Civil Rights and Employment Law: Kelly Chanfrau

For the Chanfraus, commitment to justice for victims is a family trait. More than a decade ago, Kelly Chanfrau joined her family firm, Chanfrau & Chanfrau, representing victims of employment discrimination, personal injury and civil rights violations – keeping the family tradition flourishing.

Chanfrau’s years of work on the plaintiffs’ side follows a previous decade as a partner at a national defense firm, representing Fortune 500 companies and nationwide retailers in employment cases. But the pull to the plaintiffs’ side was strong, and it brought her back home to family in Daytona Beach – both in the office and out of it.

The family firm was founded by her father and uncle in 1976. Now, the firm remains family-run by Chanfrau, her father and her brother. The family’s involvement in the legal profession extends back nearly 90 years: In 1936, Chanfrau’s great-grandmother became the first official court reporter in Volusia County, Fla.

Chanfrau represents clients ranging from victims of workplace sexual assault to employees discriminated against due to their race, to victims of police violence. Last year, Chanfrau litigated a case on behalf of a woman whose daughter was killed when a Florida Highway Patrol officer ran her down with his car. The settlement came to $500,000 and the young woman’s name will be included in police training going forward. A portion of her previous practice remains, as she advises major corporations on compliance issues.

Her dedication to aiding victims of employment and discrimination cases has seen Chanfrau named among the Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Employment & Civil Rights Lawyers for the last three years running.

Lawdragon: Tell us a bit about your practice areas – what kinds of cases do you see in your civil rights work? Is it mostly in the employment arena?

Kelly Chanfrau: My civil rights work covers a range of cases. I represent individuals who have been harmed by the government, like the case where my client was run over by a police officer. I represent whistleblowers who stand up to the government after they have reported illegal activity and then are retaliated against.

In the employment arena, I represent women who have been sexually assaulted in the workplace and in other areas, and I represent women who are discriminated against based upon their race, pregnancy, or disability. I also represent men who have been discriminated against in some capacity.

LD: What kinds of employment discrimination cases against men do you see?

KC: Sexual harassment cases are one kind; men can be sexually harassed just like women. Then, I have several male clients who have been discriminated against because they have a disability, such as cancer. Men who are veterans can be discriminated against when they have to take time to go and perform their military duties and are retaliated against when they ask for time off.

LD: Your plaintiffs’ work is such a switch from your original practice on the defense side. How did that happen?

KC: I really enjoyed working for my previous firm, FordHarrison. I was trained wonderfully there, and I eventually made partner. But after I had a child, my husband and I decided that we wanted to move closer to home where my mother and father lived. And we wanted to join my dad and brother in the family business: pursuing justice for those that had been injured.

My husband and I moved here from Tampa in 2010, and I've been here ever since. My husband is actually now our executive director, so it’s a complete family business.

Whistleblower retaliation is on the rise. I'm currently representing a county jail director who was fired for reporting inmate abuse.

LD: That’s great. How does the family dynamic work in the office? What's it like?

KC: It’s amazing. My dad and my brother support me 100 percent in everything I want to do, even very risky cases. No matter what I do, they love me and the choices I make. It's wonderful, and I'm very proud of both of them.

My dad is probably one of the best trial lawyers ever to come out of Volusia County. He's known throughout the state. My brother is also an amazing trial attorney. He’s developed a wonderful personal injury practice and is well-known throughout the state, as well. I love working with them. I mean, I am a sister to my brother, so we sometimes jab each other a little bit, but it’s always in fun. He's the best partner I could ever ask for, and so is my dad.

LD: They must have been so thrilled when you came back.

KC: Oh, they were. It was really neat.

LD: So, you grew up with all these lawyers. Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer, or did you ever think about any other career paths?

KC: I loved listening to my dad come home and talk about his trials and his cases. I can remember him doing that from the time I was five or six, so I loved hearing about that. I just found it fascinating.

There was a time in my life when I was not sure if I wanted to be a lawyer or not. I wanted to work as a writer for film. My college major was creative writing, and my minors were in humanities and film. But a couple years after law school, I moved to Boston and worked in a large advertising agency, and I decided while I was there that really law was going to be my focus. With a career in the law, you can change lives and communities for the better. I really believe that, so especially with my family being in law, it just felt like a natural step for me.

LD: Are there any recent cases you’ve handled that stand out to you?

KC: Last year, I represented a young woman who had been gang raped. The damages that she suffered were astronomical. After fighting for five years, we finally were able to resolve her case weeks before it was supposed to go to trial. The amount of money that we obtained for her was substantial and will allow her to be comfortable and to get the care and treatment that she needs.

Watching her change through this process and grow into someone who can, hopefully, now have some healing really has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.

LD: Was there a criminal conviction before the civil trial?

KC: Unfortunately, the criminal case is still ongoing because she wasn't able to identify her attackers. It was dark, and it was at a large party – almost 1,000 people. But recently, the DNA of one of her attackers was found in CODIS, which is a federal DNA profiling system for felons.

LD: What other cases stand out to you?

KC: I represented an African American man in an employment case. He was clearly discriminated against based upon his race and was then retaliated against once he complained about it. So, he sued the city of Daytona Beach.

Going through that case with him was one of the most incredible experiences as a lawyer because he was just such a wonderful man, and we ended up resolving the case right before trial for $600,000. He so deserves the job, and it was clear that his race was a part of it.

I am amazed at some of the stories that come into my office. The discrimination is harder to find because people are trained on what not to say, but it's definitely there.

LD: Are there any trends that you're seeing in the personal injury, employment, whistleblower or discrimination spaces in the Florida courts these days?

KC: Retaliation is on the rise. For example, I'm currently representing a county jail director who was fired for reporting inmate abuse. In my opinion, we are going through a time where companies, for some reason, will break the law brazenly if they think that they can get away with it, and they will just lawyer up and fight until they win.

I am amazed at some of the stories that come into my office. The discrimination is harder to find because people are trained on what not to say, but it's definitely there.

LD: How do you decide what cases to take on? Are cases coming into you, or are you seeking them out?

KC: We get a lot of phone calls and referrals, so we have an intake process. I have a list of 12 to 15 factors that we're looking for in employment cases that I've developed over the last 12 years, and a lot of those factors are just so that we can quickly and thoroughly understand if there is a case or not. My intake paralegal is amazing, and she's actually a former client.

LD: What was the case that you did for her?

KC: I represented her against Orange County School Board. She was a teacher, and she was a whistleblower against the school. She was retaliated against after she reported that the school was not safe for children.

LD: Looking back, are there any cases that stand out to you in your time on the defense side?

KC: Earlier in my career I worked on a large sexual harassment case for a major client. I was on the defense side, and that case changed a lot for me.

LD: In what way?

KC: I had to really look myself in the mirror and see if this is what I wanted to do.

LD: Do you have a favorite book, movie or television show about the justice system?

KC: I love the movie “Gladiator.” That's probably my favorite movie of all time. He’s an amazing fighter who he fights for what is right.

As for books, I'm reading “Lessons in Chemistry” right now, and it may be one of my favorite books ever. And, obviously, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I have a first edition in my office.

LD: You mentioned you’d love to write a book someday. Would it be about your career?

KC: I would love to write a book for young women lawyers. I think I would write about cases that I've been involved with.

I represented a woman who was a former Navy officer. She went to work for Corinthian Colleges and was fired during a reduction in workforce because she's a woman. We went to trial and won, and she and I talk all the time about how we're going to write a book about the case.