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When Equal Rights Advocates executive director Irma Herrera drives by athletic fields and sees young girls kicking soccer balls or throwing baseballs, she can’t help but feel proud. “I feel like Equal Rights Advocates was part of the movement that made that possible,” she says, referring to the 1975 victory that earned ERA its stripes as a venerable soldier in the struggle for equal rights for women. In Love v. California Youth Soccer Association, a class action brought against the California Youth Soccer Association on behalf of 10-year-old Amy Love, ERA forced the state to stop prohibiting girls from participating in athletic events in public parks. Since its founding in 1974, ERA has fought injustice in the courtroom. But starting in the mid-1980s, it also spread its efforts to legislative, public policy and educational outreach work. Now the organization is shifting its focus back to litigation. With the hire of Litigation Director Sheila Thomas in April, ERA’s staff of litigators has grown to five. Last year, the group hit an all-time low of two litigators after 11-year ERA veteran Rose Fua took a job in the U.S. attorney general’s office in Oakland. The revamped litigation group has filed suit against two corporations: Chevron Corp. and its overseas subsidiary, Chevron Overseas Petroleum, alleging racial discrimination; and a franchise of T.G.I. Friday’s, alleging gender discrimination. The T.G.I. Friday’s case settled in early January. The group also is researching a slew of areas in hopes of finding a successful “impact litigation” opportunity. “They’ve sort of rebuilt their legal group from the ground up, and probably now [is] the best-prepared women’s litigation program in the country to bring on new cases,” said Brad Seligman, executive director of The Impact Fund, a class action public interest legal group that often collaborates with ERA. Seligman pointed out that ERA is building its own in-house litigation team at a time when many prominent women’s legal organizations — such as the National Organization for Women — farm out a substantial amount of litigation to outside lawyers. Herrera says ERA began in the 1980s to branch into other areas, including education efforts, when Reagan-appointees on the bench made the anti-discrimination litigation climate “hostile.” The ERA had identified a strong need for public education around affirmative action and other issues. Still, ERA has some notable successes, including a class action against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, which ended in 1981 with a consent decree calling for hiring time tables and a $1.5 million affirmative action fund. In 1985, it settled a five-year challenge against the San Francisco Fire Department with a consent decree that included hiring and promotional goals for women and minorities. The settlement was hailed as one of the first in the nation to have specific decrees for women of color. And last year, it settled a 13-year pregnancy discrimination case — covering a class of nearly 10,000 women — against Pacific Bell. The decision to expend the bulk of its energy on litigation was the result of a two-year planning process, during which ERA staffers interviewed over 60 lawyers, clients and nonprofit leaders they had worked with over the years. “The overwhelming feeling was that we should go back to our roots and do litigation,” said Herrera, herself a lawyer, “because there aren’t many groups who have lawyers willing to take on cases of gender discrimination.” ERA began a period of transition, wrapping up the brunt of the welfare policy work it had been doing and mining a range of areas where impact litigation might further advance equality for women and minorities. In the midst of the transition, ERA’s lease came up and its rents quadrupled at its Mission Street home. While the group sublet a third of its space from the dot-com that replaced it, most of its law books and case files were shipped off to storage. After a hunt that led her all over San Francisco and Oakland, Herrera finally secured a lease in the same building as ERA’s original office, where ERA will rent about a half of its former space for about twice its former rent. The transition to a litigation strategy had kicked off unofficially with the hiring of Thomas. She took the job after Beth Parker returned to McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen after spending two and a half years mentoring staff attorneys and developing ERA’s strategic plan. Thomas, a former assistant counsel with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, served on the board before being hired. She joined ERA after nine years of private practice in Oakland, including five years at Saperstein Goldstein Demchak & Baller. “She’s a strong litigator, and has the kind of aggressive approach to litigation that is often sorely lacking among nonprofit associations but is really necessary for the sorts of cases they want to bring,” Seligman said about Thomas, who has hit the ground running with four cases, which she’s working on with ERA staff attorneys Doris Ng and Rebecca Henry, as well as with two fellows, recent Boalt College of Law graduates Aimee Durfee and Stephanie Bornstein. In White v. Chevron and Chevron Overseas Petroleum, its race and employment discrimination case against Chevron, which is in discovery, ERA is alleging that the corporation lacked the structure necessary for preventing its employees from being discriminated against by management. “With the expansion of the global economy this will become more of an issue,” said Thomas. In McIntyre and Hibbitts v. Main Street, ERA alleged that Main Street, a franchisee of 60 T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants, had insufficient structures in place to give recourse to the two African-American women who claimed they were subjected to racial and gender discrimination in the chain’s San Francisco and Oakland restaurants. Thomas is restricted from discussing the terms of the settlement. Over the last two years ERA also gained damages, back wages and injunctive relief in the case of a Cambodian man who allegedly did “homework” for his employer, a Silicon Valley electronics manufacturing company. It also earned back over $200,000 in back wages and attorneys fees for migrant workers in the fashion industry. Currently, Thomas said, ERA has placed the restaurant industry, the high-tech industry and the construction trades under its microscopes, and is considering various courses of class-based litigation in each of those three areas. “Some would say moving to a litigation strategy is kind of risky,” said Thomas. “Our goal is to be smart about choosing our cases, and we think we’ll be successful in our decision.”

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