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Employment Law Clinic Represents Mariners

April 12, 2013

Merchant mariners who have their licenses revoked or suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard typically have had little access to representation to contest the decision—until now, thanks to a unique program that allows students in the USF School of Law Employment Law Clinic to represent mariners in license revocation cases before the Coast Guard.

“It’s all about access to justice,” said Professor Bob Talbot, who oversees the clinic. “It really fits well here because you have all these rights, but if you don’t have a lawyer, forget it. There’s no way to do it.”

The clinic’s program, which began this semester and has handled two cases so far, came about after Rear Adm. Frederick J. Kenney ’91, judge advocate general for the Coast Guard, suggested it. The National Maritime Center, the Coast Guard’s issuing authority, issues more than 240,000 credentials to merchant mariners who sail throughout U.S. waters. Last year, about 600 licenses were revoked nationwide; only 40 mariners requested trials, Talbot said. 

Yet many mariners, Talbot learned from Kenney, might have good cases for their licenses to not be taken, but without an advocate, they have little chance of success in a formal hearing to contest the decision.

“In a lot of ways, it was made for a law school program,” said Talbot. “There’s discovery, opposing attorneys, motions, conferences with judges. Students get to investigate the case, prepare witnesses, put them on the stand and cross-examine. And it’s all fairly quick.”

The clinic is important to not only the individual mariners it helps, but also to the nation’s shipping industry. Each of the 50 states relies on at least 15 seaports to handle imports and exports, which total more than $3.8 billion worth of goods moving in and out of U.S. seaports every day, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. U.S. seaports handle more than 2 billion tons of domestic, import, and export cargo annually.

Talbot said he knows of only one other law school handling such cases. USF’s clinic, he said, is the only program of its kind on the West Coast.

“The clinic has now represented two mariners and but for the clinic’s representation, these mariners would not have been able to afford an attorney,” said the Hon. Parlen L. McKenna, acting chief administrative law judge for the Coast Guard. “The United States Coast Guard administrative law judges are truly grateful for the public service the clinic provides in protecting the due process rights of merchant mariners.”

Consider Mark Fredette, a mariner with 18 years of experience. Fredette knew he would need legal help after the Coast Guard not only rejected his application for a license upgrade, but also revoked his current license because of a 2009 medical issue. He contacted private attorneys, but few were willing to help. One who was willing quoted him between $10,000 and $50,000.

He turned to the law clinic after learning about it from Judge McKenna’s office. Thanks to the clinic, Fredette reached a settlement to keep his license until it expires next year.

“I don’t believe I would have even possibly achieved that without the help of the clinic,” said Fredette, who plans to re-apply for a renewal and upgrade. “It was excellent, over the top, working with the students. They were very professional and took a personal interest in my case.”

Alicia Kauk, 3L, described the experience of working with the mariners as “empowering,” knowing that without the clinic’s assistance, the mariners would be without legal representation and unable to navigate the legal system.

“There is great joy in telling a mariner he can retain his license to work at sea – you've saved a man's livelihood,” said Kauk. “The thanks each mariner has expressed is palpable.”