Class Reaction

In three weeks, the law firm that provides most of the free legal aid to Arizona's poor people will quit filing class-action lawsuits and slash other legal-aid services.

Two of the state's most politically powerless groups of poor people--farmworkers and urban Indians--will be especially hurt by the cuts.

Community Legal Services, the Phoenix-based nonprofit law firm that serves poor people with noncriminal legal needs, says it will lay off three lawyers and shut down a Tolleson office that handles farmworker cases. Those moves come in response to an expected 33 percent reduction in its federal funding in 1996.

The legal-aid firm currently serves Maricopa, Mohave, La Paz, Yavapai and Yuma counties with a $3 million budget. Next year, it expects to operate on $2 million, says Lillian Johnson, executive director of the firm. And, if Republican budget proposals are enacted in current form, federal funds--the lifeblood of legal-aid firms--could no longer be used to fund class-action lawsuits on behalf of poor people in 1996.

The nonprofit firm gets most of its money from its parent office in Washington, D.C., the Legal Services Corporation, which funnels federal funds to legal-aid law firms throughout the United States.

But the Legal Services Corporation, which was created more than two decades ago during Richard Nixon's presidency, has fallen into disfavor in Washington. Congressional Republicans have been attempting to slash the Legal Services budget since early in the Reagan administration.

Since the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, those attempts have only intensified. U.S. Senator John McCain, for one, would like to see the Legal Services Corporation disappear altogether.

There's a reason: Legal-aid lawyers have become more of a pest to agribusiness than whiteflies or boll weevils.

"I and others in the Congress have grown increasingly concerned about the abuses of Federal funding often committed by the Legal Services Corporation. Instead of providing legal services for indigent clients, a large portion of funding has been used by the Legal Services Corporation for lobbying and frivolous class-action lawsuits," McCain wrote to Arturo Suarez, a recently laid-off Community Legal Services lawyer, last month.

McCain's office did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the letter.

In Arizona in the past six years, Community Legal Services has filed three federal class-action lawsuits--two on behalf of farmworkers and one on behalf of urban Indians.

In 1989, the soon-to-be-closed Tolleson office of Community Legal Services represented 41 farmworkers who sued Mission Citrus Inc. and Bravo Harvesting Inc., two Yuma-area growers and packers, alleging that the companies had cheated them on wages. The companies denied the charges, but settled out of court with the farmworkers for an undisclosed sum in 1993.

In 1991, the Tolleson office represented a group of farmworkers who sued Pacific Avenue Growers, Inc., and Yuma Mesa Fruit Growers Association for, among other things, failing to pay minimum wage and violating vehicle-safety requirements. The companies again denied the charges, but settled out of court last year for an unknown sum.

Larry Ruhl, the lead lawyer for the farmworkers in those two cases, has refused comment, citing confidentiality agreements with the companies. Ruhl, who has been representing farmworkers in the Tolleson office for five years, has been laid off.

Growers have lobbied Congress for years to curtail the class-action activities of legal-aid law firms, says Steve Shadle, a Yuma attorney who was on the team that represented growers in both the class-action lawsuits. He says many class actions filed by legal-aid services across the country amount to "nuisance cases" that cost growers millions of dollars and "days and nights in court."

In Arizona, Shadle says, Community Legal Services pursued clients by sending staff members out on buses taking farmworkers to fields, and "basically asking workers if they wanted to make money." He says many workers had no idea they were suing their employers.

Of course, Shadle says, growers are delighted that Congress is preventing legal-aid lawyers from using federal funds to file class actions.

But Lillian Johnson says a prohibition against class-action suits would make Community Legal Services less, not more, efficient.

"We have no doubt that the most cost-effective way of representing clients in the farmworker community, especially those that have wage problems, is through the class action," says Johnson.

"That's the irony of all of this: This is not a cost-effectiveness decision. It is a political one."

Johnson says the federal funds earmarked for farmworker legal aid have all but disappeared. In 1995, the firm received $400,035 specifically for legal aid to farmworkers. In 1996, the firm will get no federal funds to help farmworkers, but will instead take money from other programs to support a lawyer and three paralegals to try to provide some services to farmworkers.

Luis Cabrera, the Mexican consul in Phoenix, whose office routinely sent migrant workers to Community Legal Services, says he finds the closure of the Tolleson office "very worrying." He says the Mexican government may ask authorities to "reconsider" their decision.

Community Legal Services also has filed a pending class-action suit on behalf of urban Indians who claim they were defrauded by Tempe Technical Institute, a now-defunct trade school, and several companies that are in the student-loan business.

The suit says the school wooed the Indians with promises of job training, helped them obtain costly student loans, then took the tuition and closed down. The Indians were left with loans to pay off and little or no training.

Operators of the trade school and the companies that handle student loans have denied the allegations.

In Maricopa County, Community Legal Services was the chief source of legal aid to 40,000 urban Indians. One lawyer staffed a small office at the Phoenix Indian Center. The office will remain, but it won't have a lawyer. Federal funding for legal aid to Indians will be reduced from $30,000 to $20,000 next year, says Johnson. A paralegal will screen and refer clients to legal-aid lawyers working in other areas, she says.

None of the three legal-aid lawyers who have been laid off would comment to New Times.

"This is all very hard," says Hannah Lieberman, director of advocacy for Community Legal Services. "Lawyers who come to work here come because they are committed. They don't do this for pay or accolades. They get this double whammy, because they lose their jobs in which they have emotional and psychic investment.

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Terry Greene