Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

By Emily Myers

On April 22, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) introduced H.R. 1927, a bill that would severely limit the ability of citizens who have been harmed or ripped off to band together in a class-action lawsuit. The bill stipulates that in order to be certified as a class, each individual member must prove they have suffered an injury identical in type and extent to the proposed class representative(s). This would create unnecessary red tape for people who have suffered harm at the hands of corporations and institutions and effectively ban them from forming class actions. Historically, class actions have been an efficient and economical way for consumers and citizens to reconcile their disputes with employers and companies. Below are five of the most important class-action lawsuits that would have been threatened by Rep. Goodlatte’s bill.

Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Company

Immortalized in the film Erin Brockovich, Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. allowed the residents of Hinkley, California, to be compensated for the medical costs of PG&E’s negligence. PG&E had been knowingly dumping hexavalent chromium, a recognized poison since 1925, into the town’s groundwater. In 1996, the lawsuit was settled for $333 million, the largest civil action settlement at the time. This case would have been virtually impossible to win had the residents of Hinkley been prohibited from banding together. Unless we want to encourage corporations to freely pump carcinogens through our water, we need to protect the right to class-action lawsuits and oppose Rep. Goodlatte’s bill.

Brown v. Board of Education

A class-action lawsuit was behind one of the most important civil rights cases of all times, ensuring that the quality of one’s education would no longer be decided by the color of one’s skin. After the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, decided to maintain its racially segregated elementary school system, African-American children of elementary school age brought a class action lawsuit challenging the system in a federal court in Kansas. The case ultimately was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court together with similar class actions filed on behalf of children in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. Those fighting for social justice argued that “separate but equal” was a myth because as long as black and white schools remained segregated they would never be equal. On May 17, 1954, The court agreed, and a major milestone in the civil rights movement was reached. If we want to keep moving our society forward to achieve better civil rights protections, we cannot restrict class-action lawsuits.

Anderson et al., v. Cryovac Inc. et al.

You may know this case from the John Travolta movie, A Civil Action, but outside the world of cinema, it had major impact on the lives of Woburn, Massachusetts, residents. The named plaintiff, Anne Anderson, and six other Woburn families sued Beatrice Foods, the John L. Riley Tannery, and W.R. Grace & Company, a New York company that owned and operated the Cryovac Division manufacturing plant, for polluting the town’s drinking water with trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene and other toxic chemicals. Woburn families had suffered immensely at the hands of these companies’ actions. In addition to health problems like skin rashes, vision difficulties, miscarriages and headaches, 12 Woburn children, eight of them living within a half-mile radius, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The plaintiff class ultimately was rewarded a settlement of approximately $8 million. The expense of proving companies are responsible for causing an illness is very high since experts are required to help draw the connection to who caused the harm. It’s only efficient to bring such cases as class actions, where multiple persons have suffered some harm caused by the same entity or entities. The fact is, a class action was the best hope for Woburn families, as it is for many people.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Litigation

In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Until the BP Oil spill in 2010, the Exxon Valdez spill was considered to be the worst environmental disaster in the United States. In addition to the appalling environmental degradation, the livelihoods of local people plummeted as a result of the spill. A class action was filed on behalf of 32,000 fishermen, Alaska natives, landowners, and others. U.S. District Court Judge H. Russell Holland stated that, “Exxon officials knew that carrying huge volumes of crude oil through Prince William Sound was a dangerous business, yet they knowingly permitted a relapsed alcoholic to direct the operation of the Exxon Valdez through Prince William Sound.” After years of appeals and renegotiations, the plaintiff class was awarded $1.515 billion. The negligence of Exxon Mobil leading up to the spill was staggering, and the harm the corporation did needed to be reconciled. Rep. Goodlatte’s bill would prevent people affected by corporate wrongdoing from banding together and seeking justice, as those harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill did.

Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company

Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., depicted in the film North Country, was the first sexual harassment class-action lawsuit. Filed on behalf of Lois E. Jenson and 14 other female workers in the EVTAC mine in Eveleth, Minnesota, in 1988, the conclusion of the case changed worker protection laws on both the state and federal levels and set a precedent for other class actions aiming to end workplace harassment and discrimination. The women involved in the class-action lawsuit were subjected to extreme harassment in the form of stalking, abusive language, threats and intimidation. Since 1984, Lois E. Jenson had repeatedly tried to bring attention to the problem but was met with additional hostile behavior and eventual dismissal. A class-action suit allowed her and 14 other women to be compensated for the traumatizing harassment they endured. In 1994, the case ended with an out-of-court settlement after years of delay by the judges and jury. The 15 women received a monetary settlement from the EVTAC mine of $3.5 million. It’s extremely important that we keep Rep. Goodlatte from turning back the clock on women’s ability to challenge harmful behavior in the workplace like sexual harassment.

Emily Myers is an intern with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division

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Today, we remember the victims of fatal workplace hazards and observe Workers Memorial Day. We have all encountered a hazard in the workplace at one time or another. Whether it was a slippery floor, unguarded machinery, blocked emergency exits or a frayed electrical cord, hazards in the workplace come in many different shapes and forms.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, during 2013 (most recent data available) 4,585 workers died on the job, averaging 13 fatalities per day nationwide. Although it is true that the rate of occupational fatalities has decreased since the inception of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970, far too many families are still losing loved ones due to employer negligence and workplace accidents.

Recent examples of workplace fatalities around the nation during the past several weeks have been prevalent in the media. In New York City, a 40 year old worker was crushed by a crane that collapsed. In Philadelphia, a 42 year old carpenter fell 80-feet to his death from a scaffold. In San Francisco, a 28-year old was struck and killed by a rolling pipe in a job-site accident near Highway 101.

The resources that have been appropriated to OSHA to protect worker safety and health are dismal at best.

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Every year at tax time, as we all do our civic duty by submitting our federal, state and local taxes, we should all be thinking about the many multinational businesses that are not pulling their weight because they have successfully avoided paying corporate taxes.

The key to progressive taxation is placing the greatest obligation of a tax on those who can pay the most. Certainly we are facing huge pushback to this idea from the super rich and Wall Street.

The truth is, corporations are paying less and less of their share of taxes. In 2014, corporations paid taxes equal to less than two percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 1950s the corporate share was double that, at more than 4 percent share of the GDP. Meanwhile, individuals’ tax payments in 2014 equaled more than 8 percent of the GDP — four times the corporate share for the same year.

Loopholes in our tax code, passed at the behest of the multinational corporations they benefit, have shifted the lion’s share of tax responsibilities onto American small businesses and average taxpayers. Studies show each small business in the U.S. pays an average of more than $3,200 in taxes to cover the cost of taxes avoided by multinational corporations.

Armies of lobbyists and tax lawyers have made Big Business complicit in shrinking our nation’s revenue stream, even as they take full advantage of government largesse. We must correct this systemic unfairness, which exacerbates the economic inequality that holds so many back from achieving the American Dream.

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By J. Thomas

This month, Dr. Gerald Friedman, Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, released a new study on the potential cost savings if New York state implemented a single-payer, universal health care system. In a single-payer system, every American would be guaranteed a basic level of health care, much like Medicare guarantees health coverage to American seniors.

Among the findings from Friedman’s estimates: 98 percent of New Yorkers would save money; 2 percent of New Yorkers – those making more than $436,000 annually – would pay more via increased taxes; New Yorkers would save an average of $2,200 each year; and business savings would spur the creation of 200,000 jobs. Moreover, Friedman says, “New York’s overall economic savings from a single-payer model reduces health care spending by $45 billion.”

“This detailed economic study gives us clear proof that a universal health care plan is the right move for New York,” said Assembly Health Committee chair and lead sponsor Richard Gottfried.

It’s more urgent than ever for New Yorkers to learn about the benefits of universal health care. In December, Public Citizen Health Care Advocate Vijay Das spoke before New York legislators as part of a series of historic meetings in support of the New York Health Bill, which would extend health coverage to every New Yorker.

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The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved …”

Even though we are all granted the right to a trial by jury in the U.S. Constitution, Big Banks and corporations regularly use fine print in contracts to trick consumers out of their right to a day in court. Forced arbitration means that if consumers are ripped off or otherwise harmed, they must use private arbitration proceedings to air their grievances.

If you’re already angry about forced arbitration and you want to do something to get these predatory terms out of financial products, skip to the end of this post for ways to get involved.

There’s plenty to be mad about. These expensive arbitration “tribunals” have no judge or jury. They are overseen by paid arbitration providers who are selected by the companies. Arbitration firms have a very good reason to guarantee repeat business for themselves by finding in favor of the corporations over the consumers. The findings of arbitration decisions are not public and the appeals process is very limited. Most likely, you will also be required to go to arbitration in another state!

If consumers were interested in choosing arbitration, they would enter into the decision after some harm has come to them. It would need to be an informed decision where they did so with a full understanding of the consequences of their choice to not go to court.

But that’s not how we’re all roped into signing (or even clicking) away our rights. It has been proven that consumers rarely understand that their contracts contain arbitration clauses and have little idea of the repercussions of having their complaints heard in a non-court venue.

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