The Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center mourns the passing on July 21, 2015 of Willie Smith, a legendary civil rights litigator in Fresno who, over the course of a four-decade legal career, relentlessly defended the workplace rights of employees throughout California’s Central Valley.
Born and raised in Fresno, Willie was a standout defensive lineman at UCLA who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League before being sidelined with career-ending injuries. Initially attending UCLA School of Law as his “backup plan,” Willie went on to make a lifelong career of representing workers who had been subjected to employment discrimination, and, among other things, established himself as a premier litigator on behalf of women who had been subjected to sexual harassment. In one of his notable victories, Willie and his co-counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a $994,000 federal court verdict in 2005 against a statewide agribusiness on behalf of an immigrant farmworker who had been repeatedly harassed, assaulted, and raped by her supervisor, and then retaliatorily fired when she came forward to report that abuse.
In addition to his legacy of courtroom victories on behalf of workers, Willie ultimately rose to the top of his profession, serving as the president of the Fresno County Bar Association and on the board of directors of the National Employment Lawyers’ Association.
And in 2008, Willie was co-lead trial counsel with LAS-ELC in Rivera v. NIBCO, Inc., a Title VII language discrimination case brought on behalf of 23 Latina and Southeast Asian workers who had been fired from their jobs in the mistaken belief that their limited proficiency in English somehow prevented them from performing work they had carried out successfully for years. An adverse jury verdict in that civil rights case was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on grounds of racial discrimination in the jury selection phase, and the U.S. Supreme Court let that reversal stand.
“Willie Smith was the model of what an attorney should be – someone who seeks justice for his client, no matter how daunting the odds, but who never loses sight of the importance of treating everyone he comes into contact with, even his adversaries, with respect, decency, and integrity,” said LAS-ELC senior staff attorney Christopher Ho, a friend and co-counsel with Willie in the Rivera litigation. “Everyone who knew Willie is finding it hard to imagine the California legal landscape without his energy, booming laugh, and greatness of spirit.”