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2022 Outstanding Pro Bono Attorneys of the Year

During the luncheon at the Arizona District Conference on May 19, 2023, Chief Judge Snow and Judge Zipps recognized the following attorneys for their 2022 pro bono work.

Meghan McNamara Miller

Meghan has been a Step up to Justice (SU2J) volunteer at the Federal Court Clinic in Tucson, providing advice on social security issues, since SU2J’s inception in January 2017.  She has regularly volunteered at the Clinic every other month since that time, donating over 50 hours of clinic time and an additional 10 hours of direct representation.  One example of Meghan’s pro bono work involved Sam, a client who attended the clinic in 2022 seeking help with two very serious issues – social security cessation and social security overpayment.  Sam’s social security disability benefits were terminated, and he was assessed an overpayment of $32,000, because he had been working for an accommodation company and had not reported the employment to the social security administration.  Meghan concluded that the type of employment Sam had should not have caused the Social Security Administration (SSA) to stop his benefits or to assess an overpayment.  Meghan took his case for direct representation, appealed the administrative decision, and ultimately achieved a fully favorable decision from the Administrative Law Judge who found that Sam was still eligible for Social Security Disability benefits and that he did not have to repay the $32,000.  Because of Meghan’s pro bono work, Sam was able to keep his benefits that allowed him to make ends meet, as well as to avoid a potentially catastrophic overpayment judgment.  SU2J, which nominated Meghan for this year’s award, writes that Meghan is a compassionate and caring lawyer.  The Court agrees.  Meghan’s work on this case exemplifies her good work and her commitment to justice. 

Michael DiGiacomo
Michael was nominated by Pat Gerrich of the Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP).  Michael is a volunteer in the Federal Court Advice Only Clinic in Phoenix.  Michael was admitted to practice in Arizona in 2015 and has been an active volunteer attorney with the Volunteer Lawyers Program since 2016.  In addition to volunteer work at VLP, Michael became a Federal Court Clinic volunteer in May 2021 and has donated his time on numerous occasions in 2022 to answering questions for self-represented litigants at the Clinic, including in response to short notice requests for attorney coverage at the Clinic.  Michael says that it is rewarding to help guide the Clinic’s clients through the litigation process.  Some litigants have claims that can proceed and some don’t, but all are appreciative of getting realistic and helpful advice.  The Court is appreciative of Michael and his pro bono work which helps litigants maintain faith in the legal system.  

Charles Slack-Mendez
Charles Slack Mendez of the Slack-Mendez law firm volunteered innumerable hours to represent a prisoner at trial in Tucson in the case of Taylor v. Lee.  Taylor, a prisoner at the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC), brought civil rights claims against ADC officials and sought monetary damages.  The prisoner alleged that the officials failed to place him in protective custody to properly guard against threats from the Westside City Crips, and, as a result, he was physically assaulted and injured by the Crips while in custody.  Charles was appointed after the Court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  He represented the prisoner through trial preparation, trial, and in post-trial motions.  Although the prisoner did not prevail, he had his day in court and an opportunity to present his case.  Judge Soto, who nominated Charles, stated that Charles’ representation was excellent.  Notably, Charles’ practice is in Tempe, and he traveled to Tucson for the trial in this case.  Charles says that he volunteers because it is meaningful, and he enjoys helping underrepresented persons. In addition, the volunteer work provides a great opportunity to get federal jury trial experience.  The Court is grateful for Charles’ exceptional volunteer work in the Taylor case as well the many other cases in which he has accepted appointment.  

Andrea Driggs, Paul Eckstein, Chris Thomas, Thomas Tobin, Kelly Mull, Cara Wallace, Janet Howe, Julie Wilson-McNerney, and Rahgan Jenson of Perkins Coie 
The law firm of Perkins Coie accepted appointment in the case of Crago v. Pitz, an action in which a prisoner plaintiff alleged that the cell locks in his housing complex did not operate properly.  The defective locks allowed prisoners to manually open cell doors at will; prison officials knew about the defective locks for years but failed to fix them; a combination of broken door locks and inadequate staffing led to prison gang members controlling and managing the prisoner population in conjunction with prison officers.  After the prisoner complained about the conditions, a Deputy Warden retaliated against the plaintiff prisoner by instructing other prisoners to brutally assault him.  Perkins Coie accepted appointment after the Court denied defendants’ motions for summary judgment, and the firm staffed the case for trial with a large team that included both experienced partners and newer attorneys.  The team was exceptionally well prepared for the six-day trial and presented a compelling case.  Their first witness was former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Rebecca White Berch, who, along with former Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor, had been commissioned by former Governor Ducey to investigate the defective cell locks.  Their investigative report detailed extensive deficiencies in the operational systems at the Complex as well as longstanding knowledge and a failure to act by prison officials.  The report was admitted as evidence at trial.  The team also called other prisoners as witnesses and effectively cross-examined prison officials and defense witnesses.  The Perkins Coie team that devoted exceptional skill and effort to the case includes attorneys Andrea Driggs, Paul Eckstein, Chris Thomas, Kelly Mull, Janet Howe, and Seattle lawyers Thomas Tobin and Cara Wallace, as well as Phoenix lawyer Rahgan Jensen for post-trial work.  Karen Lisko served as Jury consultant on the case.  The Perkins Coie team was nominated by Judge Silver.  Perkins Coie has been a long-time partner with the Court, providing representation to self-represented litigants.  The Court is appreciative of the firm’s many years of commitment to service and access to justice.  
L to R: Pro Bono Award Winners, Chief Judge Snow and Charles Slack-Mendez, Judge Zipps and Mike DiGiacomo, Meghan McNamara Miller
L to R: Charles Slack-Mendez, Meghan McNamara Miller, Mike DiGiacomo
The Court thanks all of the many attorneys and firms who provided pro bono services to pro se litigants in 2022.