2014 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Robert A. Canino

Pioneered the use of civil rights laws to try human trafficking cases when criminal enforcement and labor laws proved ineffective in defending foreign-born and intellectually disabled workers who were abused and exploited.

During nearly three decades as a litigation attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Robert Canino has never retreated from the government’s fight for justice and equality in the workplace.

With a fierce commitment to the underdog, Canino possesses the rare ability to think outside the box, enabling him to bring innovative cases against employers and uphold the laws against discrimination.

“He has been the single most creative attorney we have. What he’s done has been a reaffirmation of equal opportunity and fairness,” said P. David Lopez, general counsel of the EEOC. “He’s been a leader and my hero in helping out the most vulnerable people in society.”

Canino has used civil rights litigation to improve conditions in the workplace and to obtain millions of dollars in damages for victims of discrimination.

Traditionally, human trafficking has been seen as a criminal problem, but law enforcement often has been remiss in actively pursuing these cases. Beginning around 2000, Canino found ways to bring human trafficking into the realm of the EEOC, pushing the courts to view the issue through the lens of the civil employment law involving race, national origin or disability, filling a huge void and impacting thousands of lives.

In one hugely significant case against the John Pickle Co. of Oklahoma, a manufacturer of oil industry parts, Canino obtained a $1.2 million judgment in 2006 to compensate 52 skilled workers from India for damages from racial discrimination. The EEOC alleged that the company forced them to sleep in a crowded warehouse behind barbed wire fences, used an armed guard to limit their freedom, addressed them with ethnic slurs and grossly underpaid them.

In a case Canino brought against Henry’s Turkey Service in Iowa, the EEOC in 2013 obtained the largest jury verdict in its history for discrimination against 32 mentally challenged men paid only $65 per month.

The men, originally brought from institutions for the developmentally disabled in Texas to eviscerate turkeys, were segregated and housed in a squalid converted 100-year-old schoolhouse for much of their lives. Victims reported enduring verbal and physical abuse, including being called “retarded” and “stupid” and being forced to carry heavy weights as punishment when they did not work fast enough. The operator also took advantage of a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay subminimum wages to employees with disabilities.

“These men suffered isolation and exploitation for many years, while their employer cruelly consumed the fruits of their labor,” Canino said when the jury announced its $240 million verdict. The final total judgment, including wages, was later reduced to $3.4 million because of a federal cap on damages assessed against small companies.

“Our society has come a long way in learning how persons with intellectual disabilities should be fully integrated into the mainstream workplace, without having to compromise their human dignity,” he said.

Canino also led a successful investigation and lawsuit against a former long distance operator service for enforcing an English-only ban in its offices. Premier Operator Services of Texas employed bilingual Mexican-Americans as telephone operators for non-English-speaking customers, but forbid the workers to speak Spanish when speaking to each other. When they refused, Premier fired them. The court ruling in 2000 caused many companies to change English-only policies.

“When we think of Robert, we think of somebody who is very passionate about protecting the rights of people, especially people who are mistreated,” said Lucy Rojas, an EEOC administrative judge.

Canino admits to having a keen sense of mission. “I’m a civil rights attorney who works for the federal government. My job is to help people who don’t have the resources or knowledge to help themselves. That’s a dream job,” he said. “I’ve had a number of opportunities to leave government, but I always think, ‘I couldn’t be in a better place.’”

His choice of career was undoubtedly influenced by his parents. His father, from Puerto Rico, has actively participated in civil rights causes since moving to the U.S. mainland. His mother, a Mexican-American, went to law school after finishing college in mid-life.

Canino’s own legal career began at an insurance defense and medical malpractice firm, but he left, dissatisfied, after a year. “I realized I wasn’t on the right side of the case sometimes. Leaving the private sector to become a public servant felt really good. In public service we are not focused on the ‘business end,’ but on our drive to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Bringing a lawsuit is also a way of educating the public, another of Canino’s passions.

“The Pickle case educated America that this actually happens in this country. To see that, right here in our own backyard, was so disturbing,” he said.

Despite his fierce commitment to advocacy, colleagues describe him as humble, trusting and respectful of all. Oklahoma attorney Jim Priest, who has represented defendants before the EEOC said, “I was thoroughly impressed with the vigor in which he embraced his responsibilities. It was more than a job; it was a passion for justice. But it wasn’t unbridled zeal. He had great perspective.”