Cohen Milstein is deeply committed to providing pro bono representation to those who otherwise could not obtain legal counsel. Since the firm's tremendous achievements in the Swiss Banks case ($1.25 billion settlement) a few years ago, Cohen Milstein has remained committed to doing important public interest and human rights litigation on a pro bono basis. Each year, Cohen Milstein attorneys and staff devote thousands of hours to pro bono legal services. Cohen Milstein is a signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono ChallengeSM, pledging each year to dedicate at least three percent of its total billable hours to pro bono work.
Cohen Milstein has been repeatedly recognized for its dedication to pro bono causes. In 2011, Partner Agnieszka Fryszman was a recipient of The National Law Journal's Pro Bono Award. Ms. Fryszman was recognized for her and colleagues efforts on behalf of Nepali laborers injured or killed at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which they obtained several judgments and significant settlements on behalf of the families. Lawyers at the firm also received the 2012 Judith M. Conti Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year Award from the Employment Justice Center, a 2007 Beacon of Justice Award from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, the 2007 Frederick Douglass award from the Southern Center for Human Rights, a 2006 Fierce Sister Award from the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and a 2005 Outstanding Achievement Award from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Cohen Milstein was also recognized in 2005 for our successful participation in Human Rights First’s Asylum Representation Program.
In recent years, Cohen Milstein has represented, on a pro bono basis:
- families seeking compensation from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund
- Holocaust victims and their heirs seeking to recover stolen funds from Swiss Banks that collaborated with the Nazi Regime
- victims of political, religious, racial, and gender-based persecution seeking asylum in the United States
- detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba seeking a fair hearing on their detention without charge
- victims of housing discrimination
- indigent tenants in landlord/tenant proceedings
- persons with disabilities in connection with Social Security Disability claims
- employees wrongly denied overtime pay
- utility customers whose heat was cut off for delinquent payment in the dead of winter in violation of state laws
- grassroots environmental organizations seeking to enforce the Clean Water Act.
Cohen Milstein represented survivors and the families of victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon before the Federal Victims Compensation Fund. Cohen Milstein was able to obtain substantial recoveries for those victims and their families, including one of the highest recoveries for a severely burned survivor. The Special Master of the Fund, Kenneth Feinberg, praised the pro bono efforts of the firm, calling Cohen Milstein Washington D.C.'s "pre-eminent plaintiffs' law firm.”
From 2000 to 2006, attorneys from Cohen Milstein represented fifteen women from Korea, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during World War II. The Japanese military coerced, forced, and tricked over 200,000 women into becoming “Comfort Women” who were repeatedly raped, beaten, and sometimes killed at “comfort stations” frequented by Japanese soldiers. These women, some as young as 10 years old, were kept in deplorable conditions and threatened on pain of death to obey their captors. For the women who fell ill, they were taken away by soldiers and never returned. In the comfort stations, they were forced to service dozens of men a day, sometimes as many as seventy, and those who refused were beaten harshly.
Of the 200,000 women who were forced to become Comfort Women, only an estimated 25-30% survived the war. And those that survived then faced humiliation and social ostracism, along with the physical scars and ailments resulting from years of abuse.
Cohen Milstein attorneys filed a suit against Japan in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of these surviving comfort women seeking compensation for the grievous wrongs and suffering they experienced during the war. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which denied the appeal in 2006 and closed the case. While the judicial efforts did not prove fruitful, Cohen Milstein’s lawsuit heightened the visibility of the plight of comfort women. In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution calling for a formal apology from the Japanese Government for their abuse of women during WWII and their repeated denials of the mistreatment of comfort women. For her work on the Comfort Women case, partner Agnieszka Fryszman received the 2007 Fierce Sister Award.
Tulsa Race Riot
Cohen Milstein has represented survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, one of the United States’ worst incidents of racial violence. On the night of May 31, 1921, a white mob gathered at the courthouse where a young African-American man had been taken into police custody on the charges of sexually assaulting a white woman. Amid rumors that the mob was preparing to lynch the accused man, some African-American men came to the jail in an attempt to prevent the lynching. Tensions ran high, and shots were fired. As a response, the Mayor of Tulsa, along with the Tulsa Police Chief, deputized and armed as many as 500 white men and instructed them to attack the African-American neighborhood of Greenwood. In the early hours of the morning of June 1st, these “Special Deputies,” along with local units of the Oklahoma National Guard and the Tulsa police force, raided Greenwood, forcibly removing the African-American residents from their homes, killing many of them, and then looted and burned the empty buildings to the ground. When the mob was done, approximately 300 African-Americans were dead, thirty-five square blocks of property were completely destroyed, and nearly 10,000 men, women, and children were left homeless.
Decades after the Riots, the African-American survivors had yet to receive true redress for their suffering or any sort of aid immediately after due to the City of Tulsa’s refusal to provide economic compensation to help the now homeless victims as well as their attempts to impede Greenwood’s rebuilding. Additionally, for decades the legal system was not readily available to the African-American community. It was only in 2001 that the Oklahoma State Commission studied the Tulsa Riots and made public all of the details, including the state and local government’s participation. In 2003, Cohen Milstein attorneys filed suit on behalf of survivors and descendants of victims of the Riots against the City of Tulsa, the Tulsa Chief of Police, the city’s Police Department, and the Governor of Oklahoma for their involvement in inciting the violence and destruction against the African American residents of Greenwood. While the case was unsuccessful due to concerns over statue of limitations, judges on the Tenth Circuit lamented that they were not able to help bring restitution to the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots, so long denied justice.
Cohen Milstein has dedicated itself to assisting individuals from around the world who are seeking political asylum in the United States because they face political persecution in their home countries.
Nepali Activists: Cohen Milstein secured political asylum for a Nepali democracy activist and novelist who faced persecution at the hands of the anti-democratic Nepali monarchy for questioning the legitimacy of the Nepali government in one of his novels. We also secured political asylum for a women's rights and democracy activist who was forced to flee Nepal after increasing persecution at the hands of both the anti-democratic Nepali monarchy and the equally anti-democratic Maoist insurgency that has ravaged Nepal in recent years.
Afghan Activist & Civil Society Leader: Cohen Milstein secured asylum for an extraordinary Afghan woman who tirelessly fought for equality for women, human rights, and the reformation of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. She was one of the few courageous women who ran for a seat in the Afghan Parliament, after which she faced death threats from warlords whom she publicly condemned in her campaign. As the founder of her own non-profit organization that distributed humanitarian aid to poor Afghans, especially women and children, she was a prominent leader in Afghan civil society. She arrived in the United States in 2005 and has waited for two long years in anxiety and fear that she would be forced to return to Afghanistan to face execution by her warlord persecutors. The trial attorney for the Department of Homeland Security stated that the memorandum of law and supporting exhibits filed on her behalf persuaded him that her application for asylum was meritorious, and thus he would recommend a granting of asylum to the immigration judge. The immigration judge accepted the trial attorney's recommendation and granted the client asylum after a very brief hearing. Because merits hearings are normally very adversarial, the trial attorney's concession was a remarkable and gratifying outcome.
Polish Victims of Domestic Violence: Cohen Milstein helped a teenager who feared being returned to her violent and abusive father. She had fled to the U.S. with her mother, taking refuge with her grandfather who was a United States citizen. Unfortunately, the family’s arrival in the U.S. did not halt the psychological abuse by the father and and the mother collapsed from the pressure and committed suicide. Cohen Milstein agreed to represent the grandfather and a family friend in seeking to sever the father’s custody in their favor. The court granted joint custody for the grandfather and family friend and found that the daughter qualified for Special Immigration Juvenile Status (SIJS). In turn, the child is able to petition INS for a permanent green card. The judge commended Cohen Milstein for its “very thorough and professional work.”
Cohen Milstein has represented numerous detainees at Guantanamo Bay in challenges to the legality of their confinement.
On May 11, 2009, Cohen Milstein achieved a landmark result in its representation of Ali Bin Ali Ahmed in a habeas corpus proceeding before the Untied States District Court for the District of Columbia. After an extensive evidentiary hearing, Judge Kessler granted the writ of habeas corpus and ordered the Government to take all necessary steps to effectuate Mr. Ahmed’s release from Guantanamo. Ahmed v. Obama, 613 F. Supp. 2d 51 (D.D.C. 2009) (Court’s unclassified opinion). See also Transcript of May 2009 Unclassified Hearing (Court’s recitation to Mr. Ahmed of the rationale for May 11, 2009 Order); Release of Yemeni Held at Guantanamo Ordered, Wash. Post (May 13, 2009).
Mr. Ahmed, a young man from Yemen, was arrested in Pakistan at the age of 18. At the time of his arrest, he had completed twelve years of school and had no history of radical or criminal activity of any kind in Yemen. Mr. Ahmed traveled to Pakistan prior to the events of September 11, 2001 and was living in a house that included many other students. He was arrested with many others by Pakistani forces during a sweep in early 2002, during a period in which rewards were being offered for the apprehension of alleged “terrorists.”
In rejecting the Justice Department’s claim that Mr. Ahmed’s detention at a Guantanamo Bay prison for seven and one-half years was legally justified, the United States District Court found that the Government’s evidence was “riddled … with equivocation and speculation” and “unreliable.” The Court found “there is no solid evidence that Ali Ahmed engaged in, or planned, any future wrongdoing”; “no weapons were found or seized” when he was arrested; and there was “no evidence” of any “other terrorist paraphernalia.”
After the Court ruled that there was no lawful basis for Mr. Ahmed’s detention, there was continued delay by the Government in effectuating his release. The matter again went before Judge Kessler, and the Court ordered the Government to return Mr. Ahmed to his home country. Like the Court’s earlier ruling, this was a landmark ruling and was one of the first decisions by a United States District Court recognizing the authority of an Article III Court not only to find a Guantanamo detainee’s detention unlawful, but also to order the United States to release the detainee and do so by a date certain. See Ahmed v. Obama, No. 05-cv-01678 (D.D.C. Oct. 1, 2009).
Mr. Ahmed is the first Guantanamo detainee that the Obama Administration has released to Yemen. Mr. Ahmed has now been reunited with his family and lives in Yemen. Cohen Milstein continues to represent other Guantanamo detainees challenging the legality of their confinement.
Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act
Working with the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Cohen Milstein was successful in negotiating the largest settlement ever of a lawsuit challenging barriers to accessibility in the design and construction of multi-family housing under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. On June 8, 2005 (just six months after the December 20, 2004 case filing), we reached a $20 million settlement with developer Archstone-Smith Trust, one of the nation’s largest residential apartment developers, to retrofit some 12,000 apartment units and make them accessible to people with disabilities.
Cohen Milstein offers a two-year fellowship in International Human Rights Litigation.
For more information, or to apply please click here.