The Worker's Warrior
Scott Blankenship wants employment cases that are bigger than one lawsuit
Published in 2019 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on June 24, 2019
Updated on July 2, 2019
Scott Blankenship runs a small firm known for getting big results for employees in high-profile employment discrimination cases. He sees each case as an opportunity to do more than get justice for one client.
“It has to be bigger than just the issue at hand,” he says. “What I like about employment law especially is the ability to make individual change that creates financial incentive, through lawsuits, to make large-scale positive changes.”
About six years into his 27-year career, Blankenship took on one of his most notable cases. His client, Wei Zhang, was a Chinese economics professor who moved to the U.S. after the Tiananmen Square massacre and became a top-performing executive in the import-export industry. After Zhang was fired, he accused his employer of making discriminatory comments about his ancestry, firing him publicly and disparaging him to business contacts. Blankenship filed a race- and national-origin-discrimination suit and won a jury award of almost $4 million, including $2.6 million in punitive damages.
The case is of particular significance, says Blankenship, because the 9th Circuit affirmed the seven-to-one punitive damages ratio applied by the jury at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court was contemplating putting strict limits on punitive damages. Blankenship ended up arguing the appellate case one day after the Supreme Court ruled in an insurance bad-faith case that punitive damages awards in excess of a single-digit multiplier were unconstitutional.
“The argument I made was that you cannot compare a bad-faith case to race discrimination,” says Blankenship. “Discrimination is so egregious that we have to treat it differently. The 9th Circuit adopted that.”
The U.S. Supreme Court denied review. In 2005, the case was chosen by the National Employment Lawyers Association as one of the five most important cases nationally for employee rights in the past 20 years.
Other high-profile cases include a $1.85 million anti-harassment settlement for a former crew member on an Alaskan fishing boat who said the captain used racial epithets based on heritage; a $1.65 million settlement for Indian police officer Navin Sharma against the city of Vancouver for racial discrimination; and a $2.5 million settlement on behalf of kidney specialist Ramon Añel for wrongful termination and defamation.
One key to successful employment cases, Blankenship says, is careful case selection. “We take hundreds of phone calls to get one person into the office, and then we vet and vet, and by the time we file the case, it is completely investigated and substantiated,” he says. “There’s no throwing it up and seeing what sticks.”
And the story must be compelling. “If I don’t connect with a client, and I don’t feel for them, I won’t take the case,” he says. When he does, he means business: “I will not write a demand letter saying ‘we are going to file if you don’t pay’ without meaning it.”
Blankenship generally refuses to enter into confidentiality agreements: “You shouldn’t be able to buy your way out of being accountable for what you did—especially if you attack the character of my client, because there’s going to need to be name-clearing.”
He grew up in Redlands, California, which he describes as “an idyllic little college town with orange groves and canyons.” His father had a Ph.D in thermodynamics; his mother an English teacher whose parents emigrated from Italy. They instilled in him a love of language, international travel, art and music.
Blankenship graduated from UCLA with degrees in international relations and political science. In college, he considered becoming a minister, but decided he could help more people as a lawyer. For a time, Blankenship worked for Santa Monica entertainment lawyer Howard Weitzman, known for representing celebrity clients. “That idea of building a small practice and being able to be selective and handle high-profile cases was extremely interesting to me,” he says.
Next, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he worked for Sen. Pete Wilson and later for then-Sen. Joe Biden. In 1988, Blankenship was part of an oversight group reviewing race-discrimination claims regarding the FBI. “At the time, there were no African American or Hispanic employees beyond entry-level special agent, which was shocking.” The experience, he says, cemented his love of employment law.
Afterward, Blankenship enrolled in law school at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he helped organize a symposium on the Clean Air Act while editing the Tulane Environmental Law Journal.
He moved to Seattle in 1991 and quickly transitioned from Clean Air Act work (“The EPA, under Bush, actually exempted Washington from most of the Clean Air Act regulations because the air was ‘too clean’”) to environmental insurance coverage.
After opening his own practice in 1994, he began to turn to employment law after successfully countersuing in a non-compete lawsuit. “After that, I just started looking for that kind of work,” says Blankenship, whose practice has also included wage/hour and consumer class actions, as well as general litigation.
While he believes the #MeToo movement has helped bring harassment to light, he says there’s a long way to go. “My experience is that people now are just more conscious about hiding racism and sexism,” he says.
An increasingly common problem is that witnesses to wrongdoing often fail to speak up because they are initially afraid of retaliation; later, they are afraid to speak up because of the company’s policy language that says they should have reported the incident.
Better policies are needed, he says: “A company should be able to enforce laws appropriately and avoid litigation, because 99 percent of my clients would rather have a good job than a good case. Filing a lawsuit is usually a last resort.”
Jury selection, as every trial lawyer knows, is a critical part of a case. When choosing jurors, one of the most important qualities Scott Blankenship looks for is self-awareness.
“The people I want on the jury are the people who admit that maybe they have some implicit [bias], because I think everyone does,” he says. “The people who think racism or sexism does not exist anymore—those are the most dangerous people to have on the jury.”