As founder and executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, the soft-spoken 70-year-old Miami attorney battled powerful landowners and intransigent state agencies — most notably the Florida Department of Corrections — to right wrongs suffered by people who society often comfortably ignores.
Soliciting the help of lawyers and other public interest law firms, his efforts rippled across the nation, forging new ways to attack housing discrimination and enforce inmate rights.
Berg retired last month, far earlier than he planned. Dealing with the ravages of ALS, a rare disease that snuffs out the brain’s ability to send messages to the muscles, he said he no longer has the strength to launch legal battles that changed so many lives.
“Where do I start?” asked Keeyna Robertson, executive director of a Miami-Dade County agency that combats housing discrimination. “When you look at the body of his work over three decades, a lot of what he’s done has been precedent-setting.”
His efforts forced jails around the state, including in Palm Beach County, to treat inmates more humanely, said West Palm Beach attorney Jim Green.
Thousands of black, Hispanic and disabled people and families with children are able to secure housing as a result of his work, said Vince Larkins, president and chief executive of the Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches.
And, in what Berg describes as his greatest accomplishment, he navigated a legally fraught highway of roadblocks to create programs across the nation that allow interest on lawyers’ trust accounts to be used to provide legal services for the poor. Since 1981, the programs have generated $4.5 billion nationwide, benefiting scores of agencies, including the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.
On a trip to jail, guards refused to accompany him out of fear
When Berg graduated from George Mason University law school after serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy, he said he knew he wanted to practice public interest law. While working for attorney Bill Sheppard in his hometown of Jacksonville he became swept up in his mentor’s prison reform efforts.
“People in prison and jails are the most under-represented people,” Berg said. “And some of the conditions were horrible.”
Shortly after launching the Florida Justice Institute in 1978, Berg said he visited inmates at the Monroe County jail in Key West. The guards refused to accompany him. They said it was too dangerous. “It was understaffed. You had inmates running the jail,” he recalled.
The conditions, he said, were horrific for inmates, guards and courts officials alike. With the jail’s steel floors rotting, prisoners would stuff toilets with newspapers and the wastewater would rain down on judges who were hearing cases below. Conditions at other county jails were better, but not by much, Berg said.
While other attorneys were focusing on suing individual jails, Berg said he discovered a state law that required Florida’s secretary of corrections to establish and enforce jail standards and file suit against those that weren’t following the rules. When the secretary refused to do so, Berg filed suit.
While Palm Beach County wasn’t sued by the state, Green said Berg’s efforts helped him convince county leaders that a new jail was needed to replace the crowded, dilapidated jail in downtown West Palm Beach.
The jail standards lawsuit was the first of dozens Berg filed on behalf of inmates. Over the years, he successfully sued the Florida Department of Corrections to force it to treat as many as 20,000 infected inmates with anti-viral drugs that can cure Hepititis C. He forced the corrections department to offer surgery to inmates with painful and debilitating hernias — a malady the department once largely ignored.
He joined Disability Rights Florida in filing suit on behalf of handicapped inmates. In a settlement, the state agreed to provide hearing aids or sign language interpreters to the deaf and hard of hearing and canes to the blind and to replace prosthetic limbs so amputees don’t have to drag themselves around their cells.
After at least two inmates died after being gassed with chemical agents, he persuaded corrections officials to prohibit the use of noxious agents on inmates with asthma or other respiratory problems. He also convinced corrections officials to curtail the use of force that was commonly used to control mentally ill prisoners.
In the process, he earned the respect of those who were on the receiving end of the litigation that many viewed as quixotic.
“I never cringed when I saw one of his cases filed,” said Dr. A.C. Maier, a physician and lawyer who served as chief of legal medicine for the Florida Department of Corrections. “It made me pay real close attention. He was right a hell of a lot more times than he was wrong.”
In between the work he did for prisoners, he represented housing agencies to eliminate systemic discrimination. “He’s had landmark cases with nationwide impact,” said Larkins, specifically referring to a 1995 case in which Berg won $1.2 million for blacks who had long been barred from a Miami-Dade County apartment complex. “That case set the standard for fair housing organizations.”
Not only did the settlement include compensation for those who were denied housing, but it established a monitoring program to prevent it from continuing, said Larkins, head of the Palm Beach County fair housing agency.
“He’s a phenomenal lawyer, a passionate advocate,” Larkins said. “Randy Berg played a pivotal role in advocating for the rights of all people.”
He established a program to find lawyers to represent the poor in civil lawsuits in federal courts from Key West to Fort Pierce. Berg and his staff would read lawsuits filed by so-called pro se litigants, those without attorneys. He would pick those that had valid claims and recruit private attorneys to represent people for free.
U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who first met Berg when they worked together to find ways to establish the trust fund program that enabled the Florida Bar Foundation to provide legal services for the poor, said Berg’s work for prison inmates sets him apart.
“It’s thankless work that is often not appreciated, not even by the clients,” he said. “A lot of lawyers become cynical. He never did. He’s an idealistic person and largely a hopeful person.”
“He knew that not everyone who works in a bureaucracy is a bureaucrat,” he said. “He had a great ability to identify government officials who wanted to do the right thing and turn them into allies.”
Maier, who was the chief of legal medicine for the corrections department, was one of them.
On the other hand, he has watched others carry out battles he started.
In November, Berg cheered as voters approved a constitutional amendment, restoring voting rights to an estimated 1.5 million former prisoners, many who have been waiting decades for the state to act.
Berg said he was pleasantly surprised to see more than 64 percent of voters statewide embraced the constitutional amendment. “I thought it would be a heavy-lift,” he said.
That unexpected victory came as Berg was preparing to wind up his career. He said he realized his days of working were numbered about a year ago when he did a “face-plant” outside a federal courtroom in Tallahassee where he was challenging the corrections department’s refusal to offer life-saving drugs to inmates with Hepatitis C.
“My left leg gave way,” recalled Berg, who now uses a wheelchair. “I realized I couldn’t do the type of work at this pace anymore.”
He has left the institute in the hands of Dante Trevisani, who has worked at the agency since 2010. “I recognize what a giant he is,” Trevisana said. “But he’s taught me well.”
Testing has shown that there was no genetic reason Berg was stricken with ALS. With a recently married son, he said that news was a relief. Still, like others who with ALS, there is no explanation for why he was stricken.
But Berg isn’t bitter.
Looking back on his own life, Berg agrees. “I loved my work,” he said.