Fenwick Secures Historic Litigation Win for Vulnerable Californians

Fenwick and its pro bono partner organizations secured a major pro bono litigation win this month, eliminating $500 million in civil assessment debts disproportionally impacting some of the most economically vulnerable people in California.

In January 2022, Fenwick partnered with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco (LCCRSF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California and Bay Area Legal Aid and filed a suit to enjoin and declare unlawful San Mateo County Superior Court’s civil assessment program, which imposed a $300 fine for every instance an individual failed to pay a traffic infraction or respond by a court deadline. Plaintiffs alleged this additional fee was imposed without judicial review, adequate notice or consideration for a person’s circumstances—financial or otherwise.

In response to the lawsuit, San Mateo County Superior Court agreed to stop imposing the burdensome late fees known as civil assessments. The County of San Mateo had already responded to the suit by permanently ending its role as the Superior Court’s debt collector.

The lawsuit unfolded as California passed new legislation that eliminated more than $500 million in outstanding civil assessment debts and that explicitly prohibited the courts from relying on late fees as a source of additional revenue at the expense of low-income Californians. The California Legislature and governor are now working to reduce or end unlawful assessments permanently.

The Fenwick team included litigation partner Eric Ball and counsel Kathy Marshall and Jeff Ware, and litigation associates Namita Dhawan, Max DiBaise, Deena Feit, Claire Mena and Samuel Sahagian.

Read the LCCRSF's coverage of the victory here.

February 2023 Update: For the team’s efforts, this month the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco (LCCRSF) awarded Fenwick the Keta Taylor Colby Award for the firm's role in this historic victory.

About Fenwick’s Pro Bono Practice

Fenwick’s pro bono program is dedicated to ensuring that disadvantaged people and communities have representation and access to justice. Every year, our lawyers strive to donate three percent of their total billable hours to pro bono legal services to a broad range of clients and causes.