Legal Group Offers Aid To Class Action Lawsuits

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In today's world, lawyers with a conscience are about as rare as a red-shirted student in the UC Berkeley student section at the Big Game. But a Berkeley-based group is helping to prove this stereotype wrong.

In this money-driven society, it would seem that no sane lawyer would defend a poverty-stricken defendant when the plaintiff is the one with all the cash. The Impact Fund, a Berkeley organization founded to provide legal assistance to class action lawsuits against corporations and the government, is helping to balance out the picture.

Since 1993, the Impact Fund has donated more than $2.5 million in legal aid and expenses to various causes. The organization, founded by Bay Area civil rights lawyer Brad Seligman, has funded cases ranging from wheelchair access in Taco Bell to police brutality.

Educated at the Hastings College of Law, Seligman worked in private practice before founding the Impact Fund. In 1992, Seligman successfully litigated the third largest sexual discrimination class action recovery in history, a ruling against Lucky Stores.

But after turning 40, Seligman decided that he was done with life as a private attorney.

"I was a single parent and I wanted to have more flexibility and variety in what I did, without worrying about making a living," Seligman says.

But Seligman did not have retirement in mind when he quit his law firm, and he was not going to let his years of legal training and experience go to waste.

"I wanted to use the money I had made and the skills I had developed to foster big impact cases," he says. "I wanted to help smaller groups in their litigations."

Although based in Berkeley, the Impact Fund remains committed to providing legal aid for cases across the nation. This year, the organization provided assistance to litigations from Oakland to Boston.

In the United States, citizens are entitled to the right to trial by a jury of their peers. But for many black defendants in Alabama, according to a report by the group, the jury that sentenced them to death was filled with whites.

Fed up with this perceived inequality, the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of black citizens of Elmore County, Ala. With funding from the Impact Fund, the 1998 suit was successful and the state of Alabama agreed to reform their jury selection process in order to ensure more equal representation.

One of the project's most impressive victories occurred in Ward Valley, where the state of California attempted to build a nuclear waste dump near "sensitive" water areas, Seligman says.

"At the end of the many-year struggle, the project was shut down," he says. "The waste plant will never be built there, and the desert tortoise will be saved."

Although donating money to class action lawsuits has proved successful for the Impact Fund, they are now taking their quest for justice even further. The Equal Justice Litigation Project, a subsidiary of the Impact Fund, was established to further this cause.

The project is based on the idea that to advance justice, small firms and non-profit organizations need legal skills and expertise to try their own cases. The project trains lawyers from these firms and organizations to pursue their own litigation and create a model of class action effectiveness across the nation.

Another project started by the Impact Fund is the Discrimination Resource Center. This center, also the brainchild of Seligman, investigates job discrimination by sending "testers" of different races, genders and backgrounds to job interviews and studying hiring patterns.

"The Discrimination Resource Center is one of only three employment discrimination investigators in the country," says Ana Newnis, project coordinator. "I had always been interested in employment policy, and when I heard Brad Seligman was starting this center, I jumped at the chance (to be involved)."

The Impact Fund gets financial support from two main sources. Their largest source is grants from other public interest organizations, such as the Public Welfare Foundation of Washington, D.C. and the California Consumer Protection Foundation of Sebastopol.

Personal gifts are the Impact Fund's second major source of income. The organization also brings in a limited amount of money from unclaimed damages from previous class-action suits. The vast majority of public contributors are from California, where the group has focused its attention.

"The Impact Fund has provided us with many types of support, mostly for non-lawyer issues like expert consultation," says Steve Fleischli, executive director of the Santa Monica Baykeeper. "They've been wonderful. There are few groups willing to support such litigation, especially at the grass roots level."

The Santa Monica Baykeeper monitors the environmental health of the Santa Monica and San Pedro bays. With the help of the Impact Fund, they filed a lawsuit against the city of Santa Monica for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act resulting in raw sewage spilling into poor neighborhoods near the bay. The suit is pending.

Many cases the Impact Fund supports, including the suit against Santa Monica, take many years to complete. But Seligman and the organizations he supports never lose hope.

"We have definitely been successful," says Seligman. "We've been going for about seven years and granted over $2.5 million. The cases we've funded all cross the country have led to impressive victories in a range of areas. I am honored and proud to help dedicated and hard-working people in their struggles."


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