October 3, 2017

When Geoffrey Bowers, a member of Cardozo’s class of ’82, was fired from his law firm in the late 1980s, he hired two fellow classmates to represent him in what would become one of the most significant court cases ever involving workplace discrimination.

Cardozo alumni Robert Balsam ‘82 and Daniel Felber ‘82 spoke about their roles in the case at Cardozo’s OUTlaw Alumni reunion September 19.

After starting a small law firm together in 1987, Robert Balsam and Daniel Felber, were contacted by Bowers, who asked them to represent him in a case against his former employer. Bowers had been fired by the law firm Baker & McKenzie. Bowers, a gay man who had been diagnosed with HIV, claimed the firm fired him once he began showing physical symptoms of the disease.

Bowers subsequently filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights alleging discrimination. It took over six years for the case to finally be resolved. Bowers lost his battle with the disease during that time, but ultimately won the case. Baker & McKenzie appealed but subsequently withdrew the appeal in 1995 after they negotiated a confidential settlement with Bowers' family.

The story ended up in the hands of the production team who created the movie Philadelphia. A lawsuit ensued after the movie was released, as Bowers’ family claimed real-life events were used for the movie’s plotlines and not credited to Geoffrey or the family.

That lawsuit was settled in 1996. 

The story made headlines in the late 1980s and brought discrimination in the workplace into the spotlight. 

"It was a real pleasure having Robert and Danny back at Cardozo sharing their story, in particular with students and younger graduates whom might not be as familiar,” said Inez Lano, director of Alumni Affairs. “Together with several members of the class of 1982, including Loretta Gastwirth, they successfully tried one of the first human rights cases in New York. This is a great example of what makes up the fabric of Cardozo Law School."

Rob Doerfler, LL.M. ’08, president of OUTlaw Alumni, said “Thank you for the courage to take the case and tell the story.”

Felber commented that his role in the case, and the case’s impact, holds tremendous meaning. “It’s how you use that 15 minutes of fame that defines you,” he said.