Posted March 23rd, 2017.
By Andrew Strickler
Law360, New York (March 23, 2017, 9:05 PM EDT) — Facing a $100 million proposed class action accusing the firm of systematic discrimination against women lawyers, Chadbourne & Parke LLP’s D.C. office head pressured other female partners to sign a letter disavowing the allegations, one of the women lawyers suing the firm said in a Thursday filing.
In a declaration to a New York federal court, veteran Chadbourne litigator Mary Yelenick said insurance litigator and office lead Joy Langford approached her in September with a letter opposing the suit and asked her to sign it.
Yelenick, who joined the class action earlier this month, said she refused to put her name on a letter with which she “disagreed strongly.” She said she did not go to a subsequent meeting of female partners the firm convened to address the discrimination suit, but told the court that she believed Langford “repeatedly told partners in attendance to sign the letter.”
“At least two of the partners who signed the letters subsequently expressed to me that they hesitated, but felt great pressure to sign the letter,” Yelenick said.
Days after Yelenick said that meeting was called, a letter signed by 14 Chadbourne women partners, Langford among them, was delivered to plaintiffs’ lawyer David Sanford.
At the time, Sanford represented Kerrie Campbell, a “transition” Chadbourne partner in the firm’s D.C. office. Her proposed class action, first filed last August, accused the 400-attorney firm of excluding her and other female partners from leadership roles and vastly underpaying them, even when they outperformed their male colleagues.
In their letter to Sanford, the 14 equity partners said Sanford had not bothered to speak to them before alleging discrimination on their behalf, and rejected what they said was an inaccurate characterization of them as victims.
Proceeding with the suit “is no less patronizing and patriarchal than what you accuse our male colleagues of having done,” the letter said. “The complaint you crafted makes a group of very accomplished, assertive and intelligent professional women look like they are victims unable to hold their own with their male colleagues.”
In an emailed statement Thursday, the firm denied the existence of a “gender inheritance” for clients at Chadbourne and denied that anyone was pressured to sign the letter.
“[W]omen partners, as well as men, have become successor relationship partners for their colleagues who leave the firm,” the spokesperson said. “Mary Yelenick’s submission to the court also makes other allegations against the firm that are plainly false, including misstating the chronology of events leading to the letter signed by the firm’s female partners and falsely stating that an internal firm meeting which was held days after the letter was sent (which meeting Ms. Yelenick and certain other women partners did not attend) occurred beforehand, when it did not.”
In October, the former managing partner of the firm’s now-shuttered Kiev, Ukraine, office, Jaroslawa Johnson, joined the suit. Campbell then revised her complaint, adding several named defendants and accusing litigation practice head Abbe Lowell of harassing her by putting up a cartoon of “a fat man wearing a bowler hat” in firm offices.
Yelenick, a 35-year Chadbourne veteran and a former product liability practice chair, filed her request to join the suit March 1. She is retired from the partnership and is currently an of counsel.
Her declaration similarly alleges firm leaders gave male “billing partners” millions in additional compensation for work generated by institutional clients, and perpetuated a system in which those clients were passed from male partner to male partner.
Also on Thursday, Chadbourne filed a redacted version of its memo opposing the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification for a collective action under the Equal Pay Act.
The firm argued the plaintiffs don’t identify any policy that is susceptible to an equal pay action or take into account the firm’s actual policies that determine compensation based on qualitative and quantitative factors specific to each partner.
“Plaintiffs do not, and cannot, point to a firm policy governing the payment of partner compensation that is per se discriminatory,” the motion says. “Instead, they rely on relative revenue production (whether originated or allegedly ‘inherited’) and argue, incorrectly, that partner compensation is a function of collections.”
The firm also argued that, as a threshold issue, the plaintiffs are partners and owners of the firm and not technically “employees” under the Equal Pay Act.
A reply from the plaintiffs filed Thursday in support of their motion said they don’t need to point to an actual violation at this stage, as they only need to show that female partners are similarly situated.
“Plaintiffs present sufficient evidence to suggest that other women within the proposed notice group might be affected by Chadbourne’s allegedly discriminatory pay practices,” the reply said. “Under the applicable lenient standard, this is more than adequate to justify notice.”
The reply also noted how Chadbourne has “directed its ire” at Yelenick, urging the court to grant notice with an anti-retaliation provision so other partners are not afraid of retribution.
Defense attorney Evandro C. Gigante on Thursday also filed a letter with the court saying that a plaintiff reply had been due by March 15, and requesting that the court treat a recent defense motion as unopposed.
Kathleen McKenna of Proskauer Rose LLP, who represents the firm, did not respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiffs are represented by Jeremy Heisler, David W. Sanford, Andrew Melzer, Alexandra Harwin, Saba Bireda and Jennifer Siegel of Sanford Heisler LLP.
Chadbourne is represented by Kathleen McKenna, Evandro Cristiano Gigante and Rachel Sarah Fischer of Proskauer.
The case is 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.
–Additional reporting by Melissa Daniels. Editing by Bruce Goldman.