Pro Bono Spring Break Trip – New Opportunities for Oil Spill Victims

March 29, 2012

This entry is cross-posted at www.cslprobonoblog.wordpress.com as part of the CSL Pro Bono Program’s student spring break trip to the Mississippi Center for Justice. Check out the Pro Bono Blog for stories from other CSL students at the Mississippi Center for Justice, in San Diego, and in Lebanon.

Since the months following the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the process of obtaining compensation from BP has been convoluted, drawn out and utterly confusing. The Mississippi Center for Justice has worked tirelessly since those early days to help frustrated and desperate people obtain the compensation they deserve. Residents have suffered losses ranging from death and bodily injury, to failed businesses, to loss of a vital food source for their family.

The Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) has been in charge of evaluating and disbursing the money BP has set aside for the victims. The GCCF has consistently been subject to criticisms that they are inconsistent, dilatory, and generally disagreeable to those seeking its help. As a result of this ongoing criticism, a new settlement is being negotiated. The settlement will establish a new claims process, the Court Supervised Claims Program. As of now, the terms of the settlement have not been released. Supposedly, this program will be more generous to those that have suffered losses as a result of BP’s oil disaster. The victim’s burden of proof will likely be lessened and payouts will be greater. Those that have not qualified for payment under the GCCF program, such as recreational fishermen, will be able to obtain compensation under the new settlement.

However, this rosy outlook is almost purely speculative. For now, a court order has established a “Transition Process” that will act as a stopgap between the conclusion of the GCCF process, and the establishment of the Court Supervised Claims Program. Overall, the GCCF process is maintained through the Transition Process, however there are several substantive changes in the methodologies that will directly affect potential claimants. In order to make claimants aware of these changes, the GCCF sent out a letter attempting to explain the intricacies of the changes. Their efforts were hardly successful. After reading the letter, with a partial legal education under our belts, the CSL volunteers were still completely baffled as to what the changes really were. Considering that a great deal of the people to whom the letter is addressed will only have a high school education, if that, it is not likely that the letter would give them any sort of understand of the changes either. This is where the Mississippi Center for Justice, and the CSL Oil Spill Super Team come in.

The Team has reviewed the court order establishing the Transition Process, along with a number of supporting documents from the GCCF website, and has finally been able to get a grasp of the true substance of the changes to the process. Armed with this understanding, our goal is to draft a letter to the Mississippi Center for Justice’s clients that will provide them with a true understanding of the changes, and their options going forward. We have found this is not an easy task. Translating the convoluted legalese of the GCCF letter into something that a layperson  can understand has proved to be challenging. When working to serve the underserved, it is important to remember that the process must be understandable to those we are seeking to help. It is far too easy to forget that when we are buried in our casebooks and cramming for an exam. While providing proper understanding to the Center’s client’s will not be simple, it is an essential part of serving the underserved.

– Evan Carney


Clinic Students Reach Biloxi, Mississippi

March 27, 2012

Two Clinic members, Ashely Washington and Evan Carney, along with sixteen other CSL students arrived in Biloxi Mississippi as part of he Charlotte School of Law Pro Bono Program’s spring break trip. For the past three years, the Pro Bono Program has teamed up with the Mississippi Center for Justice to provide student volunteers for the important work being done on the Gulf Coast. In return, the students are provided with practical experience and valuable insight into the world of public interest lawyering.

This year, the students were given the option to work on one of four “tracks,” or projects. One deals with the claims process for members of the community injured by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The students will have to opportunity to help with client intake interviews, preparing and filing claims, and performing research into the settlement agreement that’s currently being hammered out. A second track involves the Affordable Care Act, which is currently undergoing constitutional challenges in the US Supreme Court. Student in this project will work to educate Mississippians about the benefits of a state run healthcare system and generally educate low and no-income residents about free and low cost health care options currently available to them. The third track allows students the chance to help residents that can’t afford legal representation to clear up land title issues that arose during the confusion following Hurricane Katrina. And the final track has students deeply involved in researching potential legal challenges to the closing of the hugely successful Nichols Elementary School in one of the poorest sections of Biloxi.

We will post updates about the Clinic member’s chosen tracks over the next few days, but if you would like to keep up with all the students’ experiences on the trip head over the the CSL Pro Bono Blog at www.cslprobonoblog.wordpress.com. The Pro Bono Blog will also be updated with entries from two other pro bono trips, one to San Diego and one to Lebanon.


A Waking Nightmare: Tackling “Class” in America to Re-awaken the American Dream

March 22, 2012

On February 25th, I had the opportunity to attend the University of North Carolina School of Law’s 2012 Conference on Race, Class, Gender and Ethnicity.  The topic of this year’s conference was “Waking-up from the American Dream: The Sober Reality of Class in the United States.”  The topic of class was something that interested me while I was working on my undergraduate degree in political science and religious studies.  Looking at these issues through the framework of the law seemed like a very intriguing way to break through the classical critical theory bubble that surrounds issues like class and race.

While I disagreed with many of the panelists and some of the participants over the descriptions of class in America, as well as how to tackle the growing income gap between the wealthy and the poor, I agreed with them that we have to address this issue and figure out a practical way to tackle it.  The difference occurred mainly when the topic turned to the myth of meritocracy and the concept of “wealth-hoarding” (my term) by the top 1%.  According to Professor Angela P. Harris, the class structure in America can be looked at as a 5-tiered structure:

  1.  The 1% → a managerial/corporate class
    1. Very hard to break into
  2. Professional managerial class → the human capital
    1. The new “middle class”
  3. Traditional middle class → think manufacturing
    1. Class is vanishing with the departure of traditional manufacturing and service jobs overseas
  4. Working poor → at-will employees
    1. Minimum protections from the state
    2. This includes the retail and service sector, where many of us who have held jobs in our teens start out
  5. Underclass → the traditional “poor” class
    1. Permanently consigned to poverty
    2. Unemployment sky-high
    3. Most heavily under state surveillance
    4. Most dependent on social services
    5. Nontraditional family structures

These “tiers” fail to take into account the role of government and political parties in the development of America’s caste system.  The first panel discussed understanding class from the perspective of “other” – how do we tackle class from the perspective of those who are, for lack of a better phrase, outside the “accepted” mainstream.  Panelist Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall University, looked at the growing wealth of the 1% and the stagnating income of the traditional middle class and the working poor and posited that taxing the 1% will solve the problem of the income gap.

The second panel’s theme was “Failing Institutions: Inequality in a Nation Where All Men are Created Equal.”  The panelists looked to how America’s institutions – education, government, banking, etc. – reinforce the class structure and render upward mobility nonexistent for present generations.  Part of the panel’s focus was on how the education system affects rural whites in a similar fashion as urban peoples of color.  For rural whites, if one comes off as less than capable and/or poor, they are not given a chance to succeed, much like the documented instances of this happening with poor peoples of color in urban schools.  Although all the panelists agreed that a change needs to be made, there was no consensus on how to make the change.

The final panel discussed activism’s role in affecting change to the class structure.  The panel looked at labor movements, the Occupy protests, and other activist movements as a way to bring about change by forcing institutions to react to activists’ movements.  A lot of focus was given to the Occupy movement because of its focus on the “1% vs. 99%,” and there was a consensus that the only way to effectively change the class structure in America was to embrace the role of activism.  Panelist Brian Dingledine, a self-titled “professional activist,” remarked that “laws define groups of people in order for those groups to be regulated.”  While I take some offense to this, I understand where he’s coming from.

The panels were very informative, but I left the conference thinking that there was a lot of one-sided focus on the ills of the political realm and little discussion on real-world fixes that we can make to affect class in America.  If we want to get rid of class in America, we need to take a long hard look at how the political, legal, and cultural systems are operating in order to understand how they maintain a class system where there should be none.  Once we understand the co-production of these spheres, we’ll be able to fix the system for new generations to participate in the American Dream.

Tell Us What You Think: Should the government be more involved in the economy and education in order to fix the class problem in America? Is the traditional American Dream still viable in today’s society?

By: Jordan Dupuis


Charlotte Citizens Review Board – Who Watches the Watchmen?

March 13, 2012

When a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer is accused of misconduct, the Internal Affairs Bureau investigates the alleged behavior. The Bureau is dedicated to preserving the public trust and confidence in the Police Department and seeks to maintain the highest standard of fairness while conducting investigations. However, the Bureau is also a part of the Police Department, which leads many in the community to be suspect of the Bureau’s impartiality. 

In Charlotte, this suspicion came to a head in the mid-nineties. On November 19, 1996, a white police officer shot an unarmed 19 year old five times at a traffic stop, killing him. This incident led to a large community protest outside of the District Attorney’s Office for failing to prosecute the officer involved. On April 8, 1997, police officers fired 22 shots at a car passing through a police checkpoint, killing the 48 year old passenger. Spurred by community outrage over these incidents, Charlotte created the Citizens Review Board.

The Board serves as a forum to which individuals appeal the Chief of Police’s disciplinary determination against officers accused of misconduct. The Board is composed of 11 members — five appointed by City Council, three appointed by the Mayor, and three appointed by the City Manager. When the Board receives notice of an appeal, it holds a preliminary meeting to consider the appeal. The Board then determines whether to hold a full hearing on the appeal which includes testimony from the complainant and the police department, presentation of evidence, and questioning by both parties. After the hearing, the Board can ask for further investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau, accept the Department’s action, or reject the Department’s action. If the Board rejects the Department’s action, it will make recommendations to the Chief of Police and the City Manager.

When ruling an appeal, the Board asks whether by a preponderance of the evidence it appears that the Chief of Police abused his discretion in taking no action, or an insufficient action, on the complaint. Since 1997, the Board has addressed approximately 60 complaints. The Board held only four full hearings. In the entire 15-year history of the Board, it has never found in favor of the complainant. While it’s possible that the Chief has never abused his discretion, the Clinic decided to conduct an in depth analysis of the Board’s history to determine whether the Board was fulfilling its mandate or simply rubber-stamping the Police Chief’s actions.

To this end, the Clinic filed two Public Records Requests seeking documents relating to the Board, its meetings, procedures, dispositions, member information, and more. While the Clinic did receive a substantail amount of documentation, the City witheld information it deemed exempt from disclosure as personnel records.

However, the records the City did disclose raise significant questions. For example, as you can see in the Clinic’s slideshow presentation, many of the Board’s meeting minutes and closed session general summaries are simply boilerplate forms which contain virtually no facts about what transpired.  The Clinic is currently working with the City Attorney’s Office to implement record-keeping procedures for the Board that will help make its Board meetings more transparent.

The Clinic is also attempting to locate past complainants that have been through the Citizens Review Board appeals process. We have been able to collect a number of researchable names from the documents obtained through our public records requests. However, the records contain no contact information for the complainants so the Clinic members have put on their Sherlock Holmes hats to perform extensive public records and internet research in order to find them. By speaking with these people the Clinic will be able to get a better understanding of the process as a whole from the perspective of the complainant. If you have submitted an appeal to the Board in the past, or are planning to file one, please contact us.

The Board does not have its own website and little information about it can be found on the Police Department or City websites. The only substantive reference to the Board we found was in the Internal Affairs Bureau’s FAQ page under “Can I challenge the decision?” Through our work with the City and the Board we also hope to raise public awareness of the Board’s existence.


Occupy Charlotte’s TRO Denied

March 9, 2012
The Occupy Camp as it appeared before the eviction. Photo Credit: Grant Baldwin

Occupy Charlotte’s quest to prevent enforcement of the City’s new camping ban suffered a setback when Judge Bridges conditionally denied their request for a temporary restraining order. The Judge made clear that the City must permit Occupy to have a single information tent on the Old City Hall lawn provided that no one sleeps in it and that it is not left unattended.

While the outright ban on camping seems to run contrary to the plain language of the ordinance, such is the way of the law. It is important to keep in mind that this is simply a preliminary determination on the matter and a hearing on the merits of Occupy Charlotte’s complaint is still pending. Occupy Charlotte’s battle is far from over, and the Clinic will continue to lend its support to those fighting for free speech.

For more information check out the Charlotte Observer’s article.


New Issue of the CSL Public Citizen

March 7, 2012

The Charlotte Law Experiential Education department has released the newest issue of The CharlotteLaw Public Citizen. The newsletter is an outlet for the for Department to show the school and the community the fantastic work the students have been doing. This issue contains a great article about a number of Civil Rights Clinic projects including our election law cert petition, release-dismissal project, mobile food vendor project, and Ban the Box.

This issue also announces CSL’s new Community Economic Development Clinic led by Professor Rocky Cabagnot, a look into student’s pro bono work with local Hmong refugees, and insights into the Experiential Education Program by recent-graduate Christopher Peace. Here’s the full PDF of the newsletter. Feel free to contact us or leave us a comment if you have any questions.


Clinic’s Public Records Request Produces Quick Reponse

March 6, 2012

Earlier this month, Clinic student Lindsey Vawter drafted and submitted a public records request to a number of Mecklenburg County, Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officials attempting to gain access to documents relating to the permitting and planning processes for demonstrations during the upcoming Democratic National Convention.  The Clinic also requested documents related to the purchase of any less than lethal weapons. You can read the request here.

The Charlotte City Attorney’s office promptly acknowledged receipt of the request via email.  Attached to the email was the first of, what will likely be many, documents the Clinic receives — a contract  between the city of Charlotte and Taser International, Inc. for the purchase of an eye brow raising $1.8 million worth of tasers.  Here is the Taser Contract.

While the Charlotte City Attorney’s office has responded and produced at least one document, the Clinic has yet to receive even an acknowledgment from Mecklenburg County that it received the request, which it is required to do with a reasonable time.

In the next few weeks the Clinic is prepared to review many documents concerning the acquisition of weapons and the permitting process for the DNC.  We will keep you posted.


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