Public Interest Law Center of Phila. awards DLA Piper for pro bono work in Blunt v. Lower Merion School District

By Jon Campisi | Oct 25, 2013

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia recently presented the firm

DLA Piper with the Thaddeus Stevens Partnership Award in recognition of pro bono work undertaken by attorneys with the firm in a case involving allegations of racial discrimination against a suburban Philadelphia School District.

Lawyers with DLA Piper served as co-counsel to the law center in a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District in which it was alleged that minority students were disproportionately placed into special education programs.

The case, Blunt v. Lower Merion School District, centered around claims that black students were inappropriately placed in special education and lower-level classes when in reality the youngsters belonged in regular ed.

The Public Interest Law Center presented lawyers with DLA Piper with the Thaddeus Stevens award during its annual Social Justice Gala in Philadelphia on Oct. 17, according to PILCOP.

The lawyers from DLA Piper who were involved with the federal discrimination case were Carl Hittinger, co-chair of the law firm’s U.S. Antitrust Trade Regulation group and head of the firm’s Philadelphia Litigation Practice; partner Lesli Esposito; associates John Huh, Nathan Heller and Patrick Castaneda; and paralegal Michael Lodato.

DLA Piper says it is deeply committed to providing pro bono services both in the United States and internationally, having donated more than 191,000 hours or pro bono work in 2012 alone.

The law firm structures its pro bono program around what it calls “signature projects,” those designed to commit significant resources to tackling social issues, such as education, juvenile justice, and access to justice, according to the firm.

The signature projects are usually done in conjunction with nonprofit groups, academic institutions, foundations and the law firm’s corporate clients, the firm’s website states.

In October 2011, a federal judge sitting in Philadelphia threw out the racial discrimination case against the Lower Merion School District, the dismissal coming four years after PILCOP and DLA Piper lawyers filed suit on behalf of six African American families who alleged bias in class placement, the Pennsylvania Record previously reported.

The case hadn’t become public until school district lawyers filed a summary judgment motion in 2011, arguing that the district had done nothing wrong or illegal.

U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle, III ended up dismissing the action because the plaintiffs hadn’t offered compelling evidence that Lower Merion specifically discriminated against the students who were named as plaintiffs in the case.

“Even assuming that plaintiffs put forth evidence that their constitutional rights were violated, there is no evidence that the School District did so based on official policy or custom that it was deliberately indifferent to plaintiff’s rights,” Bartle had written in his opinion.

Bartle issued his ruling about two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial in Philadelphia.

During oral arguments in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Hittinger had told Bartle that certain factual disputes, such as whether the district “intentionally” and “systematically” misidentified students requiring special education placement, would be better reserved for trial, and not during pre-trial proceedings, the Record previously reported.

The plaintiffs in Blunt originally asked the court to certify the lawsuit as a class action, but that request was subsequently denied.

Records show that the plaintiffs’ lawyers appealed Bartle’s ruling to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Attorneys presented oral arguments to the appellate body in early June of this year.

A decision is pending.

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