Civil Rights Litigation: A Response to Katrina

BY ANGELA YINGLING

Over six months have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast and caused widespread damage to the area, but the long-term clean-up and recovery efforts have only just begun. On March 2nd, the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs sponsored a panel to educate students about one aspect of the recovery effort particularly relevant to the legal profession – the civil rights impact litigation that has ensued in Katrina’s wake. The panel was composed of Daniel Greenberg, Special Counsel for Pro Bono Initiatives at Schulte Roth & Zabel, and attorneys John C. Brittain and Michael Foreman, from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Lee Branson, Assistant Director for Pro Bono Programs, introduced the panelists, who spoke to the students about their experiences working on a McWaters v. FEMA, a national class action suit, as well as other Katrina-related civil rights cases.

Brittain opened the panel with two bold propositions for the students: first, that “law can be a means of social change,” and second, that “a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Much of the discussion harked back to these two propositions, as the panelists discussed how collaboration between the public and private sector can create positive changes in society, especially in the wake of such a disaster.

Brittain explained that after Katrina hit, the Lawyers Committee was reluctant to file a lawsuit too quickly, wanting to avoid the feeling of “Here go those lawyers again!” while everyone was still reeling from the hurricane. But as it became increasingly clear that the government’s response to the disaster was sorely lacking, it also became clear that civil litigation was in order. The Lawyers Committee heard countless stories of Gulf residents having constant and debilitating difficulties accessing the services FEMA was mandated to provide. So the organization began to search for a private-sector partner to aid them in the litigation, and found it in the firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel.

By November, a complaint was filed against FEMA in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in McWaters v. FEMA, which seeks no damages, only declaratory relief that the government’s actions were violations of federal law and the Constitution, and injunctive relief to prevent, among other things, evictions of Katrina victims from temporary housing. The panelists discussed the finer points of the legislation – the civil rights claims, jurisdiction questions under the Stafford Act, class certification, etc. Foreman also discussed other civil rights cases taken up by the Lawyers Committee and their partners, including cases against Texas counties which tried to turn away evacuees at its borders and suits to protect the voting rights of displaced residents. In addition, Foreman discussed the legal issues arising from a lawsuit against internet sites such as Craigslist, which listed racially-based temporary housing offers for evacuees.

The panelists took several questions from the audience, including from students who had been to New Orleans on Harvard Law service trips, those who were going down during spring break to volunteer, and even students moving to the region after graduation. One student asked about the difficulties that these mostly D.C.-based lawyers faced in working on litigation in another region of the country. Brittain discussed the need to form alliances with local lawyers, and Foreman stressed the importance of really listening to the people who had actually been affected by the disaster and the people who had lived in the area a long time.

The panelists discussed not only the legal aspects of these cases, but also reaffirmed the idea that all lawyers, even those working at big firms, should be involved in some type of pro bono work. Greenberg was quick to point out that working at a big firm “doesn’t let [lawyers] off the hook” of their public responsibilities; in fact, they are just as responsible for public interest work. Because private law firms often have the resources unavailable to public interest firms, lawsuits like the ones filed here could not go forward without the collaboration between the public and private sector. Schulte Roth contributed nearly $2 million in billable time to the Katrina litigation, something the Lawyers Committee attorneys admitted a public interest firm or organization could never have handled on its own.

While it sometimes appears that the legal world is divided into two camps — the public and the private sector, Thursday’s panelists were able to demonstrate that more good can often be done when both work together. And that way, we can all become social engineers who use the law as a means for change.

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