published Monday, July 20th, 2009

Chattanooga attorney gets national recognition


by Monica Mercer
Audio clip

Harry Burnette

People are discriminated against for their religion even in the Bible Belt, says longtime labor and employment law attorney Harry Burnette.

He should know. Concentrating in the area of labor and employment law since 1974, Mr. Burnette has tackled just about every work-related discrimination case one could think of.

Many of those cases have gone beyond the classic struggles based on age and race, Mr. Burnette said, such as people being discriminated against for being devout Christians and even for being American.

"We've had so many cases where normal people would go like, 'Wow, that shouldn't happen,'" Mr. Burnette said recently from his office at Burnette, Dobson and Pinchak in downtown Chattanooga.

Mr. Burnette's body of work recently won him recognition from the national College of Labor and Employment Lawyers in Washington, D.C. The 61-year-old lawyer will be inducted into the prestigious organization in November, joining about 1,000 members across the country. Members must have at least 20 years of experience and proven excellence in the field.

Mr. Burnette is the first lawyer to be inducted from Chattanooga, a town with a long history of labor issues and many attorneys working on a constant stream of work-related disputes.

"Mr. Burnette has done a great deal of good work," said Maurice Wexler, a longtime Memphis attorney who currently is the president of the college and helped nominate Mr. Burnette.

Mr. Burnette describes his career as both rewarding and very difficult. Something that seems as cut and dry as age discrimination in a work place, for example, is not easy to prove by legal standards, he said.

And because he has chosen to represent individuals who have been wronged by big companies and organizations throughout the years, his job only has been tougher.

"The (defense attorneys) in discrimination cases are excellent," he said. "They frequently have an unlimited budget and all they have to do is convince one juror. If I don't convince them all, I don't win."

Mr. Burnette said he turns down about 90 percent of the cases that come to his front door, but those he takes he knows he can win.

He and one of his partners, Donna Mikel, recently won a rare reverse discrimination case against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on behalf of a former school police officer who claimed he was harassed by his black superiors and eventually fired because he was white.

"I'm just amazed that, in this day and age, reverse discrimination exists, and I am befuddled that discrimination exists at all. The reality is, it still does," Mr. Burnette said in April when a Hamilton County jury delivered its unanimous verdict.

During the trial, a black supervisor on the school police force testified that "black people don't like white people."

Although Mr. Burnette began his career working on behalf of companies that are sued for discrimination, he said his heart is in helping individuals. That passion might have been born with his grandfather George Forbes, Chattanooga's former assistant postmaster who traveled the country making speeches in the 1940s in support for the federal minimum wage and hour act, Mr. Burnette said.

"I've never felt that Goliath needed much help," Mr. Burnette said. "Those needing the most help are the Davids."

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