FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SUED FOR WITHHOLDING DOCUMENTS FROM ASYLUM SEEKERS – February 2013
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, with pro bono counsel Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, filed suit today in federal court in San Francisco to challenge the federal government’s policy and practice of denying asylum seekers timely access to notes of their asylum interviews. Because these interviews are not recorded, the notes taken by the Asylum Officers conducting the interviews often provide the only means of understanding what transpired during the interviews, which are key to the process for deciding which asylum applications are granted. The lawsuit charges that the government is violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other federal law in withholding the notes from applicants and their attorneys. The complaint is attached here.
When an asylum seeker’s application is not granted by the Asylum Office, she is referred for deportation proceedings at the Immigration Court if she does not have other lawful immigration status. There, she can renew her application for asylum, but the application will be contested by a government attorney.
For years, attorneys representing asylum seekers in Immigration Court have used the FOIA to secure the interview notes to better understand their clients’ cases and help them prepare for their hearings. Then the government changed course and started refusing to release the notes, claiming that the FOIA allows it to withhold this material from applicants and their attorneys. Despite this position, the government frequently uses the very same notes to oppose asylum in the hearings at the Immigration Court. At that point, the notes are released to the asylum applicant and her attorney, but by then, they come too late.
The plaintiff, San Francisco immigration attorney Jeffrey Martins, has brought the lawsuit to fix the problems that have resulted. “Asylum interviews are incredibly stressful for the applicant, whose very lives can be on the line in the process. It is a rare client who can remember much of what was said during a lengthy interview,” Martins explained. “The notes enable us to understand where the client did not do an adequate job representing herself. Without them, we can’t fully assess the case, determine what additional evidence should be provided to the Court, and give the best advice possible to the client,” said Martins.
Robin Goldfaden, a senior immigrants’ rights attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee, added that the lawsuit seeks to correct a fundamental unfairness in the process for asylum seekers. “Asylum is too serious a matter for the government to withhold important documents until the last possible second and deprive applicants of the opportunity to clear up the kind of miscommunications and misunderstandings that can occur,” said Goldfaden.
Thomas R. Burke, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, further noted that the Freedom of Information Act is intended to ensure access to documents like the notes for asylum seekers and their legal representatives. He added, “The law does not permit the government to time the release of information to its own advantage. The right of access must be paramount.”
The lawsuit, Martins v. USCIS, has been filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Attorneys for the plaintiff in the case include Robin Goldfaden of the Lawyers’ Committee and Thomas R. Burke and Jeff Glasser of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.
LCCR PRESENTS ORAL ARGUMENT in 9th CIRCUIT in SUPPORT of CALTRANS EQUAL OPPORTUNITY PROGRAM – February 2013
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments today in San Francisco in the case of Associated General Contractors, San Diego Chapter v. Caltrans (AGC v. Caltrans). AGC brought suit in 2009 seeking to invalidate the California Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, which seeks to ensure that minority and women-owned businesses are on equal footing to compete for federally-funded contracts. AGC filed the appeal after summary judgment was granted in U.S. District Court in 2011. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, together with Bingham McCutchen LLP, ACLU-NC and Equal Justice Society (EJS), represent the Coalition for Economic Equity and the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP in the case, two groups that intervened to ensure that the perspectives of DBEs themselves would be represented in the litigation.
“Caltrans’ DBE program is clearly within constitutional bounds, and is in fact much more cautious than it could be given the extent of discrimination in the transportation contracting industry,” said Oren Sellstrom, Legal Director at the Lawyers’ Committee, “As we argued in the district court, without a remedy, small businesses owned by women and minorities would continue to be locked out from fair competition for federally funded contracts. Caltrans' equal opportunity program gives these businesses a fair shot at competing, which strengthens the economy as a whole.”
Caltrans' Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program establishes a framework for ensuring fair participation in federally funded public works projects in California. In 2006, Caltrans suspended the program's race- and gender-conscious elements after a federal appeals court ruled that states had to document the existence of discrimination in the awarding of contracts. As a result, women- and minority owned business participation on Caltrans’ federally funded projects plummeted -- from nearly 11 percent in 2005 to just over 2 percent in 2008.
In 2007, an extensive disparity study commissioned by Caltrans documented discrimination against small businesses owned by women and minorities in federally funded contracts. Caltrans then sought approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to reinstate the suspended elements as a necessary remedy to such discrimination. DOT granted its approval in August 2008, noting that Caltrans has a duty under federal law to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not funneled into an exclusionary contracting system. In June 2009, Caltrans' procedures were challenged in the aforementioned lawsuit by the Associated General Contractors of San Diego. In 2011, Caltrans’ Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program was upheld by the U.S. District Court.
Lawsuit Keeps Santa Rosa's Doyle Park School Open – June 2012
Doyle Park Elementary School, where Latino children make up two-thirds of the student body, will remain open for 2012 to 2013 school year, thanks to a lawsuit filed by a community-based coalition that included the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
The Santa Rosa school board’s decision to keep the school open is part of a settlement it reached last May with parents, students and teachers who objected to the closure and sued to prevent it.
Aside from keeping the school open for Grades 1 to 6, the settlement stipulates that the campus will be shared with the French immersion charter school and that the school district will amend its policies to “promote racial equality and ethnic balance.” The district will also explore the feasibility of a Spanish-language dual immersion school for 2013 to 2014 school year.
The school board tried to shut down Doyle Park and turn over its facilities to the French American Charter School, citing low test scores, declining enrollment, and an operating deficit of $180,000. It claimed the closure would save the district $400,000, while the charter school would bring in increased funding by way of future grants and endowments.
The Doyle Park Committee for Education Equity sued the board and the schools superintendent in Sonoma County Superior Court last April. Private lawyers Edie Sussman and David Grabill, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the California Rural Legal Assistance and attorneys from Ropes & Gray law firm represented the committee.
The lawsuit argued that the closure was illegal and would have a disproportionate negative impact on Latino children who make up 73 percent of the school’s 240 students.
Plaintiffs accused the school board of discriminating against students from lower income minority families in favor of a charter school that is likely to serve students from higher earning white families.
It also argued the because the school board was essentially converting a public school into a charter school, it needed to fulfill certain requirements but didn’t--such as the required petition signed by at least 50 percent of the school’s teachers.
Plaintiffs further charged that a board member who announced his intention to send his two children to the charter school had a conflict of interest.
Also, the lawsuit contended that the board violated the Brown Act because at least four of its members met privately to discuss the closure before the seven-member body voted on it.
The Lawyers’ Committee also sought public records, communications, and documents related to the closure from the board and the superintendent.
Faced with the strong legal challenge, the school board agreed to settle.
Cecilia Chen, Lawyers’ Committee Thurgood Marshall Fellow, says similar legal actions could increase, as financially strapped public school authorities may try to make ends meet by resorting to closures at the expense of lower-income minorities.
“Other similar cases are already coming up because with the budget crisis, public school districts are also trying to make money by putting up charter schools,” Chen adds. “But charter schools are supposed to be an ‘option’ for students, not a money-making alternative to public schools.”
She said fighting such attempts is a challenge because school districts have wide discretion in deciding whether to close a school and there is no law in the books right now that explicitly prohibits public school districts from opening charter schools based on money-making goals.
“We will fight those attempts as part of our commitment to equality in education, as mandated by Brown v. Board of Education,” says Kimberly Thomas Rapp, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee.
LAWYERS' COMMITTEE, CRLA, ROPES & GRAY FILE SUIT AGAINST SANTA ROSA SCHOOL BOARD FOLLOWING CLOSURE OF LOCAL SCHOOL – April 2012
Lawyers' Committee, California Rural Legal Assistance and Ropes & Gray filed a suit to prevent the Santa Rosa School Board from illegally closing Doyle Park Elementary School. This suit is being filed on behalf of the Doyle Park Committee for Education Equity (DPCEE), a community group comprised of concerned students, parents, teachers, and community members challenging the proposed closure in light of a clear conflict of interest by a school board member. In addition to numerous violations of California law, the lawsuit alleges that school closure will also have a negative impact on Latino students in the community and is in violation of anti-discrimination laws.
LAWYERS' COMMITTEE, APILO AND O'MELVENY & MYERS REACH SETTLEMENT ON BEHALF OF ABUSED DOMESTIC WORKER – April 2012
Lawyers' Committee, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, and O'Melveny & Myers LLP reached a settlement on behalf of a Chinese woman who was trafficked into the United States and forced into a life of indentured servitude under deplorable conditions by a Bay Area couple. Following her escape over a year later, the family was prosecuted and the plaintiff eventually secured a visa to remain in the country. The civil suit sought compensation for the psychological, emotional, and medical damages she suffered, as well as numerous violations of the California Labor Code.
VICTORY IN REDONDO BEACH DAY LABORER CASE – February 2012
In a victory for day laborers, the United States Supreme Court denied the City of Redondo Beach's request to review the Ninth Circuit decision which found the City's ordinance prohibiting solicitation of employment, business, or contributions on city streets and sidewalks unconstitutional. The 2004 case of Comite de Jornaleros de Redondo Beach v. City of Redondo Beach originated after undercover police officers were posing as employers, hiring day laborers and then arresting them for soliciting work. The district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of the day laborers, siding with the argument that their right to seek work is protected under the right to free speech, and the Supreme Court's decision to not hear the case has effectively ended any further challenges to this ruling.
ANTIOCH RESIDENTS REACH SETTLEMENT IN POLICE HARASSMENT CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT – October 2011
Putting an end to a four year dispute, the City of Antioch agreed to a settlement in Williams v. Antioch, a Lawyers' Committee class action civil rights lawsuit brought by five African American women on October 25. The suit accused the City of Antioch and its police department of engaging in a concerted campaign of intimidation, harassment and discrimination against African American families who get federal assistance with their rent through the Section 8 program. In the settlement, the city agrees that it will not focus on African American Section 8 recipients in its policing efforts, except when race is used to identify a specific suspect in a crime. The settlement also provides for federal court oversight for three years. The plaintiffs were represented by the Impact Fund, Public Advocates Inc., Lawyers' Committee and the ACLU of Northern California, with pro bono assistance from Covington & Burling LLP and Bingham McCutchen LLP. The lawsuit sought injunctive relief, in the form of a court order forbidding the City of Antioch from engaging in these discriminatory and unlawful practices.
CALIFORNIA HIGH-SPEED RAIL ORDERED TO OPEN UP CONTRACTING SYSTEM FOLLOWING CIVIL RIGHTS COMPLAINT – September 2011
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) ordered California's High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) on September 15 to open up its closed contracting system to resolve a civil rights complaint filed by small and minority-owned businesses. Citing evidence of insular bidding practices and misrepresentations regarding receipt of federal funds, the FRA ordered far-reaching reforms to CHSRA's system for awarding contracts to private businesses. Last December, Lawyers' Committee filed a complaint on behalf of the Associated Professionals and Contractors, asserting that minority-owned small businesses are being largely excluded from contracting opportunities available through the California High Speed Rail, the country's largest public infrastructure project. The complaint asked federal agencies to open a formal investigation into the CHSRA's contracting practices under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
FREE SPEECH VICTORY FOR DAY LABORERS – September 2011
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, ruled in favor of day laborer groups in a precedent-setting case litigated by the Lawyers' Committee and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The Ninth Circuit held that Redondo Beach's ban on seeking work, business, or contributions in many public areas was an unconstitutional speech restriction. This is the first published federal appellate decision recognizing day laborers' right to seek work in public spaces.
LAWSUIT TO CHALLENGE SHACKLING OF IMMIGRANT DETAINEES – August 2011
Lawyers' Committee, the ACLU of Northern California, and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati filed a class action suit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) on behalf of adult immigration detainees, all of whom appear in San Francisco immigration court shackled at the wrists, waist, and ankles, regardless of their history or capacity for disruption. The lead plaintiff is a 35-year-old domestic violence survivor and asylum-seeker who is shackled in court, even though she has no history of violence or disruption and has plates in her knees, legs, feet, back, and head. Click here to read the suit.
MUNICIPAL SERVICES SETTLEMENT IN MODESTO – June 2011
Lawyers' Committee reached a settlement with the City of Modesto and Stanislaus County to remedy discrepancies in public services for the city's Latino neighborhoods. These neighborhoods had been excluded in previous city annexations that benefited bordering areas; they remained unincorporated and without services provided to residents in adjacent communities. The lawsuit was filed by Lawyers' Committee, California Rural Legal Assistance, Brian Brosnahan (formerly of Heller Ehrman, currently of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman), Covington & Burling and Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass.
SAN FRANCISCO HOUSING INJUNCTIONS RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL – May 2011
A judicial decision handed down on May 25 ended the San Francisco Housing Authority's use of city-wide nuisance injunctions and dismisses all pending criminal cases against alleged violators, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and ACLU of Northern California Legal Director Alan Schlosser announced. The injunctions, which have been used since 2007, are unconstitutional, vague and overly restrictive to the point of infringing on an individual's ability "to exist in San Francisco," wrote San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer in his eight-page decision.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY IN MINORITY CONTRACTING – March 2011
A U.S. District Court Judge granted our motion on March 23 and ruled that the California Department of Transportation's equal opportunity program for contracting businesses can continue its mission to ensure that minority and women-owned businesses have equal ground to compete for federal stimulus funds and other federal contracts. As a result of Lawyers' Committee's ongoing advocacy, Caltrans formally re-implemented race- and gender-conscious contracting procedures that give minority and women-owned small businesses a fair shot at competing for contracts; however, a lawsuit filed in 2009 by the Associated General Contractors of San Diego threatened to undermine that work. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Lawyers' Committee coordinated client groups to intervene in the case and assembled a litigation team, comprised of a range of nonprofit partners, and pro bono assistance from Bingham McCutchen LLP. Plaintiff has appealed the District Court's ruling in our favor, so we will now move to defending the program in the Ninth Circuit.