Marc Goldberg Photography

Marc Goldberg Photography

Susan Crumiller doesn’t do restrictions. She never has. When she decided to join the wrestling team in high school – black hair, black lipstick and all – it didn’t even occur to her that she might be the school’s first female wrestler. When people were shocked, that only motivated her more.

As an adult, Crumiller’s attitude hasn’t changed. So, when a boss at her previous law firm wanted to cancel her maternity leave months before its scheduled end, she knew she had to do something. “My feminism often shows up as a lack of awareness of the limitations we are all subject to,” Crumiller reflects. “I come into situations and I’m like, ‘I’ll just do it.’’ Which is how my firm came to be.” She left her previous firm and began a law firm devoted to pregnancy rights: Crumiller – The Feminist Litigation Firm.

Since then, Crumiller has expanded the focus of the firm. She continues to advocate for those who have been unfairly fired due to taking parental leave, but she has also gone to bat for women and people of all genders who have faced workplace discrimination, sexual abuse and maternity-related medical malpractice. Recently, the firm has highlighted the unequal treatment of Black women in labor and delivery medical settings. Crumiller is litigating one of the first cases to sue for medical malpractice on the basis of race discrimination in maternal healthcare and is partnering with local doulas on an initiative to educate healthcare providers on common causes of maternal mortality.

Currently, she and her team are also bringing a class action case against physician Dr. Ferdous Khandker, who allegedly sexually assaulted women during their medical visits over a period of decades. Crumiller is representing more than a dozen women in the suit now, with the goal of encouraging more survivors to tell their stories and protecting others from facing the same abuse. In addition, she is teaming up with colleague Carrie Goldberg on the Survivors Law Project, which is devoted to bringing cases on behalf of adult victims of sexual assault that fall under New York's current one-year lookback window, called the Adult Survivors Act.

“Helping our clients and being able to play a role in their journey for justice is an extraordinary honor. I can't believe I get to do it for a living,” she says. “I really can't. It's the most wonderful feeling.”

Lawdragon: Tell me about your experience with unfair maternity leave that pushed you to start your firm.

Susan Crumiller: I was always public-interest minded, so at that time I was a lawyer representing tenants facing eviction. I’d been doing that work for about 10 years, first at a nonprofit and then a small private firm.

I had my first baby with no incident. Then, when I had my second baby, we came to this extensively negotiated leave plan where I would progressively return to the office over a period of about six months.

Seven weeks in, when I was still supposed to be totally off the grid, my boss started contacting me, saying, “I made a mistake. I can’t afford for you to go on maternity leave. I need you to come back right away.” I said no.

I’d be nursing my baby in the middle of the night and getting emails from him. I was so anxious and stressed out. Mostly, I just felt guilty about dealing with him instead of my daughter. Then, one day I was crying and my older child – who was then two years old – said, "I'm going to rock you on my lap." At that point, I just said, “Fuck it. I'm quitting. And I'm going to go start a pregnancy rights law firm."

LD: Wow.

SC: When I first started my firm, I didn’t know anything about business management. It was just me with my baby in my bathrobe in my living room. I started off still doing landlord-tenant cases because I had developed a good reputation there.

Then, I started to form relationships. I volunteered to help with some cases for free. Eventually, I learned the ropes and I started hiring more and more experienced people. Over time, we expanded into doing all kinds of employment litigation, which we still do – largely race and disability discrimination. At some point, we rebranded as the “feminist litigation firm.” I started taking on more cases outside the employment context involving sex abuse.

I'm a survivor. I had a number of experiences at a young age. I didn’t tell anyone I was molested for 25 years – not a soul. So, being able to give my clients a totally different experience than that, where we can say, “I'm not only here and I'm going to help you, but I'm going to sue your abuser and make him pay money to you” – every day is my dream.

LD: That’s inspiring. Where did your passion for feminism came from?

SC: My parents. “Crumiller” is actually a combination of “Crum” and “Miller,” so my parents both changed their names when they got married.

My husband also changed his name. Our kids’ last name is “Crum-Chau,” which is a portmanteau of “Crumiller” and “Chaudhury.” I'm probably the only person in the world whose husband and father both changed their names.

LD: Have there been any other major changes to the firm recently?

SC: Other than growth, the other big recent change for my firm is our concern with racial disparity in maternal health and mortality.

The more I learned about it, the more shocked I was at how Black women are so mistreated throughout the medical system, particularly in labor and delivery where there's already such awful treatment compared to anything that men would ever get.

We decided to start a practice area dedicated to bringing discrimination cases in medical malpractice with regards to labor and delivery, trying to combat racism in healthcare. We just filed our first such case about eight months ago. It’s the first case, at least that I'm aware of, alleging mistreatment based on a disparate impact theory of race.

We came up with this idea to send letters to doctors who give substandard care to patients of color, educating them about race disparities and common causes of maternal mortality in Black women and other women of color. The idea is, if they're more scared of liability and litigation, they'll provide better treatment.

LD: Where does the case currently stand?

SC: We're waiting for a decision from the judge on whether to permit anonymity in the case. We bring a lot of cases where we name our clients as Jane Doe, which is pretty common in sex abuse cases. Everyone understands that people have a right to their privacy in those very personal scenarios. But, at least in New York, there’s never been a personal injury case where a medical malpractice litigant was permitted anonymity.

We’re arguing that’s based on an outdated concept of who's entitled to privacy. Childbirth involves viscerally personal subjects: your genitals, your sex life, your baby. There are a lot of women who don't bring these cases because of their personal nature. I hope that the anonymity decision in and of itself will help encourage and enable more women to come forward in situations where they’ve suffered horrific treatment in delivery.

The more I learned about it, the more shocked I was at how Black women are so mistreated throughout the medical system, particularly in labor and delivery.

LD: Another major project for the firm surrounds New York’s Adult Survivors Act, which is temporarily lifting the statute of limitations for a year for sexual assault victims who were 18 or older at the time of the abuse. How often has a lookback window like this one opened up specifically for adults? 

SC: New York’s is second only to California! We hope we will be the second of many.

LD: Tell me about your initiative that you started with your friend and fellow attorney Carrie Goldberg for the Survivors Law Project.

SC: Carrie and I have been teaming up informally for years. We’re each other’s go-to for support. We share knowledge, resources, information, strategy, materials. We came to realize that our clients could get the best possible representation with our womanpower combined. We are both sexual assault survivors as well, so this is very meaningful to us personally.

LD: How does your friendship make the project even stronger?

SC: We have a longstanding “brutal honesty” policy with each other which, in the business context, allows us to communicate as efficiently and effectively as possible. There’s no ego involved. We also have similar philosophies. We are both singularly focused on delivering results while providing a positive and empathetic experience for our clients, and we are willing to try creative and bold litigation strategies.

LD: Why are windows like these so vital, and how can New York continue to do better by victims? 

SC: Our brains don’t process sexual assault in the same way that we process other events. Many survivors fight tooth and nail to avoid confronting the reality that he or she has been deliberately victimized. It can take decades to come to terms with it. Inadequate statutes of limitations essentially deprive survivors of their chance to seek justice and let perpetrators continue to roam free without accountability. The more our laws align with how survivors process sexual trauma, the better equipped we’ll be to get them justice.

LD: Looking back, which cases have really stood out to you as successes?

SC: We’ve had so many amazing successes. My favorite example, I think, is when we represented a husband and wife who were both fired by a restaurant when they had a child together. They went on maternity and paternity leave, and then they were fired for bogus reasons. We were very aggressive, and we got an excellent settlement. They bought a house with the money, the husband ended up applying for law school, and I was one of his references. So, now he's going to go to law school so he can help make a difference for other people, too. That makes me so happy.

The best successes are always when clients come to us and say, "I don't really know if this is a case or not," or, "I don't know if what happened to me was wrong." It's very validating, going to an attorney and hearing, "Yes, that was illegal and now we're going to go after them."

Another thing we really love is helping our clients quit their toxic jobs. A lot of employment attorneys will say, "Don't quit. You'll cut off your damages. Wait until they fire you." That’s like telling someone to jump in front of a car so you can sue them for hitting you. You only have one life. If your job sucks, we want you to quit.

LD: How about the case involving Dr. Ferdous Khandker? Where does it stand right now?

SC: This case makes me really emotional, because some of the victims were extremely young – the age of my own kids. He would abuse the kids while the parents were in the room. He would put his back to the parents and be fondling the children.

LD: That’s a nightmare.

SC: He is a total idiot because he's the one who started the litigation by suing my clients for defamation when they told the truth about what happened on Facebook. Him suing them is the only reason they went and got a lawyer.

Then, we discussed whether they had counterclaims. Originally, just one person did. But then we got a bunch of other women to join in this suit. So, now, we’ve filed a new class action lawsuit against him.

We’re in the process of getting our attorney fees award for the defamation case, which we won, and we’re waiting for discovery in the class action.

The more our laws align with how survivors process sexual trauma, the better equipped we’ll be to get them justice.

LD: It's surprising that there aren't that many class action sexual abuse cases. Do you think that’s changing?

SC: It's definitely changing. People didn’t speak out as much before. They just suffered in silence, thinking they were alone. As I said before, survivors want to avoid the pain of thinking that someone could ever do something so cruel. It’s extremely normal for survivors to even blame themselves – and I say this from experience – as a way of avoiding that horrifically, unspeakably painful truth that some people are willing to hurt other people so viciously. So, it's a revelatory moment when others come forward.

We’ve seen this play out in the press with Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein: People wait a really long time because they think it's just them. Even then, victims still are shamed and belittled and treated horribly; even our clients go through that. There's been so much change since #MeToo that it's easy to forget how bad things still really are. I feel very optimistic, but we have a long way to go still.

LD: Right. Would you say you’ve been seeing systemic changes in employment law, as well?

SC: Yes. One big, important change that's been happening is the now-nationwide push against mandatory arbitration in workplace sexual harassment cases.

Private arbitrators have pretty much unfettered discretion and authority. Many studies have shown that, as a body, they are even more corporate-friendly than the court system. It's a secretive process, there's no record of it anywhere. So, it siloes victims. Before mandatory arbitration became such a widespread tool, you could go onto e-courts and see that, for instance, a company had been sued five other times for race discrimination. But now there's nowhere to go and see how many times the company has arbitrated that issue.

We were very proud to support the ban on forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases, which was signed into law last March. We’re currently arguing a motion in a case where the defendant, DiscGenics, is attempting to force our clients into arbitration after they were retaliated against for speaking up about rampant sexual harassment at the company. There is very limited case law on this specific issue, so this decision will really test the boundaries of the new law and we hope will set a positive precedent for future plaintiffs.

LD: Speaking of your passion for change – the language you and your firm use is so engaging. Tell me about your ethos there.

SC: There’s often this needless wall between our personal selves and our professional selves. That separation is rooted in misogyny and patriarchal structures wherein you have your home life and then you have your work life. But I'm a mom. I very proudly display all my kids' artwork behind me on my professional Zoom.

This general sense of keeping personal things to ourselves only makes us feel more alone in our various struggles. So, at the risk of oversharing, I always try to be transparent and honest about everything in my life and in my firm. I think it's a waste of time to use legalese instead of regular English. I think it's a waste of time to put on business clothes just for a meeting. I'm obsessively dedicated to getting rid of that stuff.

LD: Talking about personal lives, every day you’re talking with people who are going through the worst events in their lives. What kind of self-care practices do you have for yourself?

SC: My kids are seven and nine. I've sort of been forced to have a work-life balance because I don't want to miss their childhood. I enjoy them as people.

In terms of taking care of myself, I love hugging and kissing my kids. That’s how I recharge my energy. Carrie and I also have a standing date called “BITCH Day,” which stands for “Beauty in Transit ‘Ccountability Hangout.” We both get busy running our firms, so once a month we’ll go get our nails done and do other self-care activities together while giving each other advice about our businesses and our lives. It’s an awesome tradition that we’ve kept up for years.=

I also see a therapist regularly. I'm on medication for ADHD and anxiety. I think it's important to talk about those things. Recently, one of my colleagues came in and said, "I just wanted to let you know because the firm is so supportive of therapy, I finally decided to start going to therapy." That was a huge victory for me. It makes us all better.