Human Rights, Public Health & Environment
Robbins Geller attorneys have a long tradition of representing the victims of unfair labor practices and violations of human rights.
Human Rights Cases
Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491 (U.S. Sup. Ct.). In this watershed human rights case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Robbins Geller attorneys participated as amicus curiae for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Mendez. The U.N. Special Rapporteur’s amicus curiae brief was filed by a team of attorneys, including our firm and Professor Deena R. Hurwitz at the University of Virginia School of Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, in support of claims brought by the plaintiffs under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) against the defendant, Royal Dutch Petroleum (“Shell”), for its complicity in killing, torturing, and detaining their families to suppress protests against Shell’s environmental degradation in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
The plaintiffs’ claims arise under the ATS, which has been a powerful tool for holding human rights abusers accountable for the past 30 years. In Kiobel, the Second Circuit held corporations could not be held liable under the ATS, and denied rehearing en banc on comity grounds, citing concerns about regulating foreign corporations, even though Shell has a presence in the United States and did not challenge personal jurisdiction. On appeal, the Supreme Court asked the parties to brief both whether corporations can be held liable under the ATS and whether the statute encompasses extraterritorial violations of the law of nations.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur’s amicus curiae brief argues that international law permits the United States to provide civil remedies for human rights violations committed elsewhere and that victims of human rights abuses have a right under both international and domestic law to a remedy and reparations. The plaintiffs argue the ATS would become a nullity if it did not apply extraterritorially, because federal and state law provides claims for the same crimes and torts occurring on our soil. Finally, the plaintiffs argue that corporations may be liable under the ATS, which does not discriminate among classes of defendants. Indeed, if corporations are to receive the rights of persons, they also must assume the commiserate responsibilities.
- Does I v. The Gap, Inc., No. 01 0031 (D. N. Mariana Islands). In this groundbreaking case, Robbins Geller attorneys represented a class of 30,000 garment workers who alleged that they had worked under sweatshop conditions in garment factories in Saipan that produced clothing for top United States retailers such as The Gap, Target and J.C. Penney. In the first action of its kind, Robbins Geller attorneys pursued claims against the factories and the retailers alleging violations of RICO, the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Law of Nations based on the alleged systemic labor and human rights abuses occurring in Saipan. This case was a companion to two other actions: Does I v. Advance Textile Corp., No. 99 0002 (D. N. Mariana Islands), which alleged overtime violations by the garment factories under the Fair Labor Standards Act and local labor law, and UNITE v. The Gap, Inc., No. 300474 (Cal. Super. Ct., San Francisco County), which alleged violations of California’s Unfair Practices Law by the United States retailers. These actions resulted in a settlement of approximately $20 million that included a comprehensive monitoring program to address past violations by the factories and prevent future ones. The members of the litigation team were honored as Trial Lawyers of the Year by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice in recognition of the team’s efforts at bringing about the precedent-setting settlement of the actions.
- Kasky v. Nike, Inc., 27 Cal. 4th 939 (2002). The California Supreme Court upheld claims that an apparel manufacturer misled the public regarding its exploitative labor practices, thereby violating California statutes prohibiting unfair competition and false advertising. The Court rejected defense contentions that any misconduct was protected by the First Amendment, finding the heightened constitutional protection afforded to noncommercial speech inappropriate in such a circumstance.
- World War II-Era Slave Labor. Against steep odds, the Firm’s lawyers took up the claims of people forced to work as slave labor for Japanese corporations during the Second World War. Their human rights case ran into trouble when the Ninth Circuit agreed with the Bush administration that any claims against Japanese corporations and their subsidiaries were preempted by the federal government’s foreign-affairs power. See Deutsch v. Turner, 324 F.3d 692 (9th Cir. 2003). The case nonetheless demonstrates the lawyers’ dedication to prosecuting human-rights violations against the challenge of formidable political opposition.
- The Cintas Litigation. Brought against one of the nation’s largest commercial laundries for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act for misclassifying truck drivers as salesmen to avoid payment of overtime.
- Taco Bell workers. Robbins Geller attorneys represented over 2,300 Taco Bell workers who were denied thousands of hours of overtime pay because, among other reasons, they were improperly classified as overtime-exempt employees.
Shareholder derivative litigation brought by Robbins Geller attorneys at times also involves governance changes that help organized labor.
Union Defense Cases
- Southern Pacific/Overnite. A shareholder action stemming from several hundred million dollars in loss of value in the company due to systematic violations by Overnite of United States labor laws.
- Massey Energy. A shareholder action against an anti-union employer for flagrant violations of environmental laws resulting in multi-million dollar penalties.
- Crown Petroleum. A shareholder action against a Texas-based oil company for self-dealing and breach of fiduciary duty while also involved in a union lockout.
Robbins Geller attorneys have also represented plaintiffs in class actions related to environmental law. The Firm’s attorneys represented, on a pro bono basis, the Sierra Club and the National Economic Development and Law Center as amici curiae in a federal suit designed to uphold the federal and state use of project labor agreements (“PLAs”). The suit represented a legal challenge to President Bush’s Executive Order 13202, which prohibits the use of PLAs on construction projects receiving federal funds. Our amici brief in the matter outlined and stressed the significant environmental and socio-economic benefits associated with the use of PLAs on large-scale construction projects.
Significant Environmental Cases
- Public Citizen v. U.S. D.O.T. Robbins Geller attorneys represented a coalition of labor, environmental, industry, and public health organizations including Public Citizen, The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, California AFL-CIO and California Trucking Industry in a challenge to a decision by the Bush Administration to lift a congressionally imposed “moratorium” on cross-border trucking from Mexico on the basis that such trucks do not conform to emission controls under the Clean Air Act, and further, that the Administration did not first complete a comprehensive environmental impact analysis as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court, the Court holding that because the D.O.T. lacked discretion to prevent cross-border trucking, an environmental assessment was not required.
- Sierra Club v. AK Steel. Brought on behalf of the Sierra Club for massive emissions of air and water pollution by a steel mill, including homes of workers living in the adjacent communities, in violation of the Federal Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation Recovery Act and the Clean Water Act.
- MTBE Litigation. Brought on behalf of various water districts for befouling public drinking water with MTBE, a gasoline additive linked to cancer.
- Exxon Valdez. Brought on behalf of fisherman and Alaska residents for billions of dollars in damages resulting from the greatest oil spill in United States history.
- Avila Beach. A citizens’ suit against UNOCAL for leakage from the oil company pipeline so severe it literally destroyed the town of Avila Beach, California.
Federal laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and state laws such as California's Proposition 65, exist to protect the environment and the public from abuses by corporate and government organizations. Companies can be found liable for negligence, trespass or intentional environmental damage, be forced to pay for reparations and to come into compliance with existing laws. Prominent cases litigated by Robbins Geller attorneys include representing more than 4,000 individuals suing for personal injury and property damage related to the Stringfellow Dump Site in Southern California, participation in the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, and the litigation involving the toxic spill arising from a Southern Pacific train derailment near Dunsmuir, California.
Robbins Geller attorneys have led the fight against Big Tobacco since 1991. As an example, Robbins Geller attorneys filed the case that helped get rid of Joe Camel, representing various public and private plaintiffs, including the State of Arkansas, the general public in California, the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Birmingham, 14 counties in California, and the working men and women of this country in the Union Pension and Welfare Fund cases that have been filed in 40 states. In 1992, Robbins Geller attorneys filed the first case in the country that alleged a conspiracy by the Big Tobacco companies.