahn, solo practitioner, and Dan Bowman, of Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe LLP, talked about their experiences volunteering for the federal courts. Hahn worked on three cases of which two settled and Bowman helped a prisoner through a Pavey hearing.

Hahn said money was not the only reason litigants are coming into the courthouse without counsel.

“Folks are afraid of lawyers,” she said, noting clients have the misconception that attorneys care more for their colleagues and the courts. “I have to explain to them, I’m your lawyer, I’m your advocate, I’m here for you.”

Although Barnard’s case turned into something more than he expected, he said he is enjoying the work. He has since asked Tammara Porter, an associate at Taft, to help.

Porter had volunteered previously with another prisoner case in the Southern Indiana District and has extensive experience in the criminal justice system, from working in a criminal justice clinic in law school to serving in the public defender’s office.

She said she had learned these clients may have done bad things, but they are not bad people. The volunteer program has reminded her of that lesson.

“It’s been an opportunity to grow as a litigator but also just to give back and feel like you’re doing something good and worthwhile and meaningful,” Porter said.  “I’m always amazed that the little bit that I do, and (the clients) just think it’s the world.”

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