UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It has been a busy few months for students in the Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, and their hard work has led to three major filings in U.S. federal courts during the spring semester—including two in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Most recently, the clinic on April 3 filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of the United States in Fort Bend County v. Davis. The brief was filed on behalf of the National Employment Lawyer Association (NELA) and the Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law and Policy in support of Ms. Lois M. Davis. The case involves a former employee, Ms. Davis, who alleged discrimination in the workplace and was subsequently terminated.
"The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic has provided me with more real-life experience than I could have imagined,” said Heidi Tripp, a second-year law student. “Working with NELA to complete an amicus brief on behalf of victims of employment discrimination was exciting and fulfilling. Fighting to protect laypersons pursuing justice for discrimination is important to all members of the clinic and provided an outlet for our passion for civil rights."
As a culmination of their work this semester, students in the clinic will travel to Washington, D.C., on April 22 to attend oral arguments in the Davis case before the Supreme Court. Students expect it will be an insightful experience, especially given the complex legal issues of the case.
A Complex Case
In order to bring an employment discrimination action in federal court, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires an aggrieved party to first file a charge form with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). On this form, an individual is prompted to check the appropriate box indicating the discriminatory reason or reasons she believes motivated the employer to take the adverse employment action; reasons listed on the form include adverse employment actions based on race, sex, color, national origin, religion, or any combination thereof. In seeking relief from the alleged discriminatory act, Ms. Davis filed the required paperwork with the EEOC and marked “sex” as the reason for the initial discriminatory act, but later indicated in writing that her subsequent termination was also motivated by religion.
The issue in this case is whether such procedural technicalities are jurisdictional and therefore prevent potential victims of discrimination from filing suit. Fort Bend County argues that potential grounds for discrimination in the initial charge form is jurisdictional and that Ms. Davis’s failure to check all the correct boxes at the outset of the EEOC investigation foreclosed her ability to bring suit in federal court. The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic argues that the plain language of Title VII, federal common law precedent, and public policy all support the finding that a layperson’s right to bring suit should not be abolished because of such a procedural pitfall.
The clinic further argues that the EEOC’s administrative process is meant to assist laypersons in investigating claims of discrimination and should not be used to preclude a victim of discrimination from moving forward with a claim in court. The clinic also highlights that the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from discrimination in the workplace and that preventing a meritorious claim from being heard in federal court would frustrate the purpose of the Civil Rights Act.
“This was definitely one of the more difficult legal issues we have dealt with in a brief, but it pushed all of us to have many discussions and really understand the administrative exhaustion requirements of Title VII,” said Yerisbel Jimenez, a third-year law student. “I’m honored that I was able to participate in the clinic for two semesters. It was truly a great conclusion to my time here at Penn State Law.”
Added second-year law student Jennifer Bruce, “We gained valuable insight into the process of pursuing a workplace discrimination claim and how the Court’s decision on this issue will have a significant impact on employees that file discrimination charges in the future."
The brief was written by clinic associates Jennifer Bruce, Yerisbel Jimenez, Laura Lipschutz, Arman Marukyan, Jorge Rivera, and Heidi Tripp, with the help and supervision of Associate Dean of Clinics and Experiential Learning Michael L. Foreman, director of the clinic.
A Busy Semester
The clinic has submitted two previous filings to federal courts this semester.
On February 1, the clinic filed a petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court of the United States in Cody v. Mantech. The underlying case involved a whistleblower action where Cody alleged she was demoted and subsequently fired in retaliation for voicing concerns about a potentially fraudulent government contract executed by ManTech.
In late January, the clinic filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Doe v. Law School Admission Council, a case involving a claim that the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) by failing to provide the plaintiff, Jane Doe, with reasonable accommodations on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
“As a clinic, we are learning about some of the most dynamic areas in employment law,” said Rivera, a second-year law student.
The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, one of nine legal clinics available to Penn State Law students, provides intensive training in appellate advocacy by involving students in noncriminal civil rights cases before state appellate courts, federal courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Students conduct research, draft briefs, assist in case selection, develop substantive legal positions, and plan appellate strategy.