2000 Public Lawyer of the Year: Prudence Kay Poppink

Prudence Kay PoppinkPrudence Kay Poppink was honored as the 2000 Public Lawyer of the Year during the Public Law Section's annual reception at the State Bar of California's Annual Meeting in San Diego on Saturday, September 16, 2000. 

 Prudence Kay Poppink - Biography

Presentation Speech: Chief Justice Ronald M. George

Acceptance Speech: Prudence Kay Poppink

Biography for Prudence Kay Poppink ;

Prudence Kay Poppink is an attorney with 25 years experience in employment and housing law. Since 1984, Pru has worked with the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC). For the past seven years, she has worked as a Commission Hearing Officer, responsible for adjudicating cases of employment and housing discrimination for the Commission.

Pru has had many accomplishments while working for the Commission. Pru has served as a supervising Hearing Officer and Commission Counsel, overseeing the work of other attorneys in the office while also handling the longest hearings the Commission has had and some of the most complex. Among the issues upon which Pru has worked are the recognition of HIV-status and AIDS as a disability under FEHA, the holding that an employer's fetal protection plan constituted sex discrimination under FEHA, and a holding that a university can be held liable for a professor's sexual harassment of a student.

Honoree Prudence Kay Poppink with Chief Justice Ronald M. George 


Pru also has handled legislation for the Commission, shepherding through the Legislature important bills modifying the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the act that the Commission administers. For example, last year Pru worked on the Commission's behalf to pass AB 1670, carried by Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, a Commission-sponsored omnibus civil rights bill amending the FEHA and increasing the damages the Commission can award.

Pru has served as an expert in the office and to the public in several important areas including family care leave, disability, and sexual harassment. Pru worked closely with former Assemblywoman Gwen Moore to pass the 1993 Moore-Brown-Roberti Act, also known as the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). CFRA gives employees the right to take a 12-week for their own or a close family member's serious health condition. After CFRA passed, Pru worked with the Commission to draft regulations interpreting CFRA. She has provided training ever since to employers, employees, attorneys, and Department of Fair Employment and Housing personnel on CFRA.

Prior to Pru's work with the Commission, she worked for four years with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), prosecuting employment and housing discrimination complaints on behalf of the state. In 1981, she argued the American National Insurance Co. (ANI) decision before the California Supreme Court. ANI was a landmark case interpreting the definition of a disability under FEHA. In addition, Pru worked for five years as a staff attorney at the Employment Law Center here in San Francisco, concentrating on disability issues.

Pru is a graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University and of Hastings College of the Law. She has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Columbia.

Public Law Section's Public Lawyer of the Year Presentation: September 16, 2000, San Diego

Chief Justice Ronald M. George:

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to participate in this presentation. The role of the public lawyer is ever more important today as the intricacies of the legal process affect so many different aspects of every individual's life.

The role of public lawyers - ensuring that our public agencies and entities serve the public's interest in an effective and fair manner - is crucial to maintaining the rule of law in our society.

Today I am pleased, on behalf of the Public Law Section, to present the Public Lawyer of the Year Award to Prudence Kay Poppink. She has specialized in employment and housing law for 25 years, and for the past 16 years has worked with the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission. The last seven years have seen her serving as a Commission Hearing Officer, responsible for adjudicating cases of alleged employment and housing discrimination for the Commission.

Ms. Poppink's service at the Commission has covered many areas. She has served as a Supervising Hearing Officer and Commission Counsel, overseeing the work of other attorneys in the office. She personally has handled some of the most complex and lengthy hearings before the Commission, and has worked on issues including the recognition of HIV-status and AIDS as a disability, as well as a university's liability for a professor's sexual harassment of a student.

In addition to her work on individual cases, Ms. Poppink has helped to shepherd important bills relating to the Fair Employment and Housing Act through the Legislature. She also worked closely with former Assemblywoman Gwen Moore on the 1993 Moore-Brown-Roberti Act, known as the California Family Rights Act. Following enactment of that measure, she worked with the Commission to draft regulations implementing it and has continued to provide training on its provisions to employers, employees, attorneys, and personnel form the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Before joining the Commission's staff, Ms. Poppink worked for four years with that Department prosecuting employment and housing discrimination complaints on behalf of the State. Before that, she worked for five years as a Staff Attorney at the Employment Law Center, concentrating on disability issues.

Ms. Poppink has had a career noteworthy for the many different ways in which her knowledge and expertise in employment and housing discrimination have been put to use in the public sector. Prosecuting attorney, hearing officer, trainer, facilitator of legislative effort, expert, and legal innovator, she has found a multitude of ways to put her skills to work for the public benefit.

In these days of astronomical salaries and the lure of dot.com fortunes tempting many lawyers, it is especially important that we join together to celebrate the accomplishments of an attorney who had dedicated herself not to the bottom line, but to the public good.

The Judicial Council of California, the constitutional entity charged with oversight for the statewide administration of justice, has set as its priority improving access and fairness in our justice system. Ms. Poppink's career certainly has been one aimed at the same goal - not only in the substance of her practice, but also as reflected in her dedication to ensuring that the public's agencies are serving the public well.

A debate is raging in some parts of the legal profession about whether we should continue to define the practice of law as a profession or concede that its primary nature now is the same as any business. I am unswervingly on the side of considering law to be first and foremost a profession - and of continuing to expect that lawyers will comport themselves with proper deference for the transcendent values of the law that make it a professional calling.

Sol Linowitz, a noted writer on the legal profession who has argued vigorously for rededication to the ideals of the practice of law, observed in a 1994 speech that "too many lawyers may have forgotten what they are supposed to be. Too many fail to remember that in entering the profession, they assume solemn responsibilities and obligations which are an integral part of their calling." A license to practice law requires its holder to act as an officer of the court and, in this age when many attorneys do not enter a courtroom, I would extend that charge to protecting the rule of law.

We are fortunate that so many fine and dedicated attorneys have devoted themselves to working for - and on behalf of - the public sector. Ms. Poppink's career demonstrates the many pathways that role can take. I invite you to join with me in congratulating her on her accomplishments, and in thanking her for her dedicated service to the people of California and to the profession of the law.

Acceptance Speech by Prudence Kay Poppink

I am extremely honored to receive this award today. Since I just retired from the Fair Employment and Housing Commission for health reasons on September 1, it is an especially poignant and meaningful farewell tribute.

When I asked my colleagues what I should say today, they told me to speak from my heart and talk about two of the passions in my life, employment discrimination law and my daughters! There is a connection - my daughters, who are here today, are ages 19 and 22, young women just entering the California workplace. And my younger daughter, Charlotte, has had a disability - insulin dependent diabetes - since she was 12. Since all 25 years of my public legal career has been devoted to eradicating employment discrimination. I'd like to think that some of my achievements in this area will allow my daughters - and all Californians - to work in a less discriminatory workplace than I had when I started out.

In 1971, before the federal government was even added to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, I experienced sex discrimination by a federal agency. The federal government had just created a new agency - ACTION -, combining both Peace Corps and VISTA. Not only was I a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, but I'd also had experience in both Peace Corps and VISTA training and recruitment. I was working for VISTA recruitment when two of my male colleagues disappeared for a few days and returned to the office looking very satisfied. Unbeknownst to any of us, they had been invited to a meeting with the new ACTION officials, where all of the 28 district manager jobs nationwide had been given away - to 28 white males, including my two colleagues. No open recruitment. No applications. I was furious, since my Peace Corps and VISTA credentials were far superior to those of my two male co-workers.

Neophyte that I was, I filed a written complaint and eventually received a settlement in the form of an offer of a district manager job. I declined the offer, having determined in the meantime to go to law school to help others facing such discrimination. There, at Hastings, I was lucky enough to take some of the very first employment law classes from former Supreme Court Justice Joe Grodin.

After law school, I started as a staff attorney at a public interest law firm, the Employment Law Center, a project of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco. There, I began to specialize in disability discrimination in the workplace. This was a new legal field in the 1970's, and it was cutting edge work. From that era, I'm most proud of having established - through litigating in federal court - a private right of action under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a hotly debated question at the time.

In 1980, I moved over to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and prosecuted cases under the state statute, the Fair Employment and Housing Act. I continued my love for disability law and was privileged to argue the American National Insurance Co. case before the California Supreme Court, a case that established a very broad definition of "physical handicap" under FEHA.

In 1984, I landed at the Commission, where I spent the rest of my legal career. The Commission is a quasi-judicial body that hears and decides individual cases of employment and housing discrimination and also interprets and enforces FEHA. At the Commission, there were no more Supreme Court arguments, but there was plenty of behind-the-scenes work to ensure that FEHA remained a strong civil rights statute.

Those were interesting times at the Commission and I want to share a bit of the dynamics with you. As you know, for 16 years, from 1982 to 1998, California had a Republican administration under Governors Deukmejian and Wilson. Since the Governor appoints the Fair Employment and Housing Commissioners, we had a completely Republican Commission for 16 years

. Looking back, I am so proud of what we accomplished during those 16 years. We worked together, staff and Commission, and the result was a stronger FEHA in 1998 than we had had in 1982. Let me just give you two examples where our Commission ended up in the forefront of civil rights issues. These examples are from the days before I became a Hearing Officer for the Commission and thus, I was able to work closely with the Commissioners on these cases, helping them formulate their ideas and drafting decisions for their approval.

In the mid-1980's, the Commission issued a unanimous precedential decision - the first in the country by any judicial tribunal- holding that HIV-status and AIDS were physical handicaps under FEHA. This was phenomenal at the time -even the federal Department of Justice had issued an opinion letter saying that HIV-status and AIDS were not disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act.

Then, a few years later, the Commission decided - again for the first time anywhere in the country - that an employer's fetal protection plan was unlawful sex discrimination under FEHA. This particular employer had a policy against hiring fertile women - in this case, all women between ages five and 55 - in jobs involving working with lead, because of the potential reproductive hazard. Even a 54-year old nun could not get a job under its policy! At the time of the Commission's decision, all of the federal courts that had decided this issue under Title VII had ruled that such fetal protection policies were not unlawful sex discrimination. Of course, a year or so after the Commission's decision, the United States Supreme Court held in the Johnson Controls case that such plans were unlawful sex discrimination. We felt very vindicated.

For many years, I also was the Commission's regulations coordinator. I believe in regulations; they provide a tremendous opportunity to interpret a statute and to educate the public. In 1991, after many years of effort, the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) was passed into law - within FEHA - and I volunteered to write the regulations. I never regretted that decision, even after having to draft two different sets of regulations, one right after the other, as the law was quickly amended. It was a project that engaged the Commission and I want to thank former Commissioner Cheng who is here today for her dedicated work on these regulations, as well as on so many other projects. These regulations also gave me the opportunity to do some of my best public lawyering. I made myself completely available to the public to answer their CFRA questions and became renowned as the state expert on CFRA - I used to call myself the horse's mouth!

Finally, for 15 years or so, I also handled legislation for the Commission. In this capacity, I was privileged to work with legislators and to help draft some of the language that appears in the FEHA today, such as its strong anti-harassment provisions. On several occasions, the Commission itself sponsored legislation strengthening FEHA and I walked with them through that process. Most of the Commissioners' legislative efforts turned out to be bipartisan since - with one exception - they always had to rely on Democratic legislators to carry FEHA bills. It was good government and I was proud to be part of it. This past June, the Commission held a retirement function for me and Assembly Member Sheila Kuehl honored me by speaking at it. She surprised me by announcing that she had amended a bill she was carrying - AB 2222 - to name it the Prudence K. Poppink Act. AB 2222 strengthens FEHA's workplace protections for persons with disabilities, which is an issue dear to my heart. The bill is currently on the Governor's desk, awaiting his signature. I was and continue to be stunned by this honor - I had never expected such a public acknowledgement.

In closing, I want to say that all of our work at the Commission is collaborative and I want to honor that. The Commission staff has always worked as one with a collective mission - the development of a strong civil rights law for the state of California. I want to acknowledge my colleagues who came to see me receive this award today and to let you know that this award really belongs to all of us.

Finally, I am so glad that my daughters are here with me today - as are my husband and my brother, sister, and sister-in-law. I'm hoping that my daughters will take away with them today a sense of the importance of public service, as well as an increased awareness of employment discrimination issues. And, hopefully, because of all of our collective work in this field, they will never have to file a discrimination complaint as did I.

Thank you very much for this award and for coming today.