The Impact Litigation and Social Justice Section of the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office conducts affirmative litigation on behalf of the County, drafts local ordinances, advocates for state legislation on issues of interest to the County, and develops novel policies and programs to advance the County’s goal of ensuring social and economic justice for all its residents. The Section is part of a growing movement to use the power and unique perspective of local government to better serve the community and to drive long-lasting social change.
The Section maintains an active caseload and is engaged in developing new projects on an ongoing basis. Starting in 2008, County Counsel has sponsored a Fellowship Program that selects talented new lawyers and trains them as local government litigators and advisors, whose goal is to advance social justice in the County and beyond.
RECENT WINS, LATEST FILINGS, AND OTHER NEWS
CCSF and County of Santa Clara v. California Department of Health Care Services
Medi-Cal eligibility for children in the juvenile justice system
The County joined San Francisco in challenging California’s practice of terminating children’s Medi-Cal eligibility when they enter the juvenile justice system, denying inpatient psychiatric and hospital care for children during detention, and failing to reinstate Medi-Cal eligibility in a timely manner upon release.
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County of Santa Clara v. GlaxoSmithKline
Challenging pharmaceutical company’s false advertising of diabetes drug
On February 26, 2010, the County filed a lawsuit seeking restitution and civil penalties against pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) over GSK’s false advertising of its diabetes drug Avandia.
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St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, et al. v. Schwarzenegger
Challenging the Governor’s line-item veto power
On September 28, 2009, the County filed an amicus brief in support of a coalition of low-income individuals, healthcare clinics, and disability support centers, in their state-court action challenging Governor Schwarzenegger’s recent budget cuts to vital health and social safety-net programs.
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Martinez, et al. v. Astrue
Ensuring adequate notice provisions in Social Security Administration settlement
In September 2009, the County filed objections to inadequate notice provisions contained in a proposed class-action settlement agreement between the federal Social Security Administration (“SSA”) and individual plaintiffs.
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United Farm Workers of America, et al. v. EPA
Challenging the EPA’s notice and comment procedures for its pesticide registration decisions
In April 2009, the County filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging a lower court decision that effectively reduced the amount of time the County and other localities would have to challenge certain Environmental Protection Agency pesticide re-registration decisions.
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County of Santa Clara v. Astra, et al.
Overcharging by pharmaceutical companies
The County of Santa Clara has sued ten major pharmaceutical companies for overcharging public hospitals and other County-operated medical facilities for outpatient drugs.
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County of Santa Clara, et al. v. Atlantic Richfield et al.
Nuisance by lead paint manufacturers, and public entity’s use of contingency fee counsel to assist in nuisance litigation
The County, along with several other local governments, in particular the City and County of San Francisco, filed this action to hold lead paint manufacturers responsible for abating the public nuisance they created by marketing lead paint as a safe product, despite knowing that the product was in fact dangerous, especially to children.
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County of Santa Clara v. Merck
Fraud by pharmaceutical company
After the County discovered that Merck knowingly withheld information from the FDA and the public that Vioxx, a popular pain medication introduced in 1999 and removed from the market in 2004, could cause cardiac arrest, the County sued Merck for fraud in violation of New Jersey consumer protection laws and for unjust enrichment. The County is a large-volume purchaser of pharmaceutical products because it runs a public health and hospital system. Our suit, brought on behalf of a proposed class of similarly-situated California counties, is pending in multi-district litigation.
City and County of San Francisco, County of Santa Clara, City of Los Angeles, et al. v. Horton
Challenge to Proposition 8
On November 5, 2008, together with the City and County of San Francisco and the City of Los Angeles, the County filed a challenge to Proposition 8 in the California Supreme Court. Proposition 8, a statewide initiative, added a section to the California Constitution providing that “[o]nly marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
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In June 2008, the Board of Supervisors passed a menu labeling ordinance that required chain restaurants to provide consumers with basic information for menu items, such as calorie and nutrient information. The ordinance was adopted to combat the rising obesity epidemic in the County by making it easier for consumers to make healthier decisions about their food. The ordinance was modeled after the New York City and San Francisco ordinances, which the National and California Restaurant Associations challenged in court. Similarly, the California Restaurant Association sued the County to enjoin its ordinance, but then compromised on supporting statewide menu labeling legislation, effective as of July 2009.
County of Santa Clara v. Sempra Energy, et al.
Artificial inflation of price of natural gas
The County brought a class action lawsuit against several natural gas suppliers, alleging that the defendants falsely reported natural gas price information and engaged in “wash trades” to artificially inflate the price of natural gas in California. In 2009, after initial discovery and a favorable preemption decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, all of the defendants sued by the County agreed to settle.
County of Santa Clara v. Driver Alliant
Broker’s failure to disclose commissions
The County filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of itself and other similarly situated public entities against insurance broker Driver Alliant, on the basis of Alliant’s failure to disclose contingent commissions it received from large insurance companies in exchange for Alliant’s commitment to steer business contracts with the County and other class-members to those insurers. In November 2008, Alliant settled the case by paying the County and other class-members $3.2 million, plus $2.5 million in legal fees.
County of Santa Clara v. State Board of Equalization
In 2006, the County sued the State Board of Equalization, challenging an improper classification of sweetened alcoholic drinks known as “alcopops.” Alcopops had been taxed at $0.20 per gallon (the rate for beer) instead of $3.30 per gallon (the rate for drinks with distilled spirits); our suit prompted the Board of Equalization to reclassify alcopops as distilled spirits. The Board of Equalization acknowledged that the State had been losing more than $40 million a year in tax revenues by imposing the lower tax rate. The new rule also will make it harder for underage drinkers to obtain alcopops.
Senate Bill 1136
The County of Santa Clara sponsored SB 1136, which Senator Alquist authored and the Governor signed into law in September 2008. SB 1136 adds a new subsection to the Consumers Legal Remedies Act, making it unlawful for any person to charge or receive an unreasonable fee to aid an applicant in the procurement of Medi-Cal or other social services, and requiring the court to award treble damages for violations. The County’s support for the bill was motivated by its concern at a recent surge in elder financial abuse; in Senator Alquist’s words, “Scam artists are fleecing seniors for $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 for a service that is provided for free by local county social services or human services offices.” The County views strong statutory protections as a vital means of protecting its senior citizen residents from such abuses.
NON-LITIGATION STRATEGIES FOR ADVANCING SOCIAL JUSTICE
Improving Legal Representation for Immigrants
County Counsel secured a small grant from the American Bar Association to train lawyers in October 2008 to represent victims of fraudulent immigration consultants. In collaboration with the Immigrants Legal Resource Center, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School, and Catholic Charities, our October 2008 program trained 19 lawyers.
Educational Rights for Foster Youth
The Educational Rights Project (“ERP”) is Santa Clara County Counsel’s innovative collaboration with the County’s Probation Department and Department of Family and Children Services and with the Morrissey-Compton Educational Center, Inc., and Legal Advocates for Children and Youth (“LACY”). ERP works to provide exceptional needs children in the care and custody of the County with a free and appropriate public education. The County Counsel-led ERP team has identified and served thousands of students, keeping them on track educationally even when they are facing challenges in other areas of their lives. Delinquent and dependent children have a disproportionately high rate of special education needs and are particularly vulnerable to changes in placement that can disrupt educational services. Addressing these children’s educational needs can prevent anti-social and even criminal behaviors and increase the chance of academic and employment success. ERP works with schools, various county departments and the courts to forge creative solutions to systemic issues that hamper access to educational services for our most vulnerable children.
Courses at Stanford Law School and Santa Clara Law School
In Fall 2008 and Spring 2009, County Counsel offered academic courses at Stanford Law School and Santa Clara Law School on local government lawyering and social change. Combining theory with practice, the course consisted of a taught component in which students learned about municipal government law and state-local relations, and a clinical component in which students worked closely with County Counsel attorneys to develop potential litigation and public policy initiatives for consideration by the Board of Supervisors. Students analyzed climate change laws, researched issues relating to single-use bag ordinances, assessed strategies for combating elder abuse, investigated potential avenues for reducing the County’s share of costs under Medi-Cal, surveyed local government practices to assess the efficacy of merging two departments, and supported the Department of Corrections’ efforts to create a model jail program for voter education and registration.