Cornell First Amendment Clinic Files Suit Seeking Wage-Theft Documents

Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic filed a lawsuit in state court on July 6, 2020, seeking wage-theft–related records from the New York State Department of Labor on behalf of immigration-focused nonprofit news site Documented.

Documented plans to use the requested documents to create an interactive database of companies in New York that have stolen wages from employees. That database would be accessible both to low-wage workers at particular risk of experiencing wage theft and to those who support a living wage to determine which companies to avoid working for or patronizing

Wage theft is a widespread problem in New York. In recent years, unscrupulous employers stole an estimated $965 million annually from New York employees, according to an Economic Policy Institute report.

“It is crucial that records identifying employers’ bad actions be made public in a timely manner both to hold employers accountable and to further the Department of Labor’s aim of protecting workers,” says Heather Murray, managing attorney of the clinic’s Local Journalism Project.

Murray points out that the federal Department of Labor already publicly posts the type of wage theft information that Documented is seeking, including whether violations were found, the back-wage amount, the number of employees due back wages, and the civil monetary penalties assessed.

Documented filed the original Freedom of Information Law request in December 2019. The suit challenges the improper delay and constructive denial of access to the requested wage and hour records.

Documented is represented by Murray; Cortelyou Kenney, associate director of the clinic; and Mark Jackson, director of the clinic. Student interns Sam Aber and Joel Sati also assisted in preparing the petition and the supporting brief.

The First Amendment Clinic is engaged in a variety of cases and projects advancing the interests of free speech and freedom of the press. Its recently launched Local Journalism Project addresses the increasing void in legal representation facing newsgatherers and media outlets that would otherwise be precluded from engaging in expensive litigation to defend their rights and ability to do their jobs. The clinic’s work extends across disciplines, impacting journalists, researchers, human rights advocates, political advocates, and other individuals targeted based on their expression.


Heather Murray ’13 to Lead First Amendment Clinic’s Local Journalism Project

Heather Murray ’13 has been named to the newly created position of managing attorney of the Local Journalism Project, an initiative of Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic. As managing attorney, Murray will oversee all of the legal work that the clinic does on behalf of local media outlets in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and surrounding areas.

The position was made possible by generous grants from both The Knight Foundation and the Legal Clinic Fund, a collaborative fund supported by the Abrams Foundation, Democracy Fund, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Klarman Family Foundation.

Murray joins the clinic after practicing as a litigator in the New York offices of international law firms Seyfarth Shaw and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. Prior to pursuing a legal career, Murray was a journalist working for news outlets in Westchester and New York City.

“We created the Local Journalism Project within the clinic to give even more focus and attention to our work on behalf of local media outlets,” said Mark H. Jackson, director of the First Amendment Clinic. “Bringing Heather on to oversee this work will take this initiative to another level and allow us to take on even more critical matters for our clients who are doing such essential work.”

Through its Local Journalism Project, the First Amendment Clinic has represented numerous news outlets in recent years, including VT Digger, Vermont’s largest not-for-profit news platform, in its efforts to obtain vital documents related to a major fraud committed in that state. Most recently, it was retained by the Geneva Believer, a news site in Geneva, New York, to defend it against a defamation lawsuit brought by a local construction company. The clinic recently won a ruling denying the company’s application to remove all of the news site’s prior reporting about the company.

“I am honored to come home to Cornell to join its First Amendment Clinic nearly a decade after I first worked alongside clinical professors as a student,” said Murray. “I know only too well the very real challenges facing local journalists trying to cover the actions of local and state governments, especially in these difficult economic times. I am looking forward to furthering the First Amendment clinic’s critical work in providing access to pro bono legal services to these journalists, who oftentimes have limited resources to devote to legal representation.”

Murray joins a growing staff at the First Amendment Clinic, which includes Cortelyou Kenney, associate director; and Tyler Valeska, a fellow. The clinic is engaged in a variety of cases and projects advancing the interests of free speech and freedom of the press. Its work extends across disciplines, impacting journalists, researchers, human rights advocates, political advocates, and other individuals targeted based on their expression. The clinic is in the process of hiring a New York City-based local journalism attorney, a satellite position that will enable the clinic to represent more local journalists in the New York metropolitan area.

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. It invests in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. And James L. Knight once published newspapers. Its goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which it believes are essential for a healthy democracy. It believes in freedom of expression and in the values expressed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Legal Clinic Fund is a collaborative fund to support the growth and sustainability of legal clinics across the United States that seek to advance and defend First Amendment rights, media freedom, and transparency in their communities and nationally. The fund is generously supported by the Abrams Foundation, Democracy Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, and The Klarman Family Foundation. The Miami Foundation serves as fiscal sponsor for the Fund.


First Amendment Clinic Law clinic helps NYTimes win access to COVID-19 data on race

Lawsuit against CDC yields new information about pandemic’s effects

A Cornell Law School clinic focused on freedom of the press has played a crucial role in revealing how Black and Latino people have been disproportionally affected by the coronavirus.

The First Amendment Clinic, working on behalf of its client, The New York Times, helped secure the release of previously unseen data that provides the most detailed look yet at nearly 1.5 million American coronavirus patients.

Using this data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Timespublished a front-page story in its July 6 edition that examines the significant racial inequities in infection rates in more than half the U.S. population – the most extensive survey to date.

The data, from 974 counties across the country, shows that Black and Latino people have been even more disproportionately affected by the coronavirus than previously known, regardless of age or geographic location. A similar disparity affects Native American people in certain parts of the country. Asian American people are also disproportionately impacted.

“This is a great success for information access on an issue of vital public importance at a time of public crisis,” said Cortelyou Kenney, associate director of the clinic. “But there is little to celebrate here. The data shows in stark terms what we already expected: that there is a troubling disparity in the impact this disease has had on people of color.

“The Times report, and the documents that underly it, demonstrate the urgent need for a robust public effort to protect our most vulnerable communities,” Kenney said.

The clinic and the Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request on April 14 seeking the quick release of demographic data on infected patients from the CDC. When the agency failed to respond within the 10-day statutorily-mandated time frame, the Times – with the clinic as co-counsel – filed suit May 13 in the Southern District of New York demanding the documents. The agency agreed to release the data in June as part of early litigation negotiations.

However, the report indicates significant gaps in the data, which may require more litigation or negotiation, Kenney said

“This is exactly the type of work the First Amendment Clinic looks to do for media outlets large and small,” said Mark Jackson, the clinic’s director. “Helping great journalists gain access and information to enable them to report on issues of vital concern to their readers is at the heart of our mission.”

Along with Kenney and Jackson, the clinic team includes teaching fellow Tyler Valeska and students Daniel Geller, Michael Mills, Alyssa Morones, Melissa Muse, Rob Ward and Anna Whistler. Students Sam Aber and Joel Sati also provided assistance to the effort.

The clinic is engaged in a variety of cases and projects advancing access to information and the interests of free speech, freedom of the press and transparency. Its work extends across disciplines, impacting journalists, researchers, human rights advocates, political advocates and others targeted because of their protected expression.