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Clinical Education at UT Law

Real Cases. Real Experience.

Workplace Justice, Global Workers, Practical Lawyering: The Transnational Worker Rights Clinic

As they help low-income workers recover unpaid wages, students in the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic acquire practical skills, examine headline-making policy issues, and address some of the law’s most fundamental questions. While in pursuit of these goals, earlier this year the Clinic also passed a remarkable milestone: a recent settlement vaulted the Clinic over the $1 million dollar mark in total wages recovered.

Photo of members of the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic

Members of the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic secured a favorable settlement for their clients in an employment case filed against Veggie Heaven, an Austin restaurant. Left to right, Aaron Johnson, ’08; Helena Coronado-Salazar, ’07; Clinic director Bill Beardall; Hugo Roque, a Clinic client; Kevin Vela, ’08; Abel Aguilar-Ramos, a Clinic client; and Justin Tullius, ’07
Photo Credit: Mark Rutkowski

On a humid spring evening at the Austin office of the Equal Justice Center, Kevin Vela, ’08, sits in a small conference room with four immigrant workers. The workers have come because they believe they have legitimate claims against their employers for unpaid compensation, but first Vela is getting to know them and encouraging them to get to know each other. Speaking in Spanish, Vela chats with them about their hometowns and their experiences in the United States before asking them to tell him and the others what they do and why they are there.

Vela is one of ten students in the spring semester offering of the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic. Led by Professor Bill Beardall, the Clinic hosts a weekly introductory session for potential clients. In these sessions Clinic students help potential clients understand their rights, protections, and what will happen if the Clinic agrees to handle their cases. Beardall is also the executive director of the Equal Justice Center, where the Clinic is housed.

“It can be frightening for an immigrant, documented or undocumented, to stand up against an unjust employer,” Vela recounted. “So part of our job at the initial orientation is to let them know we understand them and are on their side, and also to help them see from the accounts of others that their mistreatment is not unique or somehow their fault: they are part of a community. And we are part of it too. It’s Professor Beardall’s adamant position, and one we all respect, that our clients are people first and lawsuits second.”

A Diversity of Cases

If the decision is made to pursue a case, the clients will return to a Wednesday evening session where they will meet with a Clinic student and sign a representation agreement. Through this process the Clinic has taken on cases ranging from relatively small amounts owed to day laborers who were not paid at all to very large actions for violations of wage, overtime, and labor statutes.

Clinic students try first to negotiate an agreed resolution to cases—Vela recently settled one, after more than six months of effort, for about two thousand dollars for three landscaping workers—but suits will be brought when negotiation fails.

The Clinic just completed a suit that alleged more than four hundred thousand dollars in compensable damages against the Target Corporation for underpaying its night-shift janitors. Clinic students worked on every aspect of this case, from intake to brief writing. They won significant procedural victories, including a decision that the Clinic’s clients could not be interrogated on matters related to their immigration status during depositions. The brief regarding that issue, to which Clinic students made substantial contributions, is now being used as a model in similar cases throughout the United States. In February, Target’s motion for summary judgment—claiming that the employees were not Target’s but those of a Target contractor—was denied. That ruling steered the case into mediated settlement negotiations and an out-of-court settlement was finalized in June. The terms of that settlement remain confidential but the Clinic and its clients are happy with the resolution of the case.

“It’s nice to win big, visible victories,” Vela said, “but the smaller ones feel just as good—helping a deserving person get what he or she rightfully earned is very satisfying.”

The Clinic’s diverse caseload includes a suit on behalf of fourteen Austin women who say their employer paid them no wages at all for four weeks of work, another in which three electrical workers charge that they had to pay illegal kickbacks to their supervisor out of every paycheck for nearly a year, and one on behalf of restaurant kitchen workers who say their employer failed to pay them the legally required minimum wage and overtime pay for long hours of work.

“I consider myself a realist,” commented Clinic student Pablo Nosa, ’09. “My parents emigrated here from Mexico so I have observed my share of injustice, but I was completely shocked to see how prevalent the violations that we seek to remedy are. Just here in Austin, relying entirely on word of mouth, we have a constant stream of workers coming in with legitimate complaints. And when you consider the factors that might deter immigrant workers from complaining about their pay, you realize how much bigger this problem is than even what we are actually handling. There are not nearly enough legal resources to deal with all the injustices in this area alone.”

Behind the Clinic’s activities is the professor, Bill Beardall, whom students variously describe as a hero, an ideal role model, and someone who personifies the kind of lawyer they want to become. Beardall is celebrating his thirtieth year as an activist attorney, having gone directly from his 1978 Harvard Law School graduation to Deaf Smith County in West Texas, where he and some law school compatriots created an office of Texas Rural Legal Aid to serve migrant farm workers.

“The obvious and grotesque violations of law in what was then a notoriously racist and backward part of the state enabled us to do a lot of good litigation that had a lot of impact, although it surely didn’t endear us to local employers and public officials,” Beardall said. He and his colleagues received regular death threats and the windows were shot out of their office.

The Deaf Smith County Sheriff once complained, “I think that Texas Rural Legal Aid is the problem because they’re supplying these people with the information and they’re telling them all about the Federal laws and everything. I think it’s just a terrible injustice when our tax money is being used against us.”

In 1984 Beardall became the director of Texas Rural Legal Aid’s migrant worker division. In 2000 (the same year that he received the John Minor Wisdom Award from the American Bar Association’s Litigation Section, recognizing his career as a leading advocate for low-income working people), he took on the role of legal director of Texas Appleseed, heading a campaign to reform indigent defense practices for Texas criminal defendants. “In part because our work coincided with the presidential campaign of George Bush, what we accomplished surpassed our wildest expectations,” Beardall said. “We got a landmark reform bill passed—the Texas Fair Defense Act—and oversaw the initial stages of its implementation.”

The Equal Justice Center

In 2001, frustrated by the severe restrictions imposed on the federally funded Legal Services programs—especially restrictions against representing most immigrants—he founded the Equal Justice Center. “EJC was an experiment to see what could be done to more fully represent low-income workers without relying on federal funding, and without regard to the worker’s immigration status,” he said. The experiment has flourished, with a range of projects aimed at protecting and extending workers’ rights to fair wages, safe working conditions, organizing, and fair access to the legal system to enforce employment protections. A nationally recognized expert in his field, Beardall frequently participates in policy deliberations. In May, for example, he was one of five witnesses invited to testify before the Education and Labor Committee of the United States House of Representatives about employers’ misuse of guest workers and undocumented workers.

In 2004, a five-year grant to the Law School from the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation supported the creation of the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic, which from its beginning has been directed by Beardall through the Equal Justice Center.

But the Clinic’s important work also teaches students much about practical lawyering. In today’s increasingly globalizing world, other profound questions are also set before the students. Aaron Johnson, ’08, who recently was awarded the prestigious Law Faculty Post-Graduate Fellowship in Public Interest Law, said, “It’s such a compelling experience to see the work you are doing with clients directly connected to some of the most important policy debates of the day. Not only immigration and immigration reform, but trade policies and international human rights policies, among others—things that are right there in any day’s headlines.”

“The Clinic put me back in touch with a side of me that had been neglected since I became a law student,” commented Clinic student J.D. Garcia, ’08. “When I was an undergrad, I was consistently involved with social/political issues, but with the distractions of being a law student, essentially I became indifferent to those things which used to motivate me. The Clinic placed me in a situation that stirred inside of me that thing which I had lost. In a way, I felt useful again. And so I go on, with a renewed sense of why I came to law school to begin with.”

—Jerry de Jaager