Blind Justice

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I find myself thinking of the many race discrimination cases that I have litigated over my nearly 3 decade career as a civil rights attorney.  One case from over 20 years ago sticks out because it demonstrates the depths which bigots will sink to get away with civil rights violations, and the ways those bigots can be defeated in a particularly poignant way.

In this particular case, my clients were an African-American man and a Korean-American woman.  They attended a party one night and as they got in their car to drive home, they concluded that they had too much to drink to drive safely home, so they decided to spend the night at the nearest motel, The Highlander, which had a “vacancy” sign posted.

The African-American man went to the office and the Chinese-American man (who turned out to be the owner) who was working at the desk told him, “no rooms for you.” My client accepted this and returned to his girlfriend waiting in the car.

However, his girlfriend suspected discrimination since the “vacancy” sign was still lit up.  So, she decided to try to get a room herself, and sure enough, all of a sudden a room became available.

When I first met my clients, I informed them that while I thought we could win this case, I also thought that it would not be worth very much in damages since they did, in fact, get a room for the night.  However, my clients were indignant and wanted to file a complaint so this hotel owner would know that he could not discriminate against other African-American clients.  Since the damages were unlikely to be high, rather than file a lawsuit, I filed a complaint with the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission (MEOC).

The MEOC investigated, found probable cause for discrimination, and attempted to conciliate the case, but the hotel owner insisted that he had not discriminated against my clients, so the case proceeded to hearing.  As we would find out at the hearing, the fact that the long time, well respected MEOC hearing officer, Clifford Blackwell III, is blind, would play a role in the hotel owner’s defense.

When the hotel owner testified at the hearing, he claimed that he could not have discriminated because he thought that my Korean-American client was African-American.  He argued that my African-American client simply misunderstood him.

Since Judge Blackwell is blind, I was then forced to have every subsequent witness describe my Korean-American client’s facial features and her hair and conclude that it was impossible to conclude that she was African-American.  Indeed, my client had classic Korean physical features.

Fortunately, in a genuine case of justice being blind, Judge Blackwell was not duped by the bigoted hotel owner.  He concluded that the hotel owner had discriminated against my African-American client.  He awarded him a small amount of damages, but also required the hotel owner to pay my attorney’s fees, as required in winning civil rights cases.

Sadly, the Trayvon Martin case did not end up with blind justice.  Perhaps a blind judge and jury would have come to a more just verdict.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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Celebrating Independence Day–Escaping Institutionalization

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In a recent case of mine, frantic parents retained me worried over the future of their son, who has autism and challenging behaviors.  Equally troubling was their fear that government overreach was in the process of removing their parental rights.

These parents had done everything they could to help their son succeed at home and in school, but due to state funding limitations of the Children’s Long Term Care waiver, in-home services declined and then virtually disappeared over the past year. Not surprisingly, this evaporation of critical child and family supports resulted in a downward spiral.  First, in mid-fall, the school district determined that it could no longer educate the boy in school and started providing his education in the family home.  Then, the boy’s challenging behaviors escalated.

As the parents sought answers, they received recommendations to send him to a state Institution where the state no longer admits long admits long-term residents, but does provide 30-60 day assessments to, in theory, help families in situations such as these.  Unfortunately, my clients’ decision to send their son to an Institution developed into an over 5 month stay there because the County determined that it needed to take over parental medical decision making and further determined that the child was not fit to return home.  The County pursued this case in court seeking to send the boy to another Institution 4 hours from his home, without a plan for returning him home.  The County even took the drastic step of seeking transfer of medical legal custody of the boy from the parents to the County.

The parents retained me only a few weeks before the scheduled 1/2 day trial. Initially, I contacted the county’s attorney to determine whether settlement was a possibility. Sadly, the County was unwavering on its Institutionalization path and had no interest in settlement.

As the trial began, my first witness was the child’s pediatrician who was strongly supportive of returning the boy home to his family and fully supported the parents’ medical decision-making.  Initially, I felt a need to rush through the case because the court had only allotted a few hours for the trial.  Fortunately, the judge quickly realized that this case was too important to rush and announced that he had cleared his calendar for the following business day as he knew we needed to carefully put on all relevant testimony.

Another compelling witness was the boy’s 17 year old brother.  He told the court that he was the only one who could get his brother to talk and calm down and that he had no regrets that he needed to spend most of his non-school hours at home helping to care for his brother.

For its part, the County only put on 2nd hand hearsay testimony (allowed in these types of cases) critiquing the parents’ caregiving.  While it did not budge from its Institutionalization position, the lead county social worker did testify that if the boy returned home, he would need ample in-home services.  Sadly, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) supported the County’s Institutionalization position.

When the judge announced his decision, he concluded that the parents’ first-person testimony, from themselves, their son, and their pediatrician, far outweighed the county’s second hand testimony, and convinced him that the boy should be returned home with the ample home-based services which the county social worker testified were necessary.  The parents were elated and his father can proudly state that his service to our country in the armed services is that much more meaningful as the family celebrates a very meaningful Independence Day in their home today.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.