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Thank you, Monisha!

Highlights from attorney Monisha Cherayil’s advocacy at the Public Justice Center

For nearly 15 years, Monisha Cherayil has been a key leader in the Public Justice Center’s advocacy for economic justice and race equity. After coming to the PJC as the Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellow, Monisha has served as the lead attorney of the Education Stability Project and a member of the Workplace Justice Project. She will soon be moving to a new position working on labor trafficking, forced labor, and child labor at the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, and we wanted to take a moment to highlight Monisha’s impact and express our gratitude. As Legal Director Debra Gardner says, “Monisha’s contributions to our mission and the lives of our clients are legion. She’s a fierce and fearless lawyer, colleague, and friend. No challenge too great, no learning curve too steep, no assignment too daunting nor ever beneath her, no person she encountered undeserving of dignity, compassion, and respect, even when they could not show her the same.” Below we share a few of the many ways that Monisha has advanced education stability and workplace justice, all while making lasting contributions to PJC culture and staff development. Monisha also shares a few reflections in this video.

From its beginning, Monisha embraced the PJC’s Race Equity Project with thoughtful, unflinching engagement, including a critical eye and ear that helped us respond to the voices of all staff and the communities with which we partner. As one example of her commitment, our Education Stability Project was the first of our projects to use a deliberate and deliberative race equity analysis to completely refocus its mission and goals through a community-driven exploration of what was most needed. Created in the 1980s to enforce homeless children’s education rights under federal law, the very small project had spent a couple of decades on that effort, using all the lawyering tools at the local and state levels. Monisha took over the project late in that period and led our advocacy with intention to the point where violations of those rights in Maryland became rare and we can mostly count on the state agency to address enforcement. It’s rare to “solve” a social problem that definitively, and it created the opportunity to seek a new focus to meet the demands of Marylanders concerned about their children’s educational needs. Since 2017, the project has attacked school pushout – the illegal and excessive use of suspension, expulsion, and transfers to alternative schools – that disproportionately impacts Black and brown students and students with disabilities throughout the state. In just a few years, the project has already worked with many students to return them to their classrooms and allow them to graduate, improved local school district policies, stopped policies allowing involuntary placements in alternative schools, helped pass laws preventing pushout of very young students, and more. This is what the community called for, and Monisha led the effort to respond.

As a member of the PJC’s Workplace Justice Project, Monisha led litigation to achieve significant settlements to recover workers’ unpaid wages and change employer practices to ensure they pay workers fully. In Aguilar et al. v. David E. Harvey Builders, Inc. et al., nearly five years of litigation culminated in a week-long federal court trial in which the PJC prevailed on behalf of 11 construction workers. Monisha brought deep experience in wage theft litigation to her first federal trial, demonstrating fast problem-solving and grace under pressure as the judge and the two sets of defendants put her through her paces. We ended up winning on every major claim, and in January 2024, our clients were finally paid the wages they were owed for work they performed approximately six years ago, plus an equal amount in liquidated damages. In addition to this victory, Monisha represented 34 former employees of Mo’s Seafood restaurants alongside co-counsel Brown, Goldstein & Levy to secure a $1 million settlement for the restaurants’ failure to pay minimum wage and overtime. She also worked with Murphy Anderson and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to settle a case alleging unpaid wages and employment discrimination against a construction company. Approximately 250 workers were eligible for payments under the terms of the settlement, which totals approximately $1,050,000 for the workers. The employer also agreed to make changes to certain employment practices.

Beyond wage theft litigation, Monisha led the PJC’s work to achieve a groundbreaking settlement in a case to reform Maryland’s unemployment insurance system. The PJC and Gallagher Evelius & Jones filed the lawsuit Gorres, et al v. Robinson against the Maryland Department of Labor on behalf of six Marylanders who experienced several problems with the unemployment system, including long delays in processing benefits applications; long and unexplained interruptions in benefits; and overpayment notices that required people to repay tens of thousands of dollars in benefits without an opportunity to be heard or appeal. The settlement makes critical reforms to address delays and interruptions in benefits payments and ensure fair process related to overpayments. The changes are expected to benefit tens of thousands of jobless workers in Maryland for years to come.

Finally, Monisha has had a positive influence on PJC culture and staff development. She has mentored numerous PJC attorneys and embodied egoless leadership in countless ways, such as showing kindness and an eagerness to include others, staying cool under pressure, questioning assumptions, and producing high quality work. Workplace Justice attorney Lucy Zhou describes Monisha’s impact:

I’m incredibly sad to lose Monisha as a colleague, but also so grateful to have been able to work with and learn from her. She has a tireless work ethic, razor-sharp intellect, and genuine compassion for her clients and coworkers. Working on our first federal trial together will always be one of the highlights of my professional career—I can’t imagine a better mentor and teammate to have gone through that experience with. Observing Monisha in action has changed the way I approach my own work, for the better, and I’ll continue to strive to follow her example even when she’s no longer at PJC.

For the many ways Monisha has advanced justice in Maryland schools and workplaces and shaped the PJC as an organization, we say thank you. We wish her all the best and look forward to seeing how she continues to make change in her new position.