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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Featured Case: Miriam Flores

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.

Read more about the Supreme Court case
here.

Sandra Del Valle discusses bilingual education and the impact of the Flores case.

 

 

A bilingual interview with parent Miriam Flores on her battle for equal education.

 

 

Mrs. Flores asserted that a lack of educational options for English-language learners in Nogales, Arizona results in students not realizing their potential. She wants everyone to have the same opportunities to create a better life. English interpretation by Veneranda Aguirre.

 

Tim Hogan discusses the issues at stake in Flores v. State of Arizona.

 

 

Tim Hogan served as chief counsel, representing the Flores family, in the case of Horne v. Flores. Mr. Hogan is the Executive Director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest (ACLPI), focusing primarily on issues relating to public school finance, utilities, and campaign finance reform.

Interviews By: Nadya Shah, Lee Wang & Jill Cordes

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.