2012 Public Lawyer of the Year: Phyllis Cheng

California Department of Fair Employment and Housing director Phyllis Cheng has been named the 2012 Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year Award by the California State Bar’s Public Law Section.

Cheng was honored Oct. 12 at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in Monterey. The Public Lawyer of the Year Award recognized Cheng as an exceptional lawyer who dedicated a significant portion of her career to public service.

Appointed in 2008, Cheng heads the largest state civil rights agency in the nation. She previously was of counsel at national employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson; a senior appellate attorney for 2nd Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Zelon; a deputy attorney general in the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the California Department of Justice; and an associate at Hadsell & Stormer, where she practiced employment discrimination law.

“Ms. Cheng is an exemplary public lawyer and richly deserving of this award,” said Anna Caballero, Secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency, and Cheng’s immediate supervisor. “I can attest to her enthusiasm for her work; for training students to become future civil rights lawyers; for helping the bar to better represent their clients; for operationalizing efficiencies that help the department complete its mission in an era of declining revenues; [and for] investigating, mediating and prosecuting discrimination complaints against employers, housing providers and businesses throughout California.”

Among her accomplishments at the DFEH, Cheng developed a telephone and online intake process for new claims and a grading system to rank and target cases for investigation and prosecution. She reorganized the DFEH’s mediation system and dramatically expanded the department’s class action capability, overseeing the largest settlement in DFEH history, a $6 million settlement in a class action against Verizon Services Corp. She also established civil rights clinics at UC Irvine and UC Davis law schools to train students and assist in litigating discrimination cases.

“Since taking over as the director of the DFEH, Phyllis has accomplished so much with less resources than ever,” said Tony Skogen, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson who wrote in support of Cheng’s nomination. “As many public sector workers are struggling to overcome rising workloads and shrinking budgets, Phyllis tackles and solves problem after problem with a positive attitude and infectious smile.”

Cheng’s colleagues praised her hard work and dedication in supporting her nomination for Public Lawyer of the Year.

“Phyllis deserves this award because she is fearless,” said Tim Muscat, DFEH Chief of Enforcement. “All too often, boldly innovative work in government is not adequately rewarded. Indeed, leaders who carry out difficult reforms are often opposed by those who prefer the status quo. Phyllis never backs away from challenges. Indeed, she champions them. Phyllis has rebuilt DFEH into a department that champions civil rights enforcement. All of California has benefited from her efforts.”

Cheng previously served two terms on the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission, ruling on nearly 80 fair employment and housing and civil rights act cases. She also has served on the California Commission on the Status of Women and the Interagency Coordinating Task Force on Early Intervention.

Cheng has been a member of the State Bar Committee of Bar Examiners and the executive committees of the Labor & Employment Law and Public Law Sections, and she co-founded the Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Subsection of the State Bar’s Real Property Law Section. Cheng also edited both the California Labor & Employment Law Review and the Public Law Journal and is an attorney editor of two chapters of Employment Litigation (The Rutter Group California Practice Guide, 2009-current editions) and a chapter contributor to an upcoming California Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Practice Guide (The Rutter Group, California Practice Guide, in progress). She also authors a regular column on cases pending before the California Supreme Court, has been widely published in both legal journals and newspapers, and provides a free case alert service on new labor and employment law decisions to thousands of practitioners.

Before becoming a lawyer, Cheng was a public school teacher. She then began studying urban educational policy and planning and civil rights policy and planning. While pursuing her doctorate, she worked at RAND Corporation researching school desegregation. She was then hired as Title IX coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she founded and directed a citizens’ commission that addressed sex discrimination and monitored a Title VII consent decree promoting women into administration. She continued her focus on educational equality issues, ultimately drafting California’s version of Title IX (Cal. Ed. Code § 200 et seq.) passed in 1982.

Cheng received her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from UCLA, her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, and her J.D. from Southwestern Law School.