Debra Schwartz started fighting inequality at age 12 and never stopped
Published in 2019 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 14, 2019
Updated on May 13, 2020
It was 1997, and the term “marriage equality” was a long way from entering the lexicon.
That summer, as Robin Shahar worked in the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, she and her girlfriend wanted to hold a Jewish “commitment ceremony” to launch this new phase of their lives. There was a lot to celebrate. For one, Robin had been offered a regular job at the AG’s office, to take effect upon graduation from law school. After they sent out commitment ceremony invitations, however, word reached Attorney General Michael Bowers, and the job offer was withdrawn.
“The attorney general argued that Robin would be perceived as violating some of the laws of the state of Georgia, and therefore prevent the Attorney General’s Office from functioning,” says Debra Schwartz, who took on the case.
Schwartz, working with the ACLU and Lambda Legal, argued that Shahar was protected by the First Amendment and the equal protection clause. The case bounced around the courts, racking up a couple of hard-won victories for Schwartz. Then Bowers asked for an en banc review. After that rehearing, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the plaintiff had important associational and equal protection rights, but held that Shahar’s First Amendment right of association was outweighed by the attorney general’s interest in promoting efficiency. Schwartz may have lost that battle, but in time her reasoning would win the war.
“Some good decisions came out of it,” she says. “The enduring part of the case is that Shahar had important associational and equal protection rights to marry a same-sex partner if it did not interfere with the operation of the office in which she was employed.”
Her law partner, Jay Rollins, says, “This case opened a lot of doors and led the way for more recent sexual-orientation cases today. Somebody had to be first, and that was Debra.”
Schwartz adds, “Shortly after the case concluded, Bowers resigned from the Attorney General’s Office. It was widely reported in the newspaper that, for a number of years while he was the attorney general, he had engaged in a long-term adulterous affair with a subordinate employee.”
Schwartz rolls her eyes. She tends to deal with bigotry and bad behavior in a methodical, unflappable way—endeavoring to emulate her role model, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I have always been willing to tackle cases involving multifaceted claims and unpopular causes,” she says.
For 36 years, Schwartz has dedicated her career to advocating for civil rights and representing employees at virtually every job level, across all industries. Now she practices at Schwartz Rollins in Atlanta, where she represents a mix of whistleblowers, unions, pregnant women who were terminated from their jobs, and people in every demographic whose lives have been affected by discrimination. She has a knack for job reinstatement and million-dollar verdicts.
Schwartz was one of the founding members of the Georgia chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association, and she serves as a mentor in that organization and in the Georgia Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section. “I enjoy giving back by teaching young lawyers how to be professional, how to practice with ethics,” she says. “I have a strong moral code, and I believe employees should be judged based on their performance. Anything else is irrelevant.”
Schwartz, born Debra Kaiser, grew up on Long Island, the oldest of four girls. Her father ran a record store in the South Bronx, where she often worked during the summer. Crazy about the Yankees and Mickey Mantle, she played softball, field hockey, basketball and tennis. “I would spend hours smacking a handball as hard as I could against a wall,” she says. “I was very competitive. Still am.”
It was on the athletic field where she first felt an inkling of certain social inequities. “Girls’ sports were not taken seriously and supported the way boys’ were,” she says. “I also desperately wanted to be a batboy, but I couldn’t because I was a girl. That led me to the path that got me here. I decided at age 12 I wanted to be a lawyer.”
She studied political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she met the man she would marry, Neal Schwartz. They migrated south so she could attend law school at Emory University. At that time, in the late 1970s, Atlanta was much less diverse than it is today. “We had a hard time finding ethnic restaurants,” she says. “Even Chinese restaurants were few and far between. Not to mention that there were no bagels! My sister-in-law would fly down while clutching two dozen bagels in her lap.”
Schwartz was treated as something of a curiosity. “I don’t know how many people told me they’d never met a Jewish person before,” she says. “Someone said, ‘I thought Jews had horns on their heads.’ People would make comments during conversation that were inappropriate because they didn’t know I was Jewish. Even today, the legal organizations I belong to don’t give a second thought to Jewish holidays when planning their events.”
There were some pluses, though, that persuaded her to stay in Georgia. “On New Year’s Day, it was 70 degrees outside,” she says. “I could play tennis.”
At Emory, Schwartz was exposed to some challenging internships and quickly ruled out criminal law. “I did not like the idea of trying to get somebody off that maybe should be going to jail,” she says. “And going into the jail was a very uncomfortable experience.” But the class on labor law spoke to her values. She graduated in 1982 and went to work for the firm of Stanford, Fagan and Giolito, which represented labor unions and wanted to start handling employment discrimination cases.
To practice labor law in the South, where anti-union sentiment runs high, is often a tough row to hoe, especially for someone from the North. “Georgia is one of the worst, if not the worst, for workers,” she says. “Employers can fire you on a whim, for no reason. It’s not like that in, say, California, where workers have certain built-in protections.”
An early case involved Southwire Company in Carrollton, which was terminating union members left and right. One employee was fired three times; Schwartz’s firm got his job reinstated each time. “That was in a small town in west Georgia, and was my first exposure to pickup-truck driving and gun-toting folks who did not like or want unions,” she says.
Her boss and mentor, Morgan Stanford, was an exceptionally courtly “Southern gentleman,” Schwartz says, who taught her about manners south of the Mason-Dixon line, as well as his long-held veneration of labor unions. “We’d be walking down the street in Carrollton, and he kept moving to the side of me that was near the road,” she recalls. “That continued for a while, and I couldn’t figure out what on earth he was doing. He finally explained to me that it was considered polite for a gentleman to walk alongside the road, closer to the traffic, when escorting a lady. Needless to say, that custom doesn’t exist in New York.”
As for how she was received? “People did not really comment to my face about my assertiveness,” she says, “but later I learned I had the reputation as a lawyer as being a ‘shark.’ At first I really disliked this image. But then someone explained that it relates to my ability to cross-examine witnesses and pull their testimony apart with their own lies. And that is fine with me. You have to be tough to win plaintiffs’ employment cases.”
In a mock-conspiratorial tone, Rollins adds, “She is the toughest lawyer I know, but she has a heart of gold.”
The first case Schwartz handled on her own involved a woman who discovered a dramatic pay differential between the salaries of male and female workers at the Georgia Department of Transportation. “She was doing the same work as the men were doing, but they kept her pay well below the men’s,” Schwartz says. “When she complained, they transferred her to an office that was 48 miles from her home.” Schwartz succeeded in getting her client transferred back and securing a promotion for her. The woman stayed in the job until she retired.
In the mid-’80s, Schwartz squared off with attorney Patricia Griffith over an equal pay case.
“Neither of us had been out of law school that long,” Griffith says. “Labor law back then was definitely a man’s world. It was unusual to see two women opposing each other. A lot was at stake, so it was a contentious, hard-fought case, and Debra was zealous. The defendant prevailed. But she was so pleasant and gracious—a consummate professional—that we became friends.”
Schwartz worked at Stanford, Fagan & Giolito for 18 years, and made partner after five. Today, she and Rollins work out of an office that is free of clutter and modest by Buckhead standards. “Most of our cases are contingency cases,” she says, “so we try to keep our overhead low.”
Other big cases she’s worked on: representing the machinists’ union when it went on strike against Eastern Air Lines; and representing a white employee of MARTA who had been passed over for a promotion by an African-American administration. A judgment was entered in federal court, including punitive and compensatory damages of almost a million dollars.
Schwartz says one of the first things she looks for in employment cases is not only an underlying claim but a claim for retaliation. “In Title VII, age discrimination cases, and the ADA, there’s an anti-retaliation provision. Despite it, so many employers just can’t help themselves.”
Every now and then, she works a defense case. “They show me how the other side is thinking, and that makes me more effective in both roles.”
While much has changed since the Robin Shahar case, Schwartz says there’s much to be done—particularly when it comes to racism. “People are a little smarter about how they express it, but every six months we get a call about a noose being left in someone’s work space,” she says. “I’ve seen a real uptick in pregnant women getting let go during their medical leave. We’ve had a few #MeToo cases, but not as many as you’d think.”
She blames the so-called “Trump effect” for the rise in racism.
“He has emboldened a growing number of white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites and radicals who go against the ideals on which the constitution and civil rights laws are founded,“ she says. As example, she points to the painting of a giant swastika on a high school in a metro Atlanta in 2017. “The bombing of the Temple on Peachtree Street occurred in October of 1958, 60 years ago, and yet it could just have easily been yesterday. And that makes me profoundly sad. But it also gives me a renewed commitment to continue doing what I do.”
Will she retire any time soon?
“There’s plenty of discrimination to keep me busy,” she says. “Believe me.”