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 a/k/a “Justice InDeed.”
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.
Wrongly Imprisoned Based on Misuse of Facial Recognition Technology
CRLI, with the National ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan, filed a nationally important case against the City of Detroit on behalf of Robert Williams, who was falsely arrested in front of his family and jailed based on the faulty use of facial recognition technology.
Mr. Williams, an African American father from Farmington Hills, is the first known person in the country to have been falsely arrested based on facial recognition technology, which is notoriously bad at identifying Black people. The lawsuit alleges that the Detroit police violated Williams’ rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Michigan Civil Rights Act.
The case has received international attention and has been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, and on 60 Minutes. (Williams v. City of Detroit)
Student attorneys: Jeremy Shur, Deborah Won, Eilidh Jenness, Ben Mordechai-Strongin, and Laila Kassis.
Police Misconduct and Transparency
Before Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, 18 residents of Minneapolis had filed complaints against Chauvin, two of which resulted in discipline.
If the public – or a citizen review board – is aware of complaints and subsequent disciplinary action against officers like Chauvin, they are able to advocate that the officers be discharged before they do any more harm. However, in Michigan, most cities refuse to make these documents public – even in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
They often assert that the officer’s interest in privacy outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the officer’s disciplinary history.
CRLI plans to challenge this assertion by filing a FOIA lawsuit. Especially given the Black Lives Matter movement and the well-documented harm that police misconduct causes, the public’s interest in transparency is at an all-time high. The public has a right to know who the bad cops are so they can advocate for dismissals and foster safer communities.
Student attorneys: Brendan Flynn, Laura Durand, and Eilidh Jenness.
Wrongful Conviction in Flint
CRLI is investigating whether the police knowingly used perjured testimony to convict a Flint resident and sentence him to 32 to 50 years in prison.
Student attorneys: Ben Mordechai-Strongin and Eilidh Jenness.
Freedom of Speech
Representing Young Black Lives 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.
Teacher Prohibited from Displaying Black Lives Matter Poster
CRLI successfully advocated for a high school teacher in a Detroit suburb who, following the killing of George Floyd, placed a Black Lives Matter poster behind her so her students could see it when she taught by Zoom.
She displayed the poster to show support for her Black students who were in pain over the police killing of so many Black Americans across the country. Although the sign simply reflected the district’s policies on diversity, equity and inclusion, and although the sign was consistent with the superintendent’s letter to all families in the district following the killing of George Floyd, the high school’s principal ordered the teacher to remove the poster.
Shortly after CRLI wrote a letter to the school district explaining the relevant case law, the superintendent reversed course and told the teacher she could display the BML sign in her classroom.
Student Attorneys: Solomon Furious Worlds and Deborah Won.
Friend-of-the-Court Brief in the Sixth Circuit
CRLI students assisted lawyers from the National ACLU and the ACLU of Ohio on an amicus brief in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The brief argues that simply because a judge “saves” an unconstitutional content-based law by severing the offensive part of the law, the government cannot punish a person for speech uttered when the law was unconstitutional. (Lindenbaum v. Realgy)
Student attorneys: Jonah Rosenbaum and Peter Harding.
West Michigan Town Censors Civil Rights Messages
In Allendale there is a war memorial with statues commemorating mainly local soldiers who fought in wars throughout American history. The statue commemorating the Civil War depicts not only a Union soldier, but also a Confederate soldier and a young Black child near the feet of both men.
It is thought to be the only statue of a Confederate soldier in the North and civil rights activists are advocating that it be replaced. Surrounding the war memorial is a pavilion of bricks on which residents can, for a price, have a message inscribed.
In addition to bricks honoring war veterans, the city has allowed a wide variety of other messages, including bricks advertising businesses and messages such as “Lord Jesus Christ, St. John 11:25,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” and “Allendale’s 1997 Car Show.” Local civil rights advocates submitted applications for bricks with messages such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Frederick Douglas,” and “Breonna Taylor.” However, upon receiving these requests, the City changed the rules for inscriptions and denied the civil rights advocates’ requests.
The advocates reached out to CRLI for assistance, and we are researching a First Amendment challenge.
Student attorneys: Cali Winslow, Eilidh Jenness, and Will Brodt.
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.
Protecting the Right to Choose
Michigan has a criminal abortion statute that was last amended in 1931 and remains on the books, despite being unconstitutional, in part, under Roe v. Wade. If Roe is overturned, the statute could be revived without any legislative action unless challenged in court.
CRLI is part of a team of state and national lawyers developing a legal strategy to preserve the right to choose in Michigan in the event the United States Supreme Court overturns, or effectively overturns, Roe v. Wade next term in the challenge to a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks.
Student attorneys: Cali Winslow and Laura Durand.
Right to Education
CRLI prepared a comprehensive legal memo for two national civil rights organization setting outlining a potential groundbreaking case to make education more equitable in Michigan.
Student attorneys: Elise Coletta, Erica Becker, and Peter Harding.
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.
Rights of Persons Confined to Prison
Retaliation for Seeking Help from an Attorney
CRLI is representing a woman confined at Huron Valley Correctional Facility who, after speaking with attorneys about participating in a lawsuit about COVID in the prison, was retaliated against and moved to a cell covered with blood, hair and fecal matter.
Student attorneys: Hannah Greenhouse, Jonah Rosenbaum, Will Brodt and Ben Mordechai-Strongin.
Right to Compensation for Violations of the Michigan Constitution
CRLI is providing legal research for the lawyers representing a class of unemployment recipients in the Michigan Supreme Court.
The government, without due process, wrongfully seized money from hundreds of unemployed workers based on a faulty automated system that falsely accused them of receiving too high an unemployment benefit.
The question before the Michigan Supreme Court is one that affects countless victims of civil rights violations in Michigan: May a person recover damages for violations of rights protected by the Michigan Constitution? (Bauserman v. Unemployment Insurance Agency)
Student attorney: Amy Ciardiello.
In the News
Articles about the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative
University of Michigan Alumni Magazine, June 2021, Trial by Fire: U-M law students get real-life experience in civil rights cases as part of a new clinic
MLive/Ann Arbor News, Mar. 26, 2021, Future civil rights attorneys gaining experience through University of Michigan initiative
Articles about CRLI Cases
Detroit Free Press, June 20, 2021, Tracking hate and racism in schools: What Michigan students of color experience after speaking up
Washington Post, April 13, 2021, Wrongfully arrested man sues Detroit police over false facial recognition match
Detroit Free Press, April 13, 2021, Farmington Hills man sues Detroit police after facial recognition wrongly identifies him
Detroit News, Apr. 13, 2021, Lawsuit: Man suffered 'great harm' after wrongful arrest based on Detroit's facial recognition technology
Fox 2 News, April 13, 2021, Lawsuit filed against Detroit police after controversial facial recognition leads to arrest of wrong person
The Hill, April 14, 2021, Detroit man sues over wrongful arrest due to facial recognition technology
National ACLU Blog by CRLI Students Jeremy Shur and Deborah Won, April 13, 2021, The Computer Got it Wrong: Why We’re Taking the Detroit Police to Court Over a Faulty Face Recognition ‘Match’
Law360, April 14, 2021, Detroit PD Sued Over False Arrest Using Facial Recognition,
MLive, Apr. 13, 2021, Michigan man sues police for wrongful arrest based on facial recognition technology
MIT Tech. Review, April 14, 2021, The new lawsuit that shows facial recognition is officially a civil rights issue
Michigan Radio, April 14, 2021, Farmington Hills man sues Detroit police after being wrongly IDed by facial recognition technology
Metro Times, April 14, 2021, Black man wrongfully arrested based on false facial recognition match sues Detroit police
AP News, April 13, 2021, Man mistaken for shoplifter through technology sues Detroit, AP News
WPFW (Washington D.C.) story featuring CRLI student attorney Deborah Won, April 2021, Facial Recognition and the Future of Racism
Yahoo News, April 14, 2021, Michigan man sues after facial recognition software leads to imprisonment
Courthouse News, April 13, 2021, Man Falsely Arrested Because of Facial Recognition Software Error Sues Detroit, Courthouse News
MLive/Ann Arbor News, March 18, 2021, Parents continue push for public release of Pioneer High racial climate investigation
Michigan Daily, March 14, 2021, Survivors Speak protests for transparency, accountability of local institutions
MLive/Ann Arbor News, March 13, 2021, Protesters call for more accountability in fight for racial justice
Fox2 News, February 23, 2021, Washtenaw County judge throws out tickets against Chelsea BLM protesters from summer
MLive, Feb. 22, 2021, Citing First Amendment, judge dismisses charges against antiracist protesters in Chelsea
Detroit Metro Times, Feb. 23, 2021, Washtenaw County judge drops charges against 16-year-old protester following backlash
Michigan Daily, Feb. 18, 2020, Chelsea City Council urge police to drop charges from BLM protest as U-M Law students fight citations in court
Detroit Free Press, Feb. 16, 2021, Police surveilled and ticketed protesters in Mich. town, sparking First Amendment Debate
Michigan Daily, Jan. 26, 2020, U-M research raises awareness of racially restrictive covenants in Ann Arbor housing
MLive/Ann Arbor News, Jan. 19, 2020, Researchers map Ann Arbor’s racist history of housing discrimination
MLive/Ann Arbor News, Oct. 29, 2020, Teen punched at Chelsea protest plans on fighting ticket
Ann Arbor News, Oct. 24, 2020, Community asks investigation into ‘racially hostile environment’ at Ann Arbor high school be made public
Channel 2 News, Oct. 21, 2020: Young BLM protester seeks dismissal of ticket for impeding traffic
Detroit Metro Times, Oct. 22, 2020, Michigan teen who protested against injustice was punched, then ignored and ticketed by police
Channel 7 News, Oct. 22, 2020, Teen assaulted after Black Lives Matter protest in Chelsea says police failed to investigate
Fair Housing Center Press Release, Oct. 12, 2020, Monroe Woman Resolves Fair Housing Case
Channel 2 News, Aug. 24, 2020, Black students say Ann Arbor Pioneer High School allows racially hostile environment, institutionalized racism
Detroit News, Aug. 24, 2020, Black student alleges racially hostile environment at Ann Arbor high school
Michigan Radio/Stateside, Aug. 25, 2020, Racism lawsuit at Ann Arbor high school
Ann Arbor News, Aug. 24, 2020, Black student alleges racially hostile environment at Ann Arbor high school in civil rights complaint
Channel 7 News, Aug. 24, 2020, Complaint states Ann Arbor teacher created racially hostile environment for Black students
ACLU Press Release, Feb. 21, 2019, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg to Leave Civil Rights Organization After Building Premier Legal Program