Bill Sussman, Partner, Ropes & Gray LLP

Pro Bono Counsel Ropes & Gray LLP and Legal Aid Announce Landmark Settlement To End Prisoner Abuse at Rikers Island 


This volunteer feature speaks of the success of Nunez v City of New York, a class action civil rights case which challenged the unconstitutional use of excessive force against inmates at City jails on Rikers Island in New York.  As described below, the case was a collaborative effort, including with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, the United States Department of Justice and Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP. 

The Legal Aid Society authored this fantastic article, an earlier version which was featured in the NYC Pro Bono Center newsletter.  Bill Sussman, our featured volunteer, is a business and securities litigation partner at Ropes & Gray, and led a Ropes & Gray team of more than 30 attorneys and 13 staff members, who dedicated over 30,000 hours over a three year period on this matter.  Further, as the article shows below, court-awarded attorneys’ fees were used to fund a number of public service initiatives, including a high-level counsel position, the "Ropes & Gray Prison Reform Counsel".  Pro Bono Net commends Ropes & Gray for its extraordinary commitment to pro bono!


   Bill Sussman, Partner

       Ropes & Gray 

For over 30 years, Bill has represented private equity and corporate clients, and their partners, officers and directors, in M&A and corporate governance disputes, antitrust matters, and complex business tort and contract disputes. Bill is co-chair of Ropes & Gray’s Pro Bono Committee, and is active in pro bono representations.


The Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project, together with pro bono co-counsel Ropes & Gray LLP are proud to announce the settlement of Nunez v. New York, a class action lawsuit, brought along with Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP and later joined by the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”), to redress systematic excessive force in the jails in New York City.

On Oct. 21, Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted final approval of the settlement, which outlines a comprehensive set of reform measures to be implemented by the Department of Correction.  Judge Swain called the settlement “groundbreaking” and noted that it “provides an important example for other correctional systems around the country.

The reform measures include:

  • A new use of force policy providing clear directions on when force may be used, and expressly limiting certain categories of force;
  • Revamped training to teach staff to defuse conflicts without force and avoid unnecessary injury to anyone when force is necessary;
  • Robust accountability measures, including requiring staff to report force honestly and completely, ensuring fair and professional investigations of use of force, and requiring fair and timely discipline of staff who misuse force;
  • Vastly expanded video surveillance, through stationary, handheld and body-worn cameras.

With the final court approval, the agreement becomes an enforceable federal consent decree, monitored by correctional expert Steve J. Martin of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. It requires the Department of Correction to implement new policies and practices to curb the rampant misuse of force and end the culture of violence which emboldens staff to abuse prisoners and lie about such abuse with impunity.

“We are proud of the work of our team of lawyers and other professionals on the Rikers Island case, which led to a landmark agreement to enact much-needed reform measures,” said David Chapin, managing partner of Ropes & Gray.  Ropes & Gray lawyers worked over 30,000 hours on the case over a three-year period on a pro bono basis. 

“We are proud of the work of our team of lawyers and other professionals on the Rikers Island case, which led to a landmark agreement to enact much-needed reform measures.”

David Chapin, Managing Partner, Ropes & Gray

The firm will use the court awarded attorneys’ fees to fund public service initiatives, including:

  • Establishing the “Ropes & Gray Prison Reform Counsel” at Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP). Funding the senior-level counsel position will allow the PRP to help ensure the City’s compliance with the Nunez agreement over its lifetime, and to fund its other public service projects.
  • Contributing funds to The Legal Aid Society to help that organization with its many and varied public service projects that help New Yorkers.
  • Funding an ongoing Ropes & Gray Fellowship in New York through Equal Justice Works, a public interest law program, for 10 years.
  • Financing expenses— which do not include cost of lawyers’ time—the firm incurred over the years its lawyers and other professionals worked on the Nunez case. Those include expert fees and expenses, the costs to set up a discovery database, expenses involved in taking depositions, and other case-related costs.
  • Dedicating the remaining fees to a special fund at Ropes & Gray, separate from the firm’s general budget, to be used exclusively for future pro bono expenses.

“It is all the more gratifying to put the attorney fees to good use to help ensure that the reform measures become reality and that other worthy public service projects can move forward. Our protocol is that any fees awarded to Ropes & Gray for its work on pro bono matters are used only for pro bono purposes —either at public service organizations or at the firm,” said Chapin.

“This agreement requires the City to make deeply important changes to the supervision of staff on Rikers Island, and reflects our view of the best path to reform,” said Jonathan Chasan, a supervising attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project. Staff Attorney Mary Lynne Werlwas added,  “These reforms will make the jails safer for inmates and staff, and reduce the number of serious injuries New Yorkers sustain while incarcerated.”

The New York-based Ropes & Gray team has been led by business & securities litigation partner Bill Sussman, government enforcement partner and Legal Aid Society Board member Chris Conniff, and former government enforcement associate Anna Friedberg.


Ropes & Gray’s public service commitment is a hallmark of the firm, rooted in the example set by the firm’s founders nearly a century and a half ago. From securing asylum for endangered immigrants, to helping people keep their homes, to winning the release of the wrongly convicted, Ropes & Gray strives to provide the highest level of pro bono legal advice and support to those who need it most. Learn more here  

If you want to learn more about the Rikers Island Pro Bono Case, watch this 5 minute video.

The Legal Aid Society is a private, not-for-profit legal services organization, the oldest and largest in the nation, dedicated since 1876 to providing quality legal representation to low-income New Yorkers. It is dedicated to one simple but powerful belief: that no New Yorker should be denied access to justice because of poverty.

The Prisoners Rights Project featured in this article protects and enforces the legal rights of New York City and New York State prisoners through litigation, advice, and assistance to individual prisoners.


Interested in volunteering?  Check out our "Volunteer Tools" page to learn about the range of resources we have at Pro Bono Net to help mobilize and engage pro bono volunteers, or start searching for opportunities right now by using our national Pro Bono Opportunities Guide!