Faegre Baker Daniels has presented the 2011 John C. Benson Award to Michael A. Ponto, a partner in the firm's Minneapolis office, in recognition of his exceptional leadership in pro bono civil rights matters on behalf of LGBT clients and his outstanding mentorship of young professionals working on pro bono matters.
Presented annually since 1994, the John C. Benson Award is given to one Faegre Baker Daniels lawyer in recognition of his or her outstanding commitment to pro bono service.
Since 2010, Ponto has led the firm's collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to address concerns about anti-gay policies and harassment in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest school district in Minnesota. Under Ponto's leadership, two separate litigation matters were initiated in 2011 to address the concerns of LGBT students and their parents.
In January 2011, Ponto led a team of lawyers that successfully brought a federal court action to stop the District's plan to change its longstanding protocol permitting dating couples to march together in high school pep fest royalty court processions. The district proposed to change the protocol after students elected the firm's clients, a dating lesbian couple, to the royalty court. The litigation was resolved in time to permit the two young women to march together in the pep fest processional.
In July 2011, Ponto's team filed a second action in federal court on behalf of five individual students of the District, each the target of pervasive harassment based on his or her identity as LGBT and or/gender non-conforming. The lawsuit alleged violations of Title IX, the Equal Protection Clause and the Minnesota Human Right Act by the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated an investigation of conditions in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. A sweeping settlement of this case was announced by the parties on March 6, 2012.
The settlement includes a consent decree that requires the District to implement new protections designed to prevent harassment of students who are or perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming. The decree also includes a comprehensive, systemic plan to counter and prevent future harassment in district education programs and activities. Key features of the plan include a thorough evaluation of the district's anti-harassment policies and procedures, and tailored actions to improve the school climate and enhance the training of staff and students. As part of the agreement, the Department of Justice will monitor and approve the District's adherence to the consent decree for a period of five years. The groundbreaking settlement provides a model for advocacy on behalf of LGBT students nationally.
Ponto has also provided pro bono representation to multiple clients in a range of matters involving LGBT civil rights and holds a strong record of pro bono advocacy for protection of wilderness areas.
The recipient of the John C. Benson Award is entitled to direct a charitable donation from the firm's foundation to a nonprofit organization of his or her choice. Ponto has designated The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to receive the funds.