The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Douglas B. Huron, lawyer who won landmark workplace bias cases, dies at 75

Lawyer Douglas B. Huron. (Amy Wind)

Douglas B. Huron, a lawyer who won several major cases concerning the rights of employees, including a landmark Supreme Court decision that declared gender stereotyping a form of workplace discrimination, died June 7 at his home in Washington. He was 75.

He had primary lateral sclerosis, a rare variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), said his wife, Amy Wind.

Mr. Huron, who worked for the Justice Department’s civil rights division early in his career, argued many times before federal courts on behalf of workers who believed they had been subjected to bias in one form or another. He rarely spoke to the media about his cases, but he appeared at legal conferences around the country, and his trial briefs are studied in law schools.

“To me, he was the best civil rights lawyer in the country,” his longtime law partner Richard Salzman said in an interview. “He was the most brilliant trial lawyer I have ever seen. He could connect with juries, and he was a straight shooter who had the respect of judges.”

One of Mr. Huron’s first major cases, NAACP v. Allen, was decided in 1972, when he was with the Justice Department. Mr. Huron argued that the state of Alabama had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through discriminatory practices that kept Black officers from being hired as state troopers.

Alabama federal judge Frank Johnson, one of the leading jurists of the civil rights era, issued a decision requiring the state to hire one Black trooper for every White trooper until 25 percent of the force was African American.

In 1973, Mr. Huron was part of a Justice Department legal team that won a case against a New Jersey electricians union, which had admitted few Black and Hispanic workers to its ranks. He later won a settlement against United Airlines for widespread discriminatory practices.

During President Jimmy Carter’s administration from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Huron was a White House adviser, leading efforts to nominate female and minority candidates for federal judgeships. Among those he recommended was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for 13 years before she was named to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Mr. Huron spent the rest of his career in private practice in Washington, first at Kator, Scott & Heller and later at Heller, Huron, Chertkof & Salzman. His legal focus remained discrimination against employees under the country’s civil rights laws.

In 1988, Mr. Huron made a precedent-setting argument on behalf of Vernell Sutherland, a female management consultant with the Arthur Young accounting firm, which had denied her a promotion because she was not sufficiently “meek and mild” — a description recorded in company records.

“I had never heard that term in a consulting environment,” Sutherland said at the time. “You’re encouraged to be very aggressive, and to be ‘meek and mild’ sounded like the antithesis of what you should be doing.”

A jury awarded her more than $241,000 in damages.

One year later, with co-counsel James Heller, Mr. Huron went before the Supreme Court in another case of a woman denied a promotion at a large accounting firm. In proceedings that dragged on for seven years, Ann Hopkins was seeking redress after the Price Waterhouse company rejected her bid to become a partner, calling her “too macho,” “pushy” and in need of “a course in charm school.”

Ann Hopkins, who won Supreme Court gender-bias case after being denied a promotion, dies at 74

Mr. Huron summed up the case this way: “She wanted to be a partner, was considered for partner, and it was denied because of her sex.”

The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-to-3 decision that Price Waterhouse violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by basing its hiring and promotion decisions on discriminatory expectations of gender-related behavior. It was the first time the court had determined that gender stereotyping was a form discrimination.

“An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in his majority opinion, “places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they don’t.”

In 1990, U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ordered Price Waterhouse to pay Hopkins — then working at the World Bank — $350,000 in lost income and to make her a partner in the company. She rejoined her old firm, where she worked until her retirement in 2002. The Hopkins case became the basis for later gender-discrimination litigation, including cases involving gay and transgender people.

Douglas Benjamin Huron was born Dec. 28, 1945, in Highland Park, Mich. He moved at an early age to Prince George’s County, where his father served as an Air Force noncommissioned officer at what is now Joint Base Andrews.

After graduating from Suitland High School, Mr. Huron attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1967. He was a 1970 law school graduate of the University of Chicago.

Among other cases, Mr. Huron and his firm filed lawsuits against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the 1990s, winning the right of employees to take the agency to court. He also won a 1986 case representing several White firefighters who sued for racial discrimination after they were passed over for promotion in the D.C. fire department.

In the 1990s, Mr. Huron was diagnosed with a neurological disease that his family described as a slower-progressing version of ALS. He eventually used a wheelchair and a computer-driven device to help him communicate.

In 2007, he helped prepare a Supreme Court case with his law partner Salzman, arguing that U.S. senators did not have immunity from laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. They filed a lawsuit against Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) on behalf of a staffer who had been fired after taking medical leave for a heart condition.

Dayton sought to have the case dismissed, claiming that the firing was not subject to judicial oversight because he had blanket immunity under the Constitution’s “speech or debate clause,” which allowed members of Congress to conduct legislative business without fear of prosecution.

Mr. Huron and Salzman maintained that, under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, Dayton could be held responsible for his actions as an employer, which were separate from his legislative duties. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court declined to take up Dayton’s motion, effectively granting Mr. Huron and Salzman a legal victory.

“Doug wrote the briefs in that case, and they were brilliant,” Salzman said. “Even though he was no longer able to argue cases, he was still shaping the law through his writings.”

Mr. Huron was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law School and in 2004 was recognized by the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association as lawyer of the year. He retired in 2018.

He was a member of the nondenominational Community of Christ in Washington and volunteered as a tutor at Martha’s Table, a D.C. nonprofit organization providing food and educational services for children.

Mr. Huron’s marriage to Anne Yarbrough ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Amy Wind of Washington; two children from his first marriage, Amanda Huron of Hyattsville, Md., and Amos Huron of Philadelphia; a son from his second marriage, Walter Huron of Washington; and two granddaughters.

Read more Washington Post obituaries