How an Environmental Justice Nonprofit Bolsters Their Litigation Strategy with Ediscovery Tech
Working primarily in low-income communities across California, Communities for a Better Environment fights for better air quality, clean energy, smarter land use and transportation, and climate justice. Having grown to just eight attorneys in recent years, the organization has gone head to head – and won – in litigation against much larger organizations to protect public health from industrial pollution.
As an environmental justice nonprofit, CBE promotes the rights of disadvantaged communities by fighting systemic inequities that lead to the disproportionate exposure of people living in primarily low-income and minority neighborhoods to toxic waste, pollution, and other environmental risks.
Legal work is central to achieving its goals, whether litigating under the California Environmental Quality Act, the Clean Air Act, or in California Public Utilities Commission proceedings. To be successful when facing opposing parties with more resources, CBE must handle discovery, and the entire litigation process, as efficiently as possible.
CBE participates in the Everlaw for Good program, which provides free ediscovery software and resources to nonprofits, journalists, educators, and pro bono lawyers.
CBE attorney Idalmis Vaquero, a Southern California native and UCLA School of Law graduate, has been using Everlaw technology to help build more powerful cases. One of her projects involves a former battery recycling facility that faced allegations of leaking pollutants such as lead and arsenic into nearby communities, including in the neighborhood where Vaquero and her sister grew up.
Everlaw sat down with Vaquero to talk about CBE’s projects, its discovery challenges, and how Everlaw technology has helped centralize and streamline the team’s mission-critical work. The following Q&A was edited for length and clarity.
For folks who aren’t as familiar with your organization, what exactly does CBE do?
CBE is a statewide environmental justice organization and we work primarily in working class communities. In NorCal we organize in East Oakland and Richmond, and in Southern California we focus on the communities of Southeast LA and Wilmington. CBE tries to empower and build the leadership expertise of low-income communities of color and folks most impacted by environmental burdens. When you think about the ports or heavy industry and refineries in the area, we focus primarily on those communities that are living right next to those toxic harms.
We use a triad model: We have lawyers, researchers, and organizers to bring about the impact we want to see. We use all three in our campaigns.
Tell us about CBE’s mission and what brought you to this line of work.
Environmental justice broadly defined is the disproportionate environmental burden that primarily low-income and communities of color face. We believe that in a world where environmental justice exists there wouldn’t be a disproportionate burden that affects folks based on your race, your income, your national origin, and other protected classes.
What we’ve seen is when we begin to explain what environmental injustice is, a lot of people say, “This just seems normal to me – the fact that I live next to an oil refinery or next to the port and I have a lot of family members who have asthma.” What we’ve seen in the communities that we organize in is there’s a lack of information and outreach from regulators and folks who are meant to protect us. We feel there’s a duty there to support and make sure communities are not disproportionately affected.
It’s one of the main reasons I got involved with CBE a long time ago. I did not know there was a lead battery facility that was emitting a lot of lead in my community. Only in volunteering and interning at CBE did I learn about this facility. That’s when I really was prompted to do more. No one in my family had ever heard about it before.
I have a 15-year-old sister right now, at that time she was a younger child. We grew up living in this contaminated home for her entire life. So just really understanding the fact that it wasn’t just my sister, but thousands and thousands of Latinx and black children living in that contaminated world really pushed me to fight for environmental justice and say, “This is not normal and this is not right.” Trying to address both issues is what prompted me to go to law school and to continue to work on land use and toxic pollution issues, and now as an attorney, too.
One of the constraints that nonprofits face is a lack of adequate resources to pursue their mission. How does CBE try to overcome disparities in litigation resources?
For a long time we needed to prioritize the use of our limited financial resources for organizing, to bring in more members and make sure they have the technical knowledge to be able to speak for themselves. That means we didn’t have a lot of resources for the legal work.
Over the past couple of years our legal team at CBE has increased and that’s also been a pain point, because not having a good ediscovery infrastructure, it really does impact how much time and work we spend doing everything, or having to redo certain things because that’s what a lack of infrastructure means. As we’ve grown we’ve had to find a way to keep all of our important documents on litigation and investigations together in one place and that prompted CBE to use Everlaw for Good.
How has technology helped your organization be more effective?
One of the ways we’ve been able to do more as a small team is by organizing all the documents that come in through Public Records Act requests. In one particular case we’re trying to see if a city in Southeast LA might be in violation of affordable housing laws.
This is primarily important because there’s an affordable housing crisis and low-income folks feel it the most. The city officials are trying to sell a mobile home park that is owned by the city, so it’s a public land case. We’re working with residents from the mobile home park to see if there are any claims we could bring and overall making sure they get the proper relocation assistance. And if they do sell, making sure they’re complying with the laws.
The other is a pending litigation, so I’ll be very general. We’re currently in the discovery phase, so we’re receiving thousands of documents from this litigation in state court regarding hazardous waste laws. We believe a chemical manufacturing company in California is trying to avoid getting permits for treating hazardous waste. We’re working with experts in this area to be able to dissect all of the information from all the raw data that they have in discovery. Everlaw has been extremely helpful.
I have to give a shout out to the support staff from Everlaw. There’s been multiple times where I don’t know what to do, whether it’s uploading data or how to use a function, and they are super helpful. People are really really nice when I ask some of the most basic questions through the support line. I’ve always gotten my questions answered.
Can you share an example of how Everlaw makes a difference for you in your day-to-day work?
It has formalized the way we review documents at CBE. In the past we’ve taken notes in our journals and brought important points up later in a meeting. Having Everlaw and the functions of tagging documents has been really helpful to communicate with my colleagues here on specific documents that we should be looking at.
In the past we were using platforms like Dropbox and it was very hard to keep track of documents. Everlaw has been really helpful in making sure all our documents stay in one platform and we’re not having to look around.
Storybuilder has really helped us in creating timelines for our cases, and seeing what has happened when it comes to documents. I love the aspect of being able to tag documents and use Storybuilder to elevate our work and bring the bigger picture when it comes to our litigation strategies.
What inspires you to continue doing this work?
I love the work we do with our members here. I see our youth members going to state agency meetings. They are the future.
It gives me a lot of hope for what comes ahead. They’ll be the ones to bear the burden of this climate crisis and a lot of them are taking it into their own hands to advocate in front of legislators and speak truth to power.
I think that should give us all hope.
To learn more about the work Everlaw users are doing, visit our growing library of customer success stories. To learn more about Everlaw for Good, click here.