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50th Anniversary of Workplace Anti-Discrimination Law Tackled in Forum

April 10, 2014

50 Years of Title VII April 9 2014

By Sean Pan & Ian Seruelo

Equal employment opportunities for all—this is the message of Congress when it enacted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To commemorate fifty years of this historic legislation, the Labor and Employment Law Association (LELA) in cooperation with other student organizations held a forum on employment discrimination that tackled the lasting impact of the law that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in the American workplace. The panel also discussed the challenges, the current and future prospects in this field of labor and employment law.  

“Title VII is by far the most litigated area of the Civil Rights Act,” started the event’s keynote speaker, Mr. Bill Lann Lee of Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson, as he shared insights about the history of the law and litigations on that field. He underscored the significance of the legislation in relation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of reaching the “Promised Land.” 

Lee formerly served as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division in the United States Department of Justice in the Clinton Administration. He also spent eighteen years as an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City and Los Angeles.

Lee contended that “the situation today is still the same as before” and is disheartened by issues in the effective implementation of the Civil Rights law and acknowledged the tension between the law’s goals and courts’ restrictive interpretation. Despite this however he asserted, “there is a way to successfully litigate under the Civil Rights Act” citing to the suits he successfully brought against big companies such as Wet Seal on discrimination of its African-American employees, and against Netflix on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf.

So “why should you be interested in employment discrimination?” asked Mr. Lee.  He said that it is an opportunity to tackle unique challenges of the 21st century and help ensure equal opportunity for all.

Prof. Susan Bisom-Rapp, who was part of the panel, presented her recent scholarship on the problem of poverty for older women and highlighted that women suffer more in age discrimination. According to her, this, as well as other lingering discrimination in the workplace, can be attributed to the nation’s scattershot approach. “There are many holes in the Civil Rights Act and the nation’s labor and employment laws. Piecemeal solutions are not effectively addressing the problem. Our work isn’t finished and the Civil Rights Act needs to adapt to the 21st century.”

“We are still in the beginning stages of addressing employment discrimination in its various forms in society,” said Professor Rebecca Lee, who presented another perspective from the academe. Prof. Lee shared her recent scholarship in the area of affirmative action and asserted, “there is compelling interest in workforce diversity.” She highlighted that even Fortune 500 companies “recognized that the global economy required widely diverse people with different background in the workplace.” 

“The Civil Rights Act has made significant contribution in eradicating discrimination in the workplace, but I do agree much still need to be done,” concluded TJSL’s General Counsel Karin Sherr who moderated the forum. She echoed the panel’s assertion that additional progress in this area of labor and employment law is needed to eliminate discrimination in the workplace. 

In his welcome remarks, Dean Thomas Guernsey acknowledged the important role of student organizations in nurturing the intellectual traditions of TJSL. Aside from LELA, he thanked the other sponsors of the event: La Raza, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA), National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Black Law Students Association (BLSA), Immigration Law Society (ILS), and Delta Theta Phi. Aside from the student organizations, LELA President Ian Seruelo also acknowledged the event’s other sponsors: TJSL Center for Law and Social Justice, Kaplan Bar Review, and Champagne Bakery.