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Lawyers partner with Equip for Equality to defend disabled peoples' rights

In-house counsel can help by working the non-profit's legal helpline

Megan Runnion

A team of lawyers is giving 12-year-old Megan Runnion a voice—even though she can’t hear it.

Megan, who is deaf, is at the center of a lawsuit targeting the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana for purported disability discrimination.

Megan joined Girl Scouts when she was in kindergarten, and since then, the organization has provided her with an American Sign Language interpreter for her troop’s meetings and outings. But last fall, when Megan’s mother, Edie Runnion, renewed her request for an interpreter, the Girl Scouts denied her request.

Seeking legal guidance, Runnion contacted the National Association of the Deaf and Equip for Equality, an Illinois non-profit that has addressed the disability-related legal advocacy needs of people with disabilities since 1985. The two organizations offered Runnion advice, and when she wasn’t able to resolve the issue on her own, they wrote a demand letter to the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. When the Runnions didn’t receive a favorable response, the organizations sent a similar letter to the Girl Scouts’ national headquarters. Again, the Runnions didn’t receive an encouraging answer.

“We didn’t see that this was something that was going to be able to be negotiated successfully,” says Barry Taylor, vice president for civil rights and systemic litigation at Equip for Equality. “Litigation was going to be our only option.”

To obtain some additional litigation experience and manpower, Taylor and his team of lawyers reached out to Much Shelist Partner Steve Blonder, who previously had expressed interest in pro bono work with the non-profit. Blonder and two other Much Shelist lawyers are now working on the Runnions’ case.

Although there aren’t any inside counsel working on Megan’s case, in-house lawyers frequently engage in pro bono work at Equip for Equality through the organization’s Special Education Helpline, which serves as a resource for parents seeking advice and information about their disabled children’s special education rights.

“We’ve developed technology so that when we get helpline calls from parents, we can forward those calls directly to the desk of the in-house corporate attorney,” Taylor explains.

Lawyers from JPMorgan Chase & Co. were the first corporate counsel to work the helpline, and Taylor says lawyers from McDonald’s Corp. and Zurich North America will soon train to begin working the helpline, too.

“Sometimes after the in-house attorneys give advice to clients, they want to do more,” Taylor adds. “They want to go and negotiate their education plans or represent them at a hearing. The helpline provides an opportunity to do some initial work that’s a fit as well as opportunities to go beyond that.”

Regardless of whether pro bono volunteers come from law firms or corporate legal departments, Taylor says Equip for Equality appreciates the help. “It exponentially expands our capacity to do more litigation on behalf of people with disabilities,” he says.

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