The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative provides students with the unique opportunity to work on important civil rights cases in a clinical setting. Taught by the former long-time legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, the goal of the course is to prepare students to use the law to advance social justice.
About the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative
While the types of cases will vary from semester to semester, students will have the opportunity to work on litigation addressing one or more of the following issues: fair housing, student rights, racial justice, police misconduct, immigrant rights, free speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights, ethnic and religious discrimination, voting rights, disability rights and the right to privacy. Students will work on civil rights cases on behalf of individuals as well as larger impact cases.
Students, under faculty supervision, will gain experience in many of the following areas:
- Working with impacted communities to identify injustices
- Researching and developing winning legal theories
- Interviewing potential clients
- Writing public record requests and demand letters
- Drafting complaints
- Researching and writing briefs
- Arguing motions
- Taking depositions and engaging in other discovery
- Negotiating settlements
- Trying cases
- Drafting appellate briefs
- Arguing appeals
Students will work primarily in federal court and will learn how to avoid the many procedural minefields that civil rights litigants face when seeking injunctive relief or recovering damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (“the Initiative”) provides law students at the University of Michigan Law School with the opportunity to litigate civil rights cases under the supervision of experienced faculty.
The Initiative only accepts cases in the following areas: racial justice, police misconduct, fair housing, student rights, immigrant rights, free speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights, ethnic and religious discrimination, voting rights, disability rights and the right to privacy. We also only accept cases that arose in Michigan.
Racially Restrictive Covenant Project
Thousands of homes in Ann Arbor have a provision in the deed that prohibits non-white people from occupying the house “except as servants.” While no longer enforceable, these racially restrictive covenants have caused immeasurable harm to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and they are responsible, in part, for today’s segregated neighborhoods and the racialized wealth disparities between Ann Arbor residents.
CRLI has initiated a project to (1) expose the fact that these covenants still exist, (2) educate the community about the present impact of racially restrictive covenants in Ann Arbor, and (3) eliminate or modify the racist covenants in all future sales of Ann Arbor homes. We have created an impressive advisory board of community leaders and U-M scholars to guide our work.
We are currently in the process of creating an interactive online map that will allow people to see the exact language of racial restrictive covenants on individual homes in Ann Arbor.
We believe there is no better way to “bring home” the fact that white supremacy is pervasive – even in “progressive” cities like Ann Arbor – than for a resident to learn that the deed of their house prohibits BIPOC from living there.
Student attorneys: Diane Kee, David Fegley, and Liza Davis.
Racially Hostile Environment at Pioneer High School
For generations, Black students and other students of color have felt that they were second class citizens at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, today is no different.
In August, CRLI filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights on behalf of Makayla Kelsey alleging that a racially hostile environment exists at the Pioneer High. We also sent a 14-page demand letter to the Ann Arbor Public Schools setting forth examples of problems at the school, including: an online competition in an economics class to see who could own the most slaves by the end of the exercise; harsher punishment of Black students than white students for similar conduct; and discriminatory treatment of the Black Student Union. The letter also pointed out the particularly egregious conduct of one long term teacher.
Specifically, this teacher regularly insulted Black students and their parents in front of the class, used coded language to criticize Black students as “criminals” and “delinquents”; touched Black students without their consent; and humiliated Black students who are struggling in class by placing their grades up on the smart board.
The letter calls for an independent investigation of the racial climate by an outside civil rights organization, a race discrimination complaint system, and the dismissal of the problematic teacher.
Student attorneys: Liza Davis, Martese Johnson, Katie Chan, and Anna Belkin.
Race discrimination in employment
CRLI helped a talented Black employee press his race discrimination complaints against his local government employer. The case eventually settled on favorable grounds with a confidential separation agreement.
Student attorneys: Katie Chan and Anna Belkin.
Excessive force against Black Lives Matter protesters
Detroit Will Breathe (DWB) is a non-profit organization that has been protesting in the streets of Detroit every day since the murder of George Floyd in May.
The protests in Detroit have been remarkably peaceful, and the isolated incidents of vandalism have not been carried out by DWB or its members. Nonetheless, the Detroit Police Department have used military tactics against DWB members.
For example, when DWB peacefully blocked traffic to protest federal officers coming to Detroit, the police responded by shooting protesters with rubber bullets, beating them with batons and shields, using deafening and disorienting sound cannons and flash grenades, deploying tear gas, pepper spraying handcuffed activists, and placing protesters in dangerous chokeholds.
CRLI is providing assistance to the National Lawyers Guild, who represents the plaintiffs. (Detroit Will Breathe v. City of Detroit)
Student attorneys: Amy Ciardiello, Martese Johnson, Will Walker, and Patrick McDonell.
Qualifying for the ballot during the pandemic
In Michigan, in order to qualify for the ballot, candidates for some offices must collect thousands of valid petition signatures. During normal times, serious candidates for office can usually meet the signature requirement with ease. But, because of Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order promulgated in response to the pandemic, it was a crime petition in public places or canvass door-to-door in the spring of 2020.
As a result, numerous candidates who had been diligently collecting signatures before the pandemic would lose the opportunity to appear on the ballot. CRLI wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the ACLU of Michigan arguing the that the signature requirement during these unique times was unconstitutional.
After thanking CRLI and the ACLU for its helpful briefs and oral argument, the federal judge reduced the number of required signatures by 50 percent, allowed candidates to collect signatures electronically, and extended the time to file the signatures. (Esshaki v. Whitmer)
Student attorneys: Diane Kee, Katie Chan, Brian Remlinger, Maiya Moncino, and Brooke Simon.
Freedom of Speech
Supporting young Black Live Matter protesters in Chelsea
Mya King is an impressive 16-year-old high school student who has been attending Black Lives Matter protests in Chelsea with a group called Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth (ARCY).
At one protest this summer, an adult counter-protester punched Mya in the face. The Chelsea police officer assigned to investigate the assault was openly hostile to Mya. When ARCY publicized the Chelsea officer’s racist posts on Facebook, the officer was suspended from the force. Rather than apologizing to Mya and supporting her, Chelsea has now issued Mya a ticket for “impeding traffic” – allegedly for marching for racial justice for short periods of time on one side of the main street of this small town.
By comparison, other cities throughout Washtenaw County and across the country, regularly direct traffic around Black Lives Matter protesters, even when they kneel in major intersections and block all traffic for long periods of time.
CRLI, along with the ACLU, is representing Mya and working to have the charges dismissed. (City of Chelsea v. King)
Student attorneys: Laila Kassis, Jeremy Shur, and Diane Kee.
Sex and Familial Status Discrimination
Landlord forbids mom with a son and daughter from renting 2-bedroom apartment
In 2017, Jennifer Anderson-Luna thought she had found the perfect Ann Arbor apartment for her two children, a ten-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. It was just three blocks from her daughter’s elementary school, with plenty of space for the three of them.
The rental agent was encouraging initially, but when Ms. Anderson-Luna met him to turn in her application, he changed his tune. The rental agent told her that the owner of the building did not want a boy and a girl to share a bedroom.
When Ms. Anderson-Luna complained to the Fair Housing Center of Southeast & Mid Michigan (FHC), the FHC arranged for fair housing testers to call pretending to seek an apartment. The testing confirmed that the landlord had a discriminatory policy of refusing rent to families with more than one child, blatantly violating the Fair Housing Act.
In September, we filed a federal lawsuit, which is pending. (Anderson-Luna v. McIntosh & Co. Realty)
Student attorneys: Diane Kee and David Fegley.
Landlord forbids wheelchair ramp
Sheila Ashley was seeking an apartment in her hometown of Monroe. She identified an apartment in an excellent location within her price range. Since Ms. Ashley uses a wheelchair, she asked if she would be able to install a wheelchair ramp.
However, the rental agent complained that the ramp would be an eyesore and later refused to let her know when other apartments were available. Testing by the Fair Housing Center of Southeast & Mid Michigan confirmed that the landlord had a discriminatory practice.
In July 2020, CRLI successfully negotiated a monetary settlement to resolve the case prior to filing.
Student attorneys: Will McCartney, Claire Shimberg, and Natalie Treacy.
Apartment complex forbids the installation of grab bars in the shower
Working with the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit, CRLI is preparing a federal lawsuit on behalf of a man with a disability.
After moving into his new apartment in Oakland County, the man was denied permission to install grab bars in the shower at his own expense—even though it was unsafe for him to shower without them. Moreover, federal law requires landlords to permit such accommodations.
Student attorneys: Patrick McDonell and Will Walker.