Phyllis Cheng '93

Former Director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)

Phyllis Cheng '93

Alumni Q&A

Q: What was your original career goal?

A: It was an evolution. I started out my undergraduate studies as an art major at UCLA. As time went on, I just went in a different direction. I obtained my teaching credential and taught at public schools and realized there was a whole world of public policy issues that interested me. I entered the UCLA M.Ed. program in urban educational policy and planning, whose curriculum centered on organizational change, which had a big influence on me. When USC established its Ph.D. program and received an endowed James Irvine Chair in planning, I became a James Irvine Fellow and focused my studies on civil rights policy and planning.

Q: What piqued your interest in educational activism, particularly with regard to race and gender equality?

A: While I was pursuing my Ph.D., I worked at RAND Corporation as a resident consultant in the Social Science Division, assigned to study nonprofits funded by the U.S Department of Education that assisted school districts with racial integration. I traveled around the country interviewing nonprofits, community organizations, school district officials, and business groups about integration in those communities.

Then I was hired as Title IX* Coordinator by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where I founded and directed an independent commission addressing sex discrimination that monitored a ten-year Title VII consent decree promoting women into administration. Through this work and ultimately drafting California's version of Title IX (Cal. Ed. Code, § 200 et seq.), I obtained a federal grant to study the adoption and implementation of state civil rights laws, which became the focus of my doctoral dissertation.

*enacted in 1972, Title IX states "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..."

Q: What was your role in drafting California's version of Title IX?

A: I drafted the state Title IX law in 1982, when Governor Jerry Brown held the office the first time around. At the time, I was State Education Chair of NOW (National Organization for Women). President Reagan had been elected under a mandate, and he changed federalism that entailed the devolution of federal policy to the state level. 

Few states had laws as strong as the federal Title IX law at that time. Upon my return from a speech I gave in Alaska, which had enacted a strong state Title IX law, I conducted research on California law on comparable statutes. Even as a non-lawyer at the time, I found that California had enacted 30 fragmented laws prohibiting sex discrimination, but none comparable to the federal law.

I approached California NOW, which was busily working on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) campaign. However, NOW soon contacted me because Mike Roos, the Majority floor Leader in the state Assembly, was interested in pursuing such a bill. Relying on a model state Title IX law and modifying it with California's existing statutes, I was able to gather labor union and advocacy group support. The bill, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 13, 1982, became effective in 1983. California's version of the law was very thorough and even exceeded the scope of federal law.

Passage of California's Title IX inspired me to study similar state laws across the country. Under a Women's Educational Equity Act grant, I studied the adoption and implementation of state civil rights and Title IX laws. The study, which was the basis of my dissertation, The New Federalism and Women's Educational Equity, found that among other things, there is a strong relationship between the state laws adopted and the advancement of women in education. Based on my study, I found that laws matter. Better laws lead to better results.

Q: What was the most challenging issue you argued during your time as a debate panelist on KNBC-TV's Emmy-winning "Free 4 All" program?

A: Being a quick study on novel issues and articulating points succinctly under pressure were the challenges of appearing on "Free-4-All," a six-person weekly debate show. I appeared semi-regularly in 33 shows from 1984 to 1987. The regulars were attorney Gloria Allred, labor leader Hank Springer, former Assembly member Marguerite Archier and others. I was not an attorney at the time. I got on the show when I provided a rebuttal to a televised editorial by KNBC-TV management on pay equity. After my rebuttal aired, "Free 4 All" producers asked me to audition. I'm glad there was no YouTube back then! It was a good experience, and I got to join AFTRA. We taped Friday evenings, and the show aired on Sunday afternoon. It always centered on topical issues. We didn't have e-mail or Internet back then, so on Friday afternoons a runner would bring me some articles on the topic that we were discussing, but sometimes we didn't get any information about what we were debating until we were in makeup.

Q: What prompted you to pursue a law degree? Was it a natural extension of your educational activism?

A: Yes, everything I was doing back then - from drafting California's Title IX law to developing a mentoring program for at-risk minority girls at USC - was leading me toward the legal profession.

Q: What was your fondest law school memory?

A: As a mother with two young sons who were aged 6 and 4, I was grateful that Southwestern offered the PLEAS program, so that I could attend law school part-time during the day. Initially accepted into the full-time day program, Southwestern graciously allowed me to switch into the PLEAS program after my older son had open heart surgery a month before school started. This way, I could go to law school and take care of my family. I loved the PLEAS program. There were 6 or 7 of us parents. We helped one another. I'm still very good friends with a classmate from the PLEAS program. Professor Lorillard was our advisor, and she was so helpful. I'm very grateful for the program and its flexibility.

Q: Which Southwestern professors and others do your regard as mentors and why?

A: Professor Arthur Brody, who taught labor employment law (a subject in which I always had an interest), was my mentor. Between classes, studying and taking care of my family, I didn't have a lot of spare time and was not involved in honors programs like Law Review or Moot Court. Instead, I entered into writing competitions and was fortunate to win all of them. My proudest victory was winning First Place in the State Bar Labor & Employment Law Section's Law School Writing Competition. Among the topics presented, Professor Brody suggested I work on a labor law preemption question. I did and won $1,000 and my paper was published as the lead article in the California Labor & Employment Law Quarterly (now the California Labor & Employment Law Review). Professor Brody, who had encouraged me to compete, was proud and taped the Bar's letter announcing my win on his office door. 

Prior to law school, I had been appointed by Governor George Deukmejian to the Commission on the Status of Women. There, I had met Steven Owyang, then Executive and Legal Affairs Secretary of the Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC, which is my Department's sister agency). Steve called me after reading my winning labor law article and encouraged me to apply for an opening on the Commission. Submitting only a cover letter and resume I applied during my third year of law school and had a few interviews. Time passed. A few days after I took the Bar Exam, Governor Pete Wilson appointed me to the Commission. As Commissioner, the first case I got to rule on had to do with a professor-student sexual harassment case pertaining to the state Title IX law I drafted in 1982.

Q: What were your first years in legal practice like?

A: My first job out of law school was with Hadsell & Stormer in Pasadena (now Hadsell Stormer Keeny Richardson & Renick, LLP), a well-known civil rights firm. The firm represented plaintiffs on civil rights and employment discrimination cases. While I was there, we sued almost all of the major studios in California. I got to second chair on most of the cases assigned to me, and helped settle six-figure cases.

When my daughter was born in 1994, a busy litigation schedule was too much for a mother with three children, so I transitioned to a solo practice. During the five years I spent in solo practice, I was still a Commissioner and Vice Chair of the FEHC, where I served two terms, ruling on 78 administrative cases and issuing four sets of regulations. I practiced appellate law and was on the private counsel panel of the Second District Court of Appeal representing criminal appellants who lost in the lower courts. I had private clients on estate planning. I also practiced alternative dispute resolution as a civil court settlement officer and mediator, and as a consumer and fee arbitrator. 

When my youngest child attended school, I went back to full-time work as a Deputy Attorney General in the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the California Department of Justice. I represented many of the state agencies I had worked with, including the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), FEHC and the Commission on the Status of Women. I had to resign from the Commission (as it would have been a conflict of interest). It was a very good experience to work at the Attorney General's Office.

Q: What did you enjoy most about serving as senior appellate court attorney to Justice Laurie Zelon ?

A: After working at the Attorney General's Office, I was fortunate to be selected as a research attorney for the Second Appellate District, Division Seven, where I assisted Associate Justice Laurie D. Zelon, who is just brilliant. I had not worked for the judicial branch until then. Drafting decisions for the Court was intellectually rigorous, concerned both settled and novel issues, demanded high quality and well crafted written products, and required the right decisions given the standard of review. I have nothing but praise and respect for the justices on the Court of Appeal. I learned so much about the craft of legal writing and research at the Court.

Q: When and by whom were you appointed to the DFEH?

A: After the Court of Appeal, I joined Littler Mendelson, the national employment and labor law firm representing employers, as Of Counsel. Working at Littler's Century City Office with its expert team of attorneys and large cadre of clients was a great experience. Even though I thought I would spend the rest of my career there, everything changed when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed me Director of the DFEH In January 2008.

Q: What are some of the major goals and accomplishments of the DFEH?

A: The Department is charged with enforcing California laws that prohibit employment and housing discrimination (Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)), public accommodation discrimination (Unruh Civil Rights Act), hate violence (Ralph Civil Rights Act), and discrimination against disabled persons in public places (Disabled Persons Act). It takes in, investigates, conciliates, mediates and prosecutes about 20,000 discrimination, harassment and retaliation complaints per year. Since its 1980 inception, the DFEH had settled into a certain routine in carrying out its mission. However, business as usual ended with the State's mounting budget deficit, which triggered two- and three-day furloughs, budget cuts, hiring and spending freezes. At the same time, the Department received thousands more discrimination complaints from unemployed and displaced Californians.

To meet these challenges, the DFEH adopted the motto "to SOAR as the nation's top civil rights agency." "SOAR" stands for "service," "outreach," "advocacy," and "resource." The DFEH consolidated offices from ten to six locations. The Department also launched a critical case grading system to better triage and match resources to case investigations. An experienced attorney now heads up the Department's Enforcement Division and its re-established Special Investigations Unit. The DFEH has further hired legal analysts to work alongside investigators. As a result, productivity has doubled, quality has improved, and nearly $1 million in savings were returned to California's treasury in the past fiscal year.

On advocacy, the Department increased its productivity and achieved better results as the number of prosecutions and settlements grew to more than $9 million in each of the past three fiscal years. The Department now regularly develops cases to address systemic discrimination. The DFEH recently settled several class/group actions on pregnancy, disability and family leave. The most significant settlement is an historic $6,011,190 family leave (California Family Rights Act (CFRA)) case with Verizon. 

As to resource, the DFEH established its first-ever in-house Mediation Division, which along with volunteer mediators, expanded settlement services by 100 percent. The Department further sponsored legislation (California Senate Bill 1252 (Corbett)) to make technical amendments to the housing provisions under the FEHA. The DFEH is promulgating its first procedural regulations to streamline its complaint processing. The DFEH also worked with the UCLA-RAND Center for Law and Public Policy to conduct a 2009 policy study of the FEHA's achievements. Other resources to the community include spearheading the first fair housing and public accommodations entity at the State Bar of California; contributing to legal practice guides; and providing a free case law alert to the legal and human resources community. In addition, the DFEH now hosts monthly webinars for State agencies, and looks forward to expanding such future offerings to the legal community.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as Director of the DFEH?

A: My biggest challenge is transforming the Department into an effective and efficient top state civil rights agency during a time of fiscal austerity. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I believe the DFEH is succeeding as a model of innovative government.