Posted January 30th, 2019.
By Debra Cassens Weiss
A previous plaintiff in a gender bias suit against Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart is taking a new tack in a new lawsuit.
The plaintiff, former sports broadcaster Tracy Warren, has filed a gender bias suit in California state court under the state’s Private Attorneys General Act, report the American Lawyer, Law360 and Bloomberg. The law allows employee lawsuits for violations of the state labor code.
The suit is filed on behalf of Warren and other current and female lawyers at Ogletree who are employed in California.
Warren, a former equity shareholder at Ogletree, is now a Buchalter shareholder.
Warren is also a plaintiff in a previous federal lawsuit that claims Ogletree discriminates against female partners in pay, promotions and opportunities. The suit was originally filed by nonequity shareholder Dawn Knepper, who is also a current Buchalter shareholder. Sanford Heisler Sharp is handling both lawsuits.
Bloomberg points out an important difference between the two lawsuits: Suits under the California law cited in Warren’s suit are not subject to mandatory arbitration. The state law also allows representative actions that are similar to class actions, according to Law360.
Knepper’s federal case has been transferred from San Francisco to Santa Ana, California. Ogletree filed a Jan. 22 motion to compel arbitration that notes a San Francisco judge’s finding that the arbitration agreement applied.
According to the American Lawyer, Warren’s Jan. 23 suit “rehashes many of the claims made against Ogletree in Knepper’s earlier suit.” Her new suit claims that Ogletree fired her in retaliation after she complained about discriminatory policies and practices.
Knepper filed suit in January 2018. That same month, Warren says in her suit, Ogletree authorized its general counsel to conduct a “sham investigation” of her in connection with one of her clients. In reality, the suit alleges, the firm wanted to discredit and fire Warren before she joined Knepper’s suit or sued on her own.
The investigation concerned the client company’s former president and chief operating officer, who had threatened litigation against the company. Warren says she informed the president, who had been fired, that she could not represent her because of ethical constraints, yet the president sent Warren additional details about her complaints against the company.
Warren recommended the former president seek counsel and provided an appropriate referral, the suit says. Warren then provided an analysis to the corporate client’s board of directors and warned of the risk of litigation.
Warren’s description of her conduct has similarities to the allegations in a malpractice suit filed against her and Ogletree in Los Angeles superior court, Law360 points out. The malpractice suit was filed a week before Warren filed her Jan. 23 complaint against Ogletree. A Geragos & Geragos lawyer who filed the malpractice suit confirmed the filing to the ABA Journal.
The malpractice suit, filed by jewelry company Alex and Ani, says Warren was negotiating employment agreements for Alex and Ani while at Ogletree, yet she also represented an Alex and Ani employee whose interests became adverse to the company.
The suit says Warren presented a demand letter for payment to the corporate board on the employee’s behalf.
The demand letter said the company had to pay the former employee by Jan. 15, 2018, according to the malpractice suit. After Alex and Ani complained to Ogletree, the law firm acknowledged the misconduct, and fired Warren, according to the complaint.
Sanford Heisler chairman and co-founder David Sanford, who represents Warren in the suit against Ogletree, provided a statement about the malpractice suit to the Journal. “Based on our review of the documents and the entire situation, we can confirm that our client has not committed malpractice or any unethical conduct,” Sanford said. “Ogletree manufactured a pretext for termination, and now Alex and Ani is capitalizing on that pretext.”
In a statement provided to the Journal, Ogletree said it has a commitment to diversity, and Warren was fired after it received a complaint of “unprofessional and unethical conduct.” Here is the statement:
“Equal opportunity has been a core principle of Ogletree Deakins since the firm’s founding, and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind—gender or otherwise. We take the allegations very seriously. However, the decision-making process that governs our compensation system is both fair and equitable. In fact, we are proud of our ‘open compensation’ system under which all shareholders in the firm know what every other shareholder earns—and the factors that support those determinations.”
“Ms. Warren was terminated shortly after the firm received a client complaint that she had engaged in unprofessional and unethical conduct. Following an investigation and with the input of outside counsel, Ms. Warren was expelled on a vote of the equity shareholders. We will confidently defend the firm against these claims as we remain steadfast in our commitment to equal opportunity for all. Women comprise more than half of the people in our firm and, over the last five years, the majority of attorneys promoted to shareholder in the firm have been women. Further, women are among our most successful lawyers, serving in leadership positions as members of our board of directors and compensation committee, office managing shareholders, and practice group chairs.”