Federal Attacks Against CRLA

On-Going Federal Interference With CRLA Advocacy: Numerous Audits and D.C. Litigation

On November 14th Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled in USA et. al. v California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. CRLA's steadfast dedication to maintaining the privacy of low-income clients throughout the four-year legal battle, afforded some level of safety for the most vulnerable individuals under the final decision.It continues to be a part of CRLA's legacy that the advocacy considered most controversial will invite political interference from powerful interests against whom CRLA litigates. In the early 1970's, CRLA cases led to the state governor's veto of its Federal funds in an effort to eliminate us. In the 1980's, these attacks were renewed in the form of a presidential effort to eliminate legal services entirely, then to significantly defund it; at the same time, hostile Federal investigations and regulatory restrictions were used in a national effort to deter legal service programs including CRLA from "high impact" advocacy work. In the 1990's significant decreases in funding and more extensive restrictions continued to hamper the provision of legal services throughout the country.

Since late 2000, the investigatory arm of the Federal government has increased its focus directly on CRLA's work, at the behest of three rural, Central Valley Congressmen who have wielded their political influence over Federal agencies on behalf of the state's dairy industry. This industry has been the target of successful labor litigation brought by CRLA that has recovered nearly $2 million in worker benefits. Over that time, there have been three Federal reviews by Legal Services Corporation (LSC) entities that have kept CRLA under a shadow of Federal investigation or audit for almost 80% of that time! The second investigation initiated by Democrat Congressman Cal Dooley lasted 40 months from the time CRLA was notified of the investigation to its closure. As part of that process, CRLA's Executive Director testified in March 2004, before the Congressional Subcommittee that funds national legal services delivery.

The third investigation by the LSC Office of Inspector General (OIG) began December 2005, and has yet to be closed. Part of that on-going investigation initiated by Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) is now pending in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the case United States of America et al vs. California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., et al. CRLA invited the OIG to subpoena the client data it sought after the OIG unsuccessfully sought to pressure LSC to suspend CRLA funding over this issue. CRLA receives nearly $7 million from LSC. In the litigation CRLA is represented pro bono by the law firms of Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin and Kirkland & Ellis LLP. The Morrison & Foerster firm also represents CRLA attorneys.

In March 2006, the dispute began when the OIG sought production of confidential personal information concerning some 39,000 clients for whom CRLA opened files during a 33-month period. CRLA objected that this information is protected as confidential under federal and state law. The American Bar Association issued a letter last year supporting CRLA's position.

CRLA has refused the demand because the risk of divulging client identities and data to the public will not only discourage future clients from seeking assistance, but will jeopardize the security of thousands of current or recent clients. CRLA 's rural poor clients seek legal help on highly sensitive and confidential issues such as domestic violence, landlord abuse, and failure of their employers to pay farm workers for hours of arduous work. These clients are fearful of physical abuse, or housing or employer retaliation if adversaries would come to know their identities from their having sought CRLA legal advice.

Throughout, the OIG has refused to articulate any rational need for the information or discuss any way to acquire it more efficiently. When asked the purpose of the massive inquiry, OIG refuses to provide any rationale other than saying they have the power to obtain the information and have no need to state any reason. Nor has OIG been willing to enter into any binding agreement that sensitive client information sent to it will remain confidential and not be passed on to others. The OIG has also stated that more information is needed to find out if CRLA "disproportionately focuses its resources on farm worker and Latino work, "matters which are neither regulated nor prohibited.

The on-going investigation, now in its third year, also resulted in LSC placing CRLA on month-to-month funding throughout 2007, requiring that CRLA comply with five Special Grant Conditions that added new record-keeping and reporting burdens on virtually all staff throughout the state. At the same time, CRLA went through two additional Federal audits that found CRLA in compliance with the various regulations that govern its legal services. In 2008, the funding status has changed to a 6-month funding cycle and CRLA remains burdened with the special reporting requirements in effect in 2007.

Case Update

On November 14th, 2011, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled in USA et. al. v California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. CRLA's steadfast dedication to maintaining the privacy of low-income clients throughout the four-year legal battle, afforded some level of safety for the most vulnerable individuals under the final decision.

Throughout the case CRLA argued that the Office of the Inspector General-sought disclosure would violate attorney-client communications privileged under federal law as well as even more stringent California laws requiring lawyers to maintain client confidentiality. CRLA is pleased that in the course of the dispute, prompted in part by tough questions from the Judge, the OIG withdrew its request for juvenile and domestic relations case client identities and agreed to pay for at least a small part of the review of files for privilege determinations. In addition, the Judge ordered a Federal Magistrate Judge to rule on any documents subject to request, and the court insisted on a Protective Order that will maintain the rights of CRLA clients to keep their sensitive personal information from disclosure including their home phone numbers.

CRLA Executive Director Jose Padilla stated, "although recognizing some of the legal arguments advanced by CRLA and that some important changes have been secured, it is troubling that thousands of past clients who had sought CRLA's legal counsel without any expectation that information they considered confidential would be disclosed to the federal government and potentially others. The decision seems to perpetuate an attitude by some that low-income individuals who seek legal assistance from a federally-supported law firm are not afforded the same protections as those contacting a private law firm." Mr. Padilla added that, consequently, CRLA is carefully reviewing the decision to fully evaluate its impact for CRLA's attorneys and clients and to consider whether an appeal or other further proceedings are appropriate."

For more information on this decision or to speak with a CRLA representative about the decision please contact us via our on-line media request portal.