Joseph M. Sellers is co-chair of the firm’s Civil Rights & Employment practice, a practice he founded, and the former chair of the firm’s Executive Committee. In a career spanning nearly four decades, Mr. Sellers has represented victims of discrimination and other illegal employment practices individually and through class actions. He brings to his practice a deep commitment and broad background in fighting discrimination in all its forms. That experience includes decades of representing clients in litigation to enforce their civil rights, participating in drafting and efforts to pass landmark civil rights legislation, testifying before Congress on various civil rights issues, training government lawyers on the trial of civil rights cases, teaching civil rights law at various law schools and lecturing extensively on civil rights and employment matters.
Mr. Sellers, who joined the firm in 1997, has been practicing civil rights law for more than 40 years, during which time he has represented individuals and classes of people who have been victims of civil rights violations or denied other rights in the workplace. He has tried to judgment before courts and juries several civil rights class actions and a number of individual cases and has argued more than 30 appeals in the federal and state appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court. He has served as class counsel, and typically lead counsel, in more than 75 civil rights and employment class actions.
His clients have included persons denied the rights and opportunities of employment because of race, national origin, religion, age, disability and sex, including sexual orientation and identity. He has represented victims of race discrimination in the denial of equal access to credit, in the rates charged for insurance and in the equal access to health clubs, retail stores, restaurants and other public places. He has challenged housing discrimination on the basis of race and the denial of housing and public accommodations to people with disabilities.
Some of the noteworthy matters he has handled include: Walmart v. Dukes (U.S. S.Ct.), delivered argument on behalf of class of women who alleged sex discrimination in pay and promotions in case establishing new rules governing class certification; Randolph v. Greentree Financial (U.S. S.Ct.), delivered argument on behalf of consumer challenging enforcement of arbitration agreement in case establishing rules governing the enforceability of arbitration agreements; Beck. v. Boeing Company (W.D. Wash.), co-lead counsel on behalf of class of more than 28,000 women employees alleging sex discrimination in pay and overtime decisions; Conway, et al. v. Deutsch (E.D. Va.), co-lead counsel on behalf of class of female covert case officers at the CIA alleging sex discrimination in promotions and job assignments; Johnson, et al. v. Freeh (D.D.C.), co-lead counsel on behalf of class of African-American FBI special agents alleging racial discrimination in promotion and job assignments; Keepseagle v. Veneman (D.D.C.), lead counsel on behalf of class of Native American farmers and ranchers alleging denial of equal access to credit by USDA; Neal v. Director, D.C. Dept. of Corrections (D.D.C.), co-lead counsel in which he tried first sexual harassment class action to a jury, on behalf of a class of women correctional employees and women and men subject to retaliation; Doe v. D.C. Fire Department (D.D.C.), in which he established after trial that an applicant with HIV could properly serve as a firefighter; Floyd-Mayers v. American Cab Co. (D.D.C.), in which he represented persons who alleged they were denied taxi service because of their race and the race of the residents at the location to which they asked to be driven; and Trotter, et al. v. Perdue Farms (D. Del.), lead counsel on behalf of chicken processing workers alleging violations of federal wage and hour and employee benefits law.
Prior to joining Cohen Milstein, Mr. Sellers served for over 15 years as the Director of the Employment Discrimination Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an organization providing pro bono representation in a broad range of civil rights and related poverty issues. He was a member of the transition teams of Obama/Biden in 2008 and Clinton/Gore in 1992 and 1993, and served as a Co-Chair of the Special Committee on Race and Ethnicity of the D.C. Circuit Task Force on Gender, Race and Ethnic Bias to which he was appointed by the judges of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In 2018, Mr. Sellers was appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States to the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules of the Judicial Conference of the United States. Established by the Supreme Court in 1935, Advisory Committees on the Rules of Appellate, Bankruptcy, Civil, Criminal Procedure, and the Rules of Evidence carry on a continuous study of the rules and recommend changes to the Judicial Conference through a Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure.
Throughout his career, Mr. Sellers has also been active in legislative matters. He helped to draft and worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009. He has testified more than 20 times before Committees of the United States Senate and House of Representatives on various civil rights and employment matters.
A teacher and mentor, Mr. Sellers has trained lawyers at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice on the trial of civil rights cases and was an Adjunct Professor at the Washington College of Law at American University, where he taught Employment Discrimination law, and at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he taught Professional Responsibility. In addition, he has lectured extensively throughout the country on various civil rights and employment topics. Mr. Sellers is also a professionally trained mediator and has served as the President of the Washington Council of Lawyers.
Mr. Sellers has been recognized as one of the top lawyers in Washington and as one of the top plaintiffs’ employment lawyers in the U.S. In 2010, The National Law Journal named Mr. Sellers one of “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers”; in 2011, The Legal Times named him a “Legal Visionary”; and in 2017, American Lawyer recognized him as “A Giant of the Plaintiffs Bar.” Other prestigious recognitions include the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs awarded Mr. Sellers the Wiley Branton Award for leadership in civil rights (2012); Lawdragon named him a “Lawdragon Legend” (2016) for being ranked one of the top 500 lawyers in the U.S. for 10 consecutive years; the NAACP honored him with the “Foot Soldier in the Sand Award” (2018) for his “willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty”; Legal500 has named him a “Leading Lawyer” in plaintiff-side employment law since 2020; and Law360 named him a “2021 MVP – Employment Law,” recognizing him as one of the top five most influential employment lawyers in the U.S.
Mr. Sellers received his B.A. in American History and Literature from Brown University, and earned his J.D. from Case Western Reserve School of Law, where he served as Research Editor of the Case Western Reserve Law Review.
- Adjunct Professor, Washington College of Law, American University
- Lecturer, Georgetown University Law Center
- Guest Lecturer on Civil Rights to Chinese legal officials, Ford Foundation and American Bar Association
- Trainer of lawyers on civil rights cases, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Justice