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September 16, 2011

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has launched a pilot project with the University of San Francisco School of Law in which Employment Law Clinic students represent federal employees in hearings on employment related disputes.

The MSPB is an independent quasi-judicial agency established to protect federal merit systems and ensure protection for federal employees against abuses by agency management. The MSPB-USF partnership—the first of its kind in the nation—is an effort to provide pro bono representation to employees. The initiative may be extended to other law schools based on the success of the USF program.

“MSPB cases provide an opportunity for the students to have one or more evidentiary hearings, with motions and discovery, in the course of a semester,” said Judge Amy Dunning, chief administrative judge of the MSPB Western Regional Office. “Federal employees who lose their jobs or suffer a reduction in pay or their pensions and file an appeal with MSPB can benefit from low cost or no cost representation that may help them avoid serious economic consequences.”

Dunning proposed the pilot program last semester to Professor Robert Talbot based on the clinic’s work in employment law, which includes a longstanding partnership with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Talbot said the MSPB cases give students intense training in practical legal skills as they prepare and argue cases against experienced opposing attorneys.

“The MSPB cases give students the unique opportunity to handle an entire civil case, from intake through trial, in one semester,” Talbot said. “Students participate in status and pretrial conferences and fight discovery issues under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They examine and cross-examine witnesses under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Throughout all of this, the speed of the proceeding forces them to work quickly and efficiently. This is the only civil context where students could possibly do a whole case in a semester.”

The clinic has handled approximately 10 cases so far and has provided legal advice to dozens more federal employees through telephone consultations. Students say it is one of the most practical and useful experiences they’ve had in law school.

“In this kind of market, employers are looking for hands on clinical experience and that’s what we’re getting,” Cherise Cleofe 3L said. “Professor Talbot is so supportive and he trusts the work we do. We found out about our case the first week of school and he let us run with it. We’re getting experience we normally wouldn’t have, from communicating with clients to serving a 251 page initial disclosure. I am learning how to build a case from the ground up.”

In addition to the pilot project with the MSPB, the USF School of Law Employment Law Clinic represents clients in EEOC mediations, handles wage and hour disputes before the California Labor Commissioner, and makes presentations on employment rights at Bay Area high schools as part of the EEOC’s Youth at Work program.