At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families will honor Ms. A’s dedicated team of Davis Polk attorneys who achieved a remarkable win in a multi-day federal trial that will help Ms. A and her children stay together in the United States.
The Davis Polk team consists of members from both the New York and Madrid offices, including associates Brendan A. Blase, Mollie E. Hamel, Meredith Manning, James Y. Park, Ryann Moelis, Matthew Stratis Vasilakos, Zoë Smith, Maria Morris, and Paul Shortell; former associate Emma Schwartz; Foreign Associate Jacqueline Berkenstadt; Counsel and Head of Pro Bono Litigation Dara L. Sheinfeld; Chief Pro Bono Counsel Amelia T.R. Starr; and Counsel Ester del Valle Izquierdo.
After Ms. A fled Spain with her two children, her abusive former intimate partner initiated proceedings in both Spain and New York to return the children to him in Spain. Ms. A was determined to remain in New York and maintain the stable and loving environment she had built for her family, and remain with the community that had welcomed her and children in New York, away from the abusive environment in Spain. Ms. A worked with her incredible team of Davis Polk attorneys to quickly prepare for the fast-approaching bench trial to prevent the return of the children to their father.
Shortly after Ms. A’s intake with Sanctuary for Families, Davis Polk assembled a super team of lawyers at all levels to represent her in a proceeding filed pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the “Hague Convention”) in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Davis Polk Associate Zoë Smith described Ms. A as “an incredible woman. She’s so resilient and joyful, and put so much faith and trust in us.” With the trial fast approaching, Zoë and associate Ryann Moelis became very close with Ms. A, learning how to support her from a trauma-informed perspective. “The case only goes as well as your client feels,” Ryann said. Zoë and Ryann worked extensively with Ms. A at her own pace to ensure she was completely comfortable and ready for her testimony at trial. At the same time, Associate Mollie Hamel and other associates engaged in extensive drafting to respond to Ms. A’s former partner’s constant filing of motions. In addition to close client contact and drafting, another benefit Davis Polk’s innovative pro bono team model provides is assigning an associate to each of the witnesses – in this case nine – to be presented at trial. The associates were responsible for preparing the witnesses, drafting outlines, and ultimately for conducting direct or cross-examination. At the beginning of the trial, in order for less seasoned attorneys to gain courtroom experience, Davis Polk requested – and the judge allowed – certain rules and structure to allow associates to address the court and present oral argument while supported by more senior attorneys. As a result, Davis Polk associates developed new skills and gained important training, all while diligently fighting on behalf of Ms. A.
As part of their defense of Ms. A, the Davis Polk team successfully argued that Ms. A’s children were well settled in their new home and community as evidenced by their success in school and sports, regular participation in church activities, and connections with local family. Additionally, the court agreed with the team’s showing – with the aid of an expert – that Ms. A’s older child was mature enough to have their desire to stay in New York with their mother and sibling considered by the court. Finally, the court determined that even though Ms. A’s younger child was not mature enough to weigh in on the decision about whether they would return to Spain, the siblings were so bonded that they should not be separated. Ultimately, the court decided that the children should not be returned to Spain under the Hague Convention and should stay in New York together with their mother to continue to grow and flourish. Notably, in a footnote in the opinion, the court commended the Davis Polk team “for the vigor and skill with which they litigated this difficult case, and for their donation of substantial time and resources. Their pro bono work on this case has been in the finest tradition of this District.”
Ms. A and her pro bono team’s work together to successfully obtain the favorable decision will help Ms. A continue to build safety, security, and community for her children.
Nicole Fidler, Director of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Project, was thrilled when Dara L. Sheinfeld, Counsel and Head of Pro Bono Litigation at Davis Polk, agreed to take on Ms. A’s federal Hague Convention case:
“After Dara and I met with Ms. A a few times to better understand the history of abuse and Ms. A’s possible defenses, Dara enthusiastically agreed to build a litigation team at Davis Polk to represent Ms. A. Dara and Davis Polk always do a phenomenal job representing survivors, and this was no exception. This was a powerhouse team that strategically handled every challenge thrown at them throughout the case – and there were many. I was constantly impressed by their dedication, compassion, and lawyering skills. This was a hard-fought win, and I am so grateful for all the work they did in partnership with Ms. A, and for everything Davis Polk attorneys do to help survivors of gender-based violence.”
While the district court judge issued a favorable decision for Ms. A and the Davis Polk team, her former partner has appealed the decision to the Second Circuit. Fortunately, Ms. A and the Davis Polk team are already working together on the appeal.
Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on October 25, 2023, as we honor David Polk’s outstanding pro bono work.
Anastasia Regne is an associate with the Employment, Pensions & Incentives team at Herbert Smith Freehills in New York and a member of Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Council.