The Institute: Celebrating Five Years Of Advancing Equality And Justice In The American Workplace

By Terisa E. Chaw posted 02-22-2013 10:45 AM

Five years ago today, on February 22, 2008, the NELA family realized a long-held dream when The Employee Rights Advocacy Institute For Law & Policy (The Institute) was created as our related nonprofit public interest organization. Our belief in our mission was—and is—so strong that we were eager to expand NELA’s reach beyond our community of employee rights advocates and to have an even greater impact on employee rights. As we said at the time NELA founded The Institute, in paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, The Institute is “the change NELA wishes to see in the American workplace.” Embodying NELA’s mission and values, The Institute is dedicated to leveling the playing field and advancing equality and justice for all workers.
As we reach this milestone anniversary, we are proud of what we have achieved in just five years and are poised for an exciting future. Through various initiatives, The Institute is a catalyst for helping employees overcome the obstacles they face when vindicating their rights. We conduct research, develop resources, and educate judges, public policy makers, and others to advance employee rights. We soon will be unveiling a new strategic plan, which will use The Institute’s competitive advantage to establish the organization as a leader in protecting workers’ access to the courts and promoting employee rights by influencing the broad, macro conversations that shape employment law.
This new strategic plan will build on our impressive and growing track record. This includes The Institute’s National Litigation Strategy Project (NLSP), the first program we launched in 2008 to ensure that individuals whose workplace rights have been violated have their day in court. The NLSP targets summary judgment abuses by employers and unwarranted summary judgment dismissals by courts. To assist employee rights advocates in defeating summary judgment, The Institute publishes the popular “Summary Judgment Toolkit Series,” a collection of white papers (available at no charge) that provide valuable strategic and  practical pointers on the problems that workers often confront at summary judgment such as stray remarks, adverse credibility inferences, and comparator evidence.
We recognize that judges, as well as lawyers, must be better equipped to deal properly with summary judgment in employment litigation. In April 2012, The Institute held our first academic symposium, Trial By Jury Or By Motion? Summary Judgment, Iqbal, And Employment Discrimination, which brought together members of the bench, bar, and academia at New York Law School (NYLS) to explore the question of who should decide employment discrimination cases—judges or juries—and how to reverse the high rates of such cases being prematurely dismissed. The Symposium elicited a diverse mix of practical and provocative views on the future of summary judgment practice. We invite you to watch videos of the Symposium panels and to look out for the forthcoming spring 2013 issue of the NYLS Law Review which will be devoted to the Symposium.
Another one of The Institute’s priorities is ending the insidious employer practice of forced arbitration of employment claims. Our 2009 “National Study of Public Attitudes on Forced Arbitration,” funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, changed the country’s conversation on this issue. This significant public opinion research revealed that a majority of Americans opposes forced arbitration regardless of gender or political affiliation. The report is being widely used to heighten public awareness of the injustices of forced arbitration and the need for federal legislation barring it.
The Institute is NELA’s proud partner in efforts to ensure that all workers—especially those more vulnerable to illegal employment practices—have access to high quality legal representation when they need it. On March 7 in Chicago, The Institute will present United We Stand: Effectively Representing Immigrants In Employment Cases, an entire day dedicated to a close examination of the legal issues faced by immigrants in the American workplace. Through The Employee Rights Advocacy Scholarship Program, The Institute increases access to all of NELA’s continuing education programs to public interest, legal services, and private practitioners who could not otherwise afford to attend these trainings uniquely designed for lawyers who represent workers. Since 2008, The Institute has awarded over $90,000 in scholarships to 110 employee rights advocates from around the country.
The Institute also is NELA’s indispensable partner in moving our shared vision forward and taking action to defend workers’ rights when they are under attack. For example, we responded quickly to the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, by providing technical assistance to plaintiffs’ employment lawyers so that they could continue to challenge discrimination and other workplace violations in class and collective actions successfully. Working with NELA’s Federal Rules Task Force since 2010, The Institute played a role in the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rules (Advisory Committee) November 2011 adoption of the Initial Discovery Protocols for Employment Cases Alleging Adverse Actions (Protocols). The Protocols are intended to afford workers better access to information they need to pursue their claims in federal court. Currently, The Institute and NELA are advocating for the rejection of the Advisory Committee’s recently proposed limits on civil discovery, which if enacted would harm plaintiffs in employment and civil rights litigation.
What makes it possible for The Institute to pursue our ambitious agenda is The Paul H. Tobias Attorney Fellowship Program, which both honors our roots in NELA and provides a foundation for our future. Named for Paul H. Tobias, NELA’s Founder and first Executive Director, for his pioneering and tireless contributions to the field of plaintiffs’ employment law, The Fellowship cultivates the next generation of employee rights advocates. At the end of 2012, we bid a fond farewell to our first PHT Fellow, Matthew C. Koski, who made remarkable contributions to our work during his time at The Institute. Our 2013-2015 PHT Fellow Carmen Comsti is off to a great start, having already taken on a full portfolio of projects to advance equality and justice in the American workplace. Among other things, Carmen’s is working on the development of a Pro Bono Project, a joint activity of The Institute and NELA, to encourage NELA members and NELA Affiliates to provide pro bono legal services to workers who are unable to afford a lawyer. She also is organizing The Institute’s second symposium, slated for the spring of 2014, with the University of California Berkeley School of Law on forced arbitration of employment disputes.
The Institute is fueled by the tremendous generosity of NELA members, NELA Affiliates, foundations, and other donors. As The Institute celebrates five years of advancing equality and justice in the American workplace, we acknowledge the valuable contributions of time, financial resources, and expertise that NELA members provide to The Institute. We hope you will be able to attend one or more of the anniversary events we will be holding throughout the year. We have a great deal to be proud of and much to look forward to as we work together to transform the landscape for employees. Thank you for being our visionaries of employee rights. Here’s to the next five years and beyond!