The Full Perspective
Pamela Price has been lawyer, plaintiff and defendant. Next up: Alameda County D.A.?
Published in 2022 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2022
Stand and deliver.
That was the mantra ringing in Pamela Price’s ears as she sat before the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2002, waiting to deliver arguments in National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan, a case to determine whether plaintiffs suing their employers for a pattern of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could include claims that would otherwise be time-barred.
After cert was granted, Price received numerous solicitations from seasoned practitioners wanting to argue her case. But Price, a foster kid who dropped out of school and was in and out of juvenile detention before attending (and then suing) Yale University as a student, had long learned not to doubt herself. And she had been arguing Abner Morgan’s claims of racial discrimination since 1996. She knew his case better than anyone. So the former theater kid decided the stage was hers.
Today, Price is electric in a lime green hat and matching blazer, and smiles as she describes how she’d arranged for a whole “contingent of Black folk” to show up.
“Before my arguments, I was walking around, and I was stopped three times by different bailiffs,” Price says. “One would say, ‘Are you a Supreme Court practitioner?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I am.’ I’d take a few more steps, and here comes another one. They had never seen a Black woman Supreme Court practitioner.”
When it was her turn, Price cleared her throat and delivered her opening line: “Ongoing violations of the law must be treated differently from discrete acts.” She got five sentences in before Justice Antonin Scalia lobbed the Court’s first question.
“Then it was … over,” Price says. “It went really fast, and I was so excited. I walked out of there thinking, ‘Can we do this again?’”
Price prevailed in a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas; in 2004, a federal jury in San Francisco awarded Morgan $500,000.
Behind Price’s desk, on a majestic purple wall, hangs her Supreme Court Bar Practitioner certificate. Next to it, the quote that helped her get through a devastating loss in the 2018 race for Alameda County District Attorney: “Some goals are so worthy that it is glorious even to fail.”
“Pamela is the queen of purple,” says Howard Moore Jr., Price’s mentor. In addition to the Morgan victory and multiple record-breaking verdicts that exposed sexual harassment within California prisons, Moore adds that Price is also a savvy entrepreneur and the first Black woman to own a building in downtown Oakland, which she bought in 1999 and had painted three shades of her signature color.
“Have you ever seen a pit bull grab a piece of meat?” he says. “Pamela is determined. There’s no intellectual challenge that’s too steep. Her passion for her cases and the objective she’s seeking is unbound and inexhaustible.”
Leslie F. Levy of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams first came across Price’s name as a law student studying Alexander v. Yale, the case that established sexual harassment as a violation of Title IX and led to the first grievance procedures for sexual harassment at universities. Price became the sole plaintiff after her co-plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed. Years later, as colleagues, Levy marvels at Price’s enthusiasm.
“Her passion about the issues comes through,” Levy says. “It’s not just a job. This is what she believes in. She knows what she’s there to do, and she does it.”
Retired Judge Thelton E. Henderson, who presided over many of Price’s federal cases, says Price delivered some of the best closing arguments he’s heard in a criminal case. “She’s one of the best that’s appeared in my court, and I was on the bench for 37 years and saw the best,” Henderson says. “It’s not just a case, ‘and if I win I’m going to get a fee.’ It’s a cause. It’s what makes her more effective than most lawyers.”
That cause began when Price was 11 years old in Cincinnati, sobbing at magazine photos of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the wake of his assassination. Her parents had to remove all magazines from the house.
“Behind my tears was also extreme, intense anger,” she says.
Galvanized, she organized student protests, like a sit-in a year later following the police killings of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. She was promptly expelled.
Price’s parents, particularly her mother, who grew up in Birmingham in the shadow of Emmett Till, were worried about her activism and determined to keep her out of the movement and of danger, which led to a “titan clash” that began a pattern of Price running away. At 13, she was picked up by officers who said she either had to go home or enter the system. She chose the system “like a fool,” which resulted in an adolescence of being shuffled between group homes, foster homes, juvenile hall and the streets. After she was arrested at a civil rights demonstration, she was sent to a juvenile facility for a year.
At one point, she was released back to her parents. “That was short-lived,” she says, “because they were still in the space they were in, and I was still in the space that I was. We weren’t going to see eye to eye.”
Eventually, Price had a foster mom who took a special interest in Price and arranged for her sister, set to leave for Yale, to take Price with her. Price was, she says, “15, wild and crazy,” but she remembers her semester in New Haven as an idyllic respite during which she became a National Merit Scholar.
When she returned to Ohio, her living situation fell apart again, and at 16, Price emancipated. She drove around town in a rented truck, gathering up possessions from the various places she’d crashed, and moved into a John’s Hotel. She enrolled in Woodward High School, where she found a drama program and supportive teachers who encouraged her to go to college.
Besotted with New Haven, Price applied to Yale, even though she says it felt like a joke. “I laughed through applying,” she remembers.
At the time, Price was working two jobs and didn’t have a car. Public transportation troubles became overwhelming, so she dropped out and began working full time.
One day, out of curiosity, she called her old high school counselor. “Where have you been?’” the counselor asked. “You’ve been accepted to Yale. Get your butt back here and finish high school!’”
“I didn’t go back to work that afternoon,” she says. “I’m not sure how I got my final check. It’s all a blur.”
She graduated, and “by the grace of God,” made it to Yale.
“That’s just part one,” says Price with a long exhale.
At Yale, Price earned As and Bs, and found a family within the small community of Black students, but it wasn’t easy. She arrived “fundamentally ignorant” to the institution’s legacies. She needed a job, so she began a service typing and editing classmates’ papers.
“In doing that, I developed this ability to stay up all night, which has continued to be a good skill,” she says, “and the equally valuable benefit was I got to see other students’ writing. I would be like, ‘This is horrible.’ I realized I was smarter than most of these guys—cause it was mainly guys—and that gave me the confidence I needed to not be under the false illusion a little Black girl from Cincinnati wasn’t smart.”
As a junior in 1977, Price had one paper standing between her and a semester abroad in Tanzania. She was riding a high from her personal life. “My parents and I just reconciled,” Price says. “I had to forgive them and myself and move forward in life.”
But things took a harsh step backwards moments after she tried to slide her final paper under Professor Raymond Duvall’s door. Duvall opened it and invited her in. She took a seat and Duvall said he’d hate to give her a C this semester, and asked how badly she wanted an A.
“I didn’t understand the A was linked to this other thing until he said, ‘Will you make love to me?’” she says. “Then it was just me saying ‘No’ over and over again and trying to process what he asked me. Sexual harassment didn’t have a name then.”
She asked Duvall if she could leave; as she did, he made a comment about her body. Price was terrified and furious as she walked to the Afro-American Cultural Center and told the executive director what happened. At his insistence, she typed a statement and delivered it to her dean.
It wasn’t until Price returned from Africa that she learned she wasn’t the only student. A group of plaintiffs banded to sue Yale for systemic harassment in Alexander v. Yale, and a discovery process uncovered Price’s statement about Duvall, who was just one of the accused.
Not long after Price joined the suit, Yale filed a motion to dismiss. The judge granted it—for every plaintiff except Price. Considering that single “C” on her transcript, the judge said that whereas the other plaintiffs lacked standing because they graduated or couldn’t produce a tangible harm, if Price’s statement was true, it was a violation of Title IX.
“No court had said that before,” Price says. “It made sexual harassment illegal as a violation of Title IX.”
Though they lost, Alexander set precedent because the courts held that for a university to have no system for handling sexual harassment, it constituted sex discrimination.
“It was very inspiring to see my lawyers being innovative, creative and courageous litigating the first sexual harassment lawsuit in education,” Price says of Anne E. Simon and Catharine MacKinnon. “[The plaintiffs] participated: ‘How do we want the law to be developed?’ It was very collaborative. Most lawyers don’t work like that. I do because that’s how I was taught to lawyer.”
At her lawyers’ suggestion, Price applied to law school at Yale and was rejected.
“My lawyers wanted to sue them about that, too,” Price says.
So she traveled 3,000 miles to Berkeley, which makes for her third act: a 40-year legal career championing civil rights, one that would have never gotten off the ground if the Alameda County DA’s office had gotten its way.
This particular scene opens on Price in a confrontation with police in August 1981.
She was a new mom and soon-to-be lawyer, having recently graduated. She was also a domestic violence victim who called the police because her ex would not leave her alone. But the officers decided Price was the agitator. They arrested her and handed her 3-month-old daughter to her abuser.
“The Alameda County DA’s office insisted I take a deal,” she says. “I wouldn’t, and fortunately, I had lawyers I knew and they took my case. I was acquitted at trial, but it was a devastating experience.”
Price spent the next 10 years apprenticing—first as a community defender, a public defender alternative, then being mentored at small firms in real estate and malpractice defense—before venturing out on her own in 1991.
“When I started, I had some corporate clients, which gave me courage,” she says. “I thought I would do a few civil rights cases and build slowly, but that quickly overwhelmed the entire practice because that’s always been my calling.”
Price took on client Lisa Pulido, a Black prison guard who was one of the first women to work at San Quintin—and, according to Pulido, subjected to 16 years of “torturous” sexual harassment. Price not only secured $1.3 million for Pulido in a six-week trial, a record verdict against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation at the time in 1993, but she supported the single mom through a nervous breakdown resulting from the trauma of the harassment and the trial.
“That was an extraordinary case because it was against San Quentin,” says Moore. “Access to information was so limited and the code of silence so strong, but Pamela was undeterred. Miss Pulido, by the time the case was resolved, was so emotionally disarranged that she wouldn’t know the difference between a paycheck and a stub, and so luckily Pamela counseled her not to do anything exceptional with her money for at least six months. She eventually recovered her mental health and lives quite comfortably now.”
Price quickly found her niche. “I got a real view of the dramatic expansion of our correctional system,” she says. “We built all these prisons that were hugely overcrowded, and it was not just devastating to the incarcerated, but the people who were working there were being destroyed, and the state does not give a damn about its employees.”
In 2003, Price tried Freitag v. CDC on behalf of a female Pelican Bay State Prison guard that resulted in a $600,000 verdict and an injunctive relief order that became the basis for statewide policy to address sexual harassment of female officers.
“The impact was tremendous and had institutional impact,” says Judge Henderson, who presided over the trial. “It had an impact on changing behavior there because anybody at Pelican Bay would have to go through Pamela Price.”
“She’s done amazing work and created serious change,” says Levy. “She takes on representing women of color in very difficult sexual harassment cases, which are sometimes the hardest to win because there often aren’t witnesses, and victims aren’t believed.”
She’s not afraid to stand up to authority, Levy adds, even as a political candidate.
In 2016, after settling individual claims in a grueling harassment class action she’d been working on for 13 years, Price needed a break. The trauma of her clients, including one who died of suicide during litigation, had taken its toll.
“I intended to take a one-year sabbatical,” says Price, who, during that time, got involved in multiple community groups. Those connections led to her recruitment in 2017 to run for Alameda County District Attorney. “That one year became three years,” Price says. “One thing I learned is you cannot run for office and work unless you want to be crazy.”
After losing the June 2018 election, she ran for Oakland mayor the same year, thinking she could bring to bear her DA winning margin (she won Oakland by 57 percent). “‘Some goals are so worthy that it is glorious even to fail.’ I have to be reminded of that because those losses were simply devastating,” she says. “We invested a lot, and there was a lot at stake. But I said, ‘OK. Now I return to regular life.’”
Except it wasn’t long before people started asking, “What about 2022?”
“I’d have been crazy to put myself through that again,” Price says. But then John Lewis died, and Price decided “50 years of making good trouble” wasn’t enough, not for someone with a perspective like hers.
“I’m a smart woman, very resourceful, and yet that [domestic violence trial] exploded my life,” she says. “Things happened I had no control over. And it happens a lot to women, to Black women in particular. We’re almost 30 percent of the jail population and less than 6 percent of the population. Those numbers tell the story, and that’s what I have to attack.”
A Price victory would be historic—Alameda County has never elected a Black DA.
“I want to save lives, not destroy them,” Price says. “I want to hire prosecutors who want to save lives and not destroy them. The racial, gender and economic disparities baked into this system have to be rooted out. I’m not scared. They say the 9th congressional district in Alameda County is one of the most progressive in the country. Well, I’m one of the most progressive lawyers in the country, so we match.”