|LOS ANGELES DAILY JOURNAL/Serving the Los Angeles Legal Community since 1888.
BAR PRESIDENT IS FEISTY ADVOCATE
BAR GROUP LEADER TAKES STAND FOR PHILIPPINE EQUITY
Sexual Harassment Suit Typifies Her Reputation of Fighting for the Underdog.
TONI J. JARAMILLA
President/Philippine American Bar Association
Sole practitioner, focusing on employment law/sexual harassment, Century City, 1994-present
Whittier College School of Law, 1994
By Pearl J. Platt
Daily Journal Staff Writer
Champion of the underdog is how friends and colleagues describe Los Angeles sole practitioner Toni J. Jaramilla.
That’s an apt description for the current president of the Philippine American Bar Association. With about 200 members, it’s the smallest of the four local Asian bars—more than three times smaller than the Southern California Chinese American Lawyers Association.
A fierce advocate for the Philippine lawyers and community, Jaramilla, 31, believes PABA must resist becoming just a part of a pan-Asian group and remain a distinct organization, despite its strong alliance with SCCLA, the Japanese American Bar Association and the Korean American Bar Association.
“We are successful in uniting with the other Asian bars. We do a lot of functions together, and we support each others’ issues.” Jaramilla said. “But I’ve always been the one in PABA to say, ‘Let’s focus on Filipinos as well. Let’s make sure we’re not neglecting our specific issues.'” Taking its duties as a voice of the community seriously, PABA keeps an eye on legal issues that affect the Philippine community, said Jaramilla. Last year, the focus was the fallout from Preposition 209, the 1996 voter measure that eliminates state-sponsored affirmative action programs.
This year, it’s a Filipino veterans’ equity bill.
Promised citizenship and full GI benefits by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thousands of Filipinos joined the U.S. Army in World War II. But in 1946, Congress passed the Rescission Act, which, in effect, reneged on the country’s promise to the veterans. Because the restoration of benefits would cost about $1 billion, the veterans haven’t been able to gain enough support for the bill.
In addition to bringing media attention to the issue, PABA rallied the Philippine community, raising enough funds to send some veterans to testify at congressional hearings, said Jaramilla.
The Equity bill, HR836 is now before Congress.
PABA has targeted its efforts elsewhere as well. At least once a year, the organization holds a “law day” when volunteer lawyers give free legal advice to community members.
Along with community advocacy, one of the organization’s goals is to increase the number of Filipino lawyers, according to Jaramilla.
Every year, PABA awards two or three scholarships to law students and one fellowship. The fellowship recipient typically works for one summer at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. As a former scholarship recipient, Jaramilla is a prime example of that strategy’s effectiveness. Immediate past president Paul Estuar praised Jaramilla for her enthusiasm and leadership skills. “She can get people to follow her,” said Estuar, an associate at Los Angeles’ Vakili & Leus. “Other members can see she’s extremely committed to the issues that the Filipino American community faces, and that gives her a great deal of credibility when it comes to getting others to follow her direction.”
Jaramilla has come up with innovative ideas to benefit the bar members and a fresh perspective as a sole practitioner, he added. She’s currently trying to partner PABA with a telecommunications firm so members can get a break on long distance rates—something that would especially help small firm and sole practitioners, who make up more than half the membership.
Given her background, it’s not surprising that Jaramilla has a passion for the public good. The adopted child of immigrants from the Philippines, Jaramilla is the first lawyer in the family. Her father, Rufino Jaramilla, worked as a farm laborer and served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. Her mother, Corazon, was a high school teacher in her native land and a bookkeeper in the United States. Jaramilla who was born in Ilocos Sur in the Philippines and came to the United States at age 3, recently met her biological mother in Hawaii.
Intent on becoming a doctor, Jaramilla studied psychobiology at UCLA. But in her senior year after she sent applications to medical schools, she changed course, deciding that the law would suit her better.
As a political activist on campus, Jaramilla fought for affirmative action and tenure for minority professors. “My classmates were prelaw, and they would say how the law should change on this issue or that issue,” Jaramilla said. “And I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to change anything being a doctor.'”
Following her graduation in 1990, Jaramilla headed to Whittier College School of Law. While in law school, she remained politically active, resurrecting the largely defunct Asian Pacific Island Law Students Association. Under Jaramilla’s leadership, the group fought to increase minority student retention rates with mock exams and seminars on study tips.
During law school, Jaramilla earned a Public Interest Law Foundation grant to work as an intern with the California Women’s Law Center.
“She clearly demonstrated a commitment to the community and a willingness to use her talents to give back, which is an extraordinary quality in a lawyer,” said Abby Leibman, the center’s executive director.
After receiving her law degree in 1994, Jaramilla worked as a contract attorney for several years until she hung up her own shingle two years ago—first in Pasadena, then in Century City. She practices employment law with an exclusive focus on representing plaintiffs in sexual harassment claims. She was recently appointed by the State Bar Board of Governors to the executive committee of the labor and employment section, and is one of the youngest appointees.
Although a sole practitioner, Jaramilla said she does have a “partner” of sorts whom she uses as a sounding board—her husband Aaron Jansen, a public defender who works out of Eastlake Juvenile Court.
Running her own business, came naturally, Jaramilla said. “I just opened up shop, and everything fell into place.”
She credits her family for her success. Her uncle, who owns a Filipino newspaper gives her free ad space, and she gets referrals from colleagues and former clients.
One of her first cases is also on of the most memorable. That case, Carrillo v. UC Regents, WL 913107 (1997), exemplifies Jaramilla’s advocacy for the underdog.
The client, a female administrative assistant at UCLA, had a sexual harassment claim dismissed by the trail court because she had not exhausted UCLA”s internal remedies. To preserve her claim under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, it must be filed within one year, but the university had been investigating her claim for three years without conclusion.
The woman, who had been represented by another lawyer at trail, couldn’t find anyone to appeal the dismissal.
“She came to me, and I felt so sorry for her I did it for free,” Jaramilla said. “She just paid her Xeroxing costs.”
Against the odds, Jaramilla won a reversal and is now handling the trial phase as well. The case is memorable not only because it’s her first victory at the appellate level, but also because she made her oral arguments while nine months pregnant—on the very day her baby was due (her daughter, Serene, was born two weeks later). Jaramilla said she didn’t postpone the argument because “unborn babies are good luck” and because she couldn’t make “her poor client wait even one more week.”
Pasadena attorney Anne K. Richardson, who worked with her on the appeal, said Jaramilla’s compassion and empathy is what makes her a good advocate.
“She’s got a good rapport and understanding of the people she represents,” said Richardson, a partner at Hadsell & Stormer. “She’s feisty and unafraid. [Opposing counsel] think they can push her around, but she takes a firm line and refuses to be bullied.”