Supreme Court decision on LGBT workplace protections is needed, says midstate lawyer
Andrea Farney's work on civil rights cases is actually the third phase of her legal career.
A lawyer since 1990, she was a legal aide for seven years before moving on to the legal department at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Her call to helping others obtain their civil rights came after attending arguments in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2005, Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales.
Jessica Gonzales had obtained a protection from abuse order against her ex-husband. Castle Rock police were supposed to arrest the man if he violated the order, Farney said. After police did not respond to her calls for help when her husband took her children one night, violating the order, Gonzales sued the town for violating her due process rights.
“They didn’t take it seriously enough,” Farney said, noting that the ex-husband killed Gonzales’ three daughters.
The case inspired Farney to leave a career training others and instead to help clients directly with their legal issues.
Today Farney is a partner at Triquetra Law, a boutique firm in Lancaster she opened with Sharon R. Lopez, who also attended the Castle Rock v. Gonzales argument. Farney focuses on employment law, civil rights and appeals.
She has represented employees in cases involving harassment; age, racial and sexual orientation discrimination; wrongful termination; severance negotiations and accommodation for a disability.
The Business Journal recently spoke with Farney about her career, as well as her perspective on the Justice Department’s brief filed July 26 in a federal appeals court in New York over a case involving discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The brief argues that federal law barring sex discrimination in employment does not protect employees from being fired because they are lesbian, gay or transgender. In 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had argued the opposite in the same case, that discrimination based on sexual orientation violates civil rights law.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As an attorney, what was your reaction to the Justice Department’s argument regarding LGBT protections?
A: I was disappointed that the Justice Department was weighing in on the side of saying that federal law doesn’t protect gay and lesbian individuals from employment discrimination. They’re kind of bucking the trend.
Since about 2015, there’s been a trend in the law, starting with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that has made it clearer that federal law protects people who are gay and lesbian from employment discrimination.
The court says the line between sexual-orientation discrimination and discrimination because of sex can be difficult to draw. That’s what this whole legal argument is about. (The law) has been murky, but it’s becoming clearer. The arc of justice has been going toward the fence of being more fair. What the Justice Department has done here is thrown kind of a curve ball to make it seem more murky.
Q: Where does the law stand now in regard to this issue?
A: The Supreme Court is going to need to make a decision. We were on that trajectory anyway. In that sense the Justice Department’s brief doesn’t matter legally, but if something is going to the Supreme Court, it’s always helpful if the government is on your side. Now it appears the government would probably not be on the side of gay and lesbian protection.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring lawyers who are drawn to LGBT issues or social change?
A: One thing I really believe in is belonging to your local bar association and getting involved. As a young lawyer, that can really give you experience in leadership and volunteer opportunities in your community and networking with other lawyers.
It’s also really important, in my view, to be an active member of your statewide bar association. You can join the (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) committee. You can tap into opportunities to get referrals for cases from other lawyers. That has happened to me. I’ve been able to contact lawyers I’m on committees with to get ideas for an expert in a case. It’s also an opportunity to improve our profession. If you’re interested in civil rights, there’s a civil and equal rights committee you can join. You benefit from having exposure to other lawyers and finding other people to mentor to you.