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Rhonda Wills of Relative Justice: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became an Attorney

Remove the statutory caps that limit the damages that a victim may recover under Title VII for sexual harassment. Currently, under federal law a plaintiff is limited to no more than $300,000 for compensatory and punitive damages, no matter how egregious the facts are in the case.

As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rhonda Wills.

Rhonda Wills is a dynamic, captivating, and compassionate tour de force who is making her mark on TV on the syndicated arbitration-based, unscripted, court show, Relative Justice (check local listings) which centers on resolving inter-family legal disputes. Since forming her law firm nearly two decades ago, Wills has recovered over $100 million fighting for the rights of everyday Americans in their plight against corporate giants. She uses her expertise and intellect to give voice to those who need her most. Rhonda is passionate and fearless about her work, which is evidenced by the unique bond she forms with clients during and beyond their time working together.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?

I grew up seeing a lot of hardships and watching good people struggle, and I saw a lot of injustice. I have always had a deep-rooted desire to fight for people who are in difficult situations, especially other women. It may sound cliché, but I have always wanted to fight for justice. After spending 8 years working at a big law firm, I left and formed my own litigation boutique representing everyday Americans who are wronged (usually) by big corporations. I have never looked back. In my law practice, I am always “David” going up against “Goliath” corporate giants. I have cases all over the country — some of which are individual cases and others are class actions. So many of my cases have involved catastrophic personal injuries and wrongful death. I have also represented countless women who have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed. I also represent workers who are treated unfairly and denied wages and safe working conditions. I have also spent a large part of my practice fighting against gender and racial discrimination and for LGBTQ rights. I feel so deeply connected to my clients and cases that my biggest challenge is to remain objective.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

I am a mom of four kids, and like most working moms I have struggled with balancing work and family life. After a 3-month maternity leave with the birth of each of my children, I was back at work litigating cases. I breastfed each of my kids, so being back at work was especially challenging. I remember having to go to trial when my daughter was 5 months old, and during every break in the trial, I was in the courthouse restroom stall with my breast pump. I would literally run out of the courtroom each time the gavel indicated that we were on a break so that I would have enough time to pump before having to get back to examine my next witness. I was rushing back after one break when I accidentally dropped my bag and bottles of milk and ice packs rolled out of my bag onto the courtroom floor. I had to laugh to keep from crying. The judge gave me a sympathetic look and extended our break for another 10 minutes. I was incredibly grateful for compassion from a judge who understood how hard my day was. I carefully put everything back in the bag, put on a smile and went on to win the case!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am the judge on a new nationally syndicated daytime TV show, Relative Justice. This is an incredible new adventure for me. Relative Justice is a court tv show that focuses on disputes between family members. When these families come to my courtroom, I rule on their financial disputes, but also try to resolve the underlying family issues that inevitably go along with the money dispute. It’s great because it allows me to combine the two things that I love most — the law and family. I am from a huge family — I have four children, my mother had 5 children and my grandmother had 10 children. I have over 50 first cousins! As a judge on Relative Justice, I can relate to many of the family disputes that come before me either through my own family, my friends or my clients.

What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?

Case №1:

I represented a woman who was driving late at night on a freeway and was hit by an 18-wheeler truck. She was a psychotherapist who was on her way to a psychiatric hospital to see a patient who had attempted suicide. She almost died in the accident and was in intensive care for several weeks. At the time of the accident, she was completing her PhD and was getting ready to complete her dissertation. The accident caused severe brain trauma resulting in memory and cognitive deficits. In sum, she was reading at a 4th grade level and was unable to remember her own birthdate.

Our investigation uncovered that the 18-wheeler driver was driving under the influence of prescription drugs — a fact that his employer knew or should have known. We settled the case for a very significant confidential amount that allowed my client to receive the treatment that she needed to recover from her brain injury. Years later and after much treatment and therapy, she fought her way back and has now completed her PhD — I literally cried when she sent me the announcement! I felt that I truly made a difference in her life — without the financial settlement she would not have been able to rebuild her life. As a result of the lawsuit, the company changed its practices and policies with respect to its 18-wheeler drivers to hopefully prevent this type of accident from occurring in the future.

Case №2:

I represented a woman — a factory worker — who was raped in the restroom at work by a male co-worker while on a night shift at a factory. My client was lesbian and subjected to intense ridicule and harassment by her male co-workers because of her sexual orientation and the fact that she was the only woman working in manufacturing at the factory. One night she was followed into the restroom by one of the men at work and beaten and raped. Prior to the sexual assault, the men at the factory repeatedly called her homophobic slurs, slashed her tires, left her threatening phone messages, and threatened to kill her. She repeatedly complained about her maltreatment to her employer, and nothing was done. After she was sexually assaulted, the company sanitized and cleaned the restroom and tried to cover up the crime. As a result, the criminal charges against her assailant were dismissed. She lost her job, and the assailant continued to work there. She came to me as a last resort to sue the company and make them pay for what they did to her. My investigators found a whistleblower who provided an affidavit detailing what the company did to my client. We settled the case out of court, and my client changed her identity and left the state. The company brought in new management for the factory after the case was settled.

Case №3:

I represented a woman who was gang raped in an apartment complex after living there for only a few months. The apartment complex — which was owned by a large corporation — failed to give her notice that shortly before she moved to the complex, the woman who lived in the apartment next door had been raped by an intruder. The apartment complex also failed to obtain security at the complex. My client was sexually assaulted in her apartment by gun-wielding intruders while her husband and 10-year-old daughter were tied up in the bedroom closet. We settled the case for a significant confidential amount that allowed my client, her daughter, and her family to relocate and get the help and trauma therapy that they needed to cope and rebuild their lives. The apartment complex changed its policies and instituted security measures at the complex.

Case №4:

I represented a group of black salespersons who were subjected to racial discrimination in the workplace by being given sales territories based on the ethnic demographics of the sales territory. In other words, they were assigned sales territories where other black people lived. They were also paid lower commissions because the company assigned lower values to the sales in black communities. The black salespersons worked twice as a hard and in many instances made twice the number of sales of their white counterparts but received a fraction of the pay because of the lower commission rates. The chief witnesses in our case were three white employees who became whistleblowers. One witness questioned a manager regarding why she and her friend (who was black and more experienced) could not be assigned to the same sales territory. She was told that that the company’s philosophy was that black people were “better suited” to sell to black customers rather than white customers. We ultimately settled the case, and the company changed its discriminatory policies with respect to assigning sales territories and commission rates.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Harriet Tubman. Her determination and perseverance to fight under impossible circumstances inspires me on a daily basis.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?

You should go into the practice of law having an idea of the types of cases and clients that you want to represent. You should also be willing to work in a place where you will learn your craft. For example, if you want to be a trial lawyer, work at the place where you will get the opportunity to actually try cases. While big law firms pay huge salaries and bonuses, you should carefully weigh whether that is what you want long term. Always remember that if you follow your passion, the money will come.

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

1. Remove the statutory caps that limit the damages that a victim may recover under Title VII for sexual harassment. Currently, under federal law a plaintiff is limited to no more than $300,000 for compensatory and punitive damages, no matter how egregious the facts are in the case.

2. Require states and local agencies to test rape kits. In many states and local agencies across the country, there is a back log of thousands of rape kits that lay on a shelf collecting dust — they have never been tested! This results in a lack of closure for the victim because her assailant continues to walk free, and it also creates an inherent danger to the community because the recidivism rate among rapists is extremely high.

3. Remove mandatory arbitration provisions from employment agreements. Many employees are denied their day in court and the right to have their dispute with their employer decided by a jury of their peers because most employers force their employees to sign a mandatory arbitration provision. As a result, many egregious things that occur to employees are hidden in a confidential arbitration proceeding, rather than being seen in open court.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I represent people who are harmed by corporate greed — companies that put profits over people. As a result, I have helped thousands of everyday Americans and forced dozens of corporations to change the way that they do business.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

I am passionate about helping people, especially other women. I was raised by a single mom, and at times she worked 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. I understand that without someone to fight for them, many people would not survive some of the truly egregious things that happen to them because of corporate greed and indifference.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. You will win some and lose some.

2. Life is not fair — your job is the even the playing field.

3. David can beat Goliath.

4. Prepare for the worse and hope for the best.

5. Always act with integrity.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Oprah Winfrey. As a little black girl growing up in poverty in rural East Texas, I watched Oprah every single day. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to watch her show. I listened to her stories about being from rural Mississippi and all her struggles. She gave me hope; she was my inspiration; she made me think that anything was possible. I would love to have a private lunch with her to (1) thank her for giving little girls like me wings to fly; and (2) to get her insight on my next steps.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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