Fish & Richardson and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recently prevailed in a pro bono case on behalf of their client, Evangeline Parker. Ms. Parker alleged sex-based discrimination and violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by her former employer. The jury found that Ms. Parker was subjected to a hostile work environment based on sex and retaliation for speaking up about the hostile work environment. The jury awarded Ms. Parker $725,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The case also resulted in new precedent in the 4th Circuit, which established that workplace rumors could constitute a hostile work environment based on sex. The Center for Pro Bono spoke with Fish & Richardson principal Daniel Tishman about his pro bono work on the case.
Tell me about the background of the case? I became involved in 2017 as a 6th year associate. By way of background, the case is about Ms. Evangeline Parker’s termination and hostile work environment. Ms. Parker was working for a government contractor where she was a star performer who was quickly promoted. She learned that there was a false rumor at her workplace that she was being promoted only because of an affair with a manager. This rumor continued to spread, so, in accordance with the company’s HR policy, Ms. Parker confronted the harassers and then raised it up the flagpole by notifying managers and HR of the rumors and resulting hostilities. The highest manager in the warehouse was one of the people alleged to have started the rumor, so Ms. Parker confronted him only to be disciplined for allegedly bringing the situation to the workplace. She was ultimately fired not only because of the rumor but because she filed an HR complaint.
In terms of the litigation, after the case was transferred to Maryland from the Eastern District of Virginia, by agreement of the parties, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss. I argued on behalf of Ms. Parker at the hearing on the motion to dismiss—my first big argument in federal court. The judge was not receptive to our arguments that the facts alleged in the complaint constituted an actionable case based on sex (as required by Title VII) and dismissed all three of our counts on the spot (hostile work environment, retaliation, and discriminatory termination). We then appealed to the 4th Circuit, where we won on the retaliation and hostile work environment claims. There was an open issue in the 4th circuit as to whether or not a hostile work environment based on a rumor of a sexual affair was considered hostile work environment “based on sex.” The 4th Circuit ruled that this type of rumor invokes an unfortunate sex-based stereotype that women, not men, use sex to achieve success, such that it was a gender-based rumor and the resulting hostilities were based on sex. The opposing party then filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, and I was able to file my first brief to the Supreme Court in response to their petition. Ultimately, the Supreme Court did not grant cert in the case.
And the trial was very exciting and orderly, and ultimately the jury reached the right conclusion. We are really happy that the jury ultimately vindicated our client and thrilled that the 4th Circuit has paved the way for other similarly situated women to address retaliation and hostile work environment.
Was this your first time taking a pro bono case? I have done cases before, but typically those were smaller. For example, I worked on bond reductions for immigrant detainees before. This is my first federal court civil action case, and I really enjoyed it.
There is definitely a need for many types of pro bono work. My firm does a lot of custody, guardian ad litem, and immigration work. I personally really enjoyed this case because it was in federal court with a jury trial. It’s very close to what I do in my day-to-day job as a litigator, so it also helped me to develop my skills. I was able to work with both junior associates and partners on this case. At least two of the associates were able to do their first depositions, which is unique to this type of case because many of our pro bono cases don’t necessarily have depositions, briefs, cert petitions, and motions to respond to. During the trial, one of the associates was able to argue in federal court for the first time. Another associate was able to do a cross for the first time. And I too was thrilled to have new opportunities in a jury trial. For example, I examined two key witnesses, and played an active role in the jury selection process. Although I have been involved in many trials, I had increased responsibility in this case, so it was rewarding to see it all come together.
How would you describe your experience working on this pro bono case? This case was such a great experience. It was an honor to represent the client and get to know her, especially as we got closer to the trial. We were able to meet with her and her family and see throughout the trial how much of an impact this case had on her life. One of the most rewarding parts of the case was seeing how happy she was to finally have closure and the good result at the end of the case. This was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career. Just sitting next to her when the verdict was read was very meaningful.
What does pro bono mean to you? There are a lot of people with valid legal issues who need representation. And there are a lot of lawyers who have the time and the desire to gain additional experiences that are somewhat out of the normal routine of what they do. Pro bono work is really important and meaningful, but it is also a great opportunity for the attorneys to fulfill professional goals.
We all want to help people and it’s very meaningful and rewarding to work on a case where you can actually see the impact of the case and see how it changes someone’s life. Pro bono is a good way to help out and give back.
What would you tell others about getting involved in pro bono? I would say that sometimes we don’t get involved in pro bono because we are afraid we won’t have the time. One of the nice things is that there is often more flexibility to get other attorneys in the firm to help you out if you are in a pinch. Don’t hesitate to get involved in something, because there is always someone who can come in and help you.
Pro bono is a really great opportunity for someone that is looking to keep their skills sharp and gain new experiences. It’s hard sometimes to get big opportunities to take witnesses to court or argue a big motion, so pro bono is a great opportunity to get those experiences.
And, even with a small time commitment, the impact on your job satisfaction is much bigger than the time you put in. In the past year or so, I’ve done about 200 hours of pro bono. That’s a fraction of my overall year, but the impact on the satisfaction with my job is much greater than what I put into it. It doesn’t take a huge time commitment to have a big impact on a client and a big impact on your own professional satisfaction. There’s plenty of work and it’s very rewarding.
Thank you Dan and the team at Fish & Richardson for all of your amazing work on this case and others. And to our readers, remember that whatever your practice area, interest, or availability, a pro bono opportunity awaits you. Take this moment to change a life for the better by doing pro bono now. Visit www.probononow.org to learn more about how you can get involved.