Sue Ann Van Dermyden
Senior Partner, Van Dermyden Maddux Law
Area of Practice: Employment Law
Year Graduated: 1993
As a high school student in North Dakota, Sue Ann Van Dermyden dreamed of life in California; as an undergraduate political science major at California State University, Chico, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer; and as an employment litigator, she dreamed of conducting workplace investigations. Through hard work and determination, Ms. Van Dermyden realized each of these dreams. Today, she is a shareholder at the Van Dermyden Allison Law Corporation in Sacramento, where she is a well-respected employment law attorney and workplace investigator.
Before law school, Ms. Van Dermyden had never known any lawyers and had never set foot in a courtroom. Still, she thrived as a student at University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. "I thought I had terrific professors, and I really loved my classmates," she remembers. During law school, Ms. Van Dermyden received her first taste of employment law as a summer intern at a firm that handled employment insurance defense matters. At the time, however, she didn't know that her own practice would one day revolve around employment law.
Ms. Van Dermyden recalls how she was fortuitously drawn into a career in employment law after she received her J.D. "I didn't pick [employment law]. It was my first job. Like now, there were no jobs at the time. I was assigned to the employment department, and it worked out terrifically ... I was an employment litigator. Essentially my practice was defending employers in discrimination or harassment lawsuits or any other kind of employment-related lawsuit." In 1996, Ms. Van Dermyden joined Schachter Kristoff Orenstein & Berkowitz, a San Francisco-based labor and employment law firm, where she remained until its dissolution and merger with Hanson Bridgett Marcus Vlahos & Rudy in 2000. Although Ms. Van Dermyden eventually made partner at Hanson Bridgett, she decided to leave the firm in 2006 to focus her practice on a specific area of employment law that she had come to love: workplace investigations. "I was in the process of developing a niche that I really wanted to foster," she explains. "I had this vision and this dream, and it didn't fit into the big firm structure."
Ms. Van Dermyden began the next stage of her career as the founding partner of Van Dermyden Block, Attorneys at Law. There, she was able to move her practice away from employment litigation and toward workplace investigations. In 2010, Ms. Van Dermyden started a new venture with the formation of the Van Dermyden Allison Law Corporation, where she remains a shareholder today. Although her current practice consists largely of workplace investigations — not litigation — Ms. Van Dermyden says that her past experience in the litigation setting played a significant role in her success. "Back in the day, I did ten jury trials, all but one as co-counsel. All of those years in employment litigation really set the stage for what I do now," she explains. "Now the practice is primarily workplace investigations, a smaller part advice and counsel, and I do a significant number of training seminars, primarily in the area of workplace investigations ... The role of a workplace investigator has a lot of the same elements as litigation. You're analyzing the employer's policies, just not under the law." Sometimes Ms. Van Dermyden's work requires her to testify in an administrative or judicial proceeding about an investigation she has completed, and she also serves from time to time as an expert witness regarding the adequacy of workplace investigations conducted by others.
Over the course of the past several years, Ms. Van Dermyden has conducted hundreds of workplace investigations. In addition to being a lawyer, she is a licensed private investigator and certified Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigator. Her investigations have covered a wide range of subjects, including workplace violence, harassment, retaliation, discrimination, threats, substance abuse, and allegations of serious criminal activity such as fraud, theft, embezzlement, and assault. She even had one case in which the FBI was conducting a concurrent investigation into a hate crime. "We started out doing basic cases, but now we've expanded our repertoire to include really complex issues within the workplace," Ms. Van Dermyden points out.
In each investigation, Ms. Van Dermyden focuses her inquiry on answering two questions: (1) is it more likely than not that the alleged conduct occurred, and (2) if so, did the conduct violate the company's policies? Although her clients are the companies that she investigates, Ms. Van Dermyden's evaluations are independent, and she does not give her clients recommendations based on her findings. Rather, her job is to report her findings and then allow the client's decision maker to decide what action to take based on those findings. "Primarily, we don't make recommendations because we are not necessarily privy to how similarly situated individuals were treated in the past [by the company]. More importantly, though, recommending discipline converts us from a neutral role to an advocacy role," Ms. Van Dermyden explains. Also, she takes care not to admit illegal conduct in her reports, since an admission could be used against her clients in court. Thus, instead of pointing out where the law has been violated, Ms. Van Dermyden points out only where company policy has been undermined.
Many elements go into each workplace investigation that Ms. Van Dermyden oversees. A thorough investigation requires her, at a minimum, to conduct interviews, review emails, assess documents, and carry out site visits. "We're out of the office more than we're in the office because we're on-site conducting interviews ...," she notes, "and we do an amazing amount of document management and analysis. I just finished an investigative report that had 9,000 documents." Often, as a preliminary matter, Ms. Van Dermyden must also define the scope of the investigation with the client. "It is not unusual for them to begin the investigation and discover that there are issues present other than the ones they knew about coming into the investigation," she explains.
At the conclusion of each investigation, after Ms. Van Dermyden has completed her interviews and analyzed all the relevant documents, she must prepare a comprehensive report of her findings. "The reports are written mostly during the middle of the night," she observes. "They take extended chunks of time." And even after the report is done and in the hands of the client, Ms. Van Dermyden's involvement with the case may not be over. Sometimes, she must appear in court to defend her findings. As an example, she posits the following scenario: "Let's assume that I have a sexual harassment case, and I decide that more likely than not the employee engaged in the conduct, and the employee gets fired. Then the employee sues, and I become a witness in the lawsuit. I am challenged by one or both parties, whoever doesn't like my findings. One of the things they go for is that I am biased in favor of the employer. That is a very common challenge for us that we have to overcome. We just have to show that we engaged in a good faith process."
Of course, workplace investigations do not take up all of Ms. Van Dermyden's time at work. "Sprinkled in are all the administrative things you do by owning a law firm," she says, "and we do a lot of training and some advice and counsel." Outside of the office, Ms. Van Dermyden holds several leadership positions in the Association of Workplace Investigators (AWI), of which she is also a founding member, and she is an active participant in the Anthony M. Kennedy Inn of Court and several other local organizations. Additionally, in the past she has served on the McGeorge Alumni Board as its youngest alumni member.
Although managing a law firm, completing projects, and contributing her time to various organizations and activities leaves Ms. Van Dermyden with few breaks, she is enamored with her work. "There are not enough hours in a day. It's tough, but if you made it through law school, you already know the challenges of the profession ...," she says. "The good news is that I love what I do, and that's really the only way you can work these crazy hours." Ms. Van Dermyden especially enjoys the intellectual challenges that her job provides. "It's a big mystery, and you put the pieces of the puzzle together, and you get to present a tool for the decision maker to use to make an informed decision," she explains. She also likes that she and her partner, Deborah Allison, can take action within their firm without having to navigate a bureaucratic system. "My partner and I can make decisions very quickly and efficiently, as opposed to spending hours on meetings in the big firms. We can have a vision, and we can implement it immediately," she points out. "We can be as creative as we want to be."
Ms. Van Dermyden notes that there are several skills that are crucial to success as a workplace investigator: "You have to have a very strong analytical mind. You have to be a people person. You have to be an avid listener and a stellar writer." She also believes that employment litigation is necessary preparation for workplace investigation. "I think you have to litigate cases in order to be a good workplace investigator," she says. "However, not every litigator can be a good workplace investigator because you have to convert from an advocate to an independent finder of facts. That's a skill that not every litigator or trial attorney can do. You have to present with far more compassion and caring than you do in the trial environment because you're talking with people about highly sensitive issues."
Ms. Van Dermyden attributes her success as a workplace investigator in large part to her professional image, and she recommends that students keep in mind the importance of upholding a positive reputation. "If I did not maintain good, positive professional relationships with not only co-counsel but also opposing counsel, I would not have the immense referral base I have today ...," she observes. "You cannot be successful without a solid reputation, which includes integrity and civility." The other element of her success, Ms. Van Dermyden notes, is her strong work ethic. "Maintain civility, integrity, and hard work," she recommends. Having followed her own advice, Ms. Van Dermyden has built a reputation for herself as a thorough and knowledgeable workplace investigator, assuring her success for many years to come.