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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Attorney General Holder Names Sheila L. Birnbaum as Special Master of September 11th Victim Compensation (Zadroga) Fund

Attorney General Eric Holder today announced that he has chosen Sheila L. Birnbaum to head the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund program. Birnbaum, a life-long New Yorker, has decades of experience resolving complicated litigation.  Birnbaum, a defense attorney,  gained recognition and regard from the victims community for her work mediating a settlement of $500 million for 92 families of victims of the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  

Birnbaum will administer the fund created under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 2, 2011. The bill reactivates the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund that operated from 2001-2003, expanding the pool of applicants to include first responders and other individuals who experienced latent physical injuries associated with the attacks or with debris removal.

“Sheila Birnbaum brings extensive experience, credibility and unique insight to this important role,” said Attorney General Holder. “She has worked closely with, and won the trust of, the families of 9/11 victims with whom she worked. I know that under her direction, the fund will be administered in a manner that is sensitive and fair to those who have suffered so much from the September 11th attacks.”

“As a life-long New Yorker, the opportunity to serve the country and the 9/11 community in this way is a tremendous honor,” Birnbaum said.   “My first priority will be to sit down with the people who will be most affected by the program, and see how we can design a program that is fair, transparent and easy to navigate.   The fund needs to get up and running quickly.   At the same time, I want to make sure we do it right.

Ken Feinberg laid a great foundation during the fund’s first iteration, and I plan to build upon it,” continued Birnbaum.  

The fund is expected to become fully operational after funding appropriated for its administration becomes available on Oct. 1, 2011.   Birnbaum indicated that she will publish proposed regulations to govern the program as soon as possible, and take public comment on those proposed regulations over the summer before finalizing them.

In 2006, 9/11 victims and corporate defendants jointly asked Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein to appoint Birnbaum to mediate 95 wrongful death and personal injury cases.   Birnbaum successfully mediated 92 of them.   Judge Hellerstein called her work “extraordinary” and noted that she had gained credibility with the 9/11 community.   In a March 5, 2009, order Hellerstein wrote, “She allowed each of the plaintiffs’ families to express their loss and the quality of the lives lost on September 11.   She absorbed their losses and their pain with empathy. . . .   She gained plaintiffs’ confidence.”

Birnbaum, the daughter of a grocery store owner in Harlem, N.Y., attended James Monroe High School, and graduated from Hunter College as the first person in her family to attend college.   She taught the fourth grade at P.S. 62 in the Bronx, N.Y., before attending New York University School of Law.   Since law school, she has taught at both Fordham University School of Law and NYU School of Law, where she became Associate Dean.   She is now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and the chair of the firm’s Mass Torts Litigation Group. That firm represents and defends corporations in products liability actions. Ms. Birnbaum represented Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the nations longest running tort case, asbestos litigation.

Birnbaum has an extensive career in public service.   Among other positions, she has served as the first president and founding member of Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert; as a member on the New York State Judicial Commission on Minorities; as Executive Director for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s Task Force for Racial, Ethnic and Gender Fairness; as Chair for the Commission on Fiduciary Appointments; and as President of the New York Women’s Bar Association.