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As most lawyers know, civil rights cases are not where the real money is in the legal profession. But one Long Island law firm has barreled into discrimination cases in the South in the past few years, citing a passion for such work.
“We do the old-fashioned civil rights work,” saidJames Vagnini, one of the three partners at Garden City-based Valli Kane & Vagnini. “If I didn’t make a nickel, I’d be just as happy. I’ve learned a lot. I wanted to do law in a way that I could sleep at night.”
The firm is making money, the partners say. But the cases have taken them into some parts of the Lone Star State where media reports indicate race relations have reached a low point in recent years.
The firm was recently in Paris, Texas, where the town’s largest employer is pipe-manufacturer Turner Industries. Black employees have said that hangman’s nooses, Confederate flags and racist graffiti have appeared at the workplace.
Last week, Valli Kane obtained from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a “reasonable cause” letter, saying the federal agency believes discrimination has occurred at Turner and asking the company and its black employees to sit down and discuss the matter.
In response, Turner said it has formed an employee task force “to assist in promoting and maintaining a workplace that is free of harassment or discrimination.” Turner said it has “zero tolerance” for any discrimination in the workplace.
In 2008, Valli Kane took another case to the EEOC, this one in Dallas involving Allied Aviation Services Inc., which agreed to pay $1.9 million to settle a harassment lawsuit filed on behalf of black and Hispanic workers.
The law firm was formed about two years ago. The three met when they worked together at Leeds, Morelli & Brown, a law firm in Carle Place.
Previously, Vagnini had worked for the New York City Human Rights Commission while a law student at Hofstra University in Hempstead. Robert Valli Jr. had been a Queens assistant district attorney, and Sara Kane was an assistant attorney at the New York City Corporation Counsel.
The firm also handles criminal and real estate cases, but Vagnini said more than 75 percent of its work is civil rights or discrimination cases.
“We have a passion for this,” Kane said.