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Business Observer Friday, May 13, 2016 2 years ago

Call of duty

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Sara Blackwell's legal career unexpectedly shifted in the last year. More jolts are in the offing in her battle against some big businesses.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Sarasota attorney Sara Blackwell, with a specialty in insurance, personal injury defense and employment law, read a stunning story in the New York Times in early June 2015.
Dozens of Orlando-based Disney employees were allegedly laid off and their jobs were shifted to immigrants holding temporary visas, according to the story. Even more stunning: Some employees, the story states, were required to train their replacements to do the jobs from which they had just been booted.

“I thought, 'Wow, that's a discrimination case if I've ever seen one,'” Blackwell says. “This is horrible. It's as if American workers have become second-class citizens.”

Blackwell called the reporter and asked if any of the people laid off had an attorney. She left her name and contact information. An hour later she received a call from one of the former employees, who worked in IT. “I immediately took his case at no cost,” Blackwell says.

Blackwell has since been on a 11-month whirlwind — she introduced Donald Trump at an Orlando rally — driven by what's become a niche cause: trying to stop companies, mostly big businesses, from abusing H-1B visas as a way to get cheap labor at the expense of Americans. “I had no idea this was a business model actually happening in this country,” says Blackwell.

Disney denies the allegations. “These lawsuits are completely and utterly baseless,” Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty says. “The fact is, that since our reorganization, Disney Parks has hired more than 170 U.S. IT workers, and is currently recruiting candidates to fill over 100 more IT positions. Additionally, we also rehired more than 100 workers affected by the reorganization into other roles in the company.”

With the notoriety from the Disney case, Blackwell now represents up to 100 people nationwide in similar discrimination complaints filed with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also says she's reviewed documents and severance agreements with hundreds of others.

These cases are pro bono, says Blackwell, who created a website, protectusworkers.org for the work. The site has a donate button, and Blackwell plans to register it as a formal nonprofit.

Even with the attention, these cases have been a blessing and a curse for Blackwell. Her private practice, which she started in January 2015 after working at firms in Tampa and Sarasota for about four years, is mostly on hold.

On the other hand, Blackwell has traveled nationwide and spoken about these cases at numerous rallies and events, many supported by Tea Party or Republican backed groups. There have been several appearances with Trump — she's neutral on his candidacy, she says, but supports his position on H-1B visa reform — and numerous national radio and TV interviews.

There was also a short-lived campaign for the Florida House District 72 seat, which represents north Sarasota County. Blackwell entered the race April 5, as a Republican. A registered Independent until late 2015, Blackwell exited the race April 22, when she learned she hadn't been a registered Republican long enough.

Blackwell believes these cases should be party-neutral, despite it skewing one direction. “I'm not pushing Republican or Democrat on this,” says Blackwell. “I've always had an American pride in me, but I was never political. My issue is American vs. anti-American.”

Her other issue is deciding what strategy to use to take on big companies in the H-1B visa cases. In one lawsuit Blackwell contends Disney and the outsourcing firm it worked with, HCL, colluded and conspired to displace American workers in “a pattern of racketeering activity,” court records state. Blackwell argues Disney and HCL should be held liable for the firings under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act statutes normally used to prosecute the Mafia and drug rings.

The RICO allegations, Blackwell concedes, are a long shot. Disney has until late May to file responses to the case, and attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed. “It's a novel idea,” she says. “A lot of people say I can't win doing this. But I say I can't win unless I try.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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