Providing legal representation to people who are vulnerable, disenfranchised, or unable to fight for their rights is a central mission of our firm. Our work covers a broad range of civil rights and civil liberties, and we have successfully litigated both class actions seeking institutional change and individual cases seeking monetary compensation. We represent prisoners and parolees who suffer unconstitutional and abusive conditions, victims of discrimination or violence, and citizens whose voting rights are threatened. We are personally dedicated to achieving tangible results for our clients and to holding institutions accountable for violations of the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution and laws.
Throughout the history of our firm, we have sought to end systemic abuses of prisoners. Our lawsuits have resulted in institutional change and the reform unconstitutional conditions of confinement, denials of mental health and medical care, and unlawful discrimination against persons with disabilities. Our work builds on the principle eloquently stated by the United States Supreme Court in one of our cases: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.” Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910, 1928 (2011).
- Coleman v. Brown/Plata v. Brown: In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons resulted in cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court affirmed a January 2010 order issued by a three-judge federal court after an extensive trial directing California officials to reduce the State’s severe prison overcrowding down to 137.5% of design capacity. The order was issued after the judges found that overcrowding is the primary cause of ongoing unconstitutional conditions in California’s prisons, such as the system’s inability to provide minimally adequate medical and mental health care for prisoners. See Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910 (2011).
- Coleman v. Brown: RBGG represents a class of the more than 30,000 men and women in California’s prison system with serious mental illness. After a contested trial, the district court held that the prison mental health delivery system violates the Eighth Amendment and ordered systemwide injunctive relief. See Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F. Supp. 1282 (E.D. Cal. 1995). The court determined that the constitutional violations remain ongoing in 2013 after the State attempted to terminate the injunction. See Coleman v. Brown, 938 F. Supp. 2d 955 (E.D. Cal. 2013). Through hard-fought litigation over the last two decades, RBGG has secured a number of significant systemic changes on behalf of the class, including, most recently, reforms to policies and practices regarding the use of force against prisoners with mental illness, as well as the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement. See Coleman v. Brown, 28 F. Supp. 3d 1068 (E.D. Cal. 2014). RBGG also recently secured an order requiring the State to provide emergency access to inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, which was affirmed on appeal by the Ninth Circuit in an unpublished decision. For more information see Coleman v. Brown: Court Orders, Reports, Photos, Expert Declarations and Media Coverage.
- Hernandez v. County of Monterey: We sued the County of Monterey and its private medical provider, California Forensic Medical Group, challenging dangerous and unconstitutional conditions in the County’s Jail, a system plagued by severe overcrowding, outdated facilities, and chronic understaffing. In 2014, we defeated the defendants’ motions to dismiss and obtained a unique ruling holding that our clients could assert ADA Title III claims against the Jail’s private medical provider. See Hernandez v. County of Monterey, 70 F.Supp.3d 963 (N.D. Cal. 2014). The federal court subsequently certified a class of the approximately 950 prisoners in the Jail, along with a sub-class of prisoners with disabilities. See Hernandez v. County of Monterey, 305 F.R.D. 132 (N.D. Cal. 2015). On April 14, 2015, the court granted a sweeping preliminary injunction on behalf of the class and sub-class, finding rampant violations of the Constitution and federal law. See Hernandez v. County of Monterey, __ F. Supp. 3d __, 2015 WL 3868036 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 14, 2015). The court approved the parties’ settlement on August 18, 2015, which requires defendants to comply with the requirements of the preliminary injunction and to develop and implement a comprehensive set of plans to enhance services at the Jail. In November 2015, the Court approved a $4.8 million dollar award of fees and costs to counsel for the plaintiff class.
- Hedrick, et al. v. Grant, et. al: RBGG and the UC Davis Civil Rights Clinic represent hundreds of prisoners in a class-action lawsuit to improve conditions of confinement for pre-trial detainees, convicted prisoners, and immigration detainees at California’s Yuba County Jail. In 1979, the federal court approved a consent decree in which Yuba County agreed to maintain certain conditions within the Jail, including in the areas of medical and mental health care, outdoor exercise and out-of-cell time, grievance procedures, housing and safety. In 2013, Yuba County moved to terminate the consent decree, which the federal district court subsequently denied. RBGG is currently working to enforce key provisions of the consent decree and to litigate related matters on appeal before the Ninth Circuit.
- Gates v. Deukmejian: We secured a consent decree requiring California to improve medical and mental health care, treatment of HIV prisoners, and conditions of confinement for certain California prisoners. Over the course of four appeals (one unreported), we successfully defended the scope of the remedy, our entitlement to fees for litigation and monitoring, and an enforcement order prohibiting the use of certain riot-control guns on mentally ill prisoners confined to their cells. See Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392 (9th Cir. 1993), Gates v. Rowland, 39 F.3d 1439 (9th Cir. 1994), and Gates v. Gomez, 60 F.3d 525 (9th Cir. 1995). We also litigated a subsequent related appeal that clarified contempt powers in complex injunction cases. See Gates v. Shinn, 98 F.3d 463 (9th Cir. 1996).
- Toussaint v. McCarthy: Over the thirty-year course of this case concerning the class of prisoners confined to segregation units in four California prisons, we secured preliminary and permanent injunctions to improve conditions as well as substantial fee awards. We also successfully defended various aspects of the injunctions, as well as the award for fees arising from the monitoring process, over the course of eight appeals (five unreported). See Toussaint v. McCarthy, 597 F. Supp. 1388 (N.D. Cal. 1984), aff’d 801 F.2d 1080 (9th Cir. 1986); see also 826 F.2d 901 (9th Cir. 1987), and 926 F.2d 800 (9th Cir. 1990).
The Constitution provides that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” RBGG’s work on behalf of prisoners, parolees, and young people in the juvenile system has led to meaningful reforms that protect this fundamental right. Our efforts have led to greater fairness in parole procedures while promoting alternatives to incarceration, reducing recidivism, and enhancing public safety.
- Valdivia v. Davis: RBGG secured a permanent injunction against the State based on a federal court’s finding that delays in its parole revocation process violated due process protections. The State agreed to improve the timeliness of parole revocation proceedings, to provide probable cause hearings, and to appoint attorneys to represent all parolees facing revocation proceedings, among other fundamental due process protections. See Valdivia v. Davis, 206 F. Supp. 2d 1068 (2002).
- L.H. v. Schwarzenegger: RBGG secured the rights of all juvenile parolees in California to fair hearings when they are accused of violating the terms of their parole. As a result of our lawsuit, the State agreed to provide attorneys to all juvenile parolees accused of parole violations, as well notice of the charges and evidence against them, the right to confront their accusers in a hearing, assistance for those parolees with disabilities, and the right to be considered for community-based alternative sanctions instead of return to the juvenile prison system. See L.H. v. Schwarzenegger, 519 F. Supp. 2d 1072 (2007).
RBGG has long focused on fighting discrimination against persons with disabilities. We have represented classes of persons with disabilities in cases against major public entities such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the California Board of Parole Hearings, and the City of Oakland.
- Cole v. County of Santa Clara: RBGG represents five current and former inmates in a class action on behalf of all prisoners with mobility disabilities to remedy long-standing inaccessibility issues throughout the Santa Clara County Jail system. The complaint was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California on November 14, 2016.
- Armstrong v. Brown: RBGG proved in federal court that California’s prison and parole systems violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by discriminating against prisoners and parolees with mobility, sight, hearing, learning, mental and kidney disabilities. We secured systemwide injunctive relief to end the discrimination, which was upheld on appeal. See Armstrong v. Wilson, 942 F. Supp. 1252 (N.D. Cal. 1996), aff’d 124 F.3d 1019 (9th Cir. 1997). We also established that the State is responsible for taking steps to ensure the rights of prisoners and parolees with disabilities are accommodated when it chooses to house them in third-party county jail facilities. See Armstrong v. Brown, 857 F. Supp. 2d 919 (N.D. Cal. 2012), aff’d 732 F.3d 955 (9th Cir. 2013), cert denied, 134 S. Ct. 2725 (2014); and 622 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2010). RBGG is currently working to end discrimination in assignments to valuable jobs and programs in prison, improving the difficult transition from prison to parole, and facilitating access to education and programs for prisoners with learning disabilities. The Armstrong litigation has resulted in a series of ground-breaking precedents, including rulings that the ADA does not permit state government agencies to avoid compliance by delegating responsibilities to local governments, and that prisoners cannot be held in solitary confinement solely on account of disability.
- Lyft, Inc.: RBGG represents the National Federation of the Blind and blind individuals in structured negotiations with Lyft, Inc. concerning access to Lyft transportation services for riders with service animals, which resulted in a comprehensive nationwide agreement in January 2017 subject to RBGG and co-counsel’s ongoing compliance monitoring.
- National Federation of the Blind v. Uber Technologies, Inc.: RBGG represents the National Federation of the Blind and its California affiliate as well as several individuals in an action challenging denials of service and other discrimination that blind and low-vision riders with guide dogs face when attempting to use transportation arranged through the popular Uber mobile app. On December 6, 2016, the Court granted final approval to a comprehensive nationwide class settlement, which is subject to RBGG and co-counsel’s ongoing compliance monitoring.
- Blanks v. AMC Entertainment, Inc.: RBGG represents the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the California Council of the Blind, and five blind individuals in a class action challenging AMC’s failure to provide reliable and effective access to audio description services at its theaters nationwide. Audio description is a verbal description of key visual aspects of a film during pauses in dialogue provided through an audio track synchronized with playback of the movie. The parties reached a comprehensive settlement agreement in April 2017.
- Hecker v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: RBGG brought this disability discrimination class action on behalf of all California prisoners with serious mental illness. On March 2, 2015, the court approved a final settlement in the case, which includes several statewide policy changes to end discriminatory practices and gives the federal court the power to enforce implementation of the changes as necessary.
- Armstrong v. Davis: After a contested trial, RBGG secured a federal court order requiring the Board of Prison Terms to remedy its failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act during parole hearings. The court issued the order after RBGG presented testimony from, among others, a prisoner who required the use of a wheelchair was forced to crawl upstairs to attend his hearing, a deaf prisoner who could not communicate with his sign language interpreter during his hearing because he was forced to remain shackled, and a blind inmate who was offered no help with understanding complicated written materials regarding his rights. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the injunction. See Armstrong v. Davis, 275 F.3d 849 (9th Cir. 2001).
- Berkeley Center for Independent Living v. Oakland Coliseum: RBGG Managing Partner Michael Bien served as co-lead counsel representing the plaintiff class in a successful federal court ADA action for damages and injunctive relief against the Coliseum, its public entity owners, and all sports teams and entertainment companies operating there.
- Amici Curiae Brief on Behalf of Deaf Advocacy Organizations in Ivy v. Morath: RBGG submitted a friend of the court brief on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf and six other deaf advocacy organizations urging the Supreme Court to recognize that a state-mandated driver education program must be operated and regulated by the state in a manner that is accessible to deaf individuals and in compliance with the Americans with Disability Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Our firm recognizes that the protection of the right to vote goes to the heart of our democracy. Unfair voting systems too often lead to the underrepresentation of certain groups in government, preventing those groups from electing officials responsive to their needs. We bring impact cases to address the violation of voters’ rights and to strengthen and protect our democratic system of government.
- California Council of the Blind v. County of San Mateo: The firm represents an association of blind and low-vision persons and two blind individuals in an action challenging the State and San Mateo County’s failure to provide voters with vision impairments the opportunity to equally participate in the County’s absentee voting program, which relies on inaccessible paper ballots. Plaintiffs seek to vote using software allowing them to read and mark their absentee ballots privately and independently using screen access software on their personal computers, which is already in place in a number of other states.
- Gonzales v. City of Compton: We represented three Latina women in a challenge to the City of Compton’s at-large method of elections under the California Voting Rights Act. We obtained a settlement in which the City agreed to place a measure on the ballot to change the city’s method of elections from at-large to district elections. The ballot initiative passed and, in the next election, Compton residents voted in the first Latino member of the City Council in the City’s history.
RBGG routinely litigates damages actions on behalf of prisoners who have been subjected to unconstitutional abuse, denials of basic and life-saving medical and mental health treatment, and dangerous conditions. Through this work, we are committed to obtaining fair compensation for the victims of misconduct, and to effecting systemic changes that will prevent similar incidents in the future.
- Fabio Petrolino v. City and County of San Francisco: RBGG represents the children, mother, and siblings of Alberto Petrolino, who was arrested after threatening to commit suicide and taken to the County’s jail, rather than a psychiatric hospital, where, despite his family’s warnings, he was placed in regular housing with no suicide precautions and denied access to mental health treatment. Three days later, Alberto committed suicide by hanging himself in a shower stall. On June 2, 2016, we filed a federal civil rights action alleging that Alberto’s death was preventable were it not for the deliberate indifference of the arresting officer and jail personnel, and inadequate policies and practices at the jail.
- Estate of Bock v. County of Sutter: RBGG represented the four daughters of a man with serious mental illness who was denied access to clinically necessary and court-ordered psychiatric hospitalization while in the County’s jail. After being placed in solitary confinement and denied treatment at the jail for four weeks, he committed suicide in his cell. We obtained an $800,000 settlement in the case, along with a commitment from the County to consider expert recommendations to improve the treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness and medical conditions at the jail going forward.
- Estate of Prasad v. County of Sutter: RBGG represented the mother and children of a young man who developed a life threatening infection over the course of several days at the County’s jail. Custody and medical staff ignored and failed to respond to his worsening condition and pleas for help, leading to his preventable and painful death. After defeating the County’s motion to dismiss, we obtained a $775,000 settlement in the case, the majority of which was set aside to benefit the children. See Estate of Prasad v. County of Sutter, 958 F. Supp. 2d 1101 (2013).
- Estate of Nunuha v. State of Hawaii: RBGG represented the mother and son of Bronson Nunuha, a young Hawaii prisoner who was brutally murdered at a Corrections Corporation of America private prison in Arizona, when two prison gang members entered his unlocked cell and stabbed him to death. The wrongful death lawsuit alleged that the death was preventable were it not for the prison’s inadequate security policies and practices, and the State of Hawaii’s lack of oversight. We obtained a confidential settlement in the case.
- Estate of Medina v. State of Hawaii: RBGG represented the mother, sister, and two aunts of Clifford Medina, a young developmentally disabled Hawaii prisoner who was murdered by his cellmate at a Corrections Corporation of America private prison in Arizona, less than four months after Bronson Nunuha was killed in the same housing unit. The wrongful death lawsuit alleged that custody staff ignored clear warning signs that Clifford Medina was in danger, including threats made by the killer the day before the murder. We obtained a confidential settlement in the case.
- Lucas v. White: In this federal civil rights action for damages and injunctive relief, RBGG represented three female prisoners who were sexually assaulted while incarcerated in federal prison. The federal government agreed to pay $500,000 in damages. It further agreed to system-wide reform of its policies, procedures, and training governing issues of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the rights of female prisoners and victims of crimes. The court also awarded RBGG and its cocounsel over $500,000 in attorneys’ fees. See Lucas v. White, 63 F. Supp. 2d 1046 (N.D. Cal. 1999).
- Pruitt v. County of Sacramento: RBGG represented two men who were the victims of wide-ranging police and prosecutorial misconduct that included their wrongful arrests and detentions. After defeating the County’s motion to dismiss, RBGG secured a settlement of $400,000 for our clients.
- Knowles v. City of Benicia: We represented a young man who was arrested by Benecia police without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. After the court granted our motion for summary adjudication, RBGG secured a settlement of over $600,000 for our client. See Knowles v. City of Benicia, 785 F. Supp. 2d 936 (2011).
- Countee v. County of Sacramento: RBGG represented a young man held as a pre-trial detainee in Sacramento jail who was suffered severe mental and physical injury after jail staff threw a flash-bang grenade into his cell and then denied him appropriate medical treatment for hours afterwards. The County agreed to pay our client $260,000 to settle the matter.
RBGG recognizes that discrimination based on sex, gender, and sexual orientation continues to create unfair barriers to equal opportunity and full participation in our society. We represent clients who have suffered such discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, fighting for their right to be treated fairly.
- Sassman v. Brown and Berman v. Brown: RBGG brought two Equal Protection Clause challenges to California’s Alternative Custody Program (ACP), a voluntary program that allows certain female low-level prisoners to serve up to the last 24 months of their sentences in the community in lieu of confinement in state prison. RBGG demonstrated that allowing qualified male inmates to also participate in the ACP is not only required by the Fourteenth Amendment, but will also benefit children and families, reduce recidivism, and save the State money. In 2014, the Sassman court found it likely that California illegally discriminates on the basis of gender by excluding males from the ACP. See Sassman v. Brown, 73 F.Supp.3d 1241 (E.D. Cal. 2014). In ruling for RBGG’s client on cross-motions for summary judgment, the court in 2015 permanently enjoined the State from enforcing the female-only provisions of California Penal Code § 1170.05(a) and ordered Defendants to immediately accept male applicants if they are otherwise eligible. Mr. Sassman and a number of other male former prisoners are now free and participating in the ACP. See Sassman v. Brown, 99 F. Supp. 3d 1223 (E.D. Cal. 2015).
- Amicus Briefs on Behalf of Survivors of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts: RBGG has submitted multiple friend of court briefs urging the Supreme Court to recognize sexual orientation as a suspect classification under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the recent marriage equality cases. See Obergefell v. Hodges, __ S.Ct. __ (2015); Hollingsworth v. Perry, 133 S. Ct. 2652 (2013), and United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). We also submitted briefs in support of California and New Jersey laws enacted to protect minors from the serious harms caused by “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE), the dangerous “therapies” purportedly designed to “treat” homosexuality. See Pickup v. Brown/Welch v. Brown, 728 F.3d 1042 (2013), and King v. New Jersey, 767 F.3d 216 (2014).
- In re Joshua S.: We submitted a “friend of court” brief on behalf of various civil rights organizations in support of the plaintiffs’ right to collect attorneys’ fees under California’s private attorney general fee statute for her successful effort to establishing the validity of second parent adoptions in which the same-sex partner of a birth mother adopted the mother’s child while the mother remained a coparent. See In re Joshua S., 42 Cal. 4th 945 (2008).
RBGG has served as counsel in negotiations and litigation to assert our individual clients’ rights under state and federal disability law against various public and private entities, including state agencies and retail stores. In particular, RBGG has focused on protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities on the job, including several employees with diabetes.
- Sharkey v. O’Neal: RBGG secured a unanimous total reversal in the Ninth Circuit of an order dismissing the complaint of a disabled client who suffered horrendous pain, stress, and deprivation of important medical treatment due to the State’s denial of reasonable accommodations for his disability. The case established, for the first time, that a three-year statute of limitations applies to Americans with Disabilities Act claims brought against public entities in California, rather than the previously assumed two years. See Sharkey v. O’Neal, – F.3d — (9th Cir. 2015).
- Deaf Patient v. Hospital: Co-counseling with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), RBGG obtained a favorable settlement on behalf of a young girl with extensive, chronic medical needs who is deaf and communicates through a sign language interpreter. Her local hospital had refused to provide necessary sign language interpretation services for her while she was receiving treatment. RBGG secured an action plan whereby the girl would be provided an on-site interpreter whenever necessary for her to receive effective communication. The confidential settlement included monetary compensation for the girl’s parents and payment of attorney’s fees, as well as an agreement by the hospital to give serious consideration to RBGG and NAD’s recommendations to improve the hospital’s policy for serving its deaf patient population.
- Employees v. National Retailer: We represented three individuals against a major national retailer in federal court. The employees alleged age and disability discrimination, as well as violations of federal and state medical leave laws. We obtained a favorable settlement for the clients early in the litigation.
- Individual v. Fire Agency: Through pre-litigation negotiations, RBGG secured reinstatement of a job offer to a woman whose offer of employment as a firefighter was revoked because she had insulin-dependent diabetes.
- Employee v. Retail Store: RBGG obtained a favorable settlement for a store cashier summarily terminated for treating her low blood sugar by purchasing a small snack while on the job.
- Employee v. Fire Agency: We helped a state fire agency employee secure reasonable accommodations to allow him to manage his diabetes on the job and to successfully complete the rigorous Fire Academy course.
RBGG has represented parents of young students with special education needs to ensure their rights are protected at school. For example, we have worked extensively with families to ensure that children with diabetes receive the care they need at school and are able to safely participate in all school activities and programs with their peers, in accordance with the California Supreme Court’s decision in ANA v. Torlakson, 57 Cal. 4th 570 (2013).
RBGG’s lawyers represent persons who were victims of crimes, working to protect their rights and dignity through criminal and administrative proceedings and to obtain compensation for their injuries and losses. We have represented persons ranging from female prisoners to a female college student who was sexually assaulted in the course of a sorority hazing. Our goal is to ensure the safety and security of the client, to aid in her recovery from the injuries she suffered, and to protect her rights and dignity through the various criminal, civil, and administrative processes.