This fall, we said thank you and farewell to 2019-2020 Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Dena Robinson. During her year at the PJC, Dena’s advocacy spanned a variety of cases that impacted race equity, police conduct, consumer rights, employment discrimination, wage theft, tenants’ rights, and immigration. She advocated banning discrimination based on hair textures and hairstyles in Maryland and addressing racial disparities in the state’s COVID-19 infection and death rates. She was also a key leader in the PJC’s work to become a more racially equitable organization. We are grateful for Dena’s incredible work and wish her the best in her new position at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Read about highlights from Dena’s time at the PJC below.
Dena’s amicus brief in Baltimore City Police Department v. Potts contributed to a major victory for police accountability. This year, the Court of Appeals of Maryland unanimously ruled that Baltimore City and the Baltimore City Police Department (BCPD) are not shielded from liability for the misconduct of officers in the BCPD’s Gun Trace Task Force, an elite plainclothes unit who harassed, assaulted, and wrongly arrested Baltimore residents. Dena’s brief asserted that the City was attempting to shirk responsibility for the BCPD’s toxic culture of policing and that holding the BCPD and the City government liable would be the best way to ensure that the police department takes responsibility for rooting out officer misconduct and promoting the systemic changes necessary to correct departmental culture and repair community-police relations.
Dena helped secure a victory for consumer rights in the Court of Appeals, which upheld the Maryland Consumer Protection Division’s (CPD) authority to go after companies who cheat people out of compensation for lead poisoning. Linton v. Consumer Protection Division challenged a settlement agreement between Access Funding and 100 Maryland tort victims, which transferred their rights to compensation for lead poisoning to Access Funding for minimal payments, settled their class action claims, and settled the claims brought in separate cases by the CPD and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Dena’s amicus brief followed advocacy from previous Murnaghan Fellow Ejaz Baluch, Jr. and addressed the problems with a settlement-only class in the early stages of litigation, the importance of the CPD’s ability to enforce civil law, the cognitive impact of childhood lead paint poisoning on adults, and the reasons the courts should consider cognitive impairments and other vulnerabilities of plaintiffs when approving settlement agreements in class action lawsuits.
In the employment discrimination case Bing v. Brivo Systems, Dena represented Robel Bing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Mr. Bing alleged that after his white supervisor met him for the first time during the first day of his new job and saw that he was Black, the supervisor Googled Mr. Bing’s name, found a 10-year-old Baltimore Sun article that named Mr. Bing as a witness in an investigation into Halloween “celebratory gunfire,” and fired him. Dena argued that implicit bias against African Americans led the supervisor to Google Mr. Bing. She pointed out that other race discrimination cases filed under Title VII have addressed situations where unconscious, unchecked racial biases contributed to disparate treatment of people of color in the workplace. Notably, a Judge on the panel asked Dena to define implicit bias on the record during oral argument. This is important not only because it helps to educate the judiciary and influence their decision-making, but because stating it on the record is an open acknowledgment that implicit bias exists and has very real consequences on people’s lives.
In two cases involving workers who were not paid for work-related travel time, Dena submitted amicus briefs challenging a lower court’s application of the federal Portal-to-Portal Act (PPA) to Maryland wage claims, which denied the workers their wages. Dena and the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers’ Association filed amicus briefs in Amaya, et al. v. DGS Construction, LLC, et al. and Rojas, et al. v. F.R. General Contractors, Inc., et al. in support of the workers, who argued that the Court should not apply the federal PPA to state wage claims since the Maryland General Assembly did not adopt it. The briefs showed how engrafting the PPA onto Maryland wage laws would cheat Maryland workers out of significant wages and would sanction this pervasive form of wage theft (unpaid travel time) that disproportionately burdens people of color, women, and immigrants.
In Francis v. Kings Park Manor, Inc., Dena filed an amicus brief with Paralyzed Veterans of America in support of a Black man who sued his landlord for failing to address months of harassment from a white man who lived in the same building. In the brief, Dena argued that landlords should be held liable for failing to address tenant-on-tenant harassment. The brief emphasized how tenant-on-tenant harassment impacts people and veterans with disabilities, especially people with disabilities who have intersectional identities, such as Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ people, people with mental illnesses, and gender identity or expression. The brief also rebutted the defendants’ argument that tenants should just call the police when they are harassed, as the police disproportionately injure or kill people with disabilities.
Dena’s final brief of her fellowship demonstrated how immigration judges’ determinations of an asylum applicant’s credibility can be detrimental to an applicant who is a trauma survivor or is from a non-Western or non-European country. In a brief in B.C. v. Barr, joined by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and Dolores Street Community Services, Dena addressed the subjectivity of credibility determinations, detailing how an applicant’s demeanor is an unreliable gauge for assessing their credibility because the assessment relies on Eurocentric and white standards about how one should speak and act in court. The brief also addressed how trauma changes how the brain stores information and how we verbally retell a traumatic experience. Last, the brief addressed the pervasiveness of implicit biases within the legal institution and the racialization of immigration laws, tracing those biases back to Eurocentric stock stories and understandings about the importance of time or the amount of context someone must share when telling a story. This brief was especially meaningful for Dena, as it allowed her to connect her legal advocacy with her identity as a Black, first-generation American, teacher of narrative storytelling, and diversity, equity, and inclusion facilitator.
In addition to appellate advocacy, Dena contributed to advocacy with the Maryland General Assembly and Governor’s office. She co-wrote testimony with PJC attorneys Tyra Robinson and Ashley Black supporting the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles. She and Ashley also wrote a letter to Governor Larry Hogan, supported by several advocacy organizations, calling on his administration and the Maryland Department of Health to take several actions to address racial disparities in Maryland’s COVID-19 infection and death rates, including in the areas of data reporting and prevention and response measures.
Dena was also an active member of the PJC’s Race Equity Team, helping to lay the foundation for the team and organization’s race equity vision. She and Tyra co-facilitated two workshops that helped the PJC reexamine our race equity work and our advocacy through a lens of collective liberation (the idea that none of us are free if one of us is oppressed). The workshops provided space to imagine what freedom would look and feel like at the personal, societal, and collective levels and think through liberatory practices to incorporate at the PJC and in our daily lives. One of those workshops included leading staff through a Design Sprint, a process for designing solutions to problems in consultation with the people affected. Dena also co-facilitated the Race Equity Team’s retreat and led the team through collective visioning activities to help develop its goals for the next year.