Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton



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Cleary Gottlieb (18)


In 2006 Lee Berger, an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who works in Washington, D.C., picked up a newspaper sold by a homeless person. He noticed an article about homeless people in the D.C. area working for eviction companies who are paid just $5 per eviction. These local companies make a practice of stopping at homeless shelters to round up workers desperate enough to do The Am Law Pro Bono 100this work—which involves carrying the contents of people's homes out to the curb—for this paltry wage.

"I got very angry about this," recalls Berger, a seventh-year associate. "Including travel time, they can be on the job as many as eight hours. If the eviction doesn't take place, they're not paid."

In 2006 Berger filed a class action lawsuit in D.C. federal court on behalf of the workers, alleging violations of Maryland, D.C., and federal minimum wage laws. The suit, brought in collaboration with the National Coalition for the Homeless, also raised claims under antitrust laws, alleging that the dozen defendants colluded to fix wages. The suit sought an injunction and damages. (Roughly 15 Cleary lawyers have worked on this project since it began.)

Berger and other Cleary lawyers interviewed men and women at homeless shelters and soup kitchens about this work. "We got 100 affidavits from victims saying they were paid $5 per eviction," says Berger. He doesn't know for sure how many people have worked for these companies—"There are no employment records," he notes—but estimates that there might have been as many as 3,000.

The defendants countered that these workers are independent contractors, and as such, aren't subject to minimum wage laws. A magistrate judge has rejected that argument.

The wheels of justice are turning slowly. After three years, D.C. federal district court judge Richard Leon has not ruled on the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. A few defendants have settled, agreeing to pay minimum wage. Berger says he believes that the rest still pay $5 per eviction, or now offer up to $7, which still isn't minimum wage.

"It's a human rights issue, says Berger. "They're not second-class citizens. They deserve equal protection under the minimum wage law."

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