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Opportunity Under Law

Overview

Every person deserves the chance to have a meaningful, safe, productive life. Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law uses a model of community-based impact litigation to develop campaigns to eliminate barriers to opportunity. We represent individuals and communities confronting significant structural inequities and discrimination on the basis of race, wealth, disability, gender, immigration status, or a combination of these and other characteristics. These inequities manifest in areas including education, housing, working conditions, and access to opportunity.

Staff photo
Members of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law and attorneys with Winston & Strawn LLP gather with lead plaintiff Kawika Smith (second from left, bottom row) after filing a lawsuit in 2019 challenging the University of California’s use of the SAT and ACT.

Many of our cases derive from patterns of injustice identified by attorneys in Public Counsel’s other work areas who see their clients face repeated, relentless barriers every day. Working closely with the organization’s direct services programs and across its subject areas, Opportunity Under Law is uniquely positioned to bring meaningful impact cases in California and beyond. This dynamic exchange between individual representation, direct services, and impact litigation gives our organization a unique opportunity to bring large-scale civil rights cases, to work closely with affected communities, and to communicate broadly to advance the public discourse.

The Opportunity Under Law team includes attorneys committed to community-based lawyering as well as organizers who engage with individual community members and organizations, and conduct outreach activities in conjunction with community partners.

Focus Areas

Education Equity

  • OUL has brought groundbreaking lawsuits at the intersection of education and racial justice, including Stephen C. v. Bureau of Indian Education, Ella T. v. State of California, Peter P. v. Compton Unified School District, and Smith v. Regents of the University of California. These cases have secured important rights for students of color and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including a constitutional right to literacy, rights to reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities resulting from trauma, and non-discriminatory admissions practices. OUL’s education work spans federal and state courts across the country and serves Native/indigenous communities, public school students in several states, and community organizations seeking to advance students’ educational opportunities. 

Immigrants’ Rights 

  • Working with Public Counsel’s Immigrants Rights Project, OUL has been at the forefront of major litigation on behalf of immigrants and DACA recipients. OUL and IRP led and won the “Dreamers case” – the first lawsuit on behalf of DACA beneficiaries seeking to block the Trump Administration from creating a new policy undoing the assurances afforded to students, workers, and other individuals who were brought to this country as children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, OUL and IRP secured the release of immigrants who were unlawfully detained by ICE in unsafe conditions while California’s stay-at-home orders were in effect. OUL also secured mental health services and supports for families who were separated at the border under the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. 

Economic Rights

  • OUL’s economic rights practice fights to protect workers from discrimination and exploitation on the basis of race, sex, disability, immigration status, and other protected characteristics. OUL has reached groundbreaking settlements in cases involving gender discrimination in workers’ compensation and enforcement of heat regulations on behalf of farmworkers, and represents workers facing sexual harassment, hostile work environments, and unsafe working conditions. 

Child Welfare

  • OUL led the class action lawsuit Kevin S. v. Blalock & Scrase, representing children in foster care against the child welfare and human services agencies in New Mexico. The case yielded a groundbreaking settlement that secured accommodations and services for children impacted by trauma as a result of their time in state custody. OUL continues to work on the implementation of the settlement along with the State of New Mexico, national experts in child welfare and behavioral health, and community and legal services organizations. 

Criminalization of Poverty

  • Working with the Debt Free Justice Coalition, OUL represents indigent defendants challenging criminal fines and fees imposed without consideration of their ability to pay. These fines and fees disproportionately affect black and Latinx defendants and their families, and violate due process and equal protection principles in the California and federal constitutions.

Housing Rights

  • OUL represents tenants and people experiencing homelessness who are fighting for their right to a safe, affordable place to live. Along with Public Counsel’s Community Development Project, OUL intervened on behalf of tenants to defend emergency housing protections put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team prevailed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 
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