By Ron Hine | FBW | October 20, 2016
On October 20, Renee Steinhagen was honored with the 4th annual FBW Riparian Award at its Connect the Waterfront annual fundraising party. This event will took place at the Kolo Klub in Hoboken.
When we were hit with a SLAPP suit, an attempt to put FBW out of business, Renee Steinhagen defended us, a case that dragged through the court system for five years. When Hoboken voters were denied the right to initiative and referendum, repeatedly, Ms. Steinhagen appeared in court on our behalf. When Hoboken residents sought to pass local laws to ban pay-to-play, she advised us, represented us in court and helped to craft the legislation. When Hoboken’s affordable housing came under attack, she was there to defend it. When local health care service was at risk with the sale of Hoboken’s only hospital, she advocated on behalf of patients. And when FBW pursued its case against the Monarch Towers, a development that would privatize a Hoboken pier, Ms. Steinhagen represented us in federal court and in New Jersey’s Appellate Court, filing briefs in three appeals.
Renee Steinhagen, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center since 1998, has represented civic organizations similar to those we have in Hoboken throughout the state, and has become one of the state’s leading public interest attorneys. She has entered the fray where few other attorneys have chosen to tread. While most law firms represent moneyed interests, New Jersey Appleseed concentrates its efforts on empowering citizen groups regarding government and corporate accountability, election process reform and health care reform.
New Jersey Appleseed’s Ms. Steinhagen and the Eastern Environmental Law Center’s Executive Director Aaron Kleinbaum represent FBW in the litigation opposing the controversial Monarch Towers, two high-rise buildings proposed for a Hoboken pier. Currently, these attorneys are in discussions with FBW and legal representatives of the City of Hoboken regarding settlement talks. The developers have offered to donate the Monarch Pier property to the City in exchange for added density for their other project on the west side of town. There are currently five cases in the New Jersey Courts pertaining to the Monarch proposal. Ms. Steinhagen has filed briefs on FBW’s behalf in three of these cases.
After six years of litigation beginning in 2002, the case of Stevens Institute of Technology v. Fund for a Better Waterfront et al. formally concluded with a favorable settlement. NJ Appleseed, with the Environmental Law Clinic at Columbia Law School, came to the defense of FBW and its leaders who were sued in a SLAPP lawsuit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) in retaliation for speaking out about the environmental impact of the university’s blasting of asbestos-containing rock at a construction site. The defamation claim and other claims were originally thrown out in 2004. After subsequent appeals, the case finally settled in April 2008. Ms. Steinhagen has successfully defended a number of other citizens who were hit with SLAPP suits after speaking out against developer proposals.
When Hoboken’s city government failed to enforce a “Pay-to-Play” ordinance voters overwhelmingly approved in 2004, a group of activists felt it should have the right to sue to compel enforcement. The court disagreed, dismissing the suit on the grounds that they didn’t have standing to enforce the ordinance they worked so hard to enact. NJ Appleseed represented the group on appeal before the Appellate Division, arguing that the group should have standing to bring a suit against the city. The court agreed. This decision, filed on January 9, 2008, has importance throughout the state, because municipalities that have pay-to-play ordinances now understand that their citizens can compel them to enforce it.
This tells part of the Hoboken story. Renée Steinhagen has represented countless other groups throughout the state in similar cases. One of her first victories came in a New Jersey State Troopers’ racial discrimination lawsuit. New Jersey Appleseed successfully challenged New Jersey State Police regulations (the “gag order”) prohibiting troopers to speak out about matters of public concern, including the relationship between racial profiling and discriminatory employment practices; compelled changes to the educational assignment process, and specialist and promotion systems; and ultimately received a $4 million settlement for thirteen troopers who had experienced discrimination and retaliation for their attempts to reform the organization.
In the following years, New Jersey Appleseed, with the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers, represented the Council of Alternative Political Parties regarding its members’ claims of unequal treatment, and secured a published opinion granting their members the right to register with the party and the right of the party to secure such lists without cost. . More recently, in 2014, the Center was awarded legal fees by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the first published decision brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act vindicating a statutory right, in this case the right of referendum, emerging out of controversial Hoboken ordinance concerning the City’s rent control regulations.
For several years, the New Jersey Appleseed chaired the New Jersey Citizen’s Coalition on the Implementation of the Help America Vote Act, and currently is on the Leadership Team of the New Jersey Healthcare Coalition, which is currently engaged in a legislative campaign to end surprise medical bills and the growing problem of balance bills for consumers, even those who are insured. Currently, Ms. Steinhagen is also a board member of the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition, a group of health care leaders in Newark who are working to improve the health status of Newark’s residents through the establishment of a innovative medicaid Accountable Care Organization, advocacy and other programmatic initiatives.
Prior to New Jersey Appleseed, Ms. Steinhagen was a plaintiff labor lawyer for law firms in New York and New Jersey where she became familiar with workers compensation, unemployment insurance, labor, and discrimination law. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has a Masters Degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Government at Princeton, where she focused on housing and tax policy. She received her BA from Williams College.
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