Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2017 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2017 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

The four finalist cases for Public Justice’s 2017 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include landmark cases dealing with inmates’ rights, the discriminatory use of criminal history in hiring, fraudulent debt collection, and disability rights.

The award celebrates and recognizes the work of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered grave injustice or abuse. It will be presented at the organization’s Annual Gala and Awards Dinner on Monday, July 24 in Boston. Here are the four finalist cases for the award:

Decoteau v. Raemisch & Anderson v. Colorado 

By 2010, Troy Anderson had already spent a decade in solitary confinement at Colorado State Penitentiary, a supermax prison built with an outer wall that also served as the facility’s outer security perimeter. Inmates at CSP had only ever been permitted to exercise in a small cell – similar to their solitary holding cell – with a narrow slit window covered by a metal grate that opened to the outdoors.

Represented by law students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Civil Rights Clinic and co-counsel, The Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Anderson filed suit against the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), alleging that the lack of outdoor exercise at CSP violated the Constitution. Following a trial in the case, a court ruled that CDOC’s policies did, in fact, violate the Eighth Amendment.

Following the court’s decision, CDOC moved Anderson to a second facility which also failed to provide adequate outdoor exercise. Students and co-counsel continued to litigate on behalf of Anderson and secured a holding that the second facility failed to comply with the court’s original order. That holding allowed Anderson access to outdoor exercise facilities for the first time in more than a dozen years.

CDOC, however, took the position that the decision in Anderson’s case applied only to him and subsequently refused to provide the same outdoor exercise privileges to other inmates. When CDOC refused to apply the court’s order throughout its facilities, Anderson’s legal team pursued a class action suit on behalf of all inmates in solitary confinement at CSP. In preparation for the suit, students from the Clinic investigated and interviewed scores of inmates about their experiences with outdoor exercise.

In December 2013, the team filed the Decoteau case; the class was certified in July 2014, over the objections of CDOC.

When the plaintiffs in the case, and CDOC, both moved for summary judgment, those motions were both denied. The resulting order, however, included significant holdings in the Plaintiffs’ favor, including a finding that there was no per se lower bound on the length of deprivation of outdoor exercise required to constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

On the eve of trial, CDOC requested mediation and both sides reached an agreement that included a commitment from CDOC to construct three new outdoor exercise yards at CSP, ensuring that inmates would finally have access to regular outdoor exercise.

This significant win on behalf of Colorado inmates was almost entirely student-led. Students crafted the litigation strategy, drafted pleadings and motions, took depositions, reviewed thousands of pages of documents and drove two hours more than 100 times to meet with clients, witnesses and class members. Students also prepared for and tried the original Anderson case, leading on witness cross-examinations and delivering both opening and closing statements at the trial. As the Decoteau class action moved forward, students were similarly preparing for a significant role in that trial as well. Thanks to their efforts, inmates continue to have access to facilities at CSP.

Team: Laura Rovner and Lindsey Webb of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Denver, Colo.; Amy Robertson of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Denver, Colo.; Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center, New Orleans, La.; Lauren Fontana of the University of Colorado, Denver, Denver, Colo..; Brittany Glidden of the UC Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco, Calif.; and Casey Shea, Michael LaGarde, Kevin Benninger, Jenny Vultaggio, Ryan Burchell, Rachel Martin, Amelia Blyth, Kimberly Smith, Carrie Mohr, Stuart Rubinstein, Tracy Ostlie, Maha Kamal, Katherine Hartigan, Brenden Desmond, Lauren Carboni, Lindsey Dusti, Courtney Longtin, Lee Knox, Matthew Court, Keenan Jones, Patrick Curnalia, Ashley Wheeland, Rachel Proctor and Katie Stevens, former students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Denver, Colo.

Gonzalez v. Pritzker

While an undergrad at Harvard University and preparing to go to law school, Ignacio Riesco needed to earn a little extra money.  He applied for a temporary job with the U.S. Census Bureau to help carry out the 2010 decennial census.  But the Bureau’s criminal background check process turned up an arrest record from 2006, when Mr. Riesco was wrongly suspected of stealing money while working in ticket sales at Disney World. Mr. Riesco produced documentation within 30 days showing that all charges against him had been dropped—as requested by the Bureau—but never heard back about his application.

Out of about 3.8 million applicants for 2010 census work, about 700,000 were like Mr. Riesco—essentially turned away through a background check process demanding documentation on arrest records, which offer no proof of guilt and are often inaccurate or incomplete.  Most hard hit by the process were African Americans and Hispanics, who are arrested at a rate that is two to three times their proportion of the general population.  In fact, because of the racial disparities in arrest and conviction rates in this country, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has warned employers about the possible discriminatory effects of using criminal records to make employment decisions.

A team of private and public interest attorneys sought to remedy the unfair impact of the Bureau’s screening process on communities of color. They filed a class action in April 2010 alleging that the Bureau’s reliance on a flawed background check process had a substantial disparate impact on over 400,000 African American and Hispanic job applicants in violation of Title VII, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.

After six years of vigorous opposition by the U.S. Department of Justice, the team secured a groundbreaking settlement that requires the Census Bureau to overhaul its hiring practices to make sure that it uses a fair method to determine whether the criminal history of an applicant actually justifies his or her rejection from entry-level, temporary jobs. The settlement also gives members of the class the option to receive notification of job openings in the 2020 census, and includes $5 million for a program through Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law that helps people with criminal records maximize their employment prospects.

Team: Adam T. Klein, Ossai Miazad, Lewis M. Steel, Samuel R. Miller, Deirdre A. Aaron, Sally J. Abrahamson, and Christopher M. McNerney of Outten & Golden LLP, New York, N.Y.; Jon M. Greenbaum of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, New York, N.Y.; Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Jackson Chin of Latino Justice PRLDEF, Inc., New York, N.Y.; Judith M. Whiting of  the Community Service Society, New York, N.Y.; Michael T. Kirkpatrick and Julie A. Murray of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, Washington, D.C.; Robert T. Coulter of the Indian Legal Resource Center, Helena, Mont.; and Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services, Inc., Philadelphia, Pa.

Sykes v. Mel S. Harris & Associates LLC

This team of private and public interest attorneys vindicated the rights of hundreds of thousands of low-income New Yorkers. The team filed a federal class action in 2009 challenging a fraudulent debt collection scheme operated by subsidiaries of Leucadia National Corporation, together with the Mel Harris law firm, that purchased charged-off consumer debts for pennies on the dollar. They then used the New York courts to convert those nearly-worthless alleged debts into lucrative default judgments by falsely swearing to the New York courts that they had “personal knowledge” the debt was owed. The scheme also involved a process serving company that regularly engaged in “sewer service”— falsely claiming to have served notice of court proceedings. Many of the New Yorkers swept up in the scheme, disproportionally people of color, had their wages garnished, their bank accounts frozen, and their credit reports damaged, making it difficult for them to obtain employment, housing, and additional credit.

One such New Yorker was plaintiff Rea Veerabadren, a retired nanny living in Queens, N.Y. after she emigrated from Mauritius. She first learned about court proceedings to collect on an alleged Sears debt when she received a telephone call informing her of a default judgment; though she explained the debt was illegitimate, her bank account was seized and restrained for months.

Under the settlement negotiated by the legal team after six years of hard-fought litigation, the defendants paid nearly $60 million to class members. They also agreed to exit the debt collection business and to extinguish all outstanding consumer debt that was part of the scheme, which had a total face value of over $1 billion. In a cutting edge component of the settlement, the defendants also agreed to cooperate with a supplementary state court proceeding to vacate the default judgments en masse and, as a result, nearly 200,000 fraudulently-obtained default judgments have been vacated.

Team: Matthew Brinckerhoff, Debra Greenberger, Elizabeth Saylor, Jonathan Abady, Jessica Clarke, and Charles Ogletree, Jr. of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, New York, N.Y.; Eisha Jain and Julia Sheketoff, formerly of Emery Celli;  Carolyn Coffey, Ariana Lindermayer, and Anamaria Segura of MFY Legal Services, Inc., New York, N.Y.; Andrew Goldberg, formerly of MFY; Claudia Wilner of the National Center for Law & Economic Justice, New York, N.Y (formerly of New Economy Project); Susan Shin of the New Economy Project, New York, N.Y.; and Josh Zinner, formerly of the New Economy Project.

Willits v. City of Los Angeles

Los Angeles comprises, by far, the largest public sidewalk system in the United States, covering over 10,750 miles, with approximately 40,000 intersections and 160,000 potential curb ramp locations. For people with disabilities, improperly engineered sidewalks present dangerous and pervasive access barriers that can impact the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Visiting friends, going shopping or trying to get to work can compromise their safety in potentially deadly ways.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act required the City to remove access barriers, and make its pedestrian right-of-ways readily accessible to those with mobility disabilities no later than September 1975. Additionally, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act required the same no later than January 1995.

Decades later, Los Angeles had still not complied with the law, prompting attorneys to file suit on behalf of more than 280,000 people with mobility disabilities who were united in seeking to dramatically improving access to the City’s pedestrian right-of-ways.

The suit sought an injunction requiring Los Angeles to undertake disability access work that would make the city accessible. Shortly after class was certified in the case, the City attempted to use the settlement in a different case – brought by different plaintiffs and attorneys – to eliminate the class members’ claims. That woefully inadequate settlement provided only elusive injunctive relief that did little to address the overwhelming problem throughout the City.

The Willits plaintiffs, along with disability rights organizations and individuals with mobility disabilities, objected to the subpar settlement, setting off a series of hard-fought appeals. In February 2014, the California Court of Appeal sided with the Willits plaintiffs, overturning an earlier Superior Court decision in favor of the original settlement. Following the Appeal Court’s decision, Los Angeles initiated settlement discussions.

The result was a landmark agreement from the City to spend more than $1.37 billion (vs. $100 million in the earlier settlement) over a period of more than 30 years on access work on pedestrian right-of-ways. Annual spending by the city commenced at $31 million and increase to more than $63 million over the course of the compliance period. The settlement also includes comprehensive compliance monitoring.

This class action settlement is the largest in U.S. history on behalf of people with disabilities and will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living, working or visiting in Los Angeles. It received final approval in August 2016 and City officials have already begun to implement the necessary infrastructure for the work required, sending a strong message that in America’s 2nd largest city, people with disabilities will no longer face second-class-citizen status or treatment by the City government.

Team: Guy B. Wallace, Mark Johnson, and Jennifer Uhrowczik of Schneider, Wallace, Cotrell, Konecky, Wotkyns, LLP, Emeryville, Calif.; Linda M. Dardarian, Andrew P. Lee, and Raymond A. Wendell of Goldstein Borgen Dardarian & Ho, Oakland, Calif.; Jason Tarricone, formerly of Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho.; Jinny Kim and Rachael Langston of Legal Aid at Work, San Francisco, Calif.; Anna Rivera of the Disability Rights Legal Center, Los Angeles, Calif.; Shawna L. Parks, Paula Pearlman, and Surisa Rivers, formerly of the Disability Rights Legal Center; Jose R. Allen, Esq.

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