2006 Recipients

You are here

Where presented : 
Exemplar Award Dinner
Recipient(s) name: 
Sharon Dietrich, Managing Attorney for Public Benefits and Employment for Community Legal Services, Inc., and Melinda Pendergraph, Appellate Attorney, Missouri Public Defender System
Reason for selection of recipient(s): 

Sharon Dietrich has spent nearly 20 years as an advocate for the employment unit at the Community Legal Services (CLS) of Philadelphia. Soon after joining CLS in 1987, she became active in a variety of litigation, ranging from federal court class actions to civil service and unemployment compensation hearings before administrative law judges. At the time she started, the unit dealt primarily with traditional employment law such as discrimination, wrongful discharge and labor relations claims, but Dietrich worked to gradually create and implement a new vision of legal services employment practice. She did this by focusing on issues such as access to work and benefits for the lowest-paid workers. She has represented individual clients and handles a demanding caseload despite her local management responsibilities, which include serving in state and national leadership roles. 

Dietrich’s direct impact in legal services employment work are primarily seen through three channels. She built a local Philadelphia legal services employment unit at CLS that is a model for the country, strategically addressing a broad range of employment, unemployment, training and employment-related benefits issues. She has worked as a national legal services support and back-up attorney, addressing national employment policy issues and helping set the agenda for national legal services employment work. And finally, she has led a national effort to develop employment legal services work across the country, inspiring legal services directors and leaders to move into this area of work and training and supporting frontline legal services advocates as they take on client representation in this area. 

Catherine C. Carr, CLS executive director, said Dietrich’s work has extended far beyond Pennsylvania. “Sharon has been very influential in getting employment law work started in other legal services programs around the country. She has repeatedly spoken at national and regional meetings and, with her CLS unit, has designed and implemented the annual employment law track at NLADASubstantive Law conferences. She has provided training at
legal services statewide conferences from Georgia to California.” 

Melinda Pendergraph has built her career out of looking at death in the face. As an appellate attorney for the Missouri Public Defender System, she is often the last hope her clients have when facing the death penalty. Pendergraph joined the Missouri Public Defender System in 1986, shortly after she passed the bar and was licensed as an attorney. At the time, the Missouri system was just beginning the transformation from a system of contract counsel to a true public defender system. Pendergraph was one of three attorneys who were assigned death penalty cases, a calling she continues to this day by representing indigent death row inmates. 

Some of the cases she has handled include Butler v. State (1997), which was the first case where the Missouri Supreme Court found ineffective counsel in a death case, and Chaney v. State (1998), where Pendergraph convinced the Missouri Supreme Court that the death sentence was disproportionate; only the second victory of this type since the death penalty was reinstated in Missouri. She was also the first attorney in Missouri to present a “justice for sale” argument before the Missouri Supreme Court with Hutchison v. State in 2004. In that case, Brandon Hutchison’s co-defendant had been given a term of years after agreeing to pay the victim’s family a large sum of money. That argument did not succeed, but it did impact the court and they granted Hutchison relief on another issue. Pendergraph’s work has benefited numerous clients by getting them new trials, new penalty phases and death penalty reversals. 

Pendergraph has been on the faculty at appellate skills workshops, death penalty training and training of professional ethics. Co-worker Nancy A. McKerrow, assistant public defender with the Missouri Public Defender System, describes Pendergraph as a caring, committed attorney. “No one outside the death penalty and appellate defender community may know Melinda Pendergraph’s name. She is not famous and certainly is not getting financially rich from the vocation she has chosen. But she has brought a wealth of skill and caring to her clients and co-workers and deserves recognition from her peers.”