Trial Lawyer of the Year Award Finalists Show Why Access to the Courts and Class Actions are So Important
by Arthur Bryant
Throughout America, government officials and corporate wrongdoers are working to shut down access to the courts and limit or eliminate class actions. Why? Because the courts are often the only place they can be held accountable. And, when they’re hurting, cheating, or violating the rights of large numbers of people, class actions are often the only thing their victims can use to get justice.
This year’s four finalists for Public Justice’s nationally-prestigious Trial Lawyer of the Year Award make that clear. In each case, government officials or corporate wrongdoers were breaking the law and hurting the poor and the powerless – prisoners, minorities, low-income consumers, or the disabled. In each case, lawsuits were the only way to make them stop. And, in each case, unlike in many past years, a class action was essential for justice to be done.
The Trial Lawyer of the Year Award is given annually to the lawyers who made the greatest contribution to the public good by trying or settling a case. This year’s finalists, who brought the cases listed below, will be honored—and the winner will be announced—on Monday, July 24, at Public Justice’s Awards Dinner & Gala at the Fairmont Copley Park in Boston. If you want to understand why access to the courts and class actions are so important, just read the case summaries below.
For additional details on each case, and the complete legal teams behind these impressive, impactful victories, click here.
Decoteau v. Raemisch & Anderson v. Colorado
In 2010, represented by law students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Civil Rights Clinic and co-counsel from the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), Colorado State Penitentiary inmate Troy Anderson filed suit against the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), alleging the lack of outdoor exercise space violated the Constitution. Anderson had been held in solitary confinement for ten years. Like others in solitary confinement at CSP, he had only been permitted to exercise in a small cell with a narrow slit window covered by a metal grate that opened to the outdoors.
Anderson’s case was tried and the court ruled that CDOC’s policies constituted cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Anderson was moved to a second facility, but that facility didn’t provide a chance for outdoor exercise either. Anderson’s attorneys got the judge to find the second facility inadequate, too. Only then, in 2012, was Anderson allowed to exercise outside.
After that, instead of providing the same outdoor exercise privileges to other inmates, CDOC took the position that the judge’s ruling applied only to Anderson. So, in 2013, Anderson’s team filed a class action on behalf of all inmates in solitary confinement at CSP. The class was certified in July 2014 over CDOC’s objections and the case proceeded towards trial, with CDOC fighting for years.
Finally, on the eve of trial, CDOC requested mediation and both sides reached an agreement—approved by the court in July 2016—requiring CDOC to construct three new outdoor exercise yards at CSP and ensuring that inmates would finally have access to regular outdoor exercise.
Gonzalez v. Pritzker
Out of nearly 3.8 million applicants for 2010 census work, about 700,000 were essentially turned away through a background check process demanding documentation on arrest records. The background check, however, was often inaccurate or incomplete, and those hardest hit were African American and Hispanic applicants.
For example, when Ignacio Riesco applied for a census job, the background check turned up an arrest record from 2006, when he was wrongly suspected of stealing money while working in ticket sales at Disney World. Riesco produced documentation within 30 days – as requested by the Census Bureau – showing that all charges against him had been dropped. He never heard back about his application again.
In April 2010, a team of private and public interest attorneys sought to remedy the unfair impact of the Bureau’s screening process on communities of color, filing a class action lawsuit 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 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 for 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.
Sykes v. Mel S. Harris & Associates, LLC
It took seven years, but, through a class action filed in federal court in 2009, a team of private and public interest attorneys vindicated the rights of hundreds of thousands of low-income New Yorkers—and shut down a fraudulent debt-collection scheme that could have injured and cheated hundreds of thousands more. The lawsuit challenged and exposed the outrageous practices of Leucadia National Corporation subsidiaries that, with the Mel Harris law firm, purchased charged-off consumer debts for pennies on the dollar. After doing so, 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.
Under the settlement approved in May 2016 – after extensive, hard-fought legal battles – 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, totaling more than $1 billion. Finally, they agreed to cooperate with a supplementary state court proceeding to vacate the default judgements en masse. As a result, nearly 200,000 fraudulently-obtained default judgments have been vacated.
Willits v. City of Los Angeles
The Los Angeles public sidewalk system covers more than 10,750 miles, with approximately 40,000 intersections and 160,000 potential curb ramp locations. Yet, despite the requirements of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Los Angeles did not make it possible for disabled people to use the sidewalks. Instead, the city kept in place dangerous and pervasive access barriers that adversely impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day. The legal team filed Willits on behalf of more than 280,000 people with mobility disabilities to make the city dramatically improve access to its pedestrian right-of-ways.
Shortly after the class was certified, Los Angeles attempted to use the settlement in a different case – brought by different plaintiffs and attorneys – to eliminate the class members’ claims. That settlement, however, only provided elusive injunctive relief and did little to address the overwhelming problem throughout the city.
The Willits plaintiffs objected, sparking a series of hard-fought appeals. In February 2014, they prevailed, with the California Court of Appeals overturning an earlier decision in favor of the original settlement. Following that victory, Los Angeles initiated settlement discussions.
The result was a landmark agreement requiring Los Angeles to spend more than $1.37 billion (vs. $100 million in the earlier settlement) over a period of more than three decades on access work on pedestrian right-of-ways. The settlement also includes compliance monitoring. It is the largest settlement in U.S. history on behalf of people with disabilities. City officials have already begun to implement the necessary infrastructure for the work required, sending a strong message that, from now on, disabled people trying to move through and enjoy America’s second largest city will not get second-class treatment from it.
These are exceptional cases. They’re also examples of the kinds of cases, individual and class action, filed and litigated in state and federal courts every day. They show why access to the courts and class actions are so important. And they show why some government officials and corporate wrongdoers are so eager to bar access to the courts and hamstring or ban class actions.
Don’t let them. All of our rights are at stake.