Students Score Big Win in Wage-Theft Case
Sturm, Korbel schools collaborate to help immigrant workers
The happiest moment of Katie Brown’s life came in an Arapahoe County courtroom in March.
A judge had just validated that her 100 hours of work and tedious, intensive preparation were worthwhile.
The third-year student in the Sturm College of Law had just scored the first major victory of her legal career.
“There was a lot of energy and heart that was put into the case,” said Brown, who will graduate in May. “We were learning as we went and teaching ourselves, so there was a lot of pressure on me personally as well as pressure to get it done for my clients.”
Thanks to Brown, the University’s Civil Litigation Clinic and a host of other programs across campus, four immigrant day laborers won $15,000 in damages and wages an employer had stolen from them. Since November, Brown has been on the case, working for class credit under the supervision of Denver Law professor Tamara Kuennen.
In the Civil Litigation Clinic, students working with Kuennen take on relatively expeditious cases that require fewer documents filed in court but entail more outside-the-courthouse research. Often, they are less-lucrative cases that other attorneys tend to decline. And that students tend to win.
“Usually our students are able to out-prepare the other side,” Kuennen said, noting students are expected to put in 25–30 hours of work per week to earn nine University credits. “Even when experienced attorneys get involved [on the other side, the students are] just able to devote a lot of time to their cases. They draft and redraft and practice every single word they would utter in court with me many times before we actually have a hearing.”
While Brown was the face of the case in the courtroom, the win would not have been possible without cross-disciplinary collaboration among the law school, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and a multitude of community partners.
Brown got to know her clients after she visited El Centro Humanitario and met Diego Bleifuss-Prados and the other Korbel students staffing its Direct Action Team. The community organization works to promote the rights of day laborers and domestic workers. For years now, Korbel students have been researching wage theft and interviewing workers, employers and lawyers about their experiences. They often help workers recoup wages outside the often costly and time-consuming legal process.
"It's a great example of how community members and groups can come together and each contribute their own skills, knowledge, and time to righting injustices and reclaiming unpaid wages," Bleifuss-Prados said.
In this case, legal help represented the last available option. The Korbel students connected with Brown who, working pro-bono, saw a chance to tap into her passion.
“I saw a great opportunity to work with people and help them in the most important aspect of their life,” she said. “It’s not just about money. It’s about earning a livelihood and feeling proud of yourself and supporting yourself.”
It’s not just about the money for Brown either. Although unpaid, she feels as though she has gained an immeasurable wealth of practical experience.
The Korbel students also acquire skills that launch them into a variety of jobs in immigrant and labor rights.
“They’re getting really tangible work experience, as well as knowledge of the issues and the ability to work with stakeholders,” said Rebecca Galemba, an assistant professor at the Korbel School. “They learn how to take a lot of initiative and creatively address an issue. For me as a researcher who is also now expanded into outreach, it’s part of our commitment to the community. You not only want to research what is happening to workers, but also share what you have learned and help contribute to real change."
Katie Brown plans to continue the community work she took on in the Civil Litigation Clinic. She can’t imagine doing anything else now that she has experienced how satisfying litigation can be.
“If I hadn’t done this and I’d left law school just taking classes, I would have been so far behind entering the working world,” she said. “There are so many ways you can use the law to help people earn their livelihood and be successful and contribute to society.”