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Miriam Flores

Multimedia: Horne v. Flores (2009)

Miriam Flores had dreams of becoming a doctor. But English was not her first language, and as a result, school did not come easy to her. In 1992, while Miriam was in the third grade, the school district in Nogales, Arizona told Miriam's mom (also named Miriam Flores) that her daughter wouldn't pass third grade that year. Teachers said she wasn't paying attention, and that she often spoke to other students in class. This seemed unlike her child, so Miriam questioned her daughter. The young Miriam, whose family only spoke Spanish at home, explained to her mother that when she was talking, she was simply asking the other students what the teacher was saying, because she didn't understand the language.

When Miriam's mom explained this to the school district, she was told it wasn't their problem that her daughter wasn't learning the language properly. Yes, they were obligated under the ESL program (English as a Second Language, now changed to ELL, English Language Learners) to teach these students. But without proper funding from the state, there was a shortage of supplies and materials to teach non-English speaking kids. Miriam's mom realized the injustice of the situation, and ultimately sued on behalf of her daughter and other students in the same situation.

Click here to learn more about Miriam Flores.

For more information see our fact sheets on education, immigrants' rights, language rights, and racial justice.

Photo credit: magnusfranklin

State of Ohio Environmental Protection Agency v. U.S. Department of Labor (2000)

Paul Jayco was working for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency investigating the safety of schools that had been built on a site formerly used by the military. Mr. Jayco and his co-workers were looking into whether the high incidence of leukemia in the area was caused by cancer-causing agents deposited on nearby school grounds.

After Mr. Jayco reported that the investigation he was working on violated the requirements of federal environmental laws, his employer fired him. Mr. Jayco filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA found that Mr. Jayco's employer -- the state of Ohio -- had violated what's called the "whistleblower" part of federal law, which protects workers against retaliation for speaking up when something's wrong.

Ohio then sought a formal hearing and an administrative law judge who reviewed the case also found that Ohio had violated whistleblower laws and that Mr. Jayco had a right to get his job back.

Ohio challenged this ruling in federal court, and -- despite earlier findings that Mr. Jayco had been unfairly fired -- the court threw out his case, ruling that he had no right to go to court to enforce his rights against his employer. The ruling was technical, and based on a developing trend in the courts that states should be protected and shielded from federal law.

Even though his employer retaliated against him, and he is covered by existing federal laws, Mr. Jayco could not go to court enforce his rights or get paid for the wages he lost as a result of Ohio's retaliation.

For more information see our fact sheets on environmental protection and workers' rights.

father

Photo credit: Scott Ableman

McGregor v. Goord (1998)

Imagine if you took time off from work you were legally entitled to and you got fired? Then imagine that no court would help you get your job back or uphold your rights. To David McGregor this wasn't imaginary, it was real.

David McGregor was a corrections officer with the New York State Department of Correctional Services. He told his employer that he needed some time off to accompany his pregnant wife to medical appointments and Lamaze classes. Three days after taking time off he was suspended. Soon after that, he was fired.

McGregor took his employer to court to enforce his rights under a federal law called the Family Medical Leave Act (the law grants up to 12 weeks off to care for a family member with a serious medical condition, among other things). His employer didn't dispute the charges but argued that because they are a state entity they can't be sued by their employees (under a false interpretation of an amendment in the Constitution). The court agreed and dismissed the case. McGregor lost his job, and there was nothing he could do.

More and more workers are powerless to sue their employer, even if the employer did something illegal, if that employer is the state. And it makes it easier for certain employers to discriminate.

For more information see our fact sheet on workers' rights.

Photo credit: John-Morgan

A.W. v. Jersey City Public Schools (2007)

In 1988, a student called A.W. (courts use initials to protect the privacy of minors) enrolled in the Jersey City Public School system as a second grader. Because he has dyslexia, he had a very hard time learning how to read, write, and spell. His school system had no reading and writing program -- something required by law -- to help students with dyslexia learn and A.W. continued to fall behind other students of his age. A.W.'s grandmother filed a complaint with the New Jersey Department of Education on behalf of her grandson and other Jersey City students with dyslexia. The department confirmed that the schools had failed to implement any reading and writing program for students with dyslexia -- but then did nothing to ensure the schools did anything about it.

In 2000, 13 years after A.W. entered the Jersey City public school system, the school district finally implemented an educational program that required specialized instruction in reading, writing, and spelling. Although he finally received the education he deserved, A.W. was by then a 20-year-old tenth-grader and had missed out on years of critical learning, so he took his case to court.

A.W. sued under section 1983, a federal statute that creates a right for an individual to bring a lawsuit when their rights were violated by a state. A.W. claimed that his rights were violated because the state failed to abide by two important federal statutes. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program that receives federal funding. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act guarantees all children with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" that meets their specific needs.

Up until this case, parents and children were able to sue public school systems and their employees under section 1983 for violations of these two acts. But that changed when the Court of Appeals said that A.W. could not sue under section 1983. Now students like A.W. cannot seek compensation for their losses.

For more information see our fact sheets on education, children's rights and disability rights.

roadsign

Photo credit: Omad

Alexander v. Sandoval (2001)

Martha Sandoval could drive and could read the signs on the road in English, but she was not a fluent English speaker. Alabama, where she lived, however, had passed an "English only" policy. When she was not allowed to take any part of her driving test in Spanish, and therefore discriminated against on the basis of national origin, Ms. Sandoval sued her state.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that Martha Sandoval had no right to bring her case in court. The Court decided that private individuals could only sue to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin) if they can prove intentional discrimination, something almost impossible to do.

For more information see our fact sheets on immigrants' rights and language rights.

pollution

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South Camden Citizens in Action v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (2001)

South Camden, New Jersey, is home to more than 100 contaminated sites and hundreds of polluting industries. The city's drinking-water supply has been contaminated for decades, and its air pollution levels are among the highest in New Jersey. In 2001, a court stopped a permit for a new cement factory because of the unfair polluting impact that this plant would have on its neighbors (there were already many toxic plants in the area). The court said that the people who lived in the area around the factory were being discriminated against because of their race, and made to bear more than their fair share of the problems of pollution.

However, following the Supreme Court ruling in 2001's Sandoval case, it is no longer enough to prove that there is a discriminatory effect on a racial group. Instead, people have to prove that the discrimination was intentional, something almost impossible to do.

After several appeals, the people of South Camden finally lost their case in 2006.

For more information see our fact sheets on environmental justice and racial justice.

apartment building

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Ross v. Midland Management Company (2003)

Dredia Ross lives with her children in an apartment complex whose management receives federal funds to provide low-rent housing. Conditions in her apartment were dangerous, with mold growing and dirty water seeping in. Though she complained to the management company, Ms. Ross heard nothing and had to keep living under these conditions while she waited for a response.

Ultimately, she went to court on her own behalf and on behalf of a whole group of other African American tenants, claiming that the lack of attention to the condition of the apartments was a result of intentional discrimination. The District Court in Illinois has allowed Ms. Ross to proceed with her claim but, because of the Sandoval ruling, she faces a steep uphill battle. Until 2000, Ms. Ross and her fellow residents could have gone to court to enforce federal regulations prohibiting actions that have an unjustified discriminatory impact. Now, under current law, she will have to prove that the management company's negligence in repairing the conditions was intentionally racist -- something almost impossible to do.

For more information see our fact sheets on housing rights and racial justice.

apartment falling apart

Photo credit: Tim Patterson

Banks v. Dallas Housing Authority (2001)

The Housing Act of 1937 was created to make sure that any subsidized housing was "decent, safe, and sanitary." But the families living in a subsidized apartment complex in Dallas had conditions that were anything but. The buildings had serious structural problems--floors separating from walls, leaking roofs and ceilings, backed up sewage drains. The buildings and hallways were repeatedly and constantly vandalized. There were murders and other violent crimes committed on a regular basis. The tenants complained to the housing authority with an average of 2-3 letters every day. One complaint said: "A man died in my front door early Monday morning in fact two men were killed in the apts. the same morning." There were regular gun battles, and a seven-year-old boy named Charles Cleveland was killed in the crossfire. The Dallas housing authority failed to take action to ensure that the housing was "decent, safe, and sanitary," and the situation only deteriorated.

Finally, the families got together and sued their housing authority and the owners of the building for breaking the law. It seemed they were successful when, at first, the housing authority stopped giving rental assistance to the landlords. The case went to trial, and the jury found the apartment owners guilty of violating the Housing Act.
Even though the case went to trial and the jury agreed that the landlords had violated the law, the court disagreed, and disregarded the jury's decision, based on a technicality. Although the federal housing law spelled out rights, this court decided that it didn't spell out exactly what could be done if those rights were violated. The court essentially ruled that there was no federal right to decent housing and shut its doors on these families and others whose rights to a decent, safe, and sanitary home under the Fair Housing Act are violated.

For more information see our fact sheet on housing rights.

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Dewakuku v. Martinez, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (2001)

Serena Dewakuku bought a house that was built by the Hopi Tribal Housing Authority through an assistance program that helps low-income Indian families. After she bought the house, Serena found that it had serious structural and design problems. She reported this to the housing authority, but it did nothing to fix the problems. Serena sued claiming that the home she had bought from her housing authority did not meet the standards of a federal law called the Indian Housing Act, which was created to make sure any subsidized housing was of good quality.

The court that heard Serena's case agreed that the housing authority had violated the law and ordered it to fix the problems. The housing authority challenged this ruling and the case went back to court. This time, the appeals court threw her case out of court on a technicality: This court said that although the housing law said Ms. Dewakuku had rights, it didn't explicitly say she could go to court if those rights were violated.
Ms. Dewakuku couldn't go to court and she was stuck with a defective and badly built home. This court tells us that even if a housing authority violates the law, the people who buy shoddily built homes have no legal remedy in court. We may think we have rights because of certain laws, but we can't necessarily enforce them.

For more information see our fact sheets on housing rights and racial justice.

construction

Photo credit: GregHickman

Reinforced Earth Company v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board et. al (1994)

Juan Carlos Astudillo worked as a maintenance helper for Reinforced Earth. There, he cut and welded iron and repaired motors, and was required to climb scaffolds and ladders and lift heavy steel beams. In 1994, Juan Carlos was hit in the head, neck, and back by a steel beam, and was rendered unconscious at work. He sustained a concussion, a mild head injury, and as a result, over the next few months Juan Carlos experienced headaches, dizziness, loss of balance, and upper and lower back pain. He was subsequently terminated from his job and he filed for workers' compensation. In an outrageous move, the company that Juan Carlos had worked so hard for responded to his compensation claim by saying he wasn't entitled to the benefits because he was undocumented.

Juan Carlos' case is just another example of a company benefiting from the hard work of an immigrant and then exploiting their undocumented status when the worker tries to exercise one of the few rights that workers have under the law. While the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Juan Carlos was entitled to medical benefits, it also found that illegal immigration status might justify terminating benefits for temporary total disability.

For more information see our fact sheets on immigrants' rights and workers' rights.

court

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EEOC v. Luce Howard (2002)

If you had to choose between taking a job and signing away your civil rights, which would it be? This was the choice that Donald Lagatree had to make. Because he chose his rights, Donald was out of a job. Donald thought it was unfair for his company to force him to sign an arbitration agreement in order to work for them. To Donald it was important to retain his civil rights -- including the right to a jury trial -- in the event that he faced employment discrimination. The law firm withdrew its offer to hire Donald.

Arbitration lacks the important protections of our traditional justice system. It is no wonder so many corporations want to force their employees to sign these agreements. Don't corporations have enough power as it is? Is it really fair to allow them to circumvent the traditional legal system when employment discrimination is at issue?

For more information see our fact sheet on workers' rights.

college

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Grutter v. Bollinger (2003); Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)

Written into the civil rights laws of the 1960s, affirmative action was designed to ensure equal opportunity for groups that had long been discriminated against by employers and institutions. Michigan Law School, one of the nation's top law schools, modified its admission process to ensure the diversity of its student body. According to its admissions policy, the school looks for students with "substantial promise for success in law school" and who have "a strong likelihood of succeeding in the practice of law and contributing in diverse ways to the well-being of others" and "varying backgrounds and experiences who will respect and learn from each other."

When it denied admission to Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident, she sued, saying she was discriminated against on the basis of race. By a margin of only one vote (now-retired Justice O'Connor's) the Supreme Court decided in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) that it was legal for the law school to use race as one of the factors in deciding which students to admit. The Court found that diversity was valuable and that admissions policies can justify looking at race and ethnicity as factors in admissions in a carefully crafted policy to achieve diversity.

However, the use of race in admission must be limited, and is sometimes difficult to employ. In a companion case, the Supreme Court found University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy to be unlawful. The admissions process was also intended to encourage diversity and it considered many factors, including grades, test scores, high school quality, curriculum strength, where the student is from, relationships with college alumni, leadership potential, and race. Each factor including race was assigned a number of points toward a 100-point minimum for admission. This, the university argued, encouraged diversity and significantly contributed to a better educational environment.

The Supreme Court decided, however, that this admissions policy was unconstitutional because applicants from underrepresented groups were given points based on their race or ethnicity. Colleges and universities that attempt to foster and support diversity have to strike a very delicate balance. And now that the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed, and Justice O'Connor has retired, diversity in the schools hangs in the balance.

For more information see our fact sheets on education and racial justice.

wetlands

Photo credit: Dean Forbes

Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2006)

Passed under President Nixon in 1972, the Clean Water Act is one of the most successful and popular environmental laws and gives the federal government authority over the "waters of the United States." The Supreme Court's ruling in a 2006 case calls into question the future of the Clean Water Act, and has very wide-reaching implications for both the environment and for the federal government's power to enforce laws that protect our environment.

The recent Supreme Court ruling was spurred by two Michigan property-rights cases that sought to redefine how the Clean Water Act was interpreted and challenge the power and constitutionality of this important federal statute. John A. Rapanos faced steep criminal charges for filling in federally protected wetlands -- without permission -- in order to build a shopping center. In the second case, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to a couple who wanted to fill part of their property so they could develop condominiums.

At the core of these cases about "wetlands" -- ecosystems essential for flood control, drinking water, agriculture, and wildlife -- is also a key issue: Can the federal government pass and enforce laws? The cases raised the question whether Congress can pass a law to protect water that might be just within a single state. There is a lot at stake: thousands of miles of small streams and an estimated 20 million acres of wetlands. Because water in many states is connected, with almost every state downstream from another, federal oversight plays an important role in environmental protection.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court limited the scope of the Clean Water Act, but not as much as Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito would have wanted it to. The confusing ruling may lead to years of regulatory battles and court cases, and threatens the future of the Clean Water Act. For now, because of one vote by Justice Kennedy, the federal government can still regulate and protect our wetlands.

For more information see our fact sheet on environmental protection.

moms

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Westside Mothers v. Haveman (2002)

A group of mothers in Michigan organized themselves because their state was not providing their children adequate health care coverage, even though the state was using federal money for Medicaid. The group decided to sue the state to enforce the provisions of Medicaid they were entitled to.

In 2002, the district court in Michigan held that individuals had no right to enforce Medicaid, because it is an agreement between the federal government and the state. The appeals court reversed this decision, but the reasoning in this case has been adopted by other judges and will no doubt be used again in similar situations.

For more information see our fact sheet on health care.

walmart

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Littleton v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2007)

Like other 29-year-olds, Charles Irvin Littleton wanted to get a job. But the mental disabilities he was born with made it difficult. He'd graduated from high school with a certificate in special education and had attended a technical college, but he still lived at home and supported himself with social security benefits and the help of his family. He began working with a job coach who arranged for Mr. Littleton to have an interview at an Alabama Wal-Mart store. But when Wal-Mart officials told Mr. Littleton that his job coach could not come to the interview with him, everything went downhill. Mr. Littleton's interview did not go well and Wal-Mart did not offer him a job.

Mr. Littleton sued Wal-Mart for discriminating against him because of his disability. The case went all the way up the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that Mr. Littleton was not disabled under ADA rules and therefore could not sue for disability discrimination. In order to be considered disabled for ADA purposes, Mr. Littleton had to prove that he was 'substantially limited in a major life activity.' Even though Mr. Littleton's disability was permanent and limited his ability to work and learn, the court found this was not enough to prove he was disabled for purposes of the law. Mr. Littleton had attended school and was able to think, communicate and work, the court held, so he was not disabled under the ADA, even though he was mentally challenged.

He tried to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court but the justices denied his petition. Thus, Mr. Littleton's case now makes the law more difficult for plaintiffs to bring disability discrimination lawsuits. Plaintiffs have to prove much more to show they are 'substantially limited in a major life activity.'

For more information see our fact sheet on disability rights.

girl

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Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (1998)

Alida Gebser was thirteen years old when she met Frank Waldrup, who would later be one of her teachers during her first year of high school. In her school district in Lago Vista, Texas, class offerings for the most gifted students had just been cut, so Alida took Mr. Waldrup up on his offer to give her one-on-one lessons, in spite of his occasional illicit commentary. Their tutoring sessions quickly turned into a sexual relationship that lasted a year and a half until the police got involved.

Confused and violated, Alida and her family attempted to hold their school district accountable for Waldrup's behavior. The case Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1998 that school districts can be held responsible only if they knew about the sexual harassment and refused to do anything about it. This decision is devastating in that it actually provides less recourse for children to file a complaint about harassment than the average adult employee - even the teachers in Alida's school have more protection against unwanted advances than their vulnerable and impressionable charges.

Further, the Gebser case has been used as precedent to limit liability for damages for harassment based on race, color, and national origin, making it nearly impossible for victims of harassment to sue under Title IX, Title VI, or other related statutes in order to restore their sense of justice.

For more information see our fact sheets on racial justice, children's rights and women's rights.

children

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Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (2007)

The Supreme Court last term resurrected "separate but equal" in our schools. Because of the Court's ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, schools risk becoming more segregated, and children of all races will likely have fewer opportunities to learn together and become prepared to live and work in a diverse world.

Parents Involved in Community Schools involved a challenge to student admission plans in school districts in both Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky. Concerned about how racial isolation was affecting their own children and community, locally-elected school boards in Louisville and Seattle had adopted student assignment measures to foster integrated, diverse schools. The voluntary plans used modest measures to promote integration while prioritizing parental choice and community schools. As part of the plans, the school districts looked at race as a factor in determining whether or not to transfer a student. The programs in both Seattle and Louisville had been upheld by lower courts and were similar to programs in many school districts across the country.

But in a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the programs were unconstitutional because they violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. The Court held that using race as a factor in assigning children to schools was discriminatory and could not be justified. The Court's decision went against the tradition of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared 'separate but equal' unconstitutional and held that all students have a right to attend integrated schools. As a result, school districts will find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to assign children to schools in a way that ensures diversity. Schools are once again becoming segregated by race as they were before Brown.

For more information see our fact sheets on racial justice, education and children's rights.

birds in oil

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Baker v. Exxon (2008)

It's been a generation since the largest oil spill in history devastated Alaska's Prince William Sound, but for the residents in the small fishing community it might as well have been yesterday.

Locally-owned fishing companies are still being forced to close because there are simply not enough fish left. Residents are suffering from depression and other psychological problems because of the ongoing stress. And there's still more than 26,000 gallons of oil soaked into the shoreline. Still, even after 18 years, the corporation that caused the damage is still trying to get out of paying the residents.

The saga began on March 24, 1989. Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, was a relapsed alcoholic, and that night he was drinking while he was piloting the ship. He ran the ship aground, spilling 11 million gallons of oil, damaging 1,200 miles of Alaskan coastline, and killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.

The spill devastated the small fishing communities in the Prince William Sound, both economically and emotionally. A group of 33,000 commercial fisherman and residents filed a class action lawsuit against Exxon Valdez. In a victory for the residents, an Alaskan jury decided to punish the corporation by ordering it to pay $5 billion to the Alaskan residents. But Exxon's been fighting that amount ever since, arguing that it is too high.

After several rounds of litigation, the most recent court to hear the case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, lessened the amount to $2.5 billion, which is less than three weeks of Exxon's current net profits. Exxon still thinks that amount is too much.

So the Supreme Court decided it would hear the case this term to decide whether $2.5 billion was too much for Exxon to pay. Exxon lawyers argue that a court has never awarded so much money to plaintiffs for the sole purpose of punishing a corporation. But the plaintiffs argue that the amount needs to be high in order to preserve corporate accountability. If Exxon is forced to pay a large amount of punitive damages, it will set an example to other corporations that this sort of conduct will not go unnoticed. But if the Supreme Court lets Exxon off the hook with a smaller amount, it is sending the message that corporations do not need to be responsible for their wrongdoings.

Only eight of the nine justices will hear this case. Justice Samuel Alito has recused himself from participating because he owns a large amount of stock in Exxon Valdez. No matter what the remaining eight justices decide, this case will have a profound effect on corporate responsibility. Whether it's a good effect or a bad one is up to the Supreme Court.

For more information see our fact sheet on environmental protection.