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JD/MA Alumnae Ellen Eardley ’03 Tackles Civil Rights Issues

 

UC Law’s joint degree program served as a powerful recruitment tool for Ellen Eardley ’03. A native of southern Illinois, she was drawn to the program so that she could focus on the intersection of women’s studies and the law. After graduating from Eastern Illinois University with a degree in English and Women’s Studies, she moved to Cincinnati, specifically—she says—because of the JD/MA program. She knew when she began the program that she wanted to practice law after graduating, although she liked the idea of having a master’s degree focused on feminist theory as well.

Eardley also knew what she wanted to focus on—civil rights work. “I wanted to work on social justice issues when I graduated from law school,” she says. Eardley’s first year of law school coincided with the 2001 civil unrest sparked by the death of an unarmed African-American man. So affected by the events that shook the city, she eventually wrote her master’s thesis on racial profiling in Cincinnati, focusing specifically on representations of women in the media and in the law in connection with such profiling.

Getting Experience in Social Justice Issues

While completing the joint degree program, Eardley participated in many social justice-related organizations during her summer work experiences. After her first year of school, which focused on women’s studies, she worked at a domestic violence shelter in Cincinnati. Following her first year of law school, she went to Washington, D.C. and worked with the National Women’s Law Center. The following summer she participated in the U.S. Department of Justice Summer Honors Program, interning for the Civil Rights Division, Employment Litigation section.

After law school graduation and completion of the four-year joint degree program, Eardley received an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, returning to the nation’s capital to work at the National Women’s Law Center. There, she focused on impact litigation as well as legislative and regulatory advocacy regarding women’s rights in education and employment. She also served on the team of attorneys who represented female victims of sexual assault at the University of Colorado and on the team that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits retaliation, in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education. She also had the opportunity to advocate on Capitol Hill for heightened enforcement of sex discrimination laws in career and technical education, with particular focus on women interested in non-traditional occupations.

Two years later when her EJW fellowship ended, Eardley went to work for Woodley & McGillivary, a small D.C. labor and employment firm for several years. She litigated employment discrimination and wage and hour cases on behalf of public sector employees and unions. She also worked on several race and sex discrimination cases. One of her most memorable cases involved the sexual harassment of female firefighters in Jackson, Mississippi. “The experience of that case was a positive one,” she commented, “not only because in the end we were able to get a verdict in favor of all four of the female firefighters, but also because it provided me with a lot of valuable trial experience.”

For the past three years, Eardley has been at her current position with Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, also in Washington, D.C. There, she works primarily on class action employment discrimination cases, many of which result in settlements before a complaint is filed. Eardley also works on some cases involving whistle blowers in addition to other civil rights-related cases. “One of the most interesting cases I worked on,” says Eardley, “was not an employment case but a consumer civil rights case. It was brought on behalf of African-Americans who had life insurance from John Hancock who had been subject to discrimination from the early 1900s. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was common for insurers to sell African-Americans inferior policies or to refuse to sell to African-Americans whatsoever by not paying commission to Hancock employees on the sale of life insurance to African-Americans. Our client was an older African-American woman whose family had purchased several policies in the 1940s. We learned that not only did her family receive inferior policies, but the agent who sold the policies had recorded on documents that her family was white, probably so he could receive commission on the sale. We filed a class action on behalf of her and all African-Americans who had been similarly discriminated against.” Ultimately, the case resulted in a $24 million settlement; the money is going to the families of those who bought the policies, when they can be found, and the leftover money is going to be put into a fund that will give the money to charities that benefit African-American communities. “I found this case particularly interesting,” says Eardley, “because the offense happened so long ago. Sometimes it takes a long time to get justice, but it is definitely worth fighting for!”

When she has free time, Eardley enjoys spending time volunteering at an employee rights clinic for low income employees in D.C. “I would love to be able to help everyone that comes in the door at my office,” she says, “but that’s not realistically feasible. At the clinic, I can help people with smaller claims or who may just need a little time, and I really enjoy being able to do that.” Eardley lives in downtown Washington with her husband, Brett, who also is an attorney, and their dog.