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Breakfast and bravos for pro bono attorneys

January 11, 2019

Despite a demanding caseload and the stress caused by the government shutdown, the judges and staff at the Southern Indiana District Court took time Thursday morning to treat their pro bono attorneys to a hearty breakfast and a thank you.

The Sixth Annual Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast recognized the lawyers who helped pro se litigants appearing in the federal court during 2018. Attorneys, judges and court staff enjoyed a morning meal together, complete with eggs, fruit, sweet rolls, and orange juice, on the third floor of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and United State Courthouse in Indianapolis.  

Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson credited the success of the Southern Indiana District’s pro bono program to the volunteer attorneys. The district court’s volume of pro se cases is fueled by prison inmates who file complaints asserting Eighth Amendment, civil rights, medical or other claims. 

The prisoner civil rights cases can be particularly difficult, Magnus-Stinson noted, because the litigants are incarcerated and few attorneys are willing to take the work since the monetary recovery is limited.

“The Constitution, though, needs to be protected so when an individual’s constitutional rights have been violated, our Democracy needs your assistance in protecting those rights and we thank you for that,” the chief judge told the volunteer lawyers.

A total of 105 attorneys agreed to represent pro se litigants in 79 cases during 2018. Of those cases, 42 were for limited appointments and 37 were for full appointments. This is an increase from 2017 when counsel was recruited to handle 42 settlements and 28 full appointments.

Barnes and Thornburg associate Thomas Payne joined his colleagues, associate Justine Farris and partner John Maley, in helping represent a prisoner who had filed a medical claim. The inmate alleged he was denied medical care for a condition that developed into the early stages of acute kidney failure and caused additional injuries.

Payne, a labor and employment attorney, said the pro bono assignment gave him the opportunity not only get some courtroom experience but also do something different and help someone. Also, the inmate had already done much of the work but, Payne said, his requests were not being honored or getting a response. 

The appointed attorneys, Payne said, applied a little pressure and gave the client a voice which ultimately brought about a fair settlement.  

“I think he was happy,” Payne said of the inmate. “That made us feel good about the work we were able to do and the assistance we were able to give the court.”

The Southern Indiana District does screen pro se cases and only recruits pro bono attorneys for those complaints that warrant the appointment of counsel, Magnus-Stinson said. In September 2016, the Southern Indiana District implemented mandatory pro bono and started assigning cases when attorneys did not volunteer. However, 2018 brought only eight obligatory assignments and the remaining 71 cases all had attorneys who volunteered.

“The court and Recruited Counsel Pro Bono Committee will continue to make improvements because we want the pro bono program in this district to be as good as any program in the country,” Judge Richard Young said. “We value your time and your service and dedication and want to thank you very much.”

Payne noted some attorneys might be hesitant to take a pro bono case, fearing the commitment would turn into more than they could handle. However, he said, the time required in his prisoner case was manageable.

“The experience is worth the time you put in,” Payne said. “It was rewarding.”

A 2018 pro bono survey https://www.insd.uscourts.gov/sites/insd/files/ProBonoSurveyReport.pdf done by the Southern Indiana District indicates many attorneys find the volunteer work rewarding. The results included:
•    36 percent of the volunteer attorneys practice in the area of employment law
•    68 percent have 10 or more years of experience
•    34 percent work in a firm with one to five attorneys
•    77 percent agree or strongly agree that the pro bono clients really need their help
•    54 percent agreed their experience in the pro bono program made them more likely to volunteer again

Closing her remarks, Magnus-Stinson recognized the court’s newest judges, James Sweeney and J.P. Hanlon. Although they joined the federal bench in the latter part of 2018, they have both already been assigned pro se cases with volunteer attorneys.

After asking if anyone had any questions or suggestions, the chief judge reminded the lawyers a new year is beginning and more pro se cases are coming. 

“O.K,” she said, “get back to work.” 

Attorneys interested in learning more can view the court’s pro bono page by clicking here. 

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