Legal Momentum News Brief, May 2012

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May 1, 2012

Legal Momentum Fights for Legal Protections against Domestic and Sexual Violence and Stalking

Nearly 20 years ago, Legal Momentum was at the forefront in drafting and advocating for the passage of the most significant legislation in the nation’s history to combat domestic violence and sexual assault — the Violence Against Women Act, popularly known as VAWA.  We worked with then-Senator Joseph Biden on this landmark law, which provides federal assistance and protections to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, teen dating violence, and stalking. 

VAWA is due for reauthorization.  In the past, VAWA has been reauthorized twice with bi-partisan support in both the House and the Senate, each time with improvements based on the experiences of advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, and victims themselves.  This year has been different.  VAWA is now under attack.

Against this backdrop, Legal Momentum has been working hard to advance and sustain support for reauthorization of VAWA with its key provisions intact and with needed improvements.  We have:

  • Advocated extensively with Senate and House leadership, Judiciary Committee members and staff, and more generally worked to educate members of Congress and staff.
  • Written an Op Edpublished in the prestigious Congressional Newspaper Roll Call, which detailed some of the striking problems with the House reauthorization bill, including its inclusion of mandatory minimum sentences that will do more harm than good for survivors of abuse.  The Op Ed can be accessed at the Roll Call site, here or at the Legal Momentum website, here.                   
  • Provided expert testimony on VAWA at the request of the New York City Council.  Executive Vice President and Legal Director Silda Palerm testified about how VAWA helps law enforcement and prosecutors hold offenders accountable.
  • Participated in a press conference with members of the House Judiciary Committee discussing the need for reauthorizing VAWA intact and with needed additions.
  • Engaged in the policy debate about VAWA through social media and through discussion with numerous other media outlets, including Salon; WBAI’s In Brief program; In These Times; The Nation; Mother Jones; and WNYC’s The Takeaway.  Vice President for Government Relations Lisalyn Jacobs and Senior Vice President Lynn Hecht Schafran have provided much information to the media about VAWA, been quoted extensively on the topic, and appeared on air.

Thanks to the work of Legal Momentum and others, a few weeks ago the Senate passed a reauthorization version of VAWA that preserves much of the current Act and improves it in a number of ways.  For example, the Senate version of the Act now provides protections for Native American women victimized by their non-Native American intimate partners in Indian Country.  Historically, such crimes have not been adequately prosecuted, in large part because of gaps in the law with respect to enforcing laws against non-Native Americans in Indian Country, and lack of sufficient law enforcement resources.

However, despite all our hard work, the House passed a reauthorization bill that makes harmful changes and rolls back some of the key provisions of the current Act.  For example, the House version places significant obstacles in the path of immigrant women crime victims who would otherwise be eligible for a u-visa for cooperating with law enforcement.

Legal Momentum continues to strongly oppose the House version of VAWA and urges members of both parties and both bodies of the Congress to work toward final passage of a bill that closely resembles the bi-partisan bill the Senate passed.  The Senate bill truly reflects the comprehensive intent of VAWA.

Legal Momentum Works to End Pregnancy Discrimination in Employment

We are working on crucial legislation and litigation to keep women from having to choose between a healthy pregnancy and a paycheck.

There is a gap in the employment protections provided to pregnant workers.  As currently interpreted by many courts, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prevents an employer from refusing to hire or from firing a woman just because she is pregnant, but does not require an employer to make any accommodations for her.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires accommodations for disabled employees, but has been understood by some not to require employers to accommodate limitations due to pregnancy.  

Thus, a pregnant woman who was fired because she carried a water bottle at work against company rules (which she did because her doctor told her she needed to stay hydrated during her pregnancy), had no redress.  Similarly, an employer was allowed to fire a pregnant woman because, at the end of her pregnancy, she needed the help of co-workers (who did not object) to move a few tables – a task which constituted only a few minutes of her work time each day. 

To make matters worse for working women, even the laws that currently exist often are not followed by employers.

Legal Momentum has been working to make solving these problems a national priority and to develop reasonable and fair solutions.  That work has been effective. 

On May 8, Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Jackie Speier (D-CA), and Susan Davis (D-CA) held a press conference announcing the introduction of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers if they can do so without undue hardship to the company.  Legal Momentum worked closely with Rep. Nadler’s staff in drafting the bill, and Elizabeth was invited to speak at the press conference.

Elizabeth stated at the press conference: “Legal Momentum strongly supports the PWFA.  This bill provides long overdue safeguards that are particularly important for women working low-wage jobs with few benefits or flexibility, and for women working in non-traditional occupations.  No woman should have to choose between a healthy pregnancy and supporting herself and her family.  Reasonable, necessary accommodations for pregnant workers benefit employees, their families, and ultimately workplaces overall.”

On a separate note, Legal Momentum recently received an important determination from the EEOC in a pregnancy discrimination case.  The EEOC found that the NYC Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) wrongfully reassigned Officer Lori Ann DiPalo to low-status duties after she informed them she was pregnant.  The EEOC determined that the TBTA reassigned Ms. DiPalo, a six-year veteran of the agency with a stellar employment record, solely due to her pregnancy status, and that was impermissible.

Legal Momentum has represented and assisted in several other recent cases demonstrating the critical need for the PWFA.  More on those cases can be read here.

Others have noticed our work in this area.  For example, NY State Senator Liz Kruger recently invited Senior Staff Attorney Michelle Caiola to speak at a NY State Senate Democratic Conference roundtable discussion on challenges women face in the workplace.  And Equal Rights Advocates has published a report on the status of pregnancy accommodation in the workplace entitled “Expecting a Baby, Not a Layoff,” which quotes Michelle extensively.  The report, available here, also surveys the state and federal protections for pregnant workers needing accommodations — or, in too many cases, the lack of such protections.

Aiming High Awards a Fantastic Success

Over 600 guests joined us at our annual Aiming High Awards Luncheon on May 2 to salute the accomplishments of four extraordinary women who have broken through to the top of their professions.

Our Four Honorees were:

Pamela Carter, president Cummins Distribution Business

Jane Fraser, chief executive officer Citi Private Bank

Lynn Utter, president and chief operating officer Knoll, NA

Kathy Zachem, senior vice president regulatory and state legislative affairs
Comcast Corporation

The Honorees’ remarks were entertaining, moving and educational.  If you have a daughter, co-worker, mentee or other woman you’d like to inspire, we urge you to forward them the videos of our Honorees and Elizabeth, which are here.  Photos from the event may be seen here.

Elizabeth Grayer’s Letter to the Editor in the New York Times on the NYC Firefighters Exam

Legal Momentum has a long history of fighting against occupational segregation based on gender.  Too often, women are unfairly unable to obtain or succeed in well-paying jobs in fields that are traditionally dominated by men.  Firefighting remains a field with far too few women.

The New York Times (NYT) recently reported on the demographics of the current applicants taking the New York City firefighting test, suggesting that great strides in the number of woman participating had been made.  The article is here.   Unfortunately, the article was misleading in suggesting that the test takers included a high percentage of women.  Because we believe that it is almost impossible to fix a problem that is not recognized, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the NYT correcting the misimpression and providing more information on the subject, which was published.  She wrote:

“To the Editor: Re “Fire Dept. Doubles Minority and Female Applicants” (, May 9):

“The headline does not tell the full story.  The firefighter exam is given only every few years.  Women were less than 5 percent of the more than 42,000 who took the most recent test.  This is not acceptable.

“Substantially less than 1 percent of the firefighters in the New York Fire Department are women.  New York City’s numbers are shockingly low.  Where programs are in place to encourage and recruit female applicants, the numbers of female firefighters are far higher: 17 percent in Minneapolis, 15 percent in San Francisco, 14 percent in Boulder, Colo., and 24 percent in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“While it is commendable that almost half of those who took the most recent New York City test were nonwhite, much more needs to be done to recruit women to the N.Y.F.D.”   (The NYTpage with the letter is here).

Legal Momentum Organizes a Special Session for the National Task Force on Tradeswomen Issues

Last year, Legal Momentum co-founded the National Task Force on Tradeswomen’s issues. The Task Force unites local, regional and national expertise and action to support tradeswomen and women who want to access these occupations.  On May 20, the Task Force organized a special session at the Women Building California and the Nation Conference. Participants in the Task Force’s program included Legal Momentum’s own Francoise Jacobson (Program Manager, Equality Works) Meg Vasey (Executive Director of Tradeswomen, Inc. and one of the country’s first female electricians) Jane Oates (Assistant Secretary of the Employment Training Administration at the Department of Labor) and Warren Whitlock (Associate Administrator for the Federal Highway Administration Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Transportation).  The administrative and government officials invited the tradeswomen and advocates to continue the discussion about the roadblocks tradeswomen face around the nation by contacting them after the session so that they could take concrete action. The session was extremely well-attended and lively, and plans are underway to expand this session at the next National Tradeswomen’s conference.  

Participation in the International Association of Women Judges Conference

The legal system has become more attuned to the special needs and circumstances of domestic violence/sexual assault victims, thanks to Legal Momentum’s tireless advocacy and work on judicial education.  However, myths and misconceptions still pervade courtrooms, so we continue our crucial training on how the criminal justice system can best assist these victims and survivors.

Recently, Lynn Hecht Schafran, Legal Momentum Senior Vice President and Director of our National Judicial Education Program, was featured at the biennial International Association of Women Judges conference in London, on a panel titled “Services for Victims of Sexual Violence.”  She educated the audience about Legal Momentum’s sexual assault resources, particularly the publication, Judges Tell: What I Wish I Had Known Before I Presided in an Adult Victim Sexual Assault Case, and the web course, Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse: Adjudicating This Hidden Dimension of Domestic Violence Cases.  Lynn reports that the response to the presentation and materials was overwhelmingly positive.   

Our Legal Work Furthers Essential Civil Rights Issues

Legal Momentum continues to participate in amicus briefs addressing issues concerning women’s equality, including litigation that involved a veteran denied spousal veteran’s disability benefits for her wife (read brief here), and litigation opposing S.B 1070, Arizona’s statute regulating immigration law and state enforcement (read brief here).