Think Your Rights Are Safe? Think Again...

Amy Daniewicz - Grant Program Administrator, The Impact Fund

Amy Daniewicz - Grant Program Administrator, The Impact Fund

Julia Roberts has delivered a lot of great lines. One of my favorites is from Erin Brockovich: “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley,” she tells the alarmed corporate lawyer about to take a sip.
 
In the movie, Roberts’ character meets with moms, dads, and children who’ve become sick after the local utility let poisons leak into their small town’s drinking water. “You want their diseases?” she asks after rattling off a list of people affected by the spill.
 
Roberts’ character helps the people of the town band together to sue the company. This type of lawsuit—called a class action—has been used by Americans of all stripes for the past 50 years to fight back when an unethical business or unjust government policy is making them sick, cheating them of their money, or otherwise screwing them over.
 
But now, because of corporate special interests and their influence over some members of Congress, class actions are in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past.

Late in the evening on Feb. 17, when the rest of us were distracted by Trump’s latest tweet, a bill got served up in Congress that would sound the death knell for class actions. Through a long list of new rules (that sound almost innocent to the non-lawyer, but are anything but), the bill would make it so class actions essentially become extinct. The House is set to vote on this bill (H.R. 985, the misnamed “Fairness in Class Actions” bill) next week, probably on Wednesday, March 8.

I work at a small nonprofit that supports David v. Goliath type cases like the one in Erin Brockovich. Some of the cases are famous—think the 21st century equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education or the multi-state case against Big Tobacco. Others you’ll probably never hear about, but they fight against injustice (and win!) for groups who too often have no power: foster kids, immigrants, Native Americans, the sick, and seniors.
 
Without this essential check in place, our delicately balanced system would tip over and land with a heavy thud onto the side of corporate special interests. Sure, the vast majority of businesses are ethical and most government policies are fair—but what about when they aren’t? What about when the poisons in the groundwater give us cancer, or when our employer refuses to promote women because they have this annoying habit of getting pregnant, or when our bank creates a bunch of fake accounts or cooks the books or destroys our retirement in some other new way they’ve dreamt up? What would we do then, if class actions were impossible?
 
We could still sue individually, but that assumes anyone could afford to foot the legal bill. Do you know how much it costs to hire your own lawyer for a lawsuit like this? $10,000? That barely gets you started. $100,000? Maybe. But if your case stretches on for a decade, as some cases do, try over $1,000,000—what with depositions and electronic discovery to conduct, motions to dismiss to fight off, and appeals on top of appeals on top of appeals.
 
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a million dollars (or even one-tenth that) to devote to suing anybody. Right now there is no line item in my family’s budget for “lawsuits.” So basically, in a no-class-action future scenario, if I get screwed over by a company or the government, there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it. This would be a huge win for anyone itching to start their own Ponzi scheme, but a terrifying disaster for the rest of us.
 
Listen, I understand. There are a lot of crazy things going on right now, and we’ve all got a lot to worry about. But this is important. We all need to stop reading this article and immediately call/email/fax our Congressional representatives and tell them to vote NO on H.R. 985. You can also text your zip code to (520) 200-2223 to receive a text back with phone numbers of your Congress members.
 
Otherwise, when the excrement hits the air conditioning (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut for that delicate phrasing), we regular Americans will have no power to fight back. And call me cynical, but there sure does seem to be a lot of excrement flying around these days. This is no time to allow our elected officials to take away one of our most significant tools of self-protection.                                                                                            
I hope I never have to band together with thousands of my fellow Americans to sue a corporate giant or branch of government, but I most definitely want to retain the right to do so.

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Click here to find out more about H.R. 985 and what you can do to stop it.

Class Action Victory for Racial Justice Protesters in Berkeley

"We were indiscriminately beaten even as we tried to lawfully retreat.”

"We were indiscriminately beaten even as we tried to lawfully retreat.”

Rachel Lederman - Civil Rights Attorney & Former President S.F. Bay Area Chapter, National Lawyers Guild.

Rachel Lederman - Civil Rights Attorney & Former President S.F. Bay Area Chapter, National Lawyers Guild.

Impact Fund support was essential in a recent class action victory for racial justice protesters and journalists in Berkeley, California.

The systemic failure to hold white police officers accountable for racist killings and the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a demonstration on December 6, 2014. The march began peacefully on the UC Berkeley campus, but when it reached the city police station, the police blocked the marchers’ path and began using their wooden batons indiscriminately against both protesters and journalists. Later that night, BPD and assisting agencies used batons and teargas to herd the entire crowd more than a mile to the City limits, and into Oakland.

Sam Wolson, a photojournalist who was on assignment by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper at the protest, was clubbed on the head as he knelt to take a photo. Wolson remarked afterward that, “If you can’t have media safely holding all parties accountable, the whole system breaks down.”

Cindy Pincus, a minister, was hit on the head too as she bent down to help another woman who had fallen. “The response by police was so disproportionately violent to the peaceful gathering of protesters. We were indiscriminately beaten even as we tried to lawfully retreat,” she said.

UC student Nisa Dang was clubbed from behind while she was urging other demonstrators to be peaceful. Later that night, she was caught up in the forced march to Oakland. “The officers hit and jabbed us with their batons and shot tear gas canisters at our backs to forcibly make us keep moving south. They didn’t stop their violent tactics until we got to Oakland. Those of us who had been forced into Oakland then had to walk all the way back to Berkeley to return to the safety of our homes.”

Executive Curtis Johnson was visiting from Los Angeles and happened on the demonstration. “I had only been with the march for about ten minutes when I was shot in the knee with an impact munition,” he said. “There was no warning.”

Having worked for years to stop SFPD and OPD from using excessive force, wrongful mass arrests and prolonged detention to break up protests., to our surprise, this time it was Berkeley that responded most repressively to this wave of protest activity. And although Berkeley has a reputation as a hippie haven, its police force is fraught with accountability issues. In 2015, the Berkeley Police released stop data that showed a striking pattern of racial profiling against Black and Latino residents. Its demonstrations policies were a hodgepodge of written and unwritten orders and resolutions that even the police chief could not keep track of. After first attempting to negotiate reforms, we filed a class action civil rights lawsuit, Law et al. v. City of Berkeley, in federal district court (Northern California No. 3:15-cv-5343),.

In February, 2017, this case was resolved with significant reforms as well as more than $200,000 in compensation to those who were injured. Under the terms of the settlement, it will now be made clear to officers that they cannot use force simply because demonstrators get too close to them. Instead, the same legal standard will apply for use of force at a demonstration, as in any situation. To comply with the Fourth Amendment, force must be necessary and reasonable. The settlement will also create greater accountability when force is used at demonstrations. For the first time, Berkeley officers will have to write reports following a crowd event describing and justifying their use of force so that it can be reviewed. BPD also made a commitment to seek full implementation of police body cameras. BPD’s First Amendment policy has been rewritten to emphasize de-escalation and facilitating freedom of speech and of the press.

Although these are very positive changes, we hope that the Berkeley City Council will go further in prohibiting the use of dangerous munitions and chemical weapons in Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. The freedom to speak out against racism and government policies and the freedom of journalists to cover dissenting voices has never been more important than it is right now.

A Class Action Hero Fights To End Gender Discrimination In High School Sports

We female athletes realized how much we were being wronged and we stood together to fight for what was right. It still baffles me that softball facilities were allowed to deteriorate while facilities used by male athletes were so much better. At the time, we truly were not aware that there was a law that protected our rights as female athletes to have equal opportunities, treatment, and benefits, nor were we aware that our rights were being violated. But we quickly learned and began exercising our rights.

Long Road to Justice for LGBTQI Jamaicans

As a lawyer defending the human rights of LGBTQI people in Jamaica, I am accustomed to receiving death threats. But when I received a particularly vulgar and graphic email threatening to immediately end my life, I was so shaken that I finally went to the police. What happened next shocked me...

SHAME ON YOU, ANDERSON COOPER: 60 Minutes Mocking the ADA

Anderson Cooper would be the first to call out Donald Trump’s ridicule of a reporter with a disability with righteous indignation. Yet, on December 4, 2016 Cooper used the 60 Minutes broadcast to throw people with disabilities under the bus in the name of journalism. He used his power and prestige to denigrate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the honorable lawyers that enforce it. Cooper could not have been more successful, if his intent was to lead the parade of horribles against the ADA. I suggest that presenting a skewed piece of journalism which serves only to undermine the first national law providing civil rights protections for people with disabilities is at least as harmful as mocking a reporter with a disability.

The Impact Fund - From Living Room To Supreme Court

Brad Seligman’s father was a prosecutor at Nuremberg. Selig, as he was known, was a New Deal kid and lawyer-turned-TV/movie-producer who instilled in his son the value of public service and giving back. “Looking back,” says Brad, “it’s pretty obvious that I was destined to be a lawyer and, after a few of the obligatory 60’s detours, I decided to conduct a five-year experiment to see if I might be cut out for the legal profession.” He’s been renewing that experiment ever since.

Latino Families Fight For Fair Housing & Civil Rights in Richmond, VA

The final question we had for Ms. Molina was the kicker, as we prepared her to testify in an upcoming summary judgment hearing in federal court. We were asking about the effects of the city of Richmond’s aggressive maintenance code enforcement campaign against the residents of the mobile home park where she lives. City inspectors had threatened her, like most of her neighbors, with imminent displacement and the condemnation of her home (a later review of the inspectors’ notes showed that there was nothing to justify condemning the home, despite the city’s threats).  “How often do you think about it,” we asked the retiree from El Salvador. Ms. Molina’s eyes welled up with tears and, after a pause, her voice cracked, “All the time.” She paused as she wept. “All the time.”

Cleaning Up The Criminal Justice System in Paris, Texas

Under Texas law, individuals can be required to pay for their court-appointed defense attorney. While the Court of Criminal Appeals has clarified that a court must determine that a defendant actually has the ability to pay attorney fees before ordering them to do so, not all courts follow the law. In Lamar County, a local defense attorney, relatively new to Texas, was shocked when he saw defendants ordered to pay money they didn’t have for a court-appointed attorney, and then threatened with jail if they missed payments.

Grassy Narrows First Nation Fights New Mercury Poisoning Threat

The people of Grassy Narrows have sustained themselves for thousands of years on their traditional territory – 2,500 square miles of forest, lakes and rivers. These indigenous people are no strangers to environmental injustice. Between 1962 and 1970 the rivers and lakes they depend on for their sustenance and livelihood were poisoned by the Reed International Paper Mill. In spite of assurances that the logging and associated activities were safe, twenty tons of mercury was dumped into the river. So, when the people of Grassy Narrows learned that the Ontario government was planning to give the go ahead to resume clear cut logging, there was astonishment...

Beyond Outrage: Civil Rights, Not Pity

No doubt that Trump’s mocking arm movements and disgusted facial expression is a prime example of bullying. And no doubt that bullying is a major problem for people with disabilities. But I feel like everyone has jumped on this incident as a breach of decorum (don't stare, don't make fun), but no one is talking about it from a policy perspective. This type of mocking is not just a matter of manners, decorum and crossing lines, but has real and terrible policy implications. 

Prisoners Face Hepatitis C Death Sentence

Not only was a de facto death sentence a realistic possibility for many of the prisoners being denied treatment, it was a death sentence of liver failure.  I myself have witnessed people die this way.  It is a slow and horrifying process, far worse than any sentence, any punishment, or any manner of death penalty, imposed by any state, for any crime.  In light of that knowledge, “sentenced to die” is actually putting the matter quite lightly.

Black Lives Matter: Advocating for Racial Justice in St. Louis County

In May of 2016, Quinton Thomas, a native St Louisan was pulled over in Beverly Hills, a Missouri town of 574 people that is 93% black and receives 26% of its general revenue from court fines and fees. Mr. Thomas was driving his friend to a barber shop to get his haircut when he was stopped by police for having a “busted front bumper.” In the past three years, Mr. Thomas has been pulled over, arrested and jailed for unpaid traffic tickets, and as a result he has lost two jobs and one vehicle, not to mention days of his life, and a sense of safety when he gets behind the wheel.

Compton Schools Can Do Better For Trauma-Sensitive Children

There’s a saying in Spanish that goes, caras vemos, sentimientos no sabemos. In English it means, “We see faces, but we don’t know feelings.” I like to make people smile and help them, and I’m told that I seem like a really happy and positive person, but I’ve been through a lot.

When I was little, my mom struggled with drug abuse and often got into relationships with men who were abusive or drug addicts as well. When I was two or three, the man she was dating sexually abused me. This is one of my earliest memories.

Poisoned by Uranium, Navajo Nation Seeks Justice

Flint, Baltimore, Philadelphia ... Churchrock?  The list of communities facing drinking water crises is ever growing, but some communities don’t get mentioned in the media or the halls of power.  When the Flint water crisis made national headlines, Americans were shocked that any community's drinking water could be sacrificed just to save a few bucks.  But contaminated water is a fact of life for many communities impacted by this nation's fetishistic fascination with atomic power. 

The Navajo (or "Diné" in their native language) village of Churchrock straddles a dusty arroyo called the Puerco River in the northwestern corner of New Mexico.  This inauspicious village is ground zero in the fight to prevent uranium mining from doing further damage to the land and its people.  To fully understand the current fight, one must look to history first. 

Isabel's Story: Justice In The Face of Wage Theft

After a few weeks, all of us working on the night cleaning shift realized there were problems. The man who hired us stopped coming to work and did not pay us on time. When we tried to contact him, he refused to answer our calls. A supervisor from another company came and told us to keep working, promising that we would be paid. We were all eager to keep working and earning money, but the pay checks weren’t coming...

Just Doing Their Job? The Structural Roots of Police Abuse

I recall my first contact with police as a middle schooler.  Two of my friends and I, all Black youths, were walking in our neighborhood.  San Francisco’s Richmond district was diverse but mostly White then.  It was a dark early evening.  As the three of us were walking, a police car pulled up.  The officers ordered us to empty our pockets.  They searched us without asking for permission or explaining why they had stopped us.  Finding nothing illegal, they departed without explanation or apology.  We knew they had stopped us because we were Black.  To them Black kids in a “White neighborhood” was synonymous with suspicious.  They didn’t beat us or kill us.  So the physical toll was light, but the psychological effects were deep.  Afterward we had to question if the police would protect and serve us. 

Reproductive Justice for Foster Youth

When S.H. entered the foster care system at age twelve, she had already suffered years of sexual abuse by her stepfather. She was around seventeen and a young mother, when her county welfare agency placed her in a Promesa Behavioral Health group home. Upon arrival, the group home made S.H. sign a document promising that she wouldn’t engage in sexual activity while she lived there. 

YOUR GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TO CLEAN UP FILTHY WATER

Have you been infuriated by your State’s failure to limit toxic pollution from mines and other industries? If so, here’s how you can have your say and stand up for environmental justice.

Current federal regulations have a huge loophole right in the middle of the Clean Water Act permitting program.