The Home Front
Michael Bracamontes fights for families in danger of being evicted
Published in 2020 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 8, 2020
Updated on July 20, 2020
It’s a familiar story: A kid watches a film featuring a socially conscientious attorney and vows to someday follow in those footsteps. A decade or so later, it’s the second year of law school—and the debt, for tuition alone, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Michael Bracamontes was that kid. Raised in East Los Angeles, the son of a Chinese American mother and Native American/Mexican American father, he went to law school determined to represent tenants and employees. He signed up for the workers’ rights clinic in his first year, and served as treasurer of the Native American Law Students Association.
But by L2 at UC Berkeley, he was married and a father of two. A career in legal aid just wasn’t going to work financially. So how to do social-justice work a la A Civil Action while also keeping the lights on?
Bracamontes chose plaintiff’s litigation with a hefty side of pro bono work. “You get to try cases, but you’re also representing people, as opposed to corporations,” he says. He and law partner Ryan Vlasak co-founded Bracamontes & Vlasak in 2008, with a mandate to represent victims in cases involving injuries, tenants’ and workers’ rights, and police misconduct. In addition to taking work that’s pro bono from the get-go, they take on high-risk cases that sometimes end up that way.
Bracamontes’ pro bono work fighting evictions for low-income residents won him recognition as an Outstanding Volunteer in 2018 by the San Francisco Bar’s Justice & Diversity Center. He also defends tenants through the Bar’s Volunteer Legal Services Program.
A recent pro bono case involved a family who had been living in an apartment for 30 years. “They were getting evicted essentially because they were making too many complaints and requests for repairs from the landlord,” says Bracamontes. “The landlord didn’t want to spend the money to do the repairs to the property, so they filed a retaliatory eviction lawsuit against that family. At the end of the day, we were able to keep that roof over their head and keep them in their longtime rent-controlled apartment.”
Bracamontes has also helped AIDS victims facing housing discrimination and eviction, offering pro bono consultations and letters and accepting full cases on contingency basis. The AIDS Legal Referral Panel named him Attorney of the Year in 2010.
“I think we took the most referrals from the organization out of any law firm,” he notes.
Tenants’ rights were also the centerpiece of Bracamontes’ longshot run for the governor’s office in 2018. Though he didn’t win, he made the most of the opportunity to shine a spotlight on this issue. And he keeps a hand in politics by lobbying lawmakers as a board member of the Consumer Attorneys of California industry association.
To Bracamontes, education is an important piece of the social-justice picture, so he does outreach to students—serving as a scorer and judge for the Bar’s high school mock-trial program and encouraging law school students to choose the path he has taken.
“Part of going to the schools and talking to them about doing plaintiff-side work is that the plaintiff’s [side] doesn’t usually have a huge presence,” he says, “because most of those firms are small in comparison to the [Am Law] 100 firms with 2,000 attorneys who are always doing on-campus interviews. So it’s important for students who are interested in social justice work to know and understand that plaintiff-side civil litigation is something where they can do that work and make a living that’s comparable to their peers who go do the corporate-side stuff.”
Bracamontes also offers seminars and workshops on tenants’ rights cases for the staff attorneys at California Rural Legal Assistance. The agency recently wound up with an extra $185,000 after Bracamontes won a class-action housing lawsuit done on a contingency basis, and recommended to the court that any awards uncollected by plaintiffs go to the CRLA as a cy pres beneficiary.
The case may have been contingency, but Jeff Ponting, pro bono coordinator and attorney for CRLA, counts it as pro bono.
“They are fronting all of the costs,” he says of Bracamontes & Vlasak, “and the definition of pro bono is taking on a case without the expectation of compensation.
“Mike is that rare combination of a private attorney who has a successful business model, but who also has a flame and passion for justice that is his primary interest when he pursues a case.”
Policing the Police
Bracamontes has taken on a number of police-misconduct cases on a high-risk contingency basis. In December 2018, he won a jury award of $827,000 in the death of 20-year-old John Cornejo after an arrest by the California Highway Patrol in a routine traffic stop. Cornejo was driving with fog lights but no headlights. During the stop, he made a fatal mistake: swallowing a bag of methamphetamine.
Troopers demanded that he admit to having ingested an illegal substance before they would take him to the hospital. Cornejo refused, and he died at the Alameda County jail. Cornejo was not an ideally sympathetic victim; he’d been in trouble with the law before. But Bracamontes believes law enforcement has a duty to protect everyone in its custody. He took the case after talking to Cornejo’s mother.
“It’s a powerful thing talking to a mom who has lost her child,” he says. “This was a kid that was loved and was supported and had aspirations and made a pretty bad mistake, but it shouldn’t have been a fatal mistake.
“If we don’t have a just law enforcement system,” Bracamontes says, “it’s hard to say that you live in a just society.”