David Gardner led a discussion on working in the federal government at the 2018 Public Interest Retreat.

“An Extraordinary Advocate”

David Gardner ’20

Hometown: St. Paul, Minn.

Undergrad: Political science and economics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was student body president

Pre-law: Supported and mentored Minneapolis high school students who would be first in their families to attend college through the nonprofit College Possible

Duke Law Scholarship: The John R. Parkinson Memorial Law Scholarship

Leadership: Managing editor, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy; co-director, Cancer Pro Bono Project; assistant director, Lawyer on the Line

Clinics: Health Justice Clinic (basic, advanced, and independent study); Immigrant Rights Clinic

Postgrad: Entering the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division through the Legal Honors Program

David Gardner was always intent on a career in public interest law, but over his 1L summer in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, he was introduced to disability rights work. He was invited to work on a wide-range of cases, including matters involving HIV discrimination and accessibility, by attorneys who were clearly passionate about their work. “It felt like everyone there was trying to do the right thing that would lead to outcomes that make a difference in people’s lives,” he says.

Gardner went on to spend three semesters in the Health Justice Clinic, which he calls his “rock” at Duke Law. His mentors, Clinical Professors Allison Rice, the clinic’s director, and Hannah Demeritt ’04, the supervising attorney, pushed him to build skills and reflect on his strengths and passion.

“I know that I learn best from hands-on experience,” he says. “The skills and tips that I develop working on a case will stick with me and I’ll use them for the rest of my life.”

The highlight of Gardner’s first semester in the clinic was representing a client before a Social Security Administration judge who had been denied years worth of disability benefits and had already been through one administrative hearing. Making the case for the client’s eligibility involved gathering and sifting through thousands of pages of medical records to identify details that supported his claim of an affliction that prevented him from working. Under Demeritt’s supervision, Gardner crafted a brief that included a statement from the client’s longtime doctor. At the hearing, he handled the opening argument, the direct examination of the client, and the cross-examination of the government’s vocational examiner. The judge made a fully favorable ruling for the clinic’s client, awarding him thousands of dollars in back pay as well as ongoing disability benefits.

“This means stability for our client, who was ecstatic,” Gardner says. “He’ll be able to live more comfortably despite his disability. It was an amazing thing that we were able to do for him — a real thing. That’s why I love clinics.”
Demeritt recalls that the way Gardner handled that hearing, one of “the most difficult” she had ever witnessed, was an early indication of his talent as an advocate. “Although David had formed excellent rapport with the client and prepared him well for the hearing, the judge surprised us all by focusing solely on a difficult line of questioning none of us had anticipated her pursuing in such depth. David had to really think on his feet and reassure the client, who was becoming increasingly agitated by the judge’s questions.” But he proceeded to navigate the tense situation, she says, convincing the judge the client had indeed been disabled during a particular period of time she felt was not supported by the record.

“David has a strong drive to fight injustice, to use the law to help improve the lives of marginalized clients,” Demeritt says. “This drive, combined with his inquisitive and sharp mind, make him an extraordinary advocate.”

As an advanced Health Justice Clinic student last fall and in a spring semester independent study, Gardner worked with Demeritt on a client’s appeal to the U.S. District Court of a denial of Social Security disability benefits by an administrative judge. The case involved a mental health claim, which some judges reject, Gardner says, because they often need to be developed through the client’s subjective claims of their feelings and experience, as opposed to presenting through objective tests.

“In district court we could make broader arguments that say, ‘Mental health claims are hard to prove and you’ve recognized that they’re hard to prove,’ which is why they require special attention,” says Gardner, who worked on both the appellant’s brief and a reply brief. “I enjoyed thinking through what arguments would resonate with a judge.”

Gardner focused part of his independent study on helping two clients facing possible discrimination due to their health status — one with HIV and another with a mobility limitation — advocate for themselves. “I think as law students we’re geared towards thinking about litigation,” he says. “But in cases like these, sometimes the best and easiest solution for the client is not resorting to a lawsuit.

“We’re empowering them to advocate for themselves — to use the right words and the right forms so that they can continue to work and overcome the discrimination they face.”

Gardner and one of his Immigrant Rights Clinic teammates, Amanda Ng ’20, with their completed brief in the clinic’s first asylum case.

In his last semester at Duke, Gardner threw himself into the newly launched Immigrant Rights Clinic’s first asylum removal case. Working under the supervision of Clinical Professor Kate Evans, he and his clinic teammates invested more than 700 hours in the case, which was heard March 13. The experience allowed him to hone his litigation and advocacy skills in service of a familiar goal, he says: access to justice for a deserving client. “The Immigrant Rights Clinic, like the Health Justice Clinic, serves people who have very few resources. These are some of the most vulnerable people in society who have faced terrible tragedies, and we can help them speak up and advocate for themselves through their cases.

“In this case we helped someone tell her story in a way that is authentic and powerful and also meets the legal standard for asylum.”

Gardner’s contributions to the case included identifying and preparing testimony from an expert witness on the specific dangers the client faced in her home country, crafting a successful motion to have almost 800 pages of documents admitted into evidence, and handling closing argument at the hearing before an immigration judge in Charlotte. He had to make quick adjustments to his prepared argument in order to address concerns signaled by the judge earlier in the four-hour hearing. “I had to balance a persuasive oral argument with getting the information we needed into the record and had to cut sections as I prioritized the most important arguments.”

During end-of-year ceremonies held online, Gardner was named “Outstanding Clinic Student” for his work as a student attorney and a “Pro Bono All-Star” for his exceptional dedication to service and encouragement of public interest engagement at the Law School. In addition to participating in the Innocence Project, he co-led both the Cancer Pro Bono Project and Lawyer on the Line in his second year.

“Both projects require a lot of coordination by the student leaders as they involve multiple clients, student volunteers, and attorney supervisors,” says Assistant Dean of Public Interest and Pro Bono Stella Boswell. “It is highly unusual to have a student take on key leadership roles in two pro bono projects at the same time, and this is evidence of David’s dedication to service. He’s a gem.”

Gardner’s peers honored him with one of two Justin Miller Awards for Integrity; the award recognizes a “courageous person with strong principles, a solid character, and a true sense of altruism.” In presenting the award, Amanda Ng ’20, his teammate in both clinics and fellow Integrity Award winner, said he was “one of the rare people who has managed to successfully align their strong personal values with their professional goals. He never fails to treat everyone with respect and consideration, and exemplifies what it means to lead by example.”

Having earned the Law School’s Public Interest and Public Service Law Certificate, Gardner feels his clinic work has superbly prepared him to return to the DOJ Civil Rights Division through its highly competitive Legal Honors Program. “I think I can really use my skills in ways that can change someone’s life fundamentally,” he says.

From the Summer 2020 issue of Duke Law Magazine.