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Civil Rights and Federal Practice: Protecting the Public

October 22, 2018 12:00 PM

Clinic Director Lucia Blacksher Ranier and Clinical Instructor Sam Brandao. (Photo credit: Tracie Morris Schaefer)


When an Uptown New Orleans landlord was accused by female tenants of repeated unwanted sexual advances, including propositioning applicants and tenants for dates, Civil Litigation Clinic alumna Cashauna Hill (L'05), Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, reached out to the Tulane Civil Rights and Federal Practice Clinic.

Now, Tulane student attorneys are representing the organization in a lawsuit. Together, the Center and the Civil Rights Clinic are enforcing laws banning sexual harassment, often framed as a workplace issue, to address a pattern and practice of sex discrimination in housing.

“It’s the kind of case where clinic students can make a difference in their community, and learn to use the law to educate and protect the public,” said Professor Lucia Blacksher Ranier, the Civil Rights Clinic’s Director since 2016.

The clinic’s name recently was changed from “Civil Litigation” to “Civil Rights and Federal Practice” to better reflect the scope of the cases that student-attorneys most often undertake.

The Civil Rights Clinic represents some of the most vulnerable in our society, and in the process helps students understand how procedure can make all the difference in advocating for a client. After entering practice, clinic students say they have a leg up compared to their peers because they approach the bar exam and enter the legal profession as highly competent lawyers with a year of federal practice under their belts.

 “Studying for the bar this summer, I was extremely grateful for all that we learned in clinic seminar as we studied federal civil procedure,” said Alexis Tringas (L'18). “Additionally, so many of the skills I learned in clinic have been skills I am able to speak about in various interviews.”

Experienced attorney-faculty like Blacksher Ranier, who joined the clinic in 2009, make all the difference. With a background as a trial attorney in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and as the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center’s general counsel, Blacksher Ranier knows what legal strategies and courtroom skills will make a well-rounded future lawyer.

“Our primary goal is for students—regardless of their skill set—to have an opportunity to develop skills they will use in practice, including learning to interview and counsel clients, prepare witnesses, write legal briefs, deliver oral arguments and research and plan case strategy, while providing them the opportunity to represent clients who otherwise could not pay for their representation,” she said.

“[The Civil Rights Clinic] just made me look awesome and saved me,” said Stephanie Moore Hartman (L'18), who, as a student attorney, worked on cases alleging disability discrimination under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sam Brandao (L'12), an alumnus of both the Civil Rights and Legislative Advocacy Clinics and a Skadden Fellow, is a clinical instructor working alongside Blacksher Ranier. His clinic skills helped during the two years he spent as a Skadden Fellow, litigating housing discrimination cases and advocating for persons with disabilities through Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

“The clinic standard was my reference point,” Brandao said, referring to expectations designed to instill high-quality professional and ethical practices. “Among them: stay in touch with clients. Preserve all communications. Write a memo after every phone call. Plan ahead. Keep files in pristine order so they’re ready if another lawyer must take over.”

The Civil Rights Clinic represents clients on a range of civil rights issues spanning from prisoners’ rights, to housing and employment discrimination, to violations of civil liberties. Clients obtain clinic representation frequently through partnerships with national organizations, local advocacy groups, and the courts.

Clinic grads Jay Jensen and Alexis Tringas

One recent example is a case where two student attorneys, working closely with Brandao, helped pave the way for systemic changes in the way the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) provides housing assistance to people with disabilities. The students, Tringas and Jay Jensen (L'18), fought on behalf of two clients who were forced to move or pay higher rents following unannounced changes in agency policy.

Students advocated for their clients before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) while preparing a federal complaint, ultimately negotiating an agreement in December 2017 that included both compensation for their clients and HANO policy changes and staff training.

“Advocating for our clients in the conciliation meeting was an invaluable experience. The meeting gave us an opportunity to negotiate with opposing counsel and fight for improvements to a vital public program that affects thousands of people in our community,” Jensen said.

Jessi Ballard and Morgan Kelley secured their client's parole.

Civil Rights Clinic students have also helped fill the gap in access to legal assistance for the growing number of inmates eligible for parole following a 2017 wave of criminal justice reform in Louisiana.

Jessi Ballard (L'18) and Morgan Kelley (L'18), both third-year law students last spring, represented George Simmons, an inmate serving 44 years in prison who wrote to the clinic for help after realizing he might be eligible. The students made several trips to Rayburn Correctional Center to interview Simmons and also conducted extensive fact investigation. Students met with his family, investigated the array of resources necessary to ensure his success upon release, and assembled documents and witnesses in preparation for the hearing. 

In January 2018, both Ballard and Kelley advocated for Simmons before the parole board, emphasizing their client’s transformation over 44 years of incarceration and his supportive family network. The parole board voted unanimously to grant Simmons’s petition, and he was released in February 2018.

Morgan Kelley describes the experience as the “pinnacle” of her law school career.

“The decision had to be unanimous, and we had to persuade every single one of the panel members to get on board and let him out. And we were able to do that. It was the most euphoric feeling. I will never forget it,” she said.