UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Students in Penn State Law’s Civil Rights Appellate Clinic are weighing in on important issues in the field of disparate impact in law enforcement in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the First Circuit. In Ronnie Jones, et al. v. The City of Boston, 15-2015, the clinic wrote an amicus curiae brief supporting the claims of disenfranchised African American officers at the Boston Police Department that they were adversely affected by hair follicle drug testing that generated false positives indicating ingestion of cocaine. Despite serious questions in the scientific community regarding whether hair follicle testing can distinguish between actual drug ingestion and external contamination, the Boston Police Department continues to utilize the process.
The officers in Jones are appealing a summary judgment decision granted by the Federal District Court. The plaintiffs have not only introduced evidence demonstrating that hair testing has a greater likelihood of showing false positives for minority officers, but also that hair testing is unreliable in general, a finding supported by the rulings of the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission.
The clinic supports the plaintiffs’ position in its brief, and further argues that the court did not apply the proper standard for summary judgment and failed to consider what Congress aimed to achieve when it codified disparate impact law in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The clinic submitted the Jones amicus brief on behalf of numerous organizations committed to the rights of minority workers, including the National Employment Lawyers Association, the Equal Justice Society, Justice at Work, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. On April 22, the court granted the clinic’s motion for leave to file and accepted the amicus brief.
This is the second time in the past year that the clinic has worked on an amicus curiae brief regarding disparate impact, having previously weighed in on Lopez, et al. v. City of Lawrence, et al. More information on the clinic’s involvement in Lopez can be found on the clinic’s website.
Oren Sellstrom, counsel for the harmed police officers and the litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, praised the clinic’s work.
“The brief was exceptionally well-written, taking complex arguments and presenting them in a readable and persuasive manner,” Sellstrom said. “The way that the brief traced the history of civil rights laws and then engaged in a closer reading of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions will provide very helpful context for the court.”
Matt Koski, program director for one of the amici explained: “NELA was pleased to again have the opportunity to join an amicus brief drafted by Professor Foreman and the students in the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic. The clinic's work is always first-rate, and its involvement was particularly valuable in Jones because of the legal, historical, and factual complexity of the issues involved on appeal, and the importance of ensuring equal treatment for employees in professions—such as law enforcement—with deeply imbedded cultures of exclusion."
Clinic student Lanique Roberts said the clinic’s work in this area is likely to have an impact beyond this case alone. “It is so rewarding to know that our work is not only helping one person, but an entire demographic,” Roberts said. “The Jones case shines a light on how disparate impact can occur from the simplest of practices. It is important that we continue to apply the correct standards to such cases because disparate impact can be detrimental to the advancement of people of color.”
In addition to Roberts, clinic students include Richard Armezzani, Tori Buzzelli, Eric Golden, Kelsey Mansell, Alex Park, and Katie Pareja. Professor Michael Foreman, who oversees the students’ work throughout the entire process, is the clinic director.
The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, one of nine legal clinics available to Penn State Law students, provides intensive training in appellate advocacy by involving students in noncriminal civil rights cases before state appellate courts, federal courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Students conduct research, draft briefs, assist in case selection, develop substantive legal positions, and plan appellate strategy. The clinic is an exciting opportunity for law students to learn appellate advocacy and get involved in federal civil rights cases.