Don’t Just Litigate, Do Something!

Elsewhere in the Workplace Fairness web site, you will learn a great deal about what is required to litigate a case: where to file, how to find a lawyer, what agency to file with–all the kinds of information you need to fight back in court or before a government agency. Today, though, I’d like to shine a little spotlight on those people for whom litigation isn’t enough. These folks aren’t just leaving it all in the hands of their lawyers–they recognize that it’s not just the court who will determine their fate. Most recently, I read about Patricia Garrett traveling to Washington to oppose 6th Circuit judicial nominee Jeffrey Sutton. (See Birmingham News story.) Ms. Garrett is a registered nurse who was director of neonatal nursing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham Hospital. In 1994, Ms. Garrett was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently underwent treatments which required her to take substantial leave from work. Upon returning to work in July 1995, Ms. Garrett’s supervisor informed Garrett that she would have to give up her director position, which required her to accept another, lower paying position as a nurse manager. Ms. Garrett challenged her demotion under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and her case, Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She ultimately lost before the Supreme Court, which ruled that she could not bring her ADA case against a state entity without violating the 11th Amendment of the Constitution–a case argued for the other side by none other than Jeffrey Sutton. At Thursday’s press conference, Ms. Garrett reminded the crowd that “Jeffrey Sutton has been an outspoken advocate for elevating the rights of states above the rights of people with disabilities. In Mr. Sutton’s eyes, I and others with disabilities seem to be pawns in a game of power between the federal government and the states.” This is also not the first time that Ms. Garrett has spoken out about her experience; in October I attended the “National Strategy Conference to Stop the Supreme Court’s Rollback of Civil Rights,” where Ms. Garrett’s eloquent message reminded the crowd of the need to keep advocating for her and others like her who have lost their jobs due to discrimination.

Twice last summer I had the opportunity to work with a very powerful group of women who had been fighting discrimination against them for over a quarter of a century. The large group of female plaintiffs (approximately 1100) in the case of Hartman v. Powell had been battling the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) since 1974. In 2000, a classwide settlement was reached to compensate each of the class members for the sex discrimination that kept them from being given jobs as foreign language broadcasters, writers, editors and technicians at USIA. Their decades-long battle wasn’t over, however, as each woman realized the effect of our tax laws which would excessively penalize their lump sum back wage awards. (See my Monday (3/10) post for more on this issue). This group of very articulate and passionate women then took their campaign to Capitol Hill, lobbying for the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act. (See story about their lobbying efforts). While the bill didn’t pass last year, much of the progress that has been achieved thus far in terms of awareness of this issue and bill cosponsors is due to their persistent efforts.

All of these women provide a great example for those who have encountered discrimination. It’s not just about a lawsuit against an employer, but about the entire justice system, which requires vigilance on all fronts.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.