Court sides with critics of California legal aid group in fight over case files

mdoyle@mcclatchydc.comJuly 12, 2013 

— Federal investigators on Friday gained more clout to pry information from California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., a famous and occasionally controversial legal aid group that insists the investigators are going too far.

In a unanimous decision, a top appellate court upheld the investigators' ability to subpoena numerous documents from an organization that has often angered farmers and conservative lawmakers from the Central Valley. While the decision involving CRLA worries some lawyers, it revives an investigation initiated in late 2005.

"CRLA has resisted disclosing these documents for years, but perhaps its leaders have finally learned that self-righteous, radical groups are subject to the rule of law just like everyone else," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Clovis.

The group, a nonprofit legal aid program, handles cases ranging from routine wage-and-hour disputes and housing complaints, to broader challenges to agricultural working conditions affecting the state's rural poor.

In a preliminary 2006 report, federal investigators reported finding "substantial evidence" that the legal assistance group had "violated federal law by soliciting clients, working a fee-generating case, requesting attorney fees (and) associating CRLA with political activities."

For what amount to technical reasons, the decision Friday by three judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed a trial judge's earlier decision enforcing the investigators' wide-ranging subpoena.

CRLA attorneys say the documents include confidential personal information on thousands of clients.

"We are disappointed with the outcome, of course," CRLA Executive Director Jose Padilla said in a telephone interview, but added, "We will comply."

Padilla said his agency has been going through "thousands of cases" since the court heard oral arguments last April to prepare for compliance if the organization lost the legal challenge. He further noted that while the CRLA originally believed information on some 39,000 clients might have to be divulged, cases involving juveniles and domestic violence have since been winnowed out.

The legal aid group had resisted the subpoena, explaining on its website that "the risk of divulging client identities and data to the public will not only discourage future clients from seeking assistance, but will jeopardize the security of thousands of current or recent clients." Los Angeles County Bar Association attorneys raised similar concerns in a legal brief.

The conflict goes back to December 2005, when Nunes passed along complaints to the Legal Service Corp.'s Office of Inspector General. Along with politically influential farmers, Nunes believes CRLA has inappropriately involved itself in politics.

More broadly, conservatives have long tried to eliminate the $400 million-a-year Legal Services Corp., which funds the California organization and others like it nationwide. The all-out political attacks have largely become symbolic gestures, though a Republican-led amendment to cut the agency's spending narrowly failed by a 202-217 margin last January.

"It is an attempt to attack an agency that stands up for those who can't defend themselves," Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said during the debate.

The federal Legal Services Corp. is the largest source of funding for CRLA, which operates legal aid offices in nearly 20 cities throughout California, including six in the Central Valley region between Delano in the south and Marysville in the north.

Investigators followed up their 2006 report with a subpoena in October 2006, requesting myriad documents. While turning over some, legal aid officials insisted that full disclosure of client information would violate both state and federal attorney-client privilege protections.

In November 2011, a federal judge sided with investigators.

A key question facing the three-judge appellate panel was whether CRLA could use California's professional responsibility standards concerning attorney-client information to block the subpoena. The judges, in an 11-page decision written by one of the court's most conservative members, said the agency couldn't use state law as a shield.

"Federal law exclusively governs," Senior Circuit Judge David Sentelle wrote, noting that "the claimed protection under California law is broader than that afforded under federal standards."

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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