Photo by Hugh Williams.

Photo by Hugh Williams.

As an employee, fighting for your rights isn’t easy. Lynne Bernabei makes it easier.

For decades, Bernabei has fought to uphold the rights of whistleblowers and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment, and to help forge a path for the countrys most revolutionary workers. In doing so, she has built a word-class firm, Bernabei & Kabat, which specializes in civil rights, discrimination and employment litigation, as well as whistleblower law. A lifelong activist, Bernabei knows that her clientsactions take bravery and risk. She supports them in every way she can – tackling major corporations, governments and public entities to initiate social change and make sure her clientsvoices are heard.

With the current reckoning with racial prejudice and workersrights across the country, Bernabei and her team are instrumental in helping shift policies to those that are more equitable, inclusive and progressive. In one current case, Bernabei represents a whistleblower from an anti-sex trafficking organization. Her client, a survivor of sex trafficking herself, was one of many employees fired as a result of the group’s allegedly racist practices. In a progressive city like D.C., Bernabei says, Its shocking to see an organization so ravened with racial discrimination.”

Her clientscases are often closely tied to current events: She litigated precedent-setting cases related to AIDS back in the 80s and is currently litigating cases related to Covid-19. With the widespread effect of the pandemic, Bernabeis clients have been diverse: anyone from doctors and nurses speaking out about the lack of personal protective equipment theyve been afforded, or vulnerable individuals who have been fired after prioritizing their own safety over returning to the office.

Badly behaving employers often believe their size or wealth can allow them to silence potential whistleblowers. But as long as workersrights continue to be violated, Bernabei and her team will work to help individuals stand up for themselves, their colleagues and the public at large.  

Bernabei was inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame in 2021. 

Lawdragon: How did you first become interested in employment and civil rights litigation?

Lynne Bernabei: I've always been an activist. I was a child of the late 60s and early 70s, and we did a lot of organizing, especially in anti-war work. I also always saw myself as somewhat of an outsider because of the way I grew up.

LD: In what way?

LB: I grew up working-class, but went to upper-class high schools in Chicagos North Shore, which eventually led to Harvard. I always felt like I was in the community, but not quite of" the community. Outsiders always appealed to me. Most of the time, the people who make effective change are outside the system – women, people of color, whistleblowers. That is how, psychologically, I got into the area.

We discovered that the owner of the network, one of the wealthiest men in China, had designed a retaliatory plan to fire everybody, sue us, sue our clients and stop us from carrying on with the case.

LD: Did you know that this was the area that you wanted to focus on from the start?

LB: No, not at all. I didn't even want to be a lawyer originally.

LD: What did you want to be?

LB: I had been a reporter for a couple of years, but I was too much of an activist. I always wanted to do certain kinds of stories, and, unless you own the newspaper, you really couldn't do those stories. I ended up in law school, and I was really lucky because I had a clerkship with a wonderful judge, Judge William Bryant – a real pioneer. Seeing his life story and what he's achieved led me into public interest and discrimination law.

LD: Tell me about founding your firm. 

LB: Well, I used to be with a partner, Debbie Katz, for almost 20 years. The idea was that wed take the sorts of cases that would make a difference. Obviously, we're totally client-oriented, so whatever the client wants is what we do.

We have a mix of cases, both discrimination and whistleblower cases, that get resolved early on. Then there are cases that go on for years and years of litigation. Those tend to be the cases where there's a significant public interest goal involved, and they hopefully lead to some change.

LD: The impact your cases have had is incredible. Tell me, for instance, about the case involving sexual harassment and workplace discrimination for unpaid interns.

LB: That was a fascinating case. We had 11 plaintiffs, who all worked at the largest satellite broadcast entity from China. All of our clients were Chinese nationals. 

The women in the organization started bringing up claims of sexual harassment, and there were a number of men down in the D.C. office who supported the women in their claims. They had two offices on the east coast: one in New York and one in the District of Columbia. Of course, all the men who supported the women got harassed, pushed out or fired. Then the clients got sued, and I got sued for representing them. 

We discovered that the owner of the network, one of the wealthiest men in China, had designed a retaliatory plan to fire everybody, sue us, sue our clients and stop us from carrying on with the case.

LD: Wow.

LB: One of our clients was a student intern in New York, so she wasn't paid when she worked there. The laws – even the laws in New York at that time – didn't protect interns very well. So, the judge kept the case in court, but he also said that New York law does not protect interns. 

That decision created a firestorm with the mayor, with the city council, and with the state legislature. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of unpaid interns in New York City. They werent protected. You could do anything to them. So, they passed legislation to protect unpaid interns as a result of this judge's decision. 

LD: I love that so much of your work helps individual people, but also helps the public at large. Do you have another example like that you can share?

LB: There are quite a few.

One was a case we did in the early days of HIV and AIDS, when medical professionals were afraid of treating people with HIV. We had a case where a young woman who had HIV was mistreated at Howard University Hospital. They didnt have universal precautions, so they basically isolated anybody that they suspected of having HIV or AIDS. They would just put them in rooms alone. She almost committed suicide, and then was very mistreated by security. It was horrendous.

We sued them for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they had failed to treat all kinds of patients, including those with HIV or AIDS, in all wards of the hospital. The hospital basically segregated them. It was really a wild case; they fabricated documents and threatened our expert. Eventually, we succeeded in a settlement, and got them to adopt universal precautions. It was really a very rewarding case.

LD: I'm sure. Was there a breakout case at the start of your career that propelled you forward into more of these high-profile cases? Or did your caseload kind of build up over time?

LB: I guess it built up over time. I worked for a public interest group that represents whistleblowers, so we did a lot of high-profile nuclear cases, both for whistleblowers and against some dangerous nuclear plants.

I also worked with housing groups trying to uphold the constitutionality of the Rental Housing and Conversion Act, which was enacted a long time ago in the District of Columbia to protect people who were being displaced as a result of the massive conversion efforts that were going on around the city. 

The developers created a strategy to declare the law unconstitutional. Of course, the people who cared about the law didn't have a lot of money. They were basically poor people who had lived in rental buildings for their whole lives who were being displaced, and there wasn't good low-cost housing available.

Over the course of the case, which took 10 years, we represented the tenantsassociations in four different buildings. The city, in the meantime, got lots of campaign contributions from developers and stopped defending the law. We went to court on behalf of the tenants, and the city would not show up to defend.

Eventually, we succeeded in upholding the constitutionality of the law, and it exists today. Its been watered down in some respects, but its substantially in the same form it was back then.

LD: What kind of cases have been keeping you busy lately? 

LB: We had a number of cases involving the pandemic. The pandemic revealed a lot of things, including the lack of equity in our healthcare system and the lack of protections for doctors and other healthcare workers. We tried to develop a number of cases – and some of them are still active – representing healthcare workers who were not given appropriate personal protective equipment, or employees who got fired when they asked for a safe workplace.

The problem in a lot of whistleblower cases is that there's no legislation that protects them. So, you're really relegated to wrongful discharge, and that's not very plaintiff-friendly law. You have to prove all these conditions as to why they got fired that are unrelated to the whistleblowing. We did a couple of those cases. We did succeed in helping some individuals, but the gaps in the legal protections for people who complain about their working conditions became very apparent, and still exists to this day.

We are counsel to people doing campaign reform, working to get money out of politics and other similar areas.

However, in this line of work, even when we lose a case, I think we push things along further. For instance, I had a case at my old firm against Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, which was a public mental hospital. We were involved with a coalition of D.C. homelessness groups, including doctors that worked at Saint Elizabeth's and other community activists who cared about mental health issues. In D.C., and probably in many other communities, the mentally ill make up most of the homeless population. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a movement to deinstitutionalize mentally ill people, because there were too many people in public mental hospitals. While that was a great idea, the concept was that they would do better in community mental health centers. But those were never created. 

The hospital entered into a consent decree with the Mental Health Law Project to basically get everybody out of the hospital. Then, the mayor at the time wanted to sell off the land which had been deeded for the mentally ill, to build condominiums.

So, we came in and we said, "No, no, that's for the mentally ill. That's why it was deeded to the city.” We tried to intervene in a case where everybody was happy with the status quo of emptying out the hospital, rendering more people homeless. Everybody seemed happy with this because everybody got fees from it. The judge on the case said, "Everybody's doing fine. You can't intervene on behalf of the people who the interest groups are supposed to serve."

We were not allowed to intervene. But it did lead to a change in leadership in the public interest group. Now they're taking some additional steps to make sure there's better public mental health care in the District of Columbia. 

LD: I'm sure it has a long way to go, but just speaking about those issues is so important. 

You've also spoken publicly about other hot button issues lately, like the #MeToo movement and the Amazon workers who were killed in the tornado last year. Tell me a bit about how you keep on top of those issues.

LB: We work with a lot of activist groups, public interest groups and whistleblower groups. We are counsel to people doing campaign reform, working to get money out of politics and other similar areas. There are a fair number of groups that we support. It's not our mainline practice, and we don't advertise it, but if they have a problem, we try to help them.

We also work on appeals with some groups. We try to help out in those kinds of issues when we can. It's not hard to find good cases; it's just that we're pretty small and the cases in litigation take an enormous time and effort. We can only do so many at any time. 

LD: Are you working on any right now?

LB: Right now, we have quite a few, actually. We just settled a whistleblower case at a naval hospital where a nurse reported the unnecessary death of a pediatric patient because the hospital lacked appropriate procedures. Then we have the case of a police officer, Charlotte Djossou, who is a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Department. Charlotte protested the targeting of young Black men in minority communities. The police department actually had a whole operation called the "Snake" where they would go into minority, low-income communities and just shake down young, primarily Black men.

LD: They had a name for it?

LB: They did. Of course, they retaliated against her. They wouldn't give her a promotion and they gave her a bad performance appraisal that she had to fight. So, we have a whistleblower case against the Metropolitan Police Department to get her a promotion and get her career back on track. These are the voices that are helping to reform the police department.

LD: With all these moving stories, what do you find most meaningful about your career?

LB: I think what I find most rewarding is the people and groups I represent, because they have really taken big risks to do what they've done. I'm just happy to be a part of that, to help push along the social and political goals that they're seeking.