Your Blessing Is On the Way
I run up the stairs in my office to the lobby. Robin Morgan sits there waiting. I am so excited. Today is closing argument in Morgan v. Amtrak and I love closing argument. I know how long Robin has been supporting her husband, Abner Morgan. I tell her to “hold on, your blessing is on the way!” Little did I know that “her blessing” would not come for another seven (7) years.
Morgan v. Amtrak – the Racial Harassment Case
Robin’s husband Abner was an electrician for Amtrak in the Oakland Yard. He worked there for five (5) years. Abner walked off the job when the foreman told him to “get your black ass in here.” That “direct order” from a racist foreman was the last straw for Abner. For years he and his co-workers had complained about racism in the Yard. Their complaints had even triggered Senator Barbara Boxer to request an investigation by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG investigation confirmed that Amtrak subjected Black men working on the Yard to harsher discipline, more dangerous job assignments and abusive treatment.
Amtrak fired Abner in 1995. At the trial in 1998, one of the white foreman came forward and testified that one Amtrak supervisor regularly performed something he called “the shufflebutt ni–er dance.” The foreman testified that the white supervisor did his dance in the office at night for the other supervisors’ entertainment.
We presented evidence of the most despicable racism in any workplace. The jury found that Amtrak’s management was “grossly unprofessional” and engaged in “questionable ethical conduct.” The jury also found that the response from Amtrak’s EEO Office was “woefully remiss.” But, the jury still ruled in favor of Amtrak.
Our Trip to the Supreme Court
Fast forward to 2000. I’m standing in my guest bedroom crying. We had won the appeal in the Ninth Circuit. Amtrak had filed a petition for hearing in the United States Supreme Court. We opposed it. After months, the Court granted the petition and accepted the case. I was so upset. We had waited so long and won the case on appeal. Robin and Abner had three children: two teenagers and a mentally disabled adult son. Abner’s firing meant they had to survive mainly on Robin’s income for years. They had suffered great hardships. My firm had been tested by the years of unpaid legal services as well.
I called my mentor Howard Moore, Jr., the famous civil rights lawyer who raised me from a pup lawyer. The conversation with Howard was very short. I told him through my tears that the United States Supreme Court had granted the petition for hearing. Howard said “that’s great kid. Congratulations! This will be great for your career.” And hung up.
I had no idea what Howard knew. I would be one of the few Black women in history to argue a case in the United States Supreme Court. We spent six (6) months preparing for the oral argument. Bill McNeill and the Employment Law Center offered their assistance as soon as it became public that it was my case. My team included Bill and his lawyers Jory Steele and Willie and Shelley Gregory. Of course, Howard agreed to serve as my co-counsel on appeal and sponsored my request to be admitted to the United States Supreme Court bar.
The Fight for the Case
It was not long before lawyers around the country contacted me. Some offered help with the briefing and strategy on how to win the case. Others simply wanted to take the case. There was intense pressure on me to let an “experienced” Supreme Court lawyer handle the case. I quickly learned that “Supreme Court lawyer” was an exclusive all white male club. So, I called Howard again. This time, the conversation was equally short but not so happy. Howard was angry. When I told him that people wanted to take my case and argue it for me, he said “If a woman with a degree from Yale and two degrees from UC Berkeley can not argue her own case in the Supreme Court, she should give all of her degrees back.” And he hung up on me again.
And so that was decided. Abner Morgan, to his credit, co-signed Howard’s statement by saying that I was his lawyer and he was not going to let anyone else argue his case. I got it. So I gathered my wits, my spirit, took charge of the situation and got us all to Washington, D.C.
I argued the case in January 2002. We “claimed the victory” in my office in Oakland and again in the hallowed halls of the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled in our favor in June 2002. We WON!
The Final Outcome
Winning in the Supreme Court meant that we got to try the case again. It took another two years to get through the appellate process and back to the trial court. In May 2004, we tried the case a second time. This time, the jury got it right and awarded Abner $500,000.
After nine (9) years of litigation, Amtrak finally settled the case later that year.
Robin’s blessing finally arrived. What I can say to anyone reading this who has ever been tested, from a woman of faith who has been blessed and highly favored over and over and who believes in the power of prayer, “hold on. Your blessing is on the way.“