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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

YLS Students Work on High Profile Cases in Partnership with San Francisco Attorney’s Office

Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies, a cereal that contains 40% sugar by weight, high fructose corn syrup, and trans fat, can no longer make bold immunity claims on the front of its box thanks, in part, to the efforts of Yale Law students working with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

The students are part of the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project (SFALP), which, over the past three years, has involved Yale Law students in a number of high-profile cases, including a lawsuit in 2008 that landed on the cover of Business Week magazine.

The Cocoa Krispies case was also a headline grabber, garnering publicity in such media outlets as the Today Show, Good Morning America, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. It began when boxes of Cocoa Krispies stating, “Now Helps Support Your Child’s Immunity,” began appearing on San Francisco grocery shelves. Concerned that the wording was a potential violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law prohibiting “unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera asked SFALP members Laura Safdie ’11, Lang Liu ’11, and Ester Murdukhayeva ’12 to research federal and state regulations on food labeling, as well as the immunity benefits of various vitamins and minerals.

“The Kellogg’s immunity claim suggested that increased fortification of the cereal with Vitamins A, B, C, and E would help support children’s immune systems,” said Murdukhayeva. “But we found that the scientific research and statements from major health organizations are just so inconclusive that any strong claims about these vitamins and a major effect on the immune system are incredibly misleading.”

Based on the students’ research, Herrera sent a public letter to the CEO of Kellogg’s in October 2009.

“I am concerned that the prominent use of the immunity claims to advertise a sugar-laden, chocolate cereal like Cocoa Krispies may mislead and deceive parents of young children,” he wrote. He asked Kellogg’s to provide evidence of its immunity claims within 30 days or the City would “seek an immediate termination or modification of the advertising claim.”

The following week, after being roundly criticized in the media, Kellogg’s announced it would discontinue the immunity statements on the Cocoa Krispies. As a result, the City Attorney’s Office dropped its investigation and negotiated an agreement with Kellogg’s requiring the company to give the City Attorney prior notice if at any time it plans to launch an immunity claim on any Kellogg product for the next six years.

“It is incredibly rewarding to work with the City of San Francisco on a real and meaningful effort to change the way these products are marketed to children and families,” said Murdukhayeva. “This was a great example of how affirmative litigation and press attention can work together to achieve important and meaningful results.”

“Our work proves that a small group of passionate individuals can succeed in reigning in immense corporate misbehavior, and it has inspired us to keep searching and fighting for more ways to improve our food systems,” said Liu.

Another cutting-edge case for the SFALP students has been the Proposition 8 trial in California, which challenged the constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. San Francisco was the only organization allowed to intervene as a plaintiff in the trial and present its own argument—that Proposition 8 is a financial burden to the government and should be overturned. Eight Yale Law students put in hundreds of hours doing research, developing arguments, and assisting in the preparation of witnesses.

“I provided background research on when and how courts consider voter intent when evaluating laws passed by initiative,” said Kaitlin Ainsworth ’10. “It was amazing to see my research contribute to arguments that the attorneys made in court on such a major case, and I felt honored to be a part of the effort.”

Adam Grogg ’10 said he focused on helping the City and the other plaintiffs develop arguments as to why laws singling out gays and lesbians demand strict scrutiny under the federal Equal Protection Clause. Theresa Lee ’11 researched the history and importance of civil rights boycotts and helped prepare witnesses for depositions and trial testimony.

“I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work on a matter of such critical importance,” said Lee. “It is an experience that I can hardly believe happened. Working with the City Attorney’s Office provided a chance to hone our legal skills when it really made a difference.”

Grogg said working with the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project has been “a highlight” of his time at Yale. The feeling is echoed by other students.

“Working with SFALP has been one of the most amazing experiences that I have had at law school,” said Lang Liu. “The projects provide invaluable on-the-ground experience and the classroom component provides a reflexive, critical lens through which to more deeply analyze the legal and political structures that frame the work that we do.”

“As students in the program, we benefit from the supervision of brilliant attorneys and share with them the satisfaction that comes from developing creative social justice advocacy,” added Grogg.

Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken, who co-founded SFALP in 2006, said that in little more than three years, the Project has become a national model, far surpassing her original expectations.

“The partnership with San Francisco has been incredible,” she said. “The students provide a standing army for the city, and they get to do top-notch public interest work in return.”

The other Yale law students who worked on Proposition 8 are Eric Fish ’11, Christopher Le Coney ’10, Gabriela Rivera ’11, Adam Yoffie ’11, and SFALP fellow Jill Habig ’09. The case is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who must decide if California’s limitation of marriage to one man and one woman violates the Constitution. No matter how the judge decides, it’s expected the case will result in appeals that are likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project is funded by The Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School.