Here are a few examples of the kinds of cases CLS works on for clients. In many cases, CLS uses its scarce resources to benefit the maximum number of low-income clients. Often CLS represents low-income people who have nowhere else to turn.
- The case of Juan Martín Rios and the handling of dangerous pesticides
The Rios case is about farm workers who for low pay regularly mix, load and apply neurotoxic pesticides and their attempt to obtain safety regulations. It involves a twenty-year effort by the workers handling pesticides to obtain medical monitoring of their blood levels to try to avoid being dangerously poisoned. The Washington Supreme Court graphically described the dangers this pesticide handling poses to workers: “Overexposure to such pesticides can be fatal. The common symptoms of overexposure include headaches, sweating, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, increased salivation, respiratory distress, repetitive muscle contractions, blurred vision, cognitive difficulties, seizures, and loss of consciousness. Long-term effects may include ‘delayed peripheral neuropathy, ... a dying back of the nerves in the body as a result of the toxicity of the pesticide,’ as well as impairment of ‘relatively basic neurological function.’” Rios v. Department of Labor and Industries, 145 Wn.2d 483, 487 (2002). Despite these clear dangers, farm workers had to obtain help in several different legal forums before they could be protected.
Beginning in 1986, farm workers represented by legal services lawyers attempted four times over ten years to have the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) adopt a rule requiring medical monitoring for pesticide handlers. Finally in 1997, after CLS and private counsel from the Heller Ehrman firm made a fourth try, the pesticide handlers, represented by CLS, Heller Ehrman, and EarthJustice, filed a class action lawsuit. A superior court judge denied relief, and the farm workers appealed. The case eventually reached the Washington Supreme Court, which found that L&I’s refusal to engage in rulemaking was unlawful and – sixteen years after the first request for mandatory testing – specifically ordered L&I to initiate rulemaking on a mandatory medical monitoring rule.
But even this did not immediately result in a mandatory rule, as in both 2003 and 2004 there were efforts by some to have the Washington Legislature reverse the rulemaking ordered by the Court. In both instances, farm workers needed representation to negotiate ways to defend the Supreme Court’s order and move the mandatory rule process forward. CLS and Heller Ehrman assisted them in resolving the problems and finally L & I has issued medical monitoring rules and started a testing program that protects hundreds of pesticide handlers per year. CLS continues to monitor the program. For the text of the current rules, click here.
- Work to make real the constitutional rights of children in foster care by making improvements in their lives
When children are found to be abused or neglected, they may be taken from their parents and placed in state custody as foster children. There are about 10,000 foster children in Washington on a given day. Columbia Legal Services, along with the National Center for Youth Law and a private law firm, became involved in a lawsuit that started as a complaint by 13 foster children that they had been moved from foster home to foster home as many as 30 times. The case became a class action for the several thousand foster children who had been moved through three or more foster homes. The children claimed that as wards of the state they had constitutional rights to safety and care that were not being respected, leading to nomadic lives in which their mental health and other needs were not addressed. Many rarely or never saw their siblings, and state supervision of and supports for foster homes were inadequate.
In 2001, a jury in Bellingham found that the state failed to respect the foster children’s constitutional rights, and the judge ordered the state to improve conditions and treatment for the children. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court ordered a new trial, but most importantly made clear for the first time in our state that foster children have constitutional rights while in state custody:
We hold that foster children have a constitutional substantive due process right to be free from unreasonable risks of harm and a right to reasonable safety. To be reasonably safe, the State, as custodian and caretaker of foster children must provide conditions free of unreasonable risk of danger, harm, or pain, and must include adequate services to meet the basic needs of the child.
Braam v. State of Washington, 150 Wn.2d 689, 700 (2003).
In 2004, soon after the Court's decision on foster children's constitutional rights, the children and the State agreed to a historic settlement that provided the following: early health and mental health screening and treatment; more frequent supervision by caseworkers; additions to and better supports and supervision for foster homes; regular contact for siblings not living together; and other services to prevent constitutional harm to foster children. The settlement is overseen by a panel of five experts that is working with the State to develop a seven-year implementation plan that sets benchmarks for ongoing improvements, and to monitor progress. Since the settlement was signed, CLS and its co-counsel representing the children have worked with the expert panel, foster children, community partners, state agencies, and the Legislature on implementation. For detailed information about the settlement and implementation, click here.
- Helping defrauded immigrant workers with nowhere else to turn
Columbia Legal Services represents several monolingual Spanish-speaking immigrant carpenters whose employer failed to pay them both required overtime pay and other wages due. The employer attempted to avoid his wage obligations by having the workers sign lengthy and complex documents written solely in English. The documents claimed that the workers became members of the employer’s limited liability corporation which allowed the employer to skim the corporate profits. The workers were then billed for unpaid corporate taxes, while receiving none of the profits. Unable to find counsel, CLS stepped in and partnered with the University of Washington Law School’s low income tax clinic to resolve the tax issues.
CLS also represented the workers in a trial, after which the judge awarded unpaid overtime wages and damages and assessed attorneys fees and costs against the defendant. In late 2007, CLS took steps to collect on the judgment, but the defendant has appealed. CLS continues to assist our clients to collect the judgment and resolve the workers' tax claims.
- Empowering Low-Income People to Enforce their Legal Rights: New Remedies for Low-Wage Workers and Manufactured Housing Owners
Columbia Legal Services represented low-wage workers and manufactured housing residents as part of successful legislative efforts to create practical, inexpensive ways for these groups to enforce their legal rights. Before the Washington Legislature decided to enact these bills, thousands of low-income people who could not find a lawyer had rights but no realistic way to enforce those rights.
Wage claims: Lawyers are not available to represent the vast majority of those low-wage workers whose employers fail to pay promised wages, the minimum wage, or required overtime wages. On behalf of clients, CLS worked on 2006 legislation granting the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) authority to decide what wages are due, collect the wages for the worker, and to impose civil penalties on employers who willfully fail to pay wages due. The law allows either the employer or the worker to appeal to an administrative law judge if they disagree with L&I’s decision. Workers are not required to use the administrative system, and may choose to pursue wage claims in court instead. CLS also assisted in drafting worker education brochures in English and Spanish that explain the new procedures. For more information on the 2006 Wage Payment Act, click here.
Manufactured housing disputes: Owners of manufactured housing who live in “mobile home parks” are in an especially vulnerable position. They own their homes but not the land under their homes. Approximately 200,000 Washingtonians live in manufactured housing communities, most of them seniors with low and fixed incomes. Although these residents are covered by Washington’s Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act (MHLTA), the vast majority are not able to get a lawyer’s help when they believe a park owner has violated the law through actions such as illegal rent increases, unlawful eviction notices, or failure to maintain common areas of the park. In 2007, CLS worked with clients and manufactured homeowners groups in support of legislation that grants the Attorney General’s office the ability to enforce the MHLTA by receiving complaints, attempting mediation between the parties, setting a time frame for compliance, and setting fines for continuing violations. The new law allows parties to appeal to an administrative law judge, and, if necessary, to court. For more information on filing a manufactured housing complaint through the Attorney General’s office, click here.