The top 14 legal stories of 2014


A rundown of the top 14 legal scandals and stories that made headlines in 2014.

#14 — Minimum wage

What Seattle’s $15 minimum wage means for residents by Susan Speicher

Seattle Makes History, Raises Minimum Wage to $15-per-hour

The Seattle City Council made history on Monday, with a unanimous 9-0 vote raising Seattle’s minimum wage to $15-per-hour, now the highest in the nation. While thousands of minimum wage employees are thrilled, other low-wage workers and small-business owners are worried about what the wage hike means for their jobs and businesses. To answer some of the uncertainty, we look at what the $15-per-hour minimum wage ordinance really means, who is directly affected, possible drawbacks, who may be exempt and how the increase will be enforced.

The impact of Monday’s historic vote will not be immediate since the legislation phases in over three to seven years, depending upon business size, until the much-touted $15 minimum is reached. Beginning when the law takes effect April 1, 2015, wages will gradually increase until every minimum wage job pays $15 per hour. Read full article.

#13 — The VA scandal

VA scandal: Treatment delays, wait-time cover-ups, falsified records by Jessica Walters

VA Scandal

The Justice Department is expected to begin investigating the Department of Veterans Affairs in light of its current scandal. The VA is facing charges of record tampering and potential destruction of documents, not to mention medical neglect of veterans. The VA’s Inspector General is investigating 26 sites to assess whether employees covered up long wait-times for medical appointments, and the Justice Department is already getting involved.

President Obama has increased the Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget each year he’s been in office, with the goal of providing well-deserved health care to veterans. However, records show the agency has spent $489 million solely on upgrading conference rooms, new drapes, and new office furniture in VA offices across the country during Fiscal Years 2010 through 2014, instead of hiring more doctors. People within the VA reportedly created fake waiting lists to hide real, months-long waits — waits during which veterans have died. Currently, 26 VA facilities are being investigated nationwide. Read full article.

#12 — Net Neutrality

Internet in the fast lane: Sure to make you lose your mind by Lisa Bloom

Internet in the Fast Lane

This week, President Obama weighed in on the so-called “net neutrality” debate. As of now, the internet maintains pure net neutrality. That is, your internet service provider (like Verizon) does not favor one website over another in allocating bandwidth, including download and upload speeds.

Giant and your niece’s tiny blog load at the same speed. Internet service providers (ISPs) — such as Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable — want to lower the bandwidth for some sites and raise it for others, depending on which sites are willing to pay a premium, of course. This potential monumental shift in language is meant to excite you, with ISPs saying they’ll offer internet “fast lanes” to your favorite websites. But the flip side is that small websites that cannot pay the premium will load slowly, severely limiting accessibility.

President Obama stated, “We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. Companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business.” Read full article.

#11 — Faulty cars and consumer safety

General Motors’ recall admits fault, but now what? by Erin Danly

General Motors' Recall Admits Fault, Now What?

A report on the internal investigation into the recent General Motors recall was made public last Thursday. The recall, which is also being investigated separately by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, states’ attorneys general and the Securities and Exchange Commission, was determined not to be the result of a cover-up but due to dysfunctional corporate culture and lack of communication among key employees. The automaker faces large changes and must next determine how to proceed with compensation for the victims.

GM has recalled a record 2.6 million vehicles, including Chevrolet Cobalts and other models, due to an ignition switch with two design problems. The faulty switch can cause the engine to turn off while driving and disable the airbags, meaning they will not deploy in case of an accident. At least 13 deaths and 54 accidents have been directly linked to the defect; those numbers are expected to rise in the following months.

In March, the company paid a $35 million fine – the maximum allowed by law – after signing an agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation admitting it had concealed information and did not take swift action to disclose known defects. Also in March, GM hired former U.S. Attorney Anton R. Valukas of law firm Jenner & Block to conduct an internal investigation. The investigation lasted three months and involved interviews with hundreds of people and the review of millions of pages of documents. Read full article.

#10 — Legalized marijuana

Everything you need to know about Washington’s Initiative 502 by Stephanie Reid


With the introduction of the second legal marijuana market in the United States, it’s high time we review the nuts and bolts of Washington’s Initiative 502, which took effect July 8 of this year.

Although these new laws certainly represent a victory for marijuana enthusiasts eager to minimize the paranoia of lighting up, they are not without limitation. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions about Washington’s I-502, including information concerning cross-jurisdictional issues, age limits and the impact this new enterprise is likely to have on Washington’s small business marketplace. Read full article.

#9 — Hackers and online privacy

Legal implications of the Jennifer Lawrence nude photo leak by Stephanie Reid

Jennifer Lawrence_crop

While every celebrity yearns for a little exposure, the events transpiring over the weekend transcended the acceptable boundaries of life in the public eye – causing a number of actresses and models to experience an undeserved violation of their intimate personal property.

Legally speaking, obtaining and disseminating private photos through unlawful hacking procedures is not only creepy and disturbing, it’s also illegal and possibly tortious. So, how will the law work to unravel this latest technological crime spree? The FBI is investigating the incident but for now, here’s what we know. Read full article.

5 real life villains in the Sony hack drama by Josh King

Sony Hack

In the bizarro-world of end-of-year news, it’s come to this: Sony Pictures announces the release of a new Seth Rogan – James Franco comedy titled “The Interview.” The plot? Two tabloid journalists land an interview with reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and along the way they are recruited by the CIA to turn their interview into an opportunity for assassination. Hijinks ensue.

In the weeks leading up to the film’s Christmas release, a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” — which U.S. officials now suspect is a cover for Bureau 121, the cyberwarfare division of the North Korean military — hacks the corporate email of Sony Pictures and releases the resulting treasure trove of private correspondence to the media.

Sony is embarrassed. It sternly warns the media not to further disseminate the email. That works about as well as you’d expect it to. Read full article.

#8 — ‘Death with Dignity’

Brittany Maynard’s ‘death with dignity’ legal in only 5 states by Erin Danly

Assisted Suicide

Assisted suicide, also called physician-assisted suicide, has become a topic of national debate again with the news that a young woman named Brittany Maynard has chosen to die on Nov. 1. The 29-year-old was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer shortly after her wedding last year. Advocates are hoping that by gaining public support for the decision of one woman, they can help legalize assisted suicide in several other states. 

Federal courts have protected an individual’s right to decide to die, but whether it’s legal at the state level is left up to the state.

Physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in five states. Three – Oregon, Washington and Vermont – legalized physician-assisted suicide through legislation. According to the “death with dignity” laws, two physicians must determine that a patient is not suffering from depression and has six months or less to live in order to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs. The patient may then choose to fill the prescription and take the drugs or not. Maynard and her family moved to Oregon from California expressly to take advantage of Oregon law. Read full article.

#7 — Reproductive rights

Why the Hobby Lobby decision is a stunning setback for women’s rights by Lisa Bloom

Why the Hobby Lobby decision is a stunning setback for women’s rights

Fundamentalist employers can opt out of paying for health insurance for contraceptive coverage for their workers, the U.S. Supreme Court said last week in the Hobby Lobby decision. Defensively, the five Catholic male Supreme Court justices in the majority took some time to insist that their ruling is narrow. Don’t believe it. The decision is a radical departure from prior law with monumental implications.

The U.S. is the most religious and most conservative first-world nation, and believers have tried to opt out of our laws for centuries. For the most part, courts haven’t allowed it. May Christian Scientists forego lifesaving medical treatment for their children? No. May Native Americans ingest illegal peyote as part of their religious ceremonies? No. May the Amish refuse to pay Social Security taxes that violate their sincere religious beliefs? No.

The simple general rule has always been that you are free to practice Protestantism or Wicca or Zoroastrianism or any belief of your choice, provided your religious practice does not harm others. You may swing your arm just until it reaches my shoulder, as the old legal epigram goes. Nor may you impose your religion on me, thank you very much. And whether you’re Hindu or Muslim or Baha’i, you must follow general U.S. laws, including paying a wide array of taxes and fees, and more recently, buying certain kinds of insurance, like auto and health insurance …

The Hobby Lobby decision’s first radical move is in its wide departure from these core American principles. For the first time in the Court’s history, it ruled that a law requiring one to merely vicariously enable another to take an action contrary to one’s religious beliefs violates religious freedom. Read full article.

What to expect when you’re expecting: Your fetus may have more legal rights than you by Lisa Bloom

What to expect when you’re expecting: Your fetus may have more legal rights than you

In the years since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, over 700 pregnant American women have been arrested or forced into unwanted medical procedures based on the “personhood” rights of the embryo or fetus they were carrying.

On the ground that her fetus had a right to life, a judge in Washington, D.C. recently ordered a critically ill 27-year-old woman who was 26 weeks pregnant to undergo a cesarean section. The judge knew this might kill her, and it did. The fetus did not survive the procedure either.

Visiting a hospital as a pregnant American woman means risking legal action if the state suspects you of negligence (drug or alcohol use, reckless behavior) or intentional act (attempt at self-abortion) which endangers your fetus. In Iowa, for example, a pregnant woman who fell down a flight of stairs sought medical care at a hospital. She was arrested for attempted fetal homicide, a favorite charge now commonly levied against American mothers.

Since 2005 another 380 pregnant women have been arrested, incarcerated or involuntarily required to submit to intrusive surgery. Many of these women want to carry their pregnancies to term but antichoice laws severely limit their liberty during their pregnancies. Read full article.

#6 — Same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage nears its defining moment by Josh King

Same-sex marriage nears its defining moment

It’s a little stunning to think how fast same-sex marriage has entered the mainstream. Less than 10 years ago, the thought of legal, same-sex marriage was a pipe dream even in the bluest of blue states.

Even six years ago, when he first ran for president, Barack Obama expressed deep ambivalence about the prospect of extending the definition of marriage to same-sex couples. And at the same time, numerous states were passing statutes, perhaps the most notable of which was California’s Proposition 8, that attempted to limit the definition to unions between a man and a woman.

But efforts like Proposition 8 backfired spectacularly. First, they provided a springboard for gay rights activists to challenge the restrictions in court. While this was risky, it offered the potential of a swifter path to same-sex marriage recognition than would have been possible via the state legislature. And secondly, in more progressive states like Washington and Maine, the effort galvanized citizens to preemptively enact laws officially recognizing same-sex marriage.

The results have been more impressive than gay rights activists could have dreamed. Read full article.

#5 — The NFL and domestic violence

Ray Rice: Why did the NFL need a video to show the obvious? by Lisa Bloom

Ray Rice: Why did the NFL need a video to show the obvious?

In agonizing, graphic detail, the Ray Rice domestic violence plays out before us, forcing us to stare down a reality some would rather deny.

We’ve known since February 2014 that he punched his then fiancé Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino. At that time the first video was released, of Ray dragging a fallen Janay from the elevator, exhibiting no surprise at what he’d done, no concern that she might be dead, not checking her pulse or breath as he pulled on her limp, lifeless body. We didn’t see what happened inside the elevator, but the clip was stomach-churning enough. Ray Rice admitted he had hit her and caused her injury.

The only legal defense for slugging anyone to unconsciousness is self-defense. Given Ray’s stature as a strong professional football player, she would have had to come at him with a knife or gun for this behavior to be legally justified. He never claimed that. Hence, the violence was an assault.

But no “eye for an eye” sense of retributive or deterrent justice followed. He punched her out; in return, the authorities gave him a slap on the wrist. The NFL doled out a mild two game suspension, far less than players get for marijuana use. Local prosecutors, ignoring the dangerous level of violence involved, gave him a sweet deal of pre-trial diversion which includes counseling but no jail time. This after a grand jury indicted him for felony aggravated assault. If he successfully completes the program, and honestly, he’d be a fool not to, the charges will be dropped and his record expunged. Read full article.

#4 — Immigration

Understanding the new ‘Deferred Action’ immigration programs by Greg McLawsen

Deferred Action

On November 20, President Obama announced a laundry list of actions he is taking to improve the U.S. immigration system. The policies range from helping high-tech employees and entrepreneurs to setting deportation priorities in the immigration courts. The policies that will likely have the broadest impact are the “Deferred Action” programs, which may help over four million families. Here’s the thumbnail sketch.

What is Deferred Action? Have you ever been pulled over for speeding but walked away without a ticket? Even though the officer could have given you a ticket, he or she decided you didn’t deserve it — maybe because you were on your way to visit grandma or heading to church.

Law enforcement officials have “discretion” to choose how they want to enforce laws. Deferred Action is all about this discretion. The president is exercising his discretion not to deport people who qualify for his proposed Deferred Action program. There are millions of people in the U.S. who could theoretically be deported, but that’s logistically impossible. So the president is saying, “here’s a group of people who are a really low priority for being deported, and they should be able to get on with their lives.” Basically, he’s talking about families who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. Read full article.

#3 — Sexual assault

Yes, to California’s new anti-rape ‘yes means yes’ law by Lisa Bloom

Yes to California’s new anti-rape 'yes means yes' law

Sex crimes are an epidemic on U.S. college campuses. This is not hyperbole like cable news trying to instill fear of Ebola to boost ratings. The U.S. Department of Education has declared that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her college years.

College women, then, are twice as likely to be raped as prison inmates.

I know from representing many victims over nearly thirty years of practicing law how trauma disrupts and destroys women’s lives. At best, after enormous struggle, survivors go on to healthy adulthoods — with the sexual assault never forgotten but receding in the rearview mirror of their life histories.

At worst, rape victims’ bodies and minds are disrupted by flashbacks, sexual disorders, nightmares, physical ailments and depression up to and often including suicide.

Would you send your daughter to a place where she had a one in five chance of catching a disabling disease with lifelong consequences? Read full article.

In praise of the law Bill Cosby’s newest accuser used to sue him for child sexual abuse – 40 years later by Lisa Bloom

In praise of the law Bill Cosby’s newest accuser used to sue him for child sexual abuse – 40 years later

By my count, 20 women have now come forward to say that Bill Cosby raped or sexually assaulted them. A story that was shocking even a few weeks ago has become routine in the morning’s headlines, as woman after woman publicly tells her story. What’s different this week is that one woman has actually filed a lawsuit, alleging that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted her 40 years ago, when she was 15 years old and he was in his thirties.

How can she sue him decades later? Doesn’t the statute of limitations bar her claim?

No, it doesn’t. Under California law, a victim of child sexual abuse has either until age 26 or until three years after she connects her psychological injuries to the abuse, whichever is later.

Is this fair?

Absolutely. Indeed, it is vital to the ability of molestation victims to seek justice. Read full article.

#2 — Ebola epidemic

Federal law needed to stem fear-driven Ebola quarantines by Josh King

Federal law needed to stem fear-driven Ebola quarantines

A nurse arrives back in the U.S. after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Is she treated with a hero’s welcome? She is not. Instead, upon alighting at Newark airport she is swiftly shuttled to a secure hospital, where she is locked away in what’s called, by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a form of protective quarantine.

Kaci Hickox was asymptomatic at the time of quarantine. And unless this post crosses a story that will no doubt be pimped breathlessly by CNN, she’s asymptomatic today — because she doesn’t have Ebola. She was just close to people who had Ebola — helping them, treating them, easing their suffering.

So how does this happen? As it turns out, the law is something of an ass when it comes to matters of health and safety. Read full article.

#1 — Race and protests of police abuses

Avvo legal analyst Lisa Bloom covers ‘no indictment’ decision in Eric Garner case by Lisa Bloom

Protests New York

In what has now become a familiar scene, protestors filled the streets in cities across America last night. This time, to protest a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Panteleo. In July, Panteleo used a banned chokehold method on an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, which led to Garner’s death. The fatal altercation was captured on film.

Avvo legal analyst Lisa Bloom covered the jury’s decision, expressing outrage and alarm at racial injustice in the U.S. legal system — just as she has done in the cases of Mike Brown, Renisha McBrideTrayvon Martin and others.

Here, Lisa’s commentary as the “no indictment” decision in the Eric Garner case was announced. Read full article.

Witness 40 is a racist liar. Why did the Ferguson prosecutors have her testify? by Lisa Bloom

Witness 40

Less than 24 hours after the Ferguson grand jury transcripts were released last month, I tweeted my disgust with Witness 40, a woman whose testimony neatly conformed to police officer Darren Wilson’s in the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, and who played fast and loose with the N word:

What on earth?

Witness 40, Sandra McElroy, journaled – if we are to believe her, and I don’t, about anything – that she witnessed the shooting of Mike Brown because she had driven, all alone, over to Ferguson on that Sunday afternoon in August because she’s a racist and wanted to mingle with inner-city black folks in order to stop being racist. Read full article.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.