Posted January 24th, 2019.
By Vin Gurrieri
Law360 (January 24, 2019, 10:25 PM EST) — A former Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC shareholder sued the firm in California state court Wednesday, accusing it of systematically paying female attorneys less than men and firing her because she urged other women at the firm to complain about pay inequity and harassment.
The suit by Tracy Warren — who is now a shareholder at Buchalter PC and who recently sought to enter a federal gender discrimination suit filed last year against Ogletree by another former attorney — accused the management-side powerhouse and its top brass of creating pay and business opportunity policies that favor men and boost their compensation to the detriment of the firm’s female lawyers.
In addition to pay inequity, Warren alleged that the firm 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. The firm at first shunned her by moving her to an auxiliary office in San Diego, then fired her after a “sham” conflict-of-interest investigation, according to the complaint.
“Plaintiff’s allegations demonstrate Ogletree’s pattern of misconduct, in which a small number of male shareholders exploited their oversized influence in the firm to uniformly hold back the pay, promotion, credit allocation, and business development of women while promoting and advancing the interests of men,” Warren’s complaint said.
Warren’s claims were brought under California’s Private Attorneys General Act. The law lets individuals seek monetary damages over violations of the California Labor Code on behalf of themselves, other employees or the state of California, allowing for representative suits that are similar to class actions. She seeks to represent a group of Ogletree lawyers who worked in California.
In addition to the firm itself, Warren’s suit names as defendants Ogletree’s managing shareholder C. Matthew Keen as well as four of the firm’s other top lawyers, all of whom she claims had authority to partake in firmwide decisions on things like pay, promotions and business development opportunities.
Warren, who joined Ogletree in 2013 from Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, included a lengthy rendering in her complaint of what she alleges are employment practices by the firm’s male-dominated leadership that disproportionately favor male lawyers.
Her allegations are similar to those made by former Ogletree attorney Dawn Knepper — who also now practices at Buchalter — in a gender discrimination suit she filed last January alleging that the firm’s male-dominated leadership systematically discriminated against female nonequity shareholders in pay and promotions.
Warren sought to be added to Knepper’s case in a June amended complaint that is pending in the Central District of California. The parties in that case are jousting over whether it belongs in arbitration.
In Wednesday’s suit, Warren alleges the firm paid her less than male partners she was outperforming, failed to give her full credit for client work she generated, didn’t adequately address complaints by female shareholders about pay disparities that were made as far back as 2014, and “funneled” lucrative class action work in California to male attorneys while leaving female lawyers to essentially find business development opportunities on their own.
“Under Ogletree’s scheme, male powerbrokers have shouldered out several equally-qualified female shareholders who handled class action defense of employment matters,” Warren alleged. “When such female shareholders complained that they were doing the majority of work on cases but not receiving the same origination credits as the male shareholders (or any origination credits at all), the women were told they had to perform the work and to be ‘team players.’”
Warren also levied numerous allegations against Ogletree shareholder Spencer Skeen, who was managing shareholder of the firm’s San Diego office when it opened in 2013.
Although Skeen isn’t a named defendant, Warren accused him of generally discriminating against female attorneys, committing billing fraud by charging clients a partner rate for work done by associates, and sexual harassment against several female lawyers. The firm failed to take any meaningful action to address Skeen’s purported behavior even though numerous female attorneys took their concerns to firm leadership, leading several of them to either relocate to a different office or leave the firm entirely, Warren claimed.
Skeen didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday, and Ogletree didn’t offer any response to Law360 regarding Warren’s allegations about him.
Ultimately, Warren claims she was fired in January 2018 after the firm conducted a “sham” ethics investigation that it initiated “to concoct an excuse” to oust her because she spoke up about the issues she and other women at the firm were facing.
Although Warren didn’t name the client that was at the center of the firm’s ethics probe, details she offered in her complaint tracked closely with a legal malpractice complaint that was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Jan. 17, by jewelry retailer Alex and Ani LLC naming both Warren and Ogletree as defendants.
The retailer accused Warren of having a conflict of interest and stated in its complaint that Ogletree had “acknowledged the misconduct” and fired her after Alex and Ani made a complaint to Ogletree’s general counsel.
Ben Meiselas of Geragos & Geragos APC, counsel for Alex and Ani, declined to comment on the suit Thursday but did confirm that Warren’s attorney-client relationship with Alex and Ani ended on Jan. 17, 2018, and that the company’s lawsuit against her and Ogletree was filed earlier this month.
Warren’s attorney, David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, declined to comment about the Alex and Ani case, saying he had yet to read the complaint. But Sanford, who also represents Knepper in the federal court suit, said Thursday that the management-side firm routinely “devalues” its female lawyers.
“Ogletree purports to be committed to diversity and fostering inclusion as an integral part of its professional development efforts,” Sanford said. “Our filings allege that Ogletree’s male leadership systematically overlooks, devalues, or undermines its female attorneys. As Ogletree’s managing shareholder explained, ‘we are not real good at practicing what we preach.’”
The remark that Sanford attributed to Keen, which was also included in Warren’s complaint, allegedly occurred when a female shareholder asked Keen about the firm’s responses to complaints lodged by female employees about gender bias.
Ogletree spokesman Ryan King issued a lengthy statement to Law360 on Thursday saying that equal opportunity “has been a core principle” of the firm since it was founded and that the firm does not tolerate any form of discrimination.
“We take the allegations very seriously. However, the decision-making process that governs our compensation system is both fair and equitable,” King said. “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.”
As to Warren specifically, King told Law360 that she was fired a short time after a client complained to the firm 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,” King said.
Warren is represented by 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.
Counsel information for Ogletree in the instant case wasn’t immediately available. The firm is represented in the California federal court case by Nancy L. Abell, Deborah S. Weiser, Valerie M. Marek and Paul W. Cane Jr. of Paul Hastings LLP.
The case is 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.
–Additional reporting by Braden Campbell and Adam Lidgett. Editing by Haylee Pearl