Fall Quarter Update from the Community Law Clinic

Students in the Community Law Clinic finished a strong fall quarter performing outstanding work and providing excellent client representation in a variety of cases.  As ever, this clinic dedicated its resources to representing individual low-income people in our local communities in matters enforcing their basic statutory rights.  Students represented numerous clients in wage cases and in eviction defense cases, and, in what was an extremely successful pilot project, also integrated Social Security Disability cases into the docket, under the supervision of Lisa Douglass.  The wage and eviction cases were supervised by Professor Juliet Brodie and teaching fellow Nisha Vyas, and all the work was supported by Lupe Buenrostro and Adelina Arroyo.  Below are some highlights:

Katie Bryant (’13) represented a worker at a hearing before the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). The man had gone entirely unpaid for an eight-day house painting job.  Marshalling the corroborating evidence of the homeowner, who had engaged the contractor who hired our client, Katie secured a judgment for the full amount claimed, plus statutory penalties, for her client.

Katie also represented a truck driver in a two-hour bench trial in Superior Court of Santa Clara County. Katie’s client was seeking his unpaid wages from a former employer for a cross-country trip. Katie delivered an opening statement and conducted a direct examination of her client, which included the introduction of supporting documentary evidence. She also performed a cross examination of the defendant. The judge issued his ruling from the bench in our client’s favor, based on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence.

Brian Goldsmith (’12) prepared a similar wage case scheduled for trial on the same day as Katie’s.  Brian’s client was a fire-sprinkler technician, whose former employer had failed to pay him his final wages.  Based on the strength of Brian’s investigation, legal research, and trial brief, the case settled on the eve of trial, again for the full amount demanded, which included the significant statutory penalty for late payment.

Brian and Katie’s two bench trial cases represent the clinic’s new collaboration with the Counsel’s office of the California Labor Commissioner, in which the counsel’s office identifies cases appropriate for clinic students.  These represent excellent opportunities for the clinic to add superior court litigation to its docket of administrative wage hearings.

Ruth Levine (’13) represented a housecleaner in an administrative hearing. The client sought unpaid overtime for her three-year employment with a housecleaning service. While the client did not prevail at the hearing, Ruth did an extraordinary job in investigating and presenting the case. This matter offered great learning opportunities as Ruth experienced first hand the challenge of representing workers from the underground economy. Without records, the employer was able to persuade the hearing examiner that our client did not have an employment relationship with the defendant.  The case provided everyone in the clinic with the chance to discuss the value of representation, and of loyalty to a client, even when the case does not end with a victory in the form of a money judgment. The client was very grateful to Ruth, and to the students from previous quarters who worked on the case.

Carl Owens (’12) and Brian Goldsmith (’12) represented an East Palo Alto family being evicted from their home of nine years, after receipt of a sixty-day notice terminating the tenancy. Carl and Brian determined that our clients were entitled to a longer notice period and substantial relocation benefits per East Palo Alto’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance and a local ordinance implementing a state law known as the Ellis Act. After a brief period of discovery and negotiation, the landlords agreed to grant our clients additional time to move out, waive their rent for a four-month period, and provide them with $3,000 in relocation benefits.

Katie Bryant (’12) represented another East Palo Alto resident in an eviction case, a woman whose landlord brought an action on the basis of nonpayment of rent.  The allegation was completely unfounded, as the client had paid every month of rent.  The client lived in a home that was owned by a family trust, and had paid her rent every month to the trustee named in her lease.  A new trustee (brother of the original trustee) had been appointed, but no notice had ever been given to the tenant that she should direct her rent to a new person.  Katie negotiated with the landlord’s attorney, who dismissed the eviction action outright upon proof that the tenant had paid rent. The parties agreed to a move-out date several months in the future, giving our client time to find new housing.

This quarter the clinic also resolved an affirmative habitability case that had been filed in state court last year. The clinic represented an East Palo Alto family that lived in a deteriorating apartment, just blocks away from SCLC’s office. For almost four years, the family put up with leaking walls and windows, moldy and dank carpets, a dangerous entryway, and no heat. The landlords, on the rare occasions they responded to repair requests, made insufficient and incomplete repairs. The case was thoroughly investigated and researched in Fall 2010 by Laura Heiman (’11) and Nancy Hanna (’11) ; and by Daisy Sanchez (’12) and Jenny Holmes (’12) during Winter 2011. During Spring 2011, Jenny finalized and filed a complaint on our clients’ behalf in Santa Clara Superior Court, which alleged ten causes of action based on the defendants’ failure to maintain a habitable premises. After a period of discovery during the summer, the case settled, and the family received a total of $25,003.00. On December 7, 2011, SCLC’s petition for attorney’s fees in this matter was granted, and the clinic was awarded a total of $19,050.00 for its representation of the plaintiffs. Julia Cherlow (’12) assisted on the fees petition.

Sarah Cunningham (’13) and Ruth Levine (’13) represented an East Palo Alto man also being threatened with eviction for nonpayment of rent.  Ruth and Sarah quickly identified that the client’s highest priority was preserving the Section 8 voucher that supported his tenancy, and which he could carry with him to a new tenancy if the eviction case was satisfactorily resolved.  Ruth and Sarah also identified a legal defect with the landlord’s compliance with governing statutes.  After filing an answer and affirmative defenses, they quickly propounded discovery.  The case quickly settled; the landlord waived the rent allegedly owing in exchange for a move-out date acceptable to our client.  The client was able to secure new housing that would accept his voucher, and remains in stable housing.

Sarah and Ruth also worked together on an important legislative advocacy project this quarter, in essence representing the City Attorney for the City of East Palo Alto.  That office is severely understaffed and thus, when City Council asked the City Attorney to assess the ordinances of other California cities that prohibit or regulate so-called “fringe banking” operators (e.g., payday lending, auto title lending), the Attorney asked the clinic to assist.  Working with an attorney at Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto, Ruth and Sarah researched and analyzed ordinances, and presented a document summarizing policy options to the City Attorney, Valerie Armento.  Ms. Armento used the clinic’s work to prepare a proposed ordinance, which passed through the Planning Commission and then City Council.

Carl Owens (’12) represented a man at his Social Security disability administrative hearing.  The client had worked many years at labor jobs, but after an assault he lost the use of his arm and developed chronic neck and shoulder pain.  In addition, the client had developed an anxiety disorder and arthritis in his back.  Carl conducted thorough and detailed interviews of the client, covering many personal and sensitive topics including mental health symptoms and prior substance abuse.  Carl also gathered medical records and interviewed a physician and psychiatrist and drafted their declarations.  Carl prepared the client to testify, prepared a direct and cross examination, and submitted a hearing brief.  The judge granted the case from the bench.  The client will now receive monthly cash benefits, two years of retroactive benefits and Medicare coverage, which will enable him to obtain treatment from a pain management clinic.

Ruth Levine (’13) represented a 58 year-old homeless woman from East Palo Alto at her Social Security disability hearing.  The client had suffered from a back injury for several years, as well as from Bipolar disorder, which had gone undiagnosed and untreated until recently, when students helped her access mental health treatment.  Despite her impairments, the client had worked at a string of retail jobs, but inevitably lost each job due to exacerbation of her symptoms.  Homeless since the death of her husband ten years ago, she only had enough income to stay in motels 2-3 nights per week, and she slept in parks the rest of the time.  Ruth drafted declarations from professional and lay witnesses and submitted medical records.  She also had to work intensively with the client to prepare her testimony due to the client’s initial discomfort discussing mental health symptoms and her personal history.  At the hearing, Ruth put forward a strong direct examination, gave opening and closing statements, and answered questions from the judge.  After taking the case under advisement, the Administrative Law Judge awarded monthly cash benefits including two years of retroactive benefits and Medi-Cal coverage.

Sarah Cunningham (’13) represented a client at his Social Security Disability hearing.  The client has a developmental disability (mild mental retardation) and a mood disorder, but Social Security had denied his claim twice stating that he could work at simple jobs.  The client had tried to work several times, but had been fired due to his mental impairments.  He was homeless for a few years, sleeping on night buses and eating at soup kitchens. To rebut the evidence from the Social Security Administration, Sarah developed and submitted detailed statements from a neuropsychologist and psychiatrist as well as from social workers, therapists and lay witnesses.  Sarah also submitted a hearing brief and worked thoughtfully with the client to discuss the results of the psychological evaluations and to prepare him to testify.  At the hearing, the judge granted the case, including over three years of back benefits amounting to almost $40,000.

Brian Goldsmith (’12) also represented a client from San Jose at his Social Security Disability hearing.  The client suffered from severe arthritis, complicated by morbid obesity.  He also suffered from major depressive disorder and anxiety. Brian developed questionnaires and persuaded the client’s psychiatrist and treating physician to complete them.  He also prepared the client to testify and submitted a hearing brief.  At the hearing and supplemental hearing, Brian presented argument to the judge.  The judge ultimately awarded benefits to the client, including 18 months of retroactive benefits.

Katie Bryant (’13) represented a woman who lives at the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto at her Social Security disability hearing.  The client suffered from deep vein thrombosis, recurrent cellulitis in her legs and severe swelling requiring frequent hospitalizations.  Katie worked tirelessly to gather records in the case, visiting medical centers in person to cut through the bureaucratic red tape.  She also arranged a neuropsychological evaluation for the client and prepped the evaluator.  Katie submitted a hearing brief and prepared a direct and cross-examination.  At the hearing, the judge granted the case from the bench, including two years of retroactive benefits.