Volume 18, Issue 8 | November 2018
News from Oakland City Attorney
Barbara J. Parker
portrait
Highlights:
  • Oakland City Attorney and Centro Legal de la Raza secure settlement of lawsuit against hotel owners who violated workers’ rights under Oakland’s Minimum Wage and Sick Leave law.
  • Major Case Updates: U.S. Supreme Court denies review of historic lead paint case.
  • City Council passes Climate Emergency Resolution co-sponsored by the City Attorney.
  • City Attorney secures $750,000 settlement in lawsuit against landlord who demolished tenant's home.
  • City Attorney appoints Public Ethics Commissioner with broad experience in law, policy and government ethics.

As always, we look forward to your questions and comments about the work we are doing on behalf of the people of Oakland.
City Attorney, Centro Legal secure settlement with hotel owners who violated workers' rights
The City Attorney's Office and Centro Legal de la Raza have secured a settlement with the owners of an East Oakland hotel that systematically violated state and local labor laws, including Oakland’s Minimum Wage and Sick Leave Ordinance.

The City Attorney and Centro Legal sued the owners of the Quality Inn on Enterprise Way in January 2017 for refusing to pay overtime, failing to provide sick leave, retaliating against employees who called in sick, refusing to provide rest breaks and engaging in other illegal conduct over a period of at least four years.

The October 1st  settlement with owner Hemant Investments, LLC includes an injunction ordering the hotel to improve working conditions, provide required sick leave, properly train supervisors and compensate former housekeeping employees for the alleged violations. Choice Hotels International, Inc., the Delaware-based franchiser of the Quality Inn brand, also signed the settlement agreement.

Centro Legal and the City Attorney jointly filed the lawsuit – Centro Legal on behalf of eight plaintiffs who worked as housekeepers at the Quality Inn, and the City Attorney on behalf of the City of Oakland and the People of California.


The agreement to improve working conditions also requires that the employer create a break room for meal and rest periods, and ensure that housekeepers are not required to fumigate the hotel rooms. The agreement allows the City of Oakland to conduct spot inspections to ensure full compliance and requires that the hotel allow any current employee to talk with City representatives free from retaliation.
The employee plaintiffs were separately compensated under the terms of a confidential settlement agreement.

Oakland’s Minimum Wage and Sick Leave law entitles every Oakland worker, regardless of profession, race, gender or immigration status, to basic rights including sick leave and a minimum wage. We will continue to hold employers accountable for wage theft, exploitation and abuse of workers; these actions not only violate state and local laws, they undermine Oakland families’ well-being and stability.

Major Case Updates   
U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review of Historic Lead Paint Case

The U.S. Supreme Court recently denied review of the lawsuit 10 California cities and counties brought against lead paint companies. The high court's decision marks the end of nearly two decades of litigation against companies that marketed and sold lead paint, even though they knew it was poisonous.

The Supreme Court’s decision effectively upholds the judgment against defendant lead paint companies for knowingly marketing and selling lead paint that poisoned children. This demonstrates that no matter how powerful or big private companies are, they must face consequences when they knowingly harm people. Lead paint is prevalent in Oakland homes and disproportionately affects African American and other communities of color and low-income communities. In this case, the defendants knew they were selling a product that poisoned children, yet they continued to sell and market it as safe. It is long past time for these companies to be held accountable for the harm their products have caused and continue to cause in homes throughout Oakland and California.

Background

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2000 by then-Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel. Oakland and eight other California cities and counties subsequently joined the case.

The lawsuit alleged that defendants ConAgra Grocery Products Company, NL Industries, Inc., and the Sherwin-Williams Company aggressively marketed lead paint, even though they knew it was highly toxic to young children, and thereby created a public nuisance that threatens the health of California’s children to this day.

When lead paint is allowed to peel, exposed to friction or disturbed during construction, young children or pregnant women can ingest it. When this happens, lead acts as a cumulative neurotoxin and may result in irreversible brain damage. Despite widespread industry knowledge of the hazard, the defendants continued to market lead paint as safe for residential use until it became unlawful to do so. As a result, nearly every home built before 1978 contains lead paint hazards.

In 2013, Honorable Judge James P. Kleinberg of Santa Clara Superior Court issued a $1.15 billion judgment in favor of the cities and counties, ruling that NL Industries, ConAgra and Sherwin-Williams were liable for the harm that they created.

In November 2017, the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District upheld the verdict for pre-1951 homes tainted with lead paint, overturned it as to homes built between 1951-1980, and remanded the case to trial court for further proceedings to limit the $1.15 billion abatement fund to an amount sufficient to address the problems lead paint poses in pre-1951 housing. 

The California Supreme Court denied review of the case in February 2018.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle later ruled that the abatement fund should be set at $409 million to cover pre-1951 housing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and California’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, lead paint and its degradation into lead-contaminated dust and soil is the primary cause of lead exposure for children who live in older homes. The California Legislature has declared that “childhood lead exposure represents the most significant childhood environmental problem in the state today.” (Health & Safety Code § 124125)

In 2012, the CDC released a report finding that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.” Even at the lowest levels, lead causes permanent neurological damage to children, decreasing IQ and causing other serious health consequences.

The following jurisdictions are plaintiffs in this case: Santa Clara County, Alameda County, the City of Oakland, the City and County of San Francisco, the City of San Diego, Los Angeles County, Monterey County, San Mateo County, Solano County and Ventura County. Co-counsel included the law firms of Altshuler Berzon LLP, Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy LLP, Motley Rice LLP, Mary Alexander and Associates, and the Law Offices of Peter Earle.

City Council passes Climate Emergency Resolution co-sponsored by the City Attorney
On October 30, the Oakland City Council adopted a resolution declaring an emergency due to the severe threat climate change poses.

I co-sponsored this resolution with Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Kalb and Mayor Libby Schaaf to officially recognize the threat that climate change poses to lives and property in Oakland, and to acknowledge the urgent need to act as a species to limit global warming as much as possible.
We know that warming of just one degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels has increased and intensified wildfires, droughts, floods and extreme weather here in California and around the world. Yet the damage we are experiencing now will be minor in comparison to the destruction that all living things will experience if temperatures increase by just one more degree.

A recent state report, Rising Seas in California, projects a conservative estimate of between 1 and 3.4 feet of sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay by the end of this century. The range of projections in the report includes the possibility of up to 10 feet of sea level rise in the SF Bay by 2100, a scenario consistent with rapid Antarctic ice sheet mass loss that would be catastrophic to Oakland and every other coastal community.

Last year, the cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued the world's five largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies (Chevron, ConocoPhilips, Exxon Mobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell) to hold them accountable for costs of sea walls and other infrastructure we will need to protect against fossil fuel-driven climate change. Federal District Court Judge William Alsup dismissed the lawsuits, but we have filed an appeal and will continue this fight.

Climate Emergency Resolutions by Oakland and other local jurisdictions recognize that the problem of climate change requires a broad, comprehensive solution. Unfortunately, we also are well aware that the current federal executive branch will take no action to stop this imminent threat to life on our planet, and in fact is pursuing policies that will only increase the danger.

Our resolution commits Oakland to be a leader in the transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that is ecologically sustainable, as well as equitable and just. We recognize that an unprecedented shift in our economy, our thinking and our lives must occur, a shift from funding highways to expanding public transit, from incinerators and landfills to zero waste, from industrial food systems to food sovereignty, from car-dependent sprawl and unbridled growth to smart urban development without displacement, and from rampant, destructive over-development to habitat and ecosystem restoration.
Our resolution states that Oakland can be a leader in this mobilization, and requests regional collaboration in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible towards zero net emissions, draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and accelerate adaptation and resilience strategies in preparation for intensifying climate impacts.

The reality is that human beings may not be able to make such a dramatic shift in time. The recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report gives humanity only a brief window to change course before it is too late. There are realistic and achievable measures we can take to deal with this crisis – for example see the Drawdown project, which has compiled a list of 100 substantive and viable solutions to climate change in the areas of energy, agriculture, transportation, building and more. Cities like Oakland can make a difference, but of course we also need leaders on the national level who are not living in a conspiracy fantasy world, and who can deal with this threat with the urgency and the seriousness it deserves. 

City Attorney secures $750,000 settlement in lawsuit against landlord who demolished tenant's home
The City Attorney's Neighborhood Law Corps secured a major settlement in our lawsuit against landlords who gained local notoriety last year when they demolished their tenant's home while he was living in it.
My Office filed the lawsuit last year against Eugene Gorelik and Jessica Sawczuk, owners of the property at 369 MacArthur Boulevard.


The lawsuit charges the owners with violating Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance and California’s Bane Act for harassing, threatening and unlawfully evicting tenant Jahahara Alkebulan-Ma’at, who lived at the property for 22 years until the owners demolished his home in March 2017.

At the time we filed, I said that if this case was used as a hypothetical in law school, no one would believe it because it would be too preposterous.

The facts of the case are as follows:

After the owners bought the property in 2016, they tried to evict Mr. Alkebulan-Ma’at, and shut off hot water, electricity and internet services. In March 2017, the owners changed the locks. Mr. Alkebulan-Ma’at’s medication was locked in his home. On the same day, one of the owners, Mr. Gorelik, sent him an e-mail threatening that there would be “consequences” if he “set foot on the premises again.” The next day, the owners began demolition of the unit while Mr. Alkebulan-Ma’at’s property was still inside. Mr. Alkebulan-Ma’at slept in the partially demolished unit for two nights, and on both nights, one of the owners showed up in person and made threats against his safety.

This month, we secured a settlement with the defendants' insurance carrier for $750,000:  Alkebulan-Ma’at will receive $675,000 , and the City will receive $75,000 to support civil rights litigation and other affirmative litigation matters. The settlement does not include a payment by the owners. Mr. Gorelik threatened bankruptcy and refused to pay Mr. Alkebulan-Ma’at or the City any money. However, the City retains its right to renew this action or file another action against Mr. Gorelik in the future if his treatment of tenants continues to be abusive and illegal .

City Attorney Appoints Public Ethics Commissioner with broad experience in law, policy and government ethics
JB
This month I appointed Oakland resident Jill Butler as the newest member of the Public Ethics Commission (“PEC”).

Jill was sworn in on November 13, 2018 at Oakland City Hall. She will fill a vacant seat on the PEC for the remainder of the current term, which ends on January 21, 2021.

Photo from left to right: PEC Commissioner Jill Butler, PEC Executive Director Whitney Barazoto and City Attorney Barbara J. Parker.
Jill’s background in public law, policy and ethics will directly support the PEC’s mission of investigating complaints, enforcing ethics and campaign finance laws and upholding honesty and integrity in City government. Her track record of public service, her range of experience and her love of her hometown Oakland make her an ideal candidate for this important commission.

Jill is an attorney. She has worked extensively for public agencies in a number of roles, including her current position as a Human Resources Manager at the University of California Office of the President in Oakland. In this role she works to ensure that senior university executives’ outside activities, such as sitting on boards and commissions, do not pose a conflict of interest with the university.

Jill previously served as Director of Constituent Partnerships for the UC President’s Office, as a Legislative Affairs Specialist with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in Washington, D.C., and in positions with the Social Security Administration. She also worked as an Investigative Counsel for the U.S. Congressional Committee on Homeland Security, where she conducted oversight over diversity policies at the Department of Homeland Security.

For the last two years, Jill also has served as a mentor with the East Bay College Fund. She graduated from Seattle University School of Law and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from UC Berkeley.

The City Attorney appoints one commissioner to the PEC. The City Attorney’s appointment must have a background in public law or policy. All commissioners are volunteers and must be Oakland residents.
In Brief:

City Council repeals Ordinance No. 10342 (Loitering About Property Owned By the Oakland Housing Authority)

Oakland files amicus brief opposing federal appeal of ruling in California sanctuary city case ( U.S. v. California , U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California Case No. 2:18-CV-00490-JAM-KJN)
 
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