Working for Justice

Q&A with Sunu Chandy

Posted March 27th, 2015 by in Gender Discrimination and Harassment.

Earlier this year I coordinated a panel with the Women’s Bar Association on pregnancy discrimination.  The panel focused on a question currently pending before the Supreme Court: whether a federal pregnancy discrimination law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant women.  [Bloggers Note: For more information on this check out my interviews with the panelists here and here.]

Sunu-ChandySunu Chandy, General Counsel D.C.’s Office of Human Rights (OHR), attended the panel and contributed to our discussion.  Afterward, I was very excited to introduce myself to her and even more excited she agreed to be interviewed for the blog.  As a lawyer for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and now the top lawyer for D.C.’s OHR, Sunu has devoted her career to ensuring that we are enforcing the laws that prevent discrimination in the workplace.  As a lawyer who regularly represents women who have suffered gender and pregnancy discrimination, I am glad to have folks like Sunu working at government agencies to help enforce civil rights.

Sunu’s Background

Kate:

I was impressed by your bio and your long-standing commitment to fighting discrimination.  What would you say is the origination of this commitment?

Sunu:

I have been very active in social justice causes since high school.  My parents, both from India, instilled in me a commitment to service.  The Quaker community we were involved with had a strong commitment to social justice and progressive causes.  I grew up going to Social Action Meetings and attending rallies and protests in support of activist causes.  I organized fundraisers in which students at my all-girls Catholic high school would give money to those less fortunate in exchange for a day of not wearing their uniforms.  I started my high school’s chapter of Amnesty International.  I continued this at Earlham College, where I studied peace and global studies and women’s studies and completed social justice internships.

Kate:

It sounds like you had a commitment to social justice instilled in you at a very early age.  Is this what motivated you to go to law school?

Sunu:

Yes, and I decided to go to law school at Northeastern University because of its strong commitment to public interest.  There I was able to focus my coursework on issues of race and women’s issues in the context of labor and employment law.  I also did four internships, called co-ops at Northeastern, which expanded my public interest experience.

Kate:

What were your internships?

Sunu:

I had a judicial internship in Boston and worked with the NOW Legal Defense and education Fund, now known asLegal Momentum.

I also worked with two law firms that represented employees and unions. Before these internships, I was unaware that some private law firms work toward social justice.

Kate:

I completely agree!  [Bloggers’ Note: Click here for more information on my firm.]

Sunu’s Work at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Kate:

Why did you decide to work at the EEOC?

Sunu:

After law school, I was working at a public interest law firm helping the partners to litigate employment discrimination cases. While I had my own arbitration cases and enjoyed the work, I found myself wanting to do more.  I wanted to be primarily responsible for managing litigation, and not have to wait years at the law firm before I could do it in that setting.

Kate:

What was the focus of your work at the EEOC?

Sunu:

I dealt with a wide variety of employment discrimination cases at the EEOC, including those involving discrimination based on sex, race, and religion, and post-9/11 cases involving discrimination against South Asians and others who were, or were perceived to be, Muslims.

For example, I worked on a sexual harassment case challenging how employees were treated at some Burger King restaurants.  Details of the case are available on the EEOC website.  I took a very in-depth look at how the company trained its employees.  Some training, such as training on how employees should make hamburgers, were quite extensive and employed several measures to ensure that the employees paid attention and that the training were successful.  The company’s sexual harassment training, however, before this case, were paltry in comparison, and often involved simply distributing a policy.

Kate:

Did the company improve its sexual harassment training as a result of your involvement?

Sunu:

Yes, we were able to reach a consent decree with the company to ensure policy changes that would help prevent such egregious and widespread harassment from happening in the future.

Sunu’s Work at D.C.’s Office of Human Rights

Kate:

What is a couple of things that you are excited about in your new position?

Sunu:

First, I am very pleased to be working with a female mayor.  We also have strong female leadership in the District of Columbia through several agencies, and I think that can make a difference in terms of policy.

Kate:

As Meet the Press recently reported, the District of Columbia has women in the top three government leadership positions: Mayor Muriel Bowser, Chancellor of Schools Kaya Henderson, and Chief of Police Cathy Lanier.

Sunu:

And second, D.C. is a progressive city in terms of its human rights laws.  A lot of people don’t trust the government but the fact of the matter is that here in D.C., the government is doing good work to advocate for the most vulnerable groups of people.  I hope some of the laws in place here can become a model for the nation.

For example, there is a lot of unfair treatment made illegal by D.C.’s civil rights laws.  Under federal law, people are protected from discrimination on the basis of a handful of categories: sex, race, color, national origin, age (40 and older), religion, pregnancy, and disability.  But the District of Columbia has nineteen categories of discrimination protection.  That is a lot of areas of protection!

[Bloggers’ Note: A full list of these categories, which include traditional categories such as race and sex, but also categories not covered by other laws such as marital status, family responsibilities, and matriculation, is available here.]

As another example, D.C. recently enacted the Fair Criminal Record Screening Amendment Act of 2014, which advocates term “Ban the Box.”  This law makes it illegal for employers to inquire about arrests and they can only look at criminal background information after making a conditional offer.  Finally, an offer can be revoked only if the employer is able to justify revoking it using a set of six factors outlined in the law

* * * * *

Kate:

On a personal note, as a successful woman, what advice would you give to other women?

Sunu:

Speak up for yourself when you’re being treated unfairly or unjustly, but know how to choose your battles.  We each face times when we need to decide whether to speak up, even though often it feels easier to stay silent.

There have been times when I have not spoken up.  I had an offer for employment withdrawn after I mentioned that I had a newly adopted daughter who I wanted to pick up after daycare.  I knew it was wrong, but I was too afraid to file a complaint.  This is why I have the highest respect and regard for anyone who dares to speak up.  These folks are not just standing up for themselves but for all others who are in their shoes who may face similar instances of discrimination or harassment.

Oh, and take a walk at lunchtime.  Make sure to take time for yourself to live a life that is fulfilling for you.  Figure out what that means for you and do it.

Kate Mueting

Kate Mueting

Kate Mueting is a Partner in the Washington, DC office of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Ms. Mueting is responsible for managing much of the KPMG gender discrimination litigation and also represents employees in other individual and class discrimination and overtime cases. Learn More

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