A Short History Of BigLaw Gender Bias Suits

Posted April 5th, 2019.

As It Appeared On

By Natalie Rodriguez

Law360 (April 5, 2019, 9:19 PM EDT) — When a group of former Jones Day associates slammed the law firm with a $300 million gender bias lawsuit on Wednesday, they joined a small but growing community of female attorneys calling out alleged inequities in BigLaw.

While sexual harassment and gender-based pay discrimination suits have long been around, the cases have picked up steam — in numbers, higher-profile targets and higher-ranking plaintiffs — over the last few years. Several of the plaintiffs are represented by David Sanford and attorneys at his firm, Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.

Many of the defendant law firms lack transparency, Sanford said. But few circumstances are unique to a single firm, the overall legal industry or even the corporate world of which it is a part, he added.

“I think it’s incredibly important for courageous attorneys in the legal profession to bring cases to light where there are serious systemic problems,” Sanford said. “As a result of our case and set of cases, we hope and believe that there will be serious change in the legal profession in the next few years that will help rectify these long-simmering problems.”

Here, Law360 takes a look at some of the gender bias suits hitting law firms.

January 2016

In Virginia federal court, former LeClairRyan attorney Michele Burke Craddock filed a lawsuit alleging the law firm had given female attorneys short shrift in compensation, promotion and benefits. Craddock claimed she had been denied origination credit in favor of a male attorney terminated by the client, and that shareholder policies — including a shareholder buy-in rate — were inconsistently enforced to the financial benefit of male shareholders.

In April 2016, LeClairRyan won a bid to have Craddock’s suit sent to arbitration.

OUTCOME: A unanimous American Arbitration Association panel awarded Craddock $1 million after finding that she had been shortchanged as a result of the firm’s discriminatory practices. In October 2018, she asked a Virginia federal court to finalize that award.

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: Harris D. Butler and Paul Falabella of Butler Royals PLC.

CASE DETAILS: Michele Burke Craddock v. LeClairRyan, case number 3:16-cv-00011, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

July 2016

Traci Ribeiro, a Sedgwick LLP non-equity partner in Chicago, filed a proposed class action in San Francisco state court alleging the firm denied women equal pay and promotions that were awarded to male peers. She also claimed the firm retaliated against her after she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In November 2016, a California federal judge reluctantly sent Ribeiro’s suit to arbitration due to an arbitration clause in her partnership agreement. Two months later, Ribeiro dropped her original lead counsel in favor of Sanford Heisler and filed an amended complaint that added an unjust enrichment claim and alleged the firm had retaliated against Ribeiro by not paying for costs to attend a client development meeting.

OUTCOME: In June 2017, Ribeiro agreed to drop the proposed class action after striking a settlement with Sedgwick.

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: David Sanford, Xinying Valerian and Danielle Fuschetti of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.

CASE DETAILS: Traci Ribeiro v. Sedgwick LLP, case number 16-553231, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Francisco.

August 2016

Chadbourne & Parke LLP partner Kerrie Campbell lobbed a $100 million proposed class action in New York federal court against the firm, alleging women were systematically underpaid and kept out of decision-making positions.

Campbell, who was soon after ousted out of the partnership by a firm vote, was later joined in her suit by attorneys Mary Yelenick and Jaroslawa Johnson.

OUTCOME: In March 2018, a Manhattan federal judge signed off on a settlement in which the firm — which had merged with Norton Rose Fulbright in 2017 — agreed to pay $3.1 million.

PLAINTIFFS’ COUNSEL: David W. Sanford, Jeremy Heisler, Andrew Melzer, Alexandra Harwin, Saba Bireda and Jennifer Siegel of Sanford Heisler LLP.

CASE DETAILS: Kerrie Campbell, on behalf of herself and other similarly situated v. Chadbourne & Parke LLP, case number 1:16-cv-06832, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

May 2017

A Proskauer Rose LLP partner, Connie Bertram, lodged a $50 million lawsuit, originally under the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” arguing that the firm paid less qualified male partners up to 65 percent more, subjected her to “sexually suggestive or inappropriate” comments and was hostile when she raised her concerns about compensation. Later, when Bertram identified herself in an April 2017 filing, she also added claims that she had been frozen out of firm business after filing her lawsuit.

OUTCOME: Bertram and Proskauer announced in August 2018 that they had agreed to end the lawsuit. No further details were provided.

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: David Sanford, Kevin Sharp, Vince McKnight, Altomease Kennedy, Kate Mueting, Andrew Melzer and Alexandra Harwin of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.

CASE DETAILS: Doe v. Proskauer Rose LLP, case number 1:17-cv-00901, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Steptoe & Johnson
June 2017

Former Steptoe & Johnson LLP associate Ji-In Houck filed a putative class action in California federal court, claiming that female associates and contract attorneys were underpaid and passed over for promotions and leadership opportunities in favor of male attorneys.

OUTCOME: After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of arbitration clauses in employment agreements, Houck agreed to dismiss her suit and file an individual arbitration suit.

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: Lori E. Andrus, Jennie Lee Anderson and Paul Laprairie of Andrus Anderson LLP.

CASE DETAILS: Houck v. Steptoe & Johnson LLP, case number 2:17-cv-04595-ODW-AFM in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Winston & Strawn
August 2017

Winston & Strawn LLP was sued by former partner Constance Ramos in California state court. Ramos alleged the firm wrongfully cut her salary and withheld a bonus, despite her coming in second for most billable hours. She also claimed she was excluded her from big cases after the male colleague she joined the firm with resigned.

In November 2018, a California appeals court found several flaws in an arbitration agreement Winston & Strawn was attempting to impose on the case. Reversing a San Francisco court’s decision, the three-judge panel said Ramos did not have to arbitrate the case.

STATUS: In February 2019, the California High Court declined Winston & Strawn’s request to review the appellate court’s decision on the arbitration agreement.

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: Noah D. Lebowitz of The Law Office of Noah D. Lebowitz.

CASE DETAILS: Ramos v. Winston & Strawn LLP, case number CGC-17-561025, in the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco.

January 2018

In a big-ticket proposed class action, Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC shareholder Dawn M. Knepper sued the firm for $300 million in California federal court alleging that it favors men over women in pay, promotions and business development opportunities.

In May 2018, three other former Ogletree non-equity shareholders — Jocelyn Campanaro, Angelica Ochoa and Alicia Voltmer — added their names to the lawsuit.

STATUS: In March 2019, Ogletree won a motion to move the case to arbitration.

PLAINTIFFS’ COUNSEL: David Sanford, Jill Sanford, Edward Chapin, Jeremy Heisler, Alexandra Harwin, James E. Richardson and Danielle A. Fuschetti of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.

CASE DETAILS: Dawn Knepper v. Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC, case number 8:19-cv-00060, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Liddle & Robinson
April 2018

Former Liddle & Robinson LLP partner Andrea Paparella lodged a $32 million lawsuit against the firm in New York state court, alleging she had been paid less than her male peers.

STATUS: An individual defendant has been attempting to move the case into federal court. As of March 2019, Paparella was fighting the bid. In conjunction with that effort, she has ditched original claims that she was partially denied benefits from a profit-sharing plan defined by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: Steven Michael Warshawsky of the Warshawsky Law Firm.

CASE DETAILS: Paparella v. Liddle & Robinson LLP et al., case number 1:18-cv-09267, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Ogletree 2
Jan. 24, 2019

Former Ogletree shareholder Tracy Warren filed a lawsuit in California state court claiming the firm underpays women and illegally retaliated against her because she encouraged her female colleagues to lodge complaints about their pay, as well as the discrimination and sexual harassment they endured. Warren had previously tried to enter Knepper’s suit against Ogletree.

STATUS: Ongoing

PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: David Sanford, Jill Sanford, Edward Chapin, Danielle Fuschetti and Leigh Anne St. Charles of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, and Aashish Desai of the Desai Law Firm PC.

CASE DETAILS: Tracy Warren et al. v. Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC et al., case number 37-2019-00004338, in the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego.

Jones Day
April 3, 2019

Former Jones Day associates Nilab Rahyar Tolton and Andrea Mazingo, along with four unnamed plaintiffs, lodged a $200 million suit against the BigLaw firm in Washington, D.C., federal court. The complaint describes a misogynistic culture in which female lawyers get short shrift on pay, promotions and development opportunities. The associates also claim female lawyers with children and those who express concern about the firm’s practices get pushed out. Both named associates worked in the firm’s California office.

STATUS: Ongoing

PLAINTIFFS’ COUNSEL: David Sanford, Deborah Marcuse and Russell Kornblith of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.

CASE DETAILS: Nilab Rahyar Tolton et al. v. Jones Day, case number 1:19-cv-945, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

–Additional reporting by Brandon Lowrey, Vin Guirreri, Andrew Strickler and Aebra Coe. Editing by Emily Kokoll and Alanna Weissman.

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