Profile: Tiseme Zegeye

Employment law and discrimination specialist continues the fight for basic human liberties

Stephen Ellison
2020 August

Social justice, women’s rights, civil rights. Human rights. Those are not mere catch phrases to Tiseme Zegeye and others in her line of work. They are the most basic of elements within a democracy, essentials that people residing in such a nation or state shouldn’t be made to fight for.

And yet Zegeye fights.

The partner with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein specializes in employment discrimination, gender discrimination and women’s reproductive rights, taking on top companies in the tech and financial sectors as well as consultancy firms connected to those and other industries. The work oftentimes hits close to home for Zegeye, a woman of color working in a white male-dominated profession and a naturalized U.S. citizen.

“I grew up all over the world, and in South Africa, I was a member of a school’s Amnesty International local chapter,” Zegeye said. “That got me interested in human rights law in general – this was high school. Both of my parents are professors in sociology and human geography, and I thought I might follow their path. But they suggested the law is a way to affect social change.

“I kind of knew since high school that’s what I wanted to do,” she continued, “and that was my goal in college. It was always something I wanted to do.”

Zegeye has carried that passion with her throughout her career, from the time she left law school and worked with nonprofits to this day with Lieff Cabraser. Because many of her clients likely are enduring one of the most difficult periods in their lives, she believes her best approach is one of an understanding friend.

“For a lot of the cases I work on, whether it’s an employment discrimination case or a fertility-related case, I really try to be as empathetic as possible for my clients and what they’re going through,” she said. “Often in an employment case or a gender discrimination class action, a lot of the women I represent, I think they’re very similar to my friends – women in tech, women of color in finance. They have put in a lot of work to get where they are and have faced a lot of different types of discrimination.

“I know litigation is really stressful, and I try to be as sympathetic as possible and as understanding to my clients as possible,” Zegeye added. “Because on top of what they’re going through, they now have additional burdens – discovery requests they have to attend to, and they have to relive really unpleasant times during a deposition.”

That goes for fertility cases as well, a large part of Zegeye’s recent repertoire. Fertility clinics market to women in their 20s and 30s, telling them they can preserve their options and focus on their careers, and “not have to worry about their so-called biological clock ticking,” Zegeye said.

One of her most recent cases is a women’s reproductive rights case against Pacific Fertility Clinic in which a tank failure at a fertility clinic in San Francisco destroyed or compromised the eggs and embyros of about 600 people.

“It’s had devastating impacts on people’s lives,” she said. “All sorts of people seek out fertility treatment for various reasons, and the impact is really devastating. It’s caused a great deal of emotional distress.

“From a procedural aspect, it’s complicated,” she added, “because there have been mediations, some parties have been in arbitrations, and others weren’t. Then others were added to arbitration. It can be a pretty complicated case.”

The case, which started with four defendants and now has just the one, was originally scheduled to go to trial in September, but the date was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions on court proceedings. It’s now set for March 2021.

East Coast transplant

Zegeye attended William and Mary College in Virginia for her prelaw studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and government. She then went to New York University Law School, where she won the Black, Latino, Asian Pacific American Law Alumni Association Kim Barry ’98 Memorial Graduation Prize for academic excellence and commitment to international and human rights work.

While in law school, Zegeye interned with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was active in the Black Allied Law Students Association and the Women of Color Collective. After law school, she continued in the capacity of legal services with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and then with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“I went to NYU law because they have a really robust human rights practice, and that’s what I thought I would be practicing when I graduated from law school,” Zegeye explained. “I worked in nonprofits for about five years in New York City, then my family and I decided we wanted to move to the West Coast. I was looking at different plaintiffs’ firms and ended up at Lieff Cabraser. I was looking for a change from New York City after going to law school and practicing there for eight years. It was time for a change.

“I feel very fortunate that I’m able to continue that work at a law firm,” she continued. “In general, most of my cases involve women’s rights and fighting for women’s rights in a different way than I used to. Now it’s against companies – before we were suing the government. So, it’s definitely a change, but I feel lucky that I can continue the work I was doing.”

Recalling the work she did with the Center for Reproductive Rights, Zegeye remembered a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, challenged abortion restrictions in Texas. It was the first abortion case to reach the Supreme Court in many years, and though abortion rights activists typically try to avoid the high court, the situation in Texas and other states in the 5th Circuit was so dire, there was no choice, Zegeye said. While she didn’t work directly on the case, Zegeye was on the litigation team that brought the case.

“I was more involved with the amicus strategy,” she said. “But I got to go to the Supreme Court and hear our argument – that was such a memorable experience. I also got sworn into the Supreme Court bar that day, and I got to sit right at the front, just a few feet from Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor. That was incredible.

“One thing that was great about that case,” Zegeye added, “was the liberal justices – their questions weren’t so much directed at the attorneys arguing but countering the more conservative members of the court, and it was great to see that jostling. And, thankfully, that case came down in our favor.”

Experience pays off

After working on the amicus briefs in that 2016 case, Zegeye was able to leverage that experience just this year with Lieff Cabraser, as the firm worked with Reproductive Justice and Racial Justice professors on an amicus brief for another abortion case before the Supreme Court. That case also came down in favor of the pro-abortion rights side, which had challenged a law in Louisiana that was similar to the one defeated in Texas four years prior.

“It was great being on the other side, being the firm that filed the amicus brief,” Zegeye said. “My firm filed along with Reproductive Justice and Racial Justice. It was nice to do that pro bono work as well, now being at a law firm.”

Another “interesting” case Zegeye has been working on recently is one against two banks – Simple and BBVA. The online banks don’t allow non-U.S. citizens to apply for online accounts, even though they have Social Security numbers, while a lot of other banks do. Zegeye and her colleagues claimed discrimination on the basis of citizenship. She represented two plaintiffs in a proposed class, both green card holders who were denied online bank accounts with Simple and BBVA. The case was brought before the pandemic, during which the benefits of online banking have been underscored even further. But regardless of the pandemic, there are numerous other reasons people would want to sign up for a banking account online.

“This case hasn’t been going on very long, we’re still in the early stages of discovery,” Zegeye said. “Again, it’s very easy for me to empathize with my clients in this case because I’ve been a permanent resident and just recently became a U.S. citizen. I know there are a lot of hoops and hurdles to jump through, and it’s really a shame that they’re experiencing this discrimination. It’s pretty surprising when people hear about this because most other banks don’t do this. If you have a Social Security number, that’s what’s important, and that’s how they can verify your identity.”

Zegeye said she’s enjoying the work on that case, branching out to another type of civil rights case, especially during these times of upheaval and attacks on immigrants across the country.

Finally, Zegeye has been working on a pro bono case representing a woman who came to the U.S. as a child, undocumented. Zegeye and her team are pursuing different avenues through the immigration system for the woman, whom Zegeye can relate to on a very personal level.

“I also came to the U.S. as a child. I came to go to school on an academic visa,” she explained. “I was at a private school, and when I think of why (her client) came here, I think people are coming for similar reasons: to pursue an education and have a better economic future. And these arbitrary ideas of who comes here legally and who comes here illegally often boil down to money. I’m just really happy to be working on that case.”

Home feels like home

When she’s not working, Zegeye spends most of her free time with her one-year-old son. And now under the current circumstances of the shelter-at-home restrictions, she feels blessed to be around him the entire day. Some people told her before she had a child that she may not want to go back to work, and she kind of dismissed that notion, she said. But now, she’s realized how quickly time goes by.

“Every day he learns a new word,” she explained. “He had a wonderful day care and wonderful teachers, but I thought I was missing out on so much. Now, while working from home, I do get to spend more time with him. That has been really great. He started to walk during shelter in place, and I was very happy to witness that rather than it having it occur at day care. But, yes, he definitely takes up a lot of my time.”

For young lawyers or law students today, Zegeye had this sage advice: Get as much practical experience as you can.

“I went straight from undergrad to law school – I was certain of what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was in the academic mindset, so I took a lot of seminars and courses, and I had really great professors. But I didn’t really focus on clinics or externships. And now, ever since I’ve been practicing, I see how important it is to get the practical experience and also to make those connections.”

Looking back, she added: “I would have focused more on the practical aspect because so much of law is learning by doing rather than getting information from a textbook.”

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Getaway Spot: Oxford, England 

Go-To Music or Artist: Beyoncé 

Recommended Reading: Toni Morrison and Hilary Mantel

Dream Job: Librarian and florist 

Words to Live By: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” – Steve Biko

Stephen Ellison

Stephen Ellison is a freelance writer based in San Jose. Contact him at ssjellison@aol.com.

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