Photo by Alfred Haymond.
Photo by Alfred Haymond.

The law is not merely a job but a way of life for Toni Jaramilla. Like many Lawdragon honorees, she has marched as many pathways as needed to improve equity in American society. The daughter of a Philippine immigrant who served in the U.S. Navy and was an agricultural worker  in California, she is finely attuned to the disparities and hardships faced by workers. For that reason, you will see Jaramilla in court litigating high-profile individual discrimination and harassment claims as well as in the halls of the California State Capitol advocating for broader changes in the law that strengthen protections for workers. Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles-based trial lawyer and activist also boasts a long track record of service in nonprofit organizations with a focus on improving diversity in the legal profession. A member of Lawdragon’s guide to the top plaintiff employment lawyers, Jaramilla also represents victims of police brutality.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers your mix of work these days?

Toni Jaramilla: Since 1994, I have represented hundreds of workers against discriminatory employers, achieving multiple millions of dollars in state and federal jury verdicts, settlements and arbitration awards. My cases are often followed by news media, such as my representation of five young women in the “take-down” of a well-known clothing company and the ousting of its founder and CEO for sexual assault. My employment law cases involve claims of discrimination and harassment from all protected categories – race, national origin, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy – as well as retaliation/whistle blower, wrongful termination and unpaid wages.

My activism extends to litigating civil rights cases involving police brutality and shooting deaths, many of which have also been featured in the press. During the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder and global #BLM protests, I was invited to meet with Los Angeles Chief of Police Michel Moore and County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to discuss the arrests and abuse of peaceful protestors. Along with other civil rights leaders, we advocated for greater transparency and accountability by law enforcement who abused their power.

LD: What pushed you towards this type of career?

TJ: I was a student activist at UCLA. In an Asian American Studies class, I was assigned to interview an Asian immigrant. I chose my father. My dad immigrated from the Philippines and served in the U.S. Navy. Despite his veteran status, he faced blatant bigotry due to his national origin. He found work in Northern California as an agricultural worker. He experienced the oppressive working conditions and poverty level wages, which led to the Delano grape strikes and boycotts. After settling in Los Angeles, he and my mother worked hard to provide me with life-changing opportunities. As a result of their sacrifices, I am the first in my family to obtain a law degree. My career as a workers’ rights attorney is built on fighting discrimination and advocating for racial equality. My determination and success are inspired, in no small part, from experiences passed down by my father.

LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying? What keeps you excited about it

TJ: One of the most satisfying aspects of my work in employment and civil rights law is the heartfelt gratitude that my clients express towards me. In my employment law cases, my clients have lost their jobs. Whether my client is a low-wage earner or a high-level executive or professional, losing a job, particularly for discriminatory reasons, causes not only financial loss, but also profound emotional pain and anxiety.  Litigating these cases require patience and compassion, which I have. Clients truly appreciate that. And even after the case concludes, many of my clients remain my friends and colleagues because of the gratitude they feel regarding how I handled their case and how I treated them during the litigation.

LD: Is there a recent professional achievement that you wish to discuss?

TJ: During the #MeToo movement, I helped introduce and advance legislation directed toward strengthening protections against sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Shoulder to shoulder with my client – who had been sexually assaulted at work but missed her deadline to file her lawsuit – we testified at the State Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 9, a bill that extended the statute of limitations from one to three years for pursuing claims under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. This game-changing legislation benefits all California employees by giving them more time to file claims of discrimination and harassment. Governor Newsom signed the bill into law, effective January 1, 2020.

I was also actively involved in the passage of SB 1300 (which was inspired, in part, by one of my sexual harassment cases), an omnibus bill that provides guidance on the legal standard for establishing harassment under the Fair Employment and Housing Act and renders as void any purported waivers of legal claims involving sexual harassment and assault or other rights under FEHA, as a condition of receiving a pay raise, bonus, or other benefit. Along with leaders in the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA) and other allied organizations, , I contributed to drafting and re-writing, lobbying, and testifying for passage of this and other #MeToo inspired legislation which were ultimately signed into law by former Governor Brown and current Governor Newsom.

LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school? What were they and how did they contribute to going to law school?

TJ: I took a year off between undergrad and law school.  I accepted an internship at the National Urban League in Washington, D.C.  The National Urban League is a historic civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment, equality and social justice.  As an intern, I helped on various projects involving housing and community development.  I attended meetings with allied groups as leaders discussed programs that addressed issues facing underserved and historically oppressed communities.  This experience solidified my desire to work in an area of law which would allow me to advocate for social justice and equality for people of color.

LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?

TJ: From the very beginning of my career, I practiced employment law on behalf of workers.  When the #MeToo movement became part of daily headlines, more women found courage to speak out about their experience with sexual harassment and abuse.  I saw an increase of my cases involving sexual harassment and assault.  Women became empowered.  In addition to litigating the cases, I was also active in creating positive social change at the State Capitol by helping draft stronger legislation that protects against sexual harassment and gender discrimination. I did this alongside leaders and members of CELA and other workers’ rights groups.

While I have always been a civil rights activist, after the George Floyd murder and the growing #BLM protests, my practice expanded to litigating civil rights cases against law enforcement agencies for police brutality. My practice now includes both employment law on behalf of plaintiffs and civil rights law on behalf of victims of police abuse and police shootings.

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities? Please tell us what you find meaningful about your time serving them.

TJ: I am passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion, both in the practice of law and in leadership roles. In 1998, I proudly served as President of the Philippine American Bar Association, providing outreach and support to the Pilipino community. In 2004, I was selected Chair of the Labor & Employment Section of the California State Bar (the third largest), the first Pilipina to hold that position. In my first board meeting, I proposed that we establish a diversity grant program and allocate $75,000 to fund bar organizations, particularly multicultural bar organizations presenting educational programs on employment law. Almost two decades later, that grant program still exists today.

From 2011-2013, I served as Chair of the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA), the largest statewide organization of workers’ rights advocates in employment law.  Under my leadership, I helped start diversity initiatives, including the creation of a standing Diversity Outreach Committee; the initiation of an annual diversity lunch with an inspirational keynote speaker; and the creation of scholarships and fellowships for diverse law students committed to practicing plaintiff-side employment law. I also helped start and was Chair of Foundation for Advocacy Inclusion and Resources (FAIR), the nonprofit sister foundation to CELA, which raises funds and awards fellowships to new lawyers with diverse backgrounds who seek to practice plaintiff-side employment law.

Currently, I am Vice Chair of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee of the California Lawyers Association. I helped draft and propose a speaker diversity policy, adopted by CLA, which ensures that racial and gender diversity is consistently reflected in speaker selection.  We are now expanding that policy to include board and section appointments.