Susman Godfrey is committed to improving the laws and the legal system by representing those who cannot afford to pay for legal services. We encourage our attorneys to participate in pro bono opportunities and make firm resources available to ensure our pro bono efforts are meaningful and effective.
Lawyers at Susman Godfrey are often tapped by trial and appellate courts across the country to assist on precedent-setting pro bono matters. We also regularly partner with various organizations to drive forward significant and timely pro bono litigation. These organizations include, among many, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Next Generation Action Network Legal Advocacy, and the International Rescue Committee.
In 2021, Susman Godfrey launched its Minority-Owned Business (MOBUS) Pro Bono Program which provides legal representation to minority-owned businesses in Houston in connection with commercial litigation, such as breach of contract, fraud, and other business disputes.
Susman Godfrey has been included on National Law Journal’s Pro Bono Hot List and our lawyers have been honored with awards such as Texas Lawyer’s Attorney of the Year, University of Texas School of Law’s Distinguished Alumnus for Community Service Award, and Texas Appleseed’s J. Chrys Dougherty Good Apple Award.
The cases below illustrate the variety and importance of the matters we litigate pro bono.
Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination
- Faculty, Alumni, and Students Opposed to Racial Preferences v. New York University Law Review. Susman Godfrey defended New York University Law Review against allegations that its diversity and inclusiveness initiatives violate federal bias law by favoring female and minority applicants and authors. The Hon. Edgardo Ramos of the Southern District of New York granted the motion filed by Susman Godfrey to dismiss the case. The Second Circuit later affirmed the decision.
- Texas v. United States of America and the International Rescue Committee. We represented the International Rescue Committee (IRC) pro bono when the state of Texas sued to block the federal government and the IRC from resettling any Syrian refugees in Texas. Working with the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the team defeated the state’s multiple requests for injunctive relief. The federal district court later dismissed all of the state’s claims.
- Jared Woodfill et al. v. Annise Parker et al. The firm served as lead trial counsel for the city of Houston and won a jury verdict and a final judgment in a closely-watched trial over a challenge to Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, a law that prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment (excluding religious organizations), and housing. The city asked Susman Godfrey to represent it pro bono and defend the ordinance. After a two-week trial, the jury issued its verdict resoundingly in the city’s favor. After two months of post-verdict briefing, the court issued a final judgment in favor of the city.
- International Franchise Ass’n, Inc. et al. v. City of Seattle, et al. Susman Godfrey was retained by the city of Seattle on a partial pro bono basis to defend its landmark $15 per hour minimum wage ordinance. Several Seattle franchise businesses challenged the ordinance on a number of legal grounds, including violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Dormant Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. The district court denied the plaintiff franchise group’s motion for a preliminary injunction and found that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of any of their claims.
- ODonnell v. Harris County. For decades, the Harris County Jail held tens of thousands of people who were arrested for misdemeanors but were financially unable to post bail. Though arrested for the same minor offense, a person with money could avoid jail entirely while an indigent person would spend days or weeks in jail before determination of merits. Along with Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project, Susman Godfrey represents on a pro bono basis a class of indigent arrestees who challenged the constitutionality of Harris County’s money bail practices. After an eight-day evidentiary hearing, the US District Court found Harris County’s system unconstitutional and ordered broad injunctive relief. After the bail reforms went into effect, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s rulings that the system was unconstitutional. In the first year in which the injunctive relief was in effect, more than 12,000 people were released from jail.
Death Penalty Appeals and Prisoners’ Rights
- David Daniels et al. v. Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown. Susman Godfrey partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Texas, Civil Rights Corps, and the Next Generation Action Network Legal Advocacy Fund to bring a federal class-action lawsuit for emergency relief to remedy the Dallas County Jail’s ongoing failure to manage the extraordinary risks COVID-19 poses to its detainees, staff, and the larger community.
- In re Alfred DeWayne Brown. Mr. Brown was released from Death Row in 2015 after his murder conviction was reversed. We represented him in his efforts to obtain a declaration of “actual innocence” and compensation from the State of Texas. In 2019, we obtained an “actual innocence” finding from the Harris County D.A.’s office and a district court. When the State still denied Mr. Brown compensation, we litigated the issue to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of Mr. Brown in 2020. The landmark decision will make it easier for future exonerees to recover compensation for their wrongful imprisonment.
- Harris v. Fischer. Susman Godfrey secured an important pro bono appellate victory on behalf of a former Bedford Hills Correctional Facility inmate who alleged her Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights were violated during a body cavity search while she was incarcerated. In its ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s decision dismissing the case and remanded for further consideration.
- Death penalty appeals. The firm has handled several death penalty appeals focusing on the requirement for the state of Texas to release information about the chemicals used to put prisoners to death in order for counsel to protect the rights of their clients not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment. In one case, the Susman Godfrey team obtained an injunction against execution due to this issue.
Other Significant Pro Bono Work
- Alley Theater v. Hanover Insurance Co. The Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre, the oldest professional theatre company in Texas and the third-oldest resident theatre in the country, suffered devastating destruction during Hurricane Harvey, incurring millions in losses from property damage, lost income, and expenses. Susman Godfrey represented the theatre pro bono in insurance litigation related to hurricane-caused business interruption. We first secured a partial summary judgment ruling on behalf of Alley in a coverage lawsuit against Hanover over claims the theatre was not properly reimbursed for hurricane-related business interruption losses. The firm later scored a second victory for the theater when they settled the final piece of the litigation.
- First Presbyterian Church of Houston v. Presbytery of the New Covenant, Inc. We represented First Presbyterian Church of Houston (FPC), one of the oldest congregations in Houston, in a property dispute against Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), which claimed for close to 30 years that it has a trust interest in an FPC property in Houston. The court ruled in FPC’s favor on summary judgment, entering final judgment and a permanent injunction against the Presbytery of the New Covenant, and finding that the PCUSA has no interest in FPC’s property. After appellate arguments, the parties settled, with the denomination releasing any claim to any intent in FPC’s property.
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Susman Godfrey has provided pro bono legal research, consultation, and strategy advice to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence for years regarding measures to regulate the sale and use of firearms.
- Las Brisas Energy Center. We volunteered our services to represent the Cities Coalition, a group of more than 30 Texas cities that opposed the construction of the Las Brisas Energy Center, a petroleum coke-fired power plant in Corpus Christi, Texas. The proposed plant would significantly contribute to climate change; Las Brisas’s own projections estimated that it would emit approximately 10 million tons of carbon dioxide during each year of its operation. After several hearings, two trials, and many recommendations to deny the building permit, Las Brisas abandoned its attempt to build the plant.