Litigation Section Presents Advocate’s Award To Wester

The Litigation Section of the North Carolina Bar Association honored John R. Wester of Charlotte on May 18 as the 13th recipient of The Advocate’s Award. The award is presented as merited, and not annually, to attorneys deemed as being “superstars” of the section and the legal profession.

Wester grew up in Rockingham and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar, and Duke University School of Law, where he was an editor of the law review and inducted into the Order of the Coif, graduating with high honors.

Wester has spent his entire career with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Ford Motor Co. v. EEOC, the decision in which the Supreme Court established its precedent for cutting off employer liability in employment discrimination cases.

He also served as lead counsel when then-Gov. James Martin and his cabinet were sued in a federal court class action challenging the constitutionality of employment practices in state government. The appeals court and trial court opinions in that case articulated the right of the governor and his cabinet to utilize policymaking positions to change the direction of state government. Since that case, Wester has served as lead counsel in cases brought by Governors Patrick McCrory, James B. Hunt and Roy Cooper.

Most recently Wester has led the firm’s representation of Zion Williamson, a former Duke and current NBA basketball star, in his legal battle with a Florida sports agent. Earlier this year a federal judge ruled in favor of Williamson, ruling that a contract he had signed with the agent was invalid under North Carolina law.

Wester’s name is perhaps most familiar in legal circles with Hyatt v. Shalala, the landmark class action suit against the Social Security Administration on behalf of thousands of disabled citizens whose benefits had been denied or terminated.

Wester and Robinson Bradshaw, in partnership with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (now Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy), took the case through the federal courts for 18 years, including two reviews by the U.S. Supreme Court and five opinions by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Approximately 150,000 North Carolinians won new disability hearings under new standards as a result of this litigation.

Near the conclusion of the Hyatt litigation, the trial court observed: “Plaintiffs have succeeded in forcing the Social Security Administration to halt application of a secret, unlawful policy to its determination of hundreds of thousands of disability claims in North Carolina and, perhaps, to many hundreds of thousands more outside North Carolina. As a result of this case, plaintiffs have effected fundamental change to a recalcitrant agency which brought all of the power of the federal government to bear on Plaintiffs and their counsel while it resisted Plaintiffs’ efforts to enforce the orders of this court each step of the way.”

For the full run of this case, Wester, who was lead counsel, and his firm represented the plaintiff class pro bono. Their service earned Robinson Bradshaw recognition from the NCBA and the American Bar Association as recipient of their first Pro Bono Publico service awards. “An Independent Profession: A Centennial History of the Mecklenburg County Bar,” gives a full account of this case, including that Robinson Bradshaw donated its $450,000 share of legal fees to the Mecklenburg Bar Foundation, providing the first major funding for its endowment.

Wester served as president of the North Carolina Bar Association and North Carolina Bar Foundation in 2009-10. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, where he currently serves as the inaugural chair of its General Committee for Judicial Independence. He is also a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

“I accept this honor on behalf of my law firm, the finest professional blessing I could have hoped for,” Wester said. “My partners have provided unfailing support, including abundant tolerance, throughout my time among them. And I am most grateful to be invited into a circle of lawyers who are heroes of mine.”

Previous recipients of The Advocate’s Award are:

  • Catharine Biggs Arrowood (2020)
  • Ted Fillette (2018)
  • Janet Ward Black (2017)
  • Bill Womble Jr. (2016)
  • James E. Ferguson II (2015)
  • Ward McKeithen (2013)
  • Charlie Blanchard (2012)
  • Alan W. Duncan (2011)
  • James T. Williams Jr. (2010)
  • Grady Barnhill Jr. (2009)
  • Donald Cowan Jr. (2007)
  • Charles L. Becton (2006)

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