Peggy Mastroianni has dedicated the past 40 years to protecting American workers.
Over her four-decade career with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Peggy R. Mastroianni ’74 has participated in, and often led, the governmental organization’s legal efforts in seeking and winning increased protections for undocumented, transgender, and disabled workers in America. Often the EEOC has championed these civil rights causes before they appear in courts.
“You always have this feeling that you’re on the edge of the law. It’s a wonderful thing about the EEOC,” says Mastroianni, who has served as the Washington, D.C.-based organization’s legal counsel for almost six years.
Mastroianni’s EEOC career has stretched from trial and appellate work to a focus on policy issues, and across numerous presidential administrations of differing political backgrounds and commitment levels to anti-discrimination measures. Unlike most federal government agencies, the EEOC, which employs around 2,100, holds litigation authority, thus making its attorneys responsible for trial and appellate work, as well as first drafts on briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, often against lawyers from high-powered firms making hundreds of dollars per hour.
“It’s a little like David and Goliath, and that’s a real stimulant, to put it mildly,” says Mastroianni, who in 2003 won Fordham Law’s Louis J. Lefkowitz Public Service Award.
Mastroianni began her career with the EEOC in 1979 and worked four years as a trial attorney before becoming an appellate attorney, a role in which she represented the commission in “first impression” employment cases involving graffiti as evidence of a hostile sexual harassment environment in the workplace (Waltman v. International Paper Co.), discrimination on the basis of foreign accent (Fragante v. City and County of Honolulu), and coverage of undocumented workers (Patel v. Quality Inn South), all housed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“We have pushed the envelope, there’s no question. On some questions, we were ahead of the courts,” says Mastroianni, who wrote the briefs before arguing the cases in courtrooms across the country.
In the early 1990s, she was appointed the commission’s director of the Americans with Disabilities Act Policy Division, where she supervised sub-regulatory policy on the recently passed ADA on such issues as the law’s definition of “disability” and what medical information employers could legally ask their employees about.
In 1996, the EEOC promoted Mastroianni to associate legal counsel, where she supervised the development of regulations implementing the Genetic Nondiscrimination Act (2010) and the ADA Amendments Act (2011). She also directed the development of 24 substantive subregulatory policies during her 15 years as associate legal counsel, including guidance on psychiatric disabilities and religious discrimination, and policy documents addressing the treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities.
Sub-regulatory guidance, while not as high in the pecking order as legislative or interpretative regulations, can lead to significant workplace changes even though it is not legally binding. For instance, the EEOC’s guidance on employers’ use of criminal records in making employment decisions fostered a positive effect, she explains. She uses this and other EEOC examples to illustrate the law for Fordham Law students when she returns for guest lectures.
Mastroianni has illuminated regulatory process and agencies for hundreds of 1L students during three separate plenary sessions at Fordham Law School and has spoken to classes taught by Professor Kimani Paul-Emile. During these talks, Mastroianni highlights opportunities students have to work for government agencies and her work impacting anti-discrimination policies on gender, race, and religion.
Mastroianni’s interest in civil rights law was piqued during her 2L year at Fordham in a constitutional law class, which emphasized the impact of the law on people from all walks of life. As she delved into some of the first sex discrimination cases in the Leo T. Kissam library, she knew she had made the right decision to transition to the law after seven years as a high school English teacher. Furthermore, as a part-time evening student, Mastroianni was grateful to have found a program that offered her the scheduling flexibility to raise her infant daughter. (During her final year at Fordham, Mastroianni and her husband welcomed their second child.)
When she graduated, she was dismayed to learn that legal jobs that were already scarce for women were almost nonexistent for women with children. She briefly worked part-time as an associate for a New York City firm that allowed her to pick up her daughter twice per week from kindergarten.
“You really had to make a choice at that time between children and work,” Mastroianni recalls.
When the young family moved south in the mid-1970s, after her husband accepted a position in Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s administration, Mastroianni’s prospects for employment appeared to constrict further. Facing a fork in the road, she elected to take pro-bono work with the American Civil Liberties Union on voting rights and jury discrimination cases in the South, a three-year experience she relished and one that later convinced Donald Hollowell, the lead attorney in the EEOC’s Atlanta office and an iconic legal force in the civil rights movement, to hire her. By 1979, Mastroianni’s children were attending school and the EEOC’s employment discrimination work made it “the only place I wanted to go,” she reflects.
Today, when she visits Fordham Law Legislation and Regulation classes, Mastroianni engages current students with numerous “war stories” that shine a light on the statutory interpretations and regulatory decision-making processes students learn about in the course, Paul-Emile says.
“Learning the law through a book can be cold and flat,” Paul-Emile notes. “Peggy brings color, texture, and nuance to what students are learning.”
Mastroianni marvels at Fordham Law’s evolution into a service-minded institution teeming with student groups and major intellectual centers.
“Right now, the Law School is everything you could dream of in terms of vision,” she says.
Mastroianni’s vision, meanwhile, remains the same as it’s always been: to serve others.
The EEOC’s strategic enforcement plan includes focuses on the rights of immigrant, vulnerable, and low-wage workers who receive no paid leave, as well as the emerging sharing economy in which new employer arrangements raise questions for workers who may not be considered employees.
“The EEOC is the only club I’ve ever been in,” Mastroianni says. “I’m not a joiner—I don’t belong to social clubs, nor am I an organizational person. The EEOC is the exception, and at this point I am happy to continue helping in any way I can here.”