Taking On Pro Bono Class Action Cases

Editors’ Note: In 2016, San Francisco litigator Elizabeth Balassone received the California Young Lawyers Association’s Jack Berman Award of Achievement in recognition of her outstanding pro bono work upholding the civil rights and immigrants and people with disabilities. In the winter issue of CYLA’s e-newsletter, Elizabeth reflected on Berman’s legacy and the central role that pro bono plays in her practice.

This summer, in the midst of preparing for my first trial, I received a voicemail that was (admittedly) a complete shock: CYLA Chair Shawtina Ferguson had called to congratulate me as the recipient of the Jack Berman Award of Achievement for commitment to pro bono service.

Learning about Jack Berman was humbling in every sense of the word: Mr. Berman was an incredible young attorney killed in the 101 California Street shooting. At the age of 36, he had already made partner at Bronson, Bronson, & McKinnon; become President of the American Jewish Congress; and co-founded TAX-AID and the San Francisco Transitional Housing Fund. It is painfully obvious that Mr. Berman demonstrated outstanding service to our profession and our community here in San Francisco — and that we lost him far too soon.

Reflecting on Mr. Berman’s legacy encouraged me to reflect on my own pro bono work this year. As we know too well, the depth of need for pro bono service seems indefinite. So how are we drawn to the pro bono matters we choose?

The common thread among my current pro bono cases is that they are class actions. One class action case involves correcting an unfair process for thousands of people who were denied Social Security benefits. These are people who are among the most vulnerable members of our community, and they were not told that the doctor who evaluated their eligibility for benefits they desperately needed had been later disqualified based on widespread allegations of deficiencies in the quality of his examinations.

Another case challenges the conditions in short-term detention facilities with the Tucson Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In those facilities, thousands of civil detainees — including asylum seekers, pregnant women, and U.S. citizens, some of them toddlers and infants — are held under punitive, inhumane conditions of confinement. These men, women, and children are packed into overcrowded and filthy holding cells with the lights glaring through the night; exposed to brutally cold temperatures; deprived of sleep; and denied adequate food, water, health screenings, medical care, basic sanitation, and hygiene items. They too are a particularly vulnerable population as they are held virtually incommunicado while the government decides their fates.

I knew immediately I wanted to work on both of these cases. Why? I think they were compelling to me because it was not about getting a good outcome for a single client. It was about trying to change processes and conditions that were wrong, had already impacted thousands of people, and could impact countless more to come.

These pro bono class action cases have also helped me develop skills that bear directly on my practice as a litigator. Thanks to trust (and tough prep questions) from my supervising partner Will Stern and co-counsel at Justice in Aging and Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, I got to do my first oral argument in federal court. And, shortly thereafter, I got to do my second oral argument in federal court. In fact, junior attorneys can now point to specific judicial orders to advocate for such opportunities. For example, in civil cases before many of the judges in the Northern District of California, a party may submit a written request stating that a lawyer of four or fewer years out of law school will conduct oral argument, and if that request is received before the Court’s ruling, the Court will hear oral argument on the principle that junior lawyers need more opportunities for appearances than they typically receive.

Simply put, the experiences I have gained from these pro bono class action matters have made me a better lawyer. They have helped me hone skills that I bring to the rest of my practice. And, at the end of the day, every success we have for our pro bono clients is a particular and wonderful honor.