5 BigLaw Sex Bias Cases To Watch In 2020

Posted January 1st, 2020.

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By Vin Gurrieri

Law360 (January 1, 2020, 12:04 PM EST) — As the #MeToo movement has gained traction, a growing number of lawyers and legal professionals are calling out BigLaw powerhouses for alleged discrimination and sexual harassment.

Although not mirror images of each other, the high-profile allegations levied against law firms generally hit many similar notes — some combination of claims alleging gender discrimination, sexual harassment, bias in pay and promotions, and discrimination based on pregnancy.

Mike Delikat, who chairs Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP’s worldwide employment law practice and who represents several major law firms in matters involving such issues, said the cases lodged over the past year against law firms and individual attorneys “make clear that law firms have in fact experienced their #MeToo moment.”

But he also pointed out that public filings don’t tell the full tale as many claims by attorneys and legal professionals are resolved confidentially before any legal action is taken.

“The cases filed and publicized understate the dimensions of the issue as a multiple of similar claims have been brought forward and resolved without public filings,” Delikat said. “The message for law firms is clear: More proactivity on pay and promotion issues through privileged audits, effective and interactive training on harassment issues, and the willingness to take prompt and effective remedial action should be at the top of the law firm management agenda for 2020.”

Here, Law360 looks at five high-profile sex bias battles involving prestigious firms and where they stand as 2020 gets underway.

Doe et al. v. Morrison & Foerster LLP

When Filed: April 2018 in the Northern District of California.

Who Filed: The initial complaint was filed by three unnamed California-based MoFo employees, led by Jane Doe 1. It was later amended to include seven Jane Doe plaintiffs. MoFo associate Sherry A. William eventually revealed herself to be Jane Doe 1 while another of the plaintiffs identified herself in court filings as Linklaters U.S. fintech group leader Joshua Ashley Klayman.

The Allegations: The proposed class action accuses MoFo of underpaying women relative to their male peers and consigning pregnant attorneys to a less lucrative “mommy track” that hinders their pay and advancement prospects and sometimes leads to them losing their jobs.

What’s Next: Although five unidentified Doe claimants recently dismissed their claims after reaching an undisclosed settlement with the firm, Klayman and William are proceeding with their gender and maternity discrimination claims. The parties said in a recent status report to the court that the plaintiffs expect to soon file a motion for class and collective certification, and that MoFo plans to file a motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims. Discovery is ongoing.

Tolton et al. v. Jones Day

When Filed: April 2019 in the District of Columbia.

Who Filed: Former Jones Day associates Nilab Rahyar Tolton and Andrea Mazingo, along with four then-unnamed plaintiffs. Since then, attorneys Meredith Williams, Saira Draper and Jaclyn Stahl — formerly Jane Does 1, 2 and 3 — have attached their names to the suit after Jones Day sought for months to make them give up their pseudonyms. Another attorney, Katrina Henderson, an in-house Amazon Studios lawyer, was also among the attorneys who opted into the suit. Jane Doe 4 dropped out as a named plaintiff.

The Allegations: The plaintiffs say that Jones Day fostered a sexist workplace culture that left female lawyers lagging when it came to pay, promotions and development opportunities. The associates also claim that the firm devalues and pushes women out when they have children.

What’s Next: Jones Day has asked U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss for partial judgment to eliminate various allegations from the suit. Meanwhile, the female lawyers suing the firm have asked that their suit be allowed to move forward as a conditionally certified collective action. Those requests are pending.

Jones Day has also asked for sanctions against the plaintiffs and their Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP counsel, accusing them of making up their pay discrimination claims out of “whole cloth.” Briefing on that issue will wrap in late January.

Savignac et al. v. Jones Day et al.

When Filed: August 2019 in the District of Columbia.
Who Filed: Former Jones Day associates Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff.

The Allegations: Savignac and Sheketoff, who are married, accused the firm of maintaining an illegal parental leave policy that affords biological mothers more paid time off than biological fathers. They also accused the firm of retaliating against them because they complained about the policy and underpaying Sheketoff because of her sex.

What’s Next: Jones Day, which has maintained that its family leave policy is legal, has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Briefing related to the motion is ongoing.

Guerrero v. DLA Piper

When Filed: A charge was filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October, and several related EEOC charges were filed a short time later. No federal court suit has been filed.

Who Filed: The lead EEOC charge was filed by DLA partner Vanina Guerrero. A second charge was filed by an anonymous woman who identified herself as a former DLA Piper human resources representative. A third EEOC charge was filed by Andrea Ivan, a onetime administrative assistant at the firm.

The Allegations: Guerrero says that Louis Lehot, co-head of the firm’s U.S. emerging growth and venture capital practice, sexually assaulted her on several occasions and that DLA Piper retaliated against her when she complained of mistreatment. Lehot has denied the allegations. The second charge, filed by a woman under the pseudonym Jane Smith, alleges she was fired shortly after standing up for a female administrative assistant who had drawn Lehot’s ire. Ivan says that Lehot orchestrated her firing because of her age and appearance, and she accused the firm of age and sex discrimination and retaliation.

What’s Next: In filing charges with the EEOC, the women have urged the agency to investigate their claims as a class action.

When the EEOC receives a charge, it kicks off a process in which the agency looks into whether reasonable cause exists that unlawful discrimination took place. If the agency determines that reasonable cause exists, it invites the parties to engage in presuit conciliation, which, if unsuccessful in resolving the matter, can lead the agency to sue. Charging parties can also sue on their own if the EEOC doesn’t pursue litigation or fails to find reasonable cause of unlawful conduct.

DLA Piper placed Guerrero on leave while it investigates allegations that she “harassed” a colleague, and it cut ties with Lehot in mid-October. Attorneys for DLA Piper have publicly disputed the allegations and said they would respond through the EEOC process.

Jones v. Fox Rothschild LLP
When Filed: December 2019 in the Southern District of New York.
Who Filed: Former Fox Rothschild legal assistant Stephanie Jones.

The Allegations: Jones claimed that she was subjected to years of sexual harassment by employment lawyer Ian Siminoff, including allegations that he sexually assaulted her, fondled her without consent and sent her a copious amount of obscene text messages. Jones also said that another labor and employment lawyer, who wasn’t named as a defendant, publicly humiliated her by singing a sexually laced song about her around the office and that the firm fostered a work environment that was rife with gender discrimination by not adequately addressing concerns she raised about the harassment she endured.

What’s Next: Although Jones’ suit was just filed and Fox Rothschild hasn’t yet had an opportunity to officially respond through court filings, the firm issued a statement through its general counsel Thomas Paradise hours after Jones’ allegations became public saying it had fired Siminoff and that it was “disturbed” by the allegations Jones laid out. But the firm also pushed back against Jones’ contention that it doesn’t take harassment complaints seriously, saying her suit contains “inaccuracies” and that Fox Rothschild “conducts thorough investigations” of any harassment reports it receives.

–Editing by Jill Coffey and Adam LoBelia.

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