California court backlogs persist in civil, criminal arenas

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times as reported on 5/10/14.

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times as reported on 5/10/14.

Budget cuts have contributed to delays in the processing of civil cases in California Superior Courts, a television news investigation revealed.

NBC Bay Area reported on the problem five years ago, confirming a situation covered by the state’s other major media.

And earlier this year, the news station revisited the crisis, noting that criminal cases also are caught up in the backlog.

“An NBC Bay Area analysis of state court disposition data shows thousands of felony criminal cases have been delayed for years, and sometimes even decades, in jurisdictions around California,” NBC Bay Area reported in February. “The analysis shows Santa Clara County Superior Court and San Francisco County Superior Court have some of the largest criminal court backlogs and the lowest percentage of felony cases resolved within a year in the state.”

In 2013, NBC Bay Area delved into the situation, noting, “Thousands of Californians, including residents of the Bay Area, must wait up to four times as long as normal to get their day in court. Some residents now wait five years or longer to have their civil complaints heard by a judge or jury. Some residents are dying while waiting for their day in court.”

NBC Bay Area conducted an analysis of state Superior Court data, showing delays in every one of the state’s 58 Superior Court systems.

“In all nine Bay Area county Superior Courts, the Unit found longer delays in processing and scheduling of civil cases on their calendars. … The reason: years and years of budget cuts to the court system, the third branch of government, by the state legislature in Sacramento. According to state court officials, across the state, 175 courtrooms have been closed due to budget cuts.”

In 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported on similar backlogs to civil cases.

“Civil cases are facing growing delays in getting to trial, and court closures have forced residents in some counties to drive several hours for an appearance. The effects vary from county to county, with rural regions hit the hardest but no court left unscathed,” the newspaper reported.

U.S. Supreme Court clears way for Flint, Mich. class-action lawsuits

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio as reported by NRDC, 3/28/17.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio as reported by NRDC, 3/28/17.

Two class-action lawsuits by residents of Flint, Mich., based on lead contamination of the water supply, can proceed under civil rights statutes, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined.

Reuters reported on the decision, which “left in place a July 2017 ruling by the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that revived the litigation after the lawsuits were thrown out by a lower court.”

While the Flint water contamination gained much media coverage, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) provided a good overview of the timeline: “On April 25, 2014, officials looking to save money switched Flint, Michigan’s drinking water supply from the Detroit city system to the Flint River. This new water was highly corrosive. Because city and state officials broke federal law by failing to treat it, lead leached out from aging pipes into thousands of homes.”

A separate legal settlement requires the city and the State of Michigan to replace Flint’s lead and galvanized steel service lines within three years and $97 million to pay for the replacement of pipes, the NRDC reported.

Trump administration targets opioid manufacturers

President Trump and the U.S. Justice Department have championed lawsuits against opioid manufacturers as part of a broader push to stem the deadly rise in opioid addiction.

CNBC reported that the U.S. Justice Department launched a new task force to “target the makers and distributors of prescription painkillers who, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have contributed to an epidemic of fatal overdoses from opioids by selling too much of the addictive drugs.”

Sessions said he is ordering the task force “to examine existing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to determine if we can be of assistance,” CNBC reported.

President Trump made his first visit to New Hampshire since the 2016 election on Monday, March 19, when he rolled out a plan to curb opioid addiction.

The New York Times noted that the plan included “the death penalty for drug dealers and a crackdown on illegal immigrants.”

New Hampshire experienced the nation’s third-highest rate of deaths from overdoses, The New York Times reported. “Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States in 2016, according to initial estimates from the C.D.C., and have become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50,” the newspaper reported.

In response to the President’s speech, Sessions said he assigned “a dozen experienced prosecutors in opioid hot-spot districts to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud.”

President Trump visited NH on 3/19/18 to speak about the opioid epidemic. Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times as reported by The New York Times on 3/19/18.

President Trump visited NH on 3/19/18 to speak about the opioid epidemic. Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times as reported by
The New York Times
on 3/19/18.

Sessions, in a speech on Thursday, March 22, noted that the President has voiced his “strong support for the Department of Justice’s new Prescription Interdiction and Litigation — or PIL — Task Force,” which will “focus on and coordinate the Department’s efforts to investigate, prosecute or bring lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors who have unlawfully contributed to this epidemic” and will review existing laws. It will also consider assisting with ongoing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.

 

Fertility clinic malfunction spurs Calif. lawsuit

After a tank failed, a California-based fertility clinic was confronted with a class action lawsuit due to damage to the eggs of potentially hundreds of clients.

A San Francisco woman, who was assured that her eggs would remain frozen until she needed them, brought the litigation. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.

“In this first suit to be filed after a rare malfunction that remains under investigation, the woman, who remains anonymous for privacy, is seeking compensation for negligence and breach of contract from the Prelude Fertility, where she received treatment in 2016, and Pacific Fertility Center, which stored her eggs,” The Mercury News reported.

The eggs and embryos of hundreds of other patients “were stored in malfunctioning Tank No. 4 at Pacific Fertility Center’s lab on Francisco Street — and are now presumed damaged.”

The  law firm, Sauder Schelkopf of Berwyn, Penn., is seeking a class action certification, “saying that at least 400 individuals may have been harmed by the incident.”

Appeals court upholds Texas ban on ‘sanctuary cities’

Photo credit:  REUTERS/Jon Herskovitz/File Photo, as reported in the article U.S. court upholds most of Texas law to punish 'sanctuary cities' on March 13, 2018.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Jon Herskovitz/File Photo, as reported in the article U.S. court upholds most of Texas law to punish ‘sanctuary cities’ on March 13, 2018.

A Texas ban on “sanctuary cities,” which threatens sheriffs, police chiefs and other officials with jail time and removal from office if they do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities, can take effect while legal challenges proceed, an appeals court ruled on Tuesday, 3/15.

Reuters reported, “The law was the first of its kind since Republican Donald Trump became president in January 2017, promising to crack down on illegal immigration and communities that protect the immigrants.”

While upholding the bulk of the law, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a provision “to punish local officials who endorse policies running contrary to the law.”

The New York Times explained, “The law in question — Senate Bill 4, passed by the Texas Legislature in May 2017 — requires police chiefs and sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration officials, and allows the police to question the immigration status of anyone they arrest. It was passed in response to the proliferation of sanctuary cities, which restrict such cooperation and have gained national attention as President Trump pursues stricter immigration policies.”

Remington mum about effects of bankruptcy on settlement

Photo credit: Reuters file photo as reported on 2/8/18.

Photo credit: Reuters file photo as reported on 2/8/18.

The 202-year-old gun manufacturer Remington is not disclosing whether a pending bankruptcy filing will jeopardize a class action settlement involving its Model 700 bolt-action rifle.

“Neither Remington nor its attorneys responded to multiple emails about whether the company intends to abide by the agreement in the event of a bankruptcy filing,” CNBC reported. “While the settlement includes a guarantee that the company will meet its financial obligations under the agreement, it does not address the possibility of a bankruptcy.”

Reuters reported in February, “Remington, which is controlled by buyout firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, was abandoned by some of Cerberus’ private equity fund investors after one of its Bushmaster rifles was used in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Connecticut in 2012 that killed 20 children and six adults. … Remington’s sales plunged 27 percent in the first nine months of 2017, resulting in a $28 million operating loss.”

CNBC reported, “Remington has agreed to replace millions of triggers on the 700 and a dozen other models to settle allegations that, for decades, the company covered up a deadly design defect that allowed the guns to fire without the trigger being pulled.”

The company denies any cover-up or the defect, but acknowledged the fix could cost as much as half a billion dollars, CNBC reported. “There are real concerns that with the bankruptcy no guns will be fixed at all.”

Supreme Court strikes down bond hearings for detainees

Supreme_Court2In a major immigration case, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Jennings v. Rodriguez, a class action lawsuit challenging the federal government’s practice of jailing immigrants while they litigate their deportation cases. It ruled that detainees held by the government for possible deportation are not entitled to a bond hearing even after months or years of detention. Civil rights advocates, such as the ACLU, question whether it is constitutional to “lock up immigrants indefinitely.”

The Washington Post reported on the Feb. 27 ruling, noting, “In a splintered 5 to 3 decision, the court’s conservatives said that the relevant statute does not even ‘hint,’ as Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote, at the broad reading of the right to bail hearings adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.”

The American Civil Liberties Union argued, “In the appeals court, we fought for and won on the principle that immigrants should be given the opportunity to present their case to a judge, allowing that judge to decide whether the detainee could be released without risk of flight or threat to public safety.”

Criminal records cleared for some Californians convicted on pot charges

Those convicted of marijuana-related infractions could receive a clean slate in California, based on a trend in some jurisdictions.

“Thousands of people with misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession dating back 40 years will have their criminal records cleared, the San Francisco district attorney’s office said Wednesday,” The New York Times reported in January. “San Diego is also forgiving old convictions,”

National Public Radio reported, “Nine states now have laws related to expunging or reducing marijuana convictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures but marijuana is still illegal under federal law. And not everyone in California is high on the idea of legalization. Jill Replogle, of member station KPCC, reported earlier this month that ’73 percent of cities and counties in California currently ban commercial cannabis businesses.’”

But a few communities are seeking to erase criminal records for those convicted on marijuana charges. The New York Times noted, “George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, said his office would automatically erase convictions there, which total about 3,000. An additional 4,900 felony marijuana charges will be examined by prosecutors to determine if they should be retroactively reduced to misdemeanors. San Diego has identified 4,700 cases, both felonies and misdemeanors, that will be cleared or downgraded.”

More civil lawsuits in wake of deadly fires in Oakland, Calif.

Surviving tenants and families of victims sue Oakland, Calif. for inspection flaws at a San Pablo Avenue halfway house. Photo Credit: Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group as reported by The Mercury News, 2/9/18

Surviving tenants and families of victims sue Oakland, Calif. for inspection flaws at a San Pablo Avenue halfway house. Photo Credit: Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group as reported by The Mercury News, 2/9/18

Oakland is facing a lawsuit stemming from a fatal fire that killed four people in a halfway house at 2551 San Pablo Avenue in March 2017, The Mercury News reported.

“Surviving tenants and families of victims who lived at 2551 San Pablo Ave. originally filed suit in April 2017 against building owner Keith Kim and a nonprofit agency that provided services there,” explained The Mercury News. “The city was added to the list of defendants in a master complaint filed last month in Alameda County Superior Court.”

Oakland is already facing a suit for a Dec. 2, 2016 fire in which 36 people perished at an electronic dance party at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse. The Ghost Ship lawsuit helped open the door for the San Pablo fire suit: “In November, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled Oakland had a ‘mandatory duty’ to ensure safety at the Ghost Ship warehouse. The tentative ruling pierced through broad immunities protecting California cities from civil lawsuits to protect workers who either botched inspections of a building or failed to perform the inspection at all,” the report stated.

Both the San Pablo and Ghost Ship fires exposed deep flaws in Oakland’s fire inspection system. According to the San Pablo lawsuit, “These people were plunged into darkness and thick, black smoke and tried to exit the unsafe structure. The interior of the three-story, 43-unit building was a known fire hazard which was cluttered with storage, debris, discarded furniture and open piles of garbage.”

Closure of Office for Access to Justice

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

The ability of the poor to access civil courts suffered a setback with the effective closure of the federal Office for Access to Justice, critics of the move say.

“The Justice Department has effectively shuttered an Obama-era office dedicated to making legal aid accessible to all citizens, according to two people familiar with the situation,” the New York Times reported.

The Office for Access to Justice began in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric Holder. “Its offices now sit dark on the third floor of the Justice Department building,” the New York Times reported. “The staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months, the people said. Maha Jweied, the acting director of the department, left this month to start a consulting business, according to her LinkedIn profile.”

On Feb. 1, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law condemned the move.

“Once again, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is turning his back on the most vulnerable Americans and abdicating his responsibility as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “In shuttering the doors of the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Office, Attorney General Sessions is making crystal clear that his Justice Department has no interest in establishing justice for the poor.”