Steptoe & Johnson Honored for Advocacy in Retaliatory Defamation Case

Sanctuary for Families is pleased to honor accomplished trial lawyer Joseph Sanderson of Steptoe & Johnson LLP with an Above & Beyond Award for his tireless, inspired, and compassionate advocacy on behalf of Sanctuary’s client in a retaliatory defamation case.

Joseph is a well-known and accomplished litigator who has generously shared his expertise and experience to help Sanctuary’s client achieve a just outcome in a retaliatory defamation lawsuit. As Sanctuary’s client explained in her affidavit, her ex-husband—an NYPD officer—had physically and sexually abused her during their marriage. She later reported the abuse to the NYPD in an attempt to protect herself and stop the abuse. Later, as he faced contempt proceedings in their divorce case, the abuser filed a defamation lawsuit against her based on this report to the NYPD.

Sadly, defamation lawsuits against survivors who speak out about their abuse have been increasing. They are now another tool enabling abusers to harass, intimidate, and punish the victims of their violence. In addition to trying to silence survivors, these retaliatory lawsuits are often used to try to coerce survivors into dropping relief to which they are entitled in matrimonial or custody proceedings or not cooperating with criminal or other investigations. Pro bono attorneys like Joseph are critical in the effort to counteract this dangerous trend.

Sanctuary attorneys who specialize in family law had been representing the client in her divorce matter when the defamation lawsuit was filed against her. Sanctuary attorneys do not regularly litigate tort cases and have limited bandwidth to handle this type of collateral civil litigation. Fortunately for our client, Joseph has built up significant experience and expertise from volunteering to represent other pro bono clients who have been subjected to malicious defamation claims by their abusers as a means of harassment, retaliation and intimidation. Joseph’s sense of justice and fairness has led him to reach out to survivors who have courageously stepped forward to file complaints to stop their abuse or bring their abuser to justice, only to have their abuser misuse defamation law as a means to silence or intimidate them. Through a combination of skillful strategy, insightful knowledge of the complex workings of the court system, and desire to make sure that the legal system did not fail Sanctuary’s client, Joseph was able to obtain a voluntary Stipulation of Discontinuance of the case. Joseph employed a mix of patience, endurance and diligence in obtaining the best possible outcome.

Joseph started working on the case in June 2021 when he was at his former firm, Kirkland & Ellis, and took the case with him when he moved firms to Steptoe so our client would have continuous and consistent representation. After Joseph’s strategic motion practice—which required opposing counsel to spend significant time and money pursuing a case in which they may have expected the client would quickly fold—opposing counsel eventually agreed to drop the case altogether in a courtroom hallway while waiting for a motion to be heard. During the course of the several years long litigation, Joseph was dogged in his representation of the client, including by filing multiple applications with the Court, including a request to seal documents and sanction the other side in order to protect confidential client information that was disclosed in her ex-husband’s filings, which itself created pressure to discontinue the case.

Hannah West, the dedicated Sanctuary for Families lawyer handling the client’s divorce nominated Joseph for this Award, saying,

“I was impressed and grateful for Joseph’s ability to manage the case and all communications with the client so independently and skillfully. Most importantly, Joseph was collaborative with our client by being in constant communication with her and explaining in detail his case strategy, while listening to our client’s concerns and being responsive to her questions and guided by her needs.”

In addition to his pro bono work on behalf of survivors of abuse and violence, Joseph also advocates for reforms in the court system as a member of bar association committees. It is a testament to his skilled management of this sensitive case and thorough understanding of the workings of the legal system that Joseph was able to use the delays and pace of the court system to achieve such a positive outcome for our client. Had Joseph not been able to obtain the discontinuance of the case, our client may have lost her faith in the justice system that was punishing her for bravely coming forward to stop her abuse, and her ability to testify in the family law proceedings would also be impaired, jeopardizing her receiving a fair and favorable outcome.

Thanks to her courage and resilience, our client is moving forward with her life and thriving in her new profession. She recognizes that Joseph’s compassionate and empowering representation has helped her achieve her goals for her future, so when asked if she wanted to say anything in relation to Joseph’s Above & Beyond Award, Ms. S said she would do “anything for Mr. Sanderson” because of his ability to resolve the matter so smoothly and compassionately. Meanwhile, Joseph continues to share his trial advocacy talents to empower survivors by taking on other similar pro bono matters. We thank Joseph and are pleased to honor him for his dedication and generosity in volunteering his time and talents to such tireless, empowering and trauma-informed representation of Sanctuary for Families clients and other brave survivors of abuse and gender based violence.

Join us at our Above & Beyond Awards Ceremony on October 25, 2023, as we honor Steptoe & Johnson’s outstanding pro bono work.



Tushna Gamadia is an of counsel in the Real Estate Group at Morrison & Foerster LLP, works with Sanctuary for Families’ clients on pro bono cases and is a member of Sanctuary for Families Pro Bono Council.