Legal Advocacy Unit (LAU)

Legal Advocacy Unit (LAU)

Disability Rights California Advocacy and Community Engagement (ACE) Program provides legal services, guidance, resources, trainings, education, and community advocacy to Californians with disabilities.

DRC Program

Legal Advocacy Unit (LAU)

The Legal Advocacy Unit (LAU) is Disability Rights California’s core protection & advocacy legal program. We have about 125 employees, advocates, and support staff in six offices: Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, Los Angeles, Ontario and San Diego.

The LAU has an Intake Unit and an Outreach Unit. The LAU also has seven statewide Practice Groups organized by legal topic. To find out more about the LAU’s work, please keep reading.

The community integration principles of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision are the heart of our legal advocacy. We fight for the rights of people with all types of disabilities, of any age or background. We fight for integration into the life of our communities, with equal opportunity, freedom from discrimination, and access to the services and supports our clients need to pursue their aspirations.

Director of Legal Advocacy Unit: Christian Abasto
Associate Director: Candis Bowles
Senior Litigation Counsel: Melinda Bird

drc Legal Practice Groups

Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Practice Group specializes in disability discrimination law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act, and litigates complex discrimination cases statewide. We recognize that social integration and empowerment for people with disabilities is the ultimate solution to the discrimination issues that we address and focus on cases that make these solutions attainable.

Managing Attorney: Akiko Nishino
Litigation Counsel: Autumn Elliott, Lili Graham, and Navneet Grewal
Senior Litigation Counsel: Dara Schur

Healthcare/Home & Community-Based Services

The Healthcare & HCBS Practice Group works to ensure that people with disabilities have access to essential health care services and a full range of community long-term services and supports to enable them to live in the community and avoid institutionalization.  We believe healthcare is a human right, and fight to preserve that right with our partners in the community.

Managing Attorney: Elizabeth Zirker
Litigation Counsel: Nicholas Levenhagen

Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities

The Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities Practice Group works to enforce and advance the rights of Californians with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to live, work, and play in community settings. Our staff specializes in the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Service Act and the regional center system, and provides legal assistance to individuals with I/DD who seek to:

  • Avoid institutionalization
  • Access regional center services that reflect their needs, choices, and cultural values
  • Participate to the maximum extent possible in making decisions about their own lives

In partnership with other DRC Practice Groups, our staff helps people obtain meaningful work at a competitive wage, access healthcare in home and community-based settings, and challenge civil rights violations.

Managing Attorney: Will Leiner
Litigation Counsel: Lynn Martinez

Mental Health

The Mental Health Practice Group advocates for Californians with a mental health diagnosis. We work in institutions to keep individuals free from abuse and neglect and protect their legal rights in mental health facilities, including county-funded facilities and state hospitals. We work in jails, juvenile facilities, and detention centers to improve conditions, eliminate unnecessary isolation and segregation and secure adequate medical and mental health treatment. 

We work to:

  • Increase community mental health treatment and housing for individuals to avoid unnecessary institutionalization or homelessness 
  • Protect the rights of patients, including to confidentiality, due process, and voluntary treatment.

Managing Attorney: Jennifer Stark
Interim Co-Lit. Counsel: Kim Pederson

Pathways to Work

The Pathways to Work Practice Group provides advocacy services to people experiencing disability-related barriers to employment.  Through the Client Assistance Program (CAP), we assist people with difficulties seeking or receiving vocational rehabilitation services from the Department of Rehabilitation, independent living centers or other Rehabilitation Act funded programs. We also assist people with disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits in addressing barriers in work, such as reasonable accommodations and transportation.  We do not handle failure to hire or termination cases.  

In partnership with other DRC Practice Groups, our staff also assists individuals with disabilities to obtain meaningful work at a competitive wage in integrated settings.

Managing Attorney: Connie Chu

Voting Rights

Disability Rights California’s Voting Rights Unit advocates to ensure voting is fully accessible for people with disabilities by educating government agencies about best practices and educating voters about their rights, including options that allow them to vote privately and independently. The Voting Rights Unit:

  • Provides voting rights and civic participation trainings
  • Advocates with government agencies to improve the voter registration process for people with disabilities
  • Collaborates with election officials to improve accessibility of the voting process
  • Runs a hotline on election days
  • Assists voters with election related complaints
  • Tests accessible voting equipment
  • Creates helpful publications for voters with disabilities and election officials
  • Trains poll workers on making voting accessible
  • Participates on disability-focused committees in numerous counties

Managing Attorney: Fred Nisen


Youth Practice Group (YPG) advocates ensure that students with disabilities benefit from the vast array of educational services and supports guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. YPG works to remove barriers for students with disabilities so they can learn, play, and participate in extracurricular activities in neighborhood schools with their peers. Our work includes due process and compliance complaints, litigation, and systemic advocacy.

We have an Expedited Due Process and You manual designed for attorneys who are defending students with disabilities from expulsion. The manual instructs attorneys on how to represent students in expedited due process complaints under the IDEA and its implementing regulations. To request access to the manual click here.

Managing Attorney: Gabriela Torres

Litigation Counsel: Meeth Soni

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Grievance Form

If you are unhappy with our services, you may file a grievance here.