“One of our nation’s equal opportunity leaders” visits Denver Law

EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum spent a whirlwind day at Denver Law on Tuesday, August 28, 2012. A professor at Georgetown Law and nominated to her current position by President Obama in 2009, Commissioner Feldblum visited the law school as the Workplace Law (WPL) Program’s 2012 Keynote Speaker.

The day began with a breakfast reception to honor Commissioner Feldblum. Sponsored by the law firm Ogletree Deakins, the reception drew over 70 participants. They included attorneys from 20 law firms and offices in the Denver area; officials from local, county, state and federal government agencies and offices; representatives from businesses, labor unions and non-profits; current and former students; and faculty members of Denver Law’s WPL Program. “Work is important for the soul,” Commissioner Feldblum told the audience. “And the workplace must be a place where people are judged on their merits.” In remarks by turns serious and humorous, she stressed the role the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission plays in advancing civil rights by partnering with employees and employers in trying to create a better workplace. “Strong laws are necessary,” she said at one point. “It’s important that employers understand the laws and that they hold the people working for them accountable in following those laws.” She described reforms underway at the EEOC, a “strategic plan” designed to improve enforcement of employment policies.

Commissioner Feldblum then spent the rest of the morning meeting with Denver Law WPL faculty in conversations about current research in the area of employment law. At one point during her day at Denver Law, she described the academy’s role as being out in front of, anticipating and fostering, changes in society and in policies governing the workplace whose objective is “creating a workplace that is free of discrimination and free of harassment.” WPL faculty director Nantiya Ruan called these discussions extraordinary. “It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the future of workplace discrimination law from one of our nation’s equal opportunity leaders.” 3L Carl Charles, who is co-president of the Outlaws (Denver Law’s student LGBT group) and a Student Bar Association Senator, remarked, “It was a true honor to meet someone who champions the ‘right to work’ for all people, regardless of who ‘society’ thinks they are.”

At noon, Commissioner Feldblum delivered the 2012 Workplace Law Program Keynote Address, entitled The Creation of Social Change: Disability & LGBT Rights. In her talk before Denver Law faculty, students and others from the DU community, she unpacked three variables—the law, policy in practice and social norms—and described how the synergy among them accounts for advances in disability law and in LGBT rights related to the workplace. She described the law as the text developed by legislators, administrators and the judiciary. Whether and how the text of that law is absorbed into the daily practices of an organization accounts for policy in practice. And social norms, she said, are understandings that engage the hearts and minds of people.

Disability law, she said, illustrates how the law and policy in practice can change social norms. An important shift in social norms affecting disability was the expectation that everyone—including people with disabilities—should have a job. The prior prevailing belief was that being disabled means one is unable to work. Laws and policy in practice calling for accommodations in the workplace played a role in changing social understanding of how employees with disabilities must and should be treated, Commissioner Feldblum argued. For LGBT rights in the workplace, on the other hand, changes in the law can be seen as the product of changing social norms. Those norms encouraged development of policy in practice, for example, protections for employees of differing sexual orientations adopted voluntarily by many prominent companies. Changes in social norms and policy in practice have been predecessors to changes in the law, especially in light of the very slow evolution of courts’ views of rights for gay and transgendered people.

 

A very busy day concluded with a visit to the Denver Law Student Lawyer Office, where Commissioner Feldblum met with students in the Civil Litigation Clinic whose current caselist includes representation of intervenor plaintiffs in litigation the EEOC has brought against a meatpacking plant in Greeley, CO, on charges of religious discrimination against Muslim employees. “This case was one of the very first ones I looked at as a Commissioner and voted whether to authorize,” she said. Three students participating in the clinic last year filled in Commissioner Feldblum, supervising professor Raja Raghunath and ten students in the clinic this year on the background of the case. “Be able to tell this story quickly,” she told them. “It’s important to have the overall big picture that will then help you answer the specific questions in the case.” She asked Jennifer Wadhwa, JD ’12, what it was like working on this case. “It was terrifying, awesome and inspiring all at once,” came the answer. Commissioner Feldblum nodded. “That’s what good lawyering is about,” she told the students. Near the end of the discussion of the EEOC’s case in Greeley, Commissioner Feldblum returned to a theme stated more than once during her long day at Denver Law. “Employment law—from both sides, the employer’s and the employee’s—is all about having a diverse workplace and respecting that diversity at a very deep level.”

Denver Law Dean Martin Katz, a member of the WPL faculty, placed high value on her visit. “We were honored to have Commissioner Feldblum at Denver Law,” he stated. “Her insights were extremely valuable both for those in the program and those in the practice. And her wit made the occasion fun and memorable. We hope we will see her at Denver Law again soon.” -rw

 

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