Posted January 28th, 2019.
By Braden Campbell
Law360 (January 28, 2019, 6:08 PM EST) — A group of female Morrison & Foerster LLP attorneys accusing the firm of freezing out pregnant women expanded its $100 million California federal class suit Friday, adding three new plaintiffs, another $100 million in damages and fresh wrongful termination claims.
Two of the new plaintiffs — Jane Does 4 and 5 — claim MoFo fired them shortly before and after they took pregnancy leave, respectively, adding onto allegations the firm denies pregnant women and working moms the same pay and opportunities it gives childless men and dads. A sixth Jane Doe alleges the firm forced her out after she complained about pregnancy-related mistreatment by two colleagues.
“MoFo’s standard operating procedure is to terminate or push out working mothers in a manner that makes it clear that their motherhood, not the quality or quantity of their work, is the decisive factor,” the women, all of whom are suing under Jane Doe pseudonyms, said in a new portion of the complaint.
The amended complaint ups the stakes in the April suit, doubling the six Jane Does’ desired damages to $200 million and adding more than a dozen claims for violations of federal, Washington, D.C., New York and California law.
Jane Doe 4, who identified herself as a California associate who joined MoFo from “another large law firm,” claims the firm told her shortly after she announced her pregnancy that she would not advance with the rest of her associate class and would be fired. But the firm “did not — nor could it — cite any specific or current negative feedback” about her that justified the decision, and she later learned a MoFo partner actively pinged her colleagues for dirt on her, she says. She also suggests MoFo has since cost her jobs at other firms by “providing negative references in retaliation for her decision to pursue legal action.”
Jane Doe 5, who said she was a MoFo associate in Washington, D.C., alleges the firm told her after she returned from maternity leave in late 2016 or early 2017 that she would not be promoted with her peers, costing her a boost to her salary and bonus. The firm later told her she would be fired that August, despite being “unable to cite any specific instances” of her poor performance, she says.
Jane Doe 6, who said she worked in MoFo’s New York office until 2018, alleges she was harassed and ultimately constructively discharged — forced to quit — because she took maternity leave at an unspecified date. Jane Doe 6 claims she was denied timely increases and promotions after going on leave and “subjected … to repeated, demeaning comments” from men at the firm. These comments included her being called “dumb” because of her blonde hair and her being compared to Kim Kardashian to suggest “she possessed only looks and no substance,” according to Jane Doe 6. This treatment continued despite Jane Doe 6 complaining to human resources, and she resigned, she says.
MoFo Chairman Larren Nashelsky told Law360 Monday the broader allegations are “just not true,” and that Jane Does 4 and 5’s allegations “are not right.”
“Quite the opposite,” Nashelsky said. “As time will show, and the evidence will show, we treated both of these attorneys incredibly well and worked to come up with a resolution with them, but by no means is there any truth around the idea they were fired because they were pregnant.”
Executive committee member Anna Erickson White also defended the firm, saying that about half of the attorneys the firm has promoted to partner in recent years have been women and that a quarter of those promoted have moved up while working part-time schedules, which MoFo lets its attorneys take for reasons including pregnancy and recent motherhood. The firm has also earned several industry accolades for its treatment of women, including being named a Ceiling Smasher by Law360 based on the proportion of equity partners who are women and being listed in the Top 10 Female Friendly Law Firms by Yale Law Women in 2018, White said.
“It’s been a longstanding policy of MoFo’s to continue to promote and encourage women,” White said. “We don’t just speak it, we walk the walk as well.”
Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP attorney Deborah Marcuse, who represents the women, said the firm’s claims of hospitality toward female attorneys should be looked at in the context of BigLaw. She noted a Jan. 27 New York Times report on the backlash law firm Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP has faced since touting a largely male, all-white partner class last year.
“It is perhaps not the highest bar” to be one of BigLaw’s more diverse firms, Marcuse said. “The legal bar is not lowered here, and the legal question remains the same: whether women and men are receiving the same opportunities.”
The suit is one of a handful of pending bias suits the Sanford firm has filed against law firms, including Jones Day and Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC.
The women are represented by Deborah Marcuse, David Sanford, Aimee Krause Stewart, Ed Chapin and Jill Sullivan Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.
MoFo is represented by Rachel Brass, Daniel Bruggebrew, Catherine Conway, Michele Maryott and Amanda Machin of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
The case is Jane Doe et al. v. Morrison & Foerster LLP, case number 3:18-cv-02542, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
–Editing by Janice Carter Brown.