CRLA Attorney argues in front of State Supreme Court

April 8, 2009

On April 8, the California Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Arias v. Superior Court of San Joaquin County (Angelo Dairy). Arguing on behalf of petitioner Jose Arias was CRLA attorney and regional director of advocacy Blanca Banuelos.

Of her first meeting with Mr. Arias back in December 2005, Blanca says what she remembers most is completely believing Mr. Arias. “He is a very humble, very hardworking man who obviously cared very much about his family. I trusted him.” Mr. Arias had been working at the Angelo Dairy for ten years, often working two shifts a day, always, he said, without overtime.

In his case against the dairy, Mr. Arias has alleged numerous Labor Code and regulatory violations, including not only his claim for unpaid overtime wages, but also that he received no meal periods or rest breaks, and that employee housing was uninhabitable.

In addition to seeking unpaid wages for himself, Mr. Arias is also seeking to represent the interests of other current and former employees of the dairy who suffered from the same practices. At issue before the Supreme Court on Wednesday was whether Mr. Arias will be permitted to do so under two California statutes – the Unfair Competition Law and the Private Attorneys General Act -- which enable injured workers, and others, to bring representative suits, instead of class actions, on behalf of themselves and others who are not able to bring a case on their own.

When asked about the importance of the case, CRLA Director of Litigation and Advocacy Mike Mueter had this to say: “It’s a pivotal case for rural Californians who typically don’t have access to attorneys and firms with experience or capacity to file class action suits.” Class actions carry unique filing requirements and are more costly than other representative actions. They are also off limits to LSC funded legal aid lawyers. As a result, the ability of poor people to bring representative suits hinges to a large extent on the court’s decision in Mr. Arias’ case.

The argument was also momentous because it marked the debut of another young CRLA attorney before California’s highest court. As CRLA Executive Director Jose Padilla told Blanca in a message of congratulations to her after the argument, “the most honorable and symbolic advocacy for a legal services attorney is to use our voice and skill in defense of the poorest, to seek their justice before a court of final appeal.”

Irrespective of the court’s decision, by advocating before the California Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Arias and those he seeks to represent, Blanca has fulfilled one of the most basic purposes of the national legal services program – to ensure that poor people have full access to this country’s judicial system, and through it to democracy. Asked about the experience, Blanca said that she felt very lucky to have been able to represent a client willing to delay his own claim so as to represent other workers. “I feel very lucky to have been able to give him a voice.”

Lending a hand, experienced appellate attorneys from the private bar and the public interest community donated time to work with Blanca in moot court sessions before the argument. Blanca was cheered on at Wednesday’s argument by her mom and two brothers, as well as staff from 6 CRLA offices. A decision is expected sometime within the next 90 days

To make a secure online donation and support Blanca's work please visit our Donate Now page.


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