The Good Fight

June 5, 2024 · By David Sandler
Vonda Sargent
Attorney Vonda Sargent David Sandler

With courage and determination, attorney Vonda M. Sargent ’94 has become one of the state’s foremost civil rights litigators by taking tough cases that expose racism in the judicial system

This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Spring 2024.

To her clients, Vonda M. Sargent ’94 is a fierce and unrelenting advocate for justice. To her fellow attorneys, she is a highly skilled, strategic, and principled attorney who is a virtuoso in the courtroom. To opposing counsel, she is a formidable and fearless opponent who they underestimate at their peril.

Of the many qualities that make Sargent an exceptional lawyer, one quality in particular explains why she is among Washington state’s most brilliant and pathbreaking civil rights litigatorsher courage.

Vonda is one of the most courageous people I know. She takes on some of the most powerful institutions, which is a tall order. When she takes a case, she gives it everything she has. That’s what champions are made of,” said William S. Bailey, a close friend and colleague who has known Sargent for more than 20 years

As a Black woman in a mostly white profession who has successfully managed her own practice for nearly two decades, Sargent’s willingness to accept tough cases – often representing clients of color with limited means and virtually no voicehas helped force the legal system to reckon with continuing and persistent racism and bias and implement necessary and overdue reforms

Law as a calling

Sargent and her family knew from an early age that she was wired to fight injustice. At just 4 years old, she remembers seeing footage of a civil rights protest on television in the late 1960s

What struck me was when we watched police officers beating and hosing down Black people. I turned to my father and asked him, ‘How is this happening? What is going on? And he said, ‘This is happening because we don’t have any Black judges,” she said. He knew that there was no one in the system to protect us. There were just white prosecutors, white juries, and white judges.”

Ken Sargent, her brother and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, remembers the qualities his sister displayed when they were growing up that foreshadowed her career as a tenacious advocate.

She was small back then, but she never backed down. If she believed that something was right, she would stand by it,” he said.That’s the way she is built. She sees the underdog, things that are not right or correct, both morally and ethically, and she feels a visceral need to fight on others’ behalf.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree on a full scholarship from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington – where she was one of just nine Black students – Sargent later enrolled in Seattle University School of Law (then University of Puget Sound School of Law) after a break to travel and work. Her start was a bit rocky

“It was difficult, in part because I didn’t have a sense of what to expect. It took me awhile to figure out the concepts, she said.

To succeed in law school, Sargent cultivated a circle of trusted faculty who encouraged her along the way, including Dean Emerita and Professor Emerita Annette Clark, who taught Sargent in a first-year civil procedure class. 

“I don’t remember all of my students, but I definitely remember Vonda and her grit and willingness to wrestle with difficult subject matter,Clark said. “In her first semester, she struggled, which is not at all unusual for first-year law students, since civil procedure is one of the most challenging courses. 

But what I remember is her absolute determination that she was not going to let the material defeat her. She worked really hard at it, and by the time the second semester rolled around, Vonda had become one of my best students.” 

Charting a new course

For close to 20 years, Sargent has owned and operated her own solo practice, where she represents plaintiffs in civil rights, police misconduct, insurance bad faith, and personal injury cases

Reaching this point in her career where she can take cases that feed her passion for the law has required courage both to try new areas of practice and to pivot when she felt it was necessary

During and after law school, Sargent clerked with the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division II, and the Washington Supreme Court under then-Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, after which she received an employment offer from a large law firm

“Before I left [the clerkship], Justice Alexander told me this was not the right job for me,” she recalled. He said, ‘You are a trial lawyer, you need to be trying cases.’ But the money enticed me.”

Sargent quickly realized that her mentor had been correct. As a young associate, she wasn’t given much work, and in the early 90’s, the law firm culture was not particularly welcoming to people of color, so she left

Following this, Sargent served for several years as a deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County, where she gained her first significant courtroom experience, prosecuting felony and misdemeanor cases. Something clicked, and although Sargent was initially “scared to death” after being tossed into court during her first week, she quickly found that litigation energized her.

“I enjoyed being in the courtroom,” she said. It was kind of like a battle. I liked engaging in strategy and having to persuade a jury of the strength of my cases.

Sargent then transitioned to the civil realm as defense counsel for insurance companies. She credits fellow attorneys and friends Steve Fury and Bailey for helping her realize that representing plaintiffs in civil actions better aligned with her interests and values and encouraging her to make a change

A natural

In 2005, she took a leap of faith and officially launched her own firm, the Law Offices of Vonda M. Sargent

Striking out on my own was terrifying at first,” she said. I wasn’t getting paid, and it can be years when you start a practice before you get paid. Thankfully, my brother stepped in and loaned me money so I could keep at it, and Steve and Bill were crucial.”

They each referred complex cases to Sargent in the beginning, which provided steady revenue, giving her time to establish her practice. She focused initially on personal injury cases, and then started accepting clients with bad faith insurance claims. 

“What Vonda has achieved is incredible. She has proved that she was destined for better things and has worked hard to capitalize on her natural gifts to reach this point,” said Bailey, who formerly co-taught courses with Sargent at Seattle U Law and is now an assistant teaching professor at University of Washington School of Law. 

With each passing year, Sargent burnished her reputation by winning cases, enabling her practice to flourish.

“She is simply spectacular in the courtroom,” said Susan Mindenbergs, a fellow attorney who has served as co-counsel on several cases with Sargent. “She is able to connect with juries in all aspects. And she doesn’t hesitate to call out judges and others in open court if she feels there may be bias. That takes a great deal of courage.”

“I think she is a remarkably capable lawyer who has excellent instincts for what is persuasive in arguing a case,” Fury said.

Taking on civil rights

In the last 10 years, Sargent has expanded her practice to include difficult, complex, and high-profile civil rights cases. She often represents Black clients who come from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. This work is now at the heart of her practice, and two landmark cases are emblematic of her courage in taking on thorny, systemic issues such as racism in law enforcement and in the judicial system.

In the case of Wingate v. Whitlatch, Sargent filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Seattle and a Seattle Police Department officer over a highly publicized 2014incident in which her client, William Wingate,a then-69-year-old Black veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was arrested and jailed for allegedly threatening a police officer with a golf club he was using as a walking cane as he crossed a street.

Sargent discovered racist email and text messages sent by the officer after the arrest, and at trial, she systematically dismantled the officer’s account and ensuing testimony, arguing that the arrest was racially motivated.

The federal jury ultimately agreed with Sargent that the officer had violated Wingate’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law, and the judge awarded substantial damages to her client (the city had been dropped as a defendant)

Attorneys like Vonda are vital to holding the system accountable and making it more just by bringing cases like this that expose racism and bias,” Bailey said. 

Everything is a fight

The most significant case of Sargent’s career so far began as a routine personal injury matter, but it became much more consequential when overt racial discrimination was exhibited during the trial

The case, Henderson v. Thompson, began when the car driven by Sargent’s client, Janelle Henderson, was rear-ended by another driver. Despite admitting fault, the opposing legal counsel refused to offer any compensation for the defendant’s negligence. In response, Sargent filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for Henderson’s extensive and permanent physical injuries, loss of her vehicle, and other damages.

“From the beginning, the defense hotly contested this case, accusing my client of overstating her injuries. They followed her around, filming her and gathering 80 hours of surveillance footage, and then cherry picked 17 minutes that depicted her in a way favorable to the defense,” Sargent said.

They were two Black women, seeking justice in a case where the defense counsel, defendant, jury, and judge were all white. As the trial progressed, the defense attorneys resorted to using racist tropes to win over the jury.

“They painted my client as being combative, and painted me as being fearsome, arguing that Black women are inherently untrustworthy, Sargent said.

The jury returned a verdict of only $9,200 for Henderson. Flabbergasted by such a tiny amount in relation to her client’s damages, Sargent moved for a new trial on the grounds that racial bias had affected the verdict, but the trial judge refused to grant an evidentiary hearing on her motion. 

According to a transcript of the proceedings, the judge stated that she could not “require attorneys to refrain from using language that is tied to the evidence in the case, even if in some contexts the language has racial overtones.

Sargent saw this shocking result through the lens of her experience as a Black woman working in the legal profession, which can invite implicit, and sometimes explicit, racism and sexism. 

Carol Farr, her co-counsel on the case, explained, “Vonda gets a lot of guff in our legal system because of who she is. Everything seems to always be a fight for her. People seem to respond to her with fear and dislike just because she’s Black. They look down on her and her clients, and she often gets insanely low settlement offers as a result.”

“It’s difficult for a Black woman in our system to get justice for clients,” Bailey said. “It’s not fair. Vonda knows what she’s up against, but she doesn’t shy away. She is always willing to fight for what is right.”

It is this history of racism that drives Sargent to seek greater equity in the justice system for people of color. In this case, she was determined to obtain a ruling that would change the system by acknowledging that racism is still prevalent in courtrooms across the state. She took her argument directly to the Washington Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. 

In a previous ruling, the court had established a new test for when a hearing is required on a new trial motionwhether an “objective observer” could identify racial bias as a factor in who is selected for juries, who is convicted, and/or who wins in court. Until Sargent brought her case before the court, the new standard only applied to criminal cases.

Now, as a result of Sargent’s efforts, the court in Henderson extended the “objective observer” test to civil trials: “A trial court must hold a hearing on a new trial motion when the proponent makes a prima facie showing that this objective observer could view race as a factor in the verdict, regardless of whether intentional misconduct has been shown or the court believes there is another explanation,” Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis wrote in the majority opinion.

Crucially, as part of the decision, the court ruled that the burden of proof now falls on the prevailing party to prove that racism did not factor into the jury’s verdict. Before, the losing party bore this burden.

“This ruling is so important. It recognizes the issues in our judicial system as they relate to Black people,” Sargent said. And it found that explicit, racially charged language is not necessary for racism to be present. The defense never used this kind of explicit language, but it was clear what they were trying to do.”

Moving forward

Although the court ordered a new trial in October of 2022, a trial date has still not been set. And recently, Sargent’s record of winning motions in other cases has significantly worsened. Both may not be coincidental.

Since Henderson, there has been what appears to be retaliation from the courts,” Farr said. “In some of our recent cases, the judges have seemed hostile. Vonda has definitely experienced fallout as a result of this ruling.

According to Bailey, “Vonda has to be twice as good because of the headwinds of discrimination blowing against her and other attorneys of color, as the Washington Supreme Court has acknowledged. But she has a composure and a dignified bearing and strength that always come through even in the face of this discrimination.

Despite the larger racial issues she has confronted throughout her career, Sargent always remembers who she is fighting for her clients.

Henderson, Sargent’s client, said it best. “This case has changed my life, both physically and emotionally. Vonda’s main goal has always been to put me back together and heal my spirit, to make me better than I was before the accident. She really cares about what she’s fighting for, and she will never stop fighting

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