MoFo Women Lawyers Push Back on Firm’s Bid to Nix Sex Bias Suit

Posted November 10th, 2020.

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  • Say jury should hear pregnancy, other sex bias claims
  • Say maternity leaves, retaliation derailed MoFo careers

Two female attorneys suing Morrison & Foerster LLP for caregiver, pregnancy, and other alleged sex bias and retaliation told a federal judge in San Francisco that their allegations are trial-worthy and should be heard by a jury.

Sherry William and Joshua Ashley Klayman were previously part of a group of lawyers who sued MoFo in April 2018 for alleged systemic discrimination against women at the 1000-plus lawyer international firm. But five of the women told the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Dec. 6 that they had settled their individual claims, and the group subsequently dropped their classwide allegations against MoFo.

The firm Oct. 12 filed separate motions seeking summary judgment on William’s and Klayman’s individual claims. Their MoFo careers petered out because of their own choices and underperformance, and William and Klayman failed to show the real reason their careers stalled was because of pregnancy or other unequal sex-based mistreatment, the firm said.

Not so, Klayman and William said Monday.

Klayman is an accomplished finance attorney and a pioneer in blockchain and digital assets who worked on many of MoFo’s “most high-profile and landmark deals” during her five years with the firm, she said in her opposition brief. Her performance was lauded and she was on track for partnership until she complained that gender and pregnancy bias were holding her back at the firm, she said.

MoFo reacted to her complaints by failing to meaningfully investigate her allegations, subjecting her work to excessive scrutiny, and fostering a hostile work environment that forced her to leave, Klayman said. Her claims raise genuine issues of fact for a jury on whether MoFo interfered with her maternity leave by pressuring her to work while on leave and using her protected leaves as a negative factor in her bid for promotion, she said.

MoFo “misconstrues” the evidence when it says partners contacted her only on “rare occasions” while she was out on maternity leave and that it was otherwise her choice to work while she was out, Klayman said.

She was told she was denied partnership in 2017 because other lawyers believed she acted like “a martyr” by mentioning during conference calls that she had her baby on her lap, Klayman said.

The evidence also establishes that she was otherwise treated unfavorably because she is a woman, including being denied a raise when she was promoted to “of counsel” in 2014, she said.

MoFo’s justifications for the mistreatment, including its claim that she focused on building a name in the blockchain field instead of concentrating on more stable, traditional work, are pretexts for bias, Klayman said.

Disputed fact questions also warrant a trial on her claims, William said in her opposition brief.

She was warned when she first became pregnant while working as an associate in MoFo’s associate Project Finance Group that “parents had a poor track record” in the group, she said.

The “warning turned out to be prophecy” as the firm “blindsided her” by telling her she wouldn’t be promoted with her class when she returned from maternity leave, William said. Her MoFo career prospects stagnated from that point forward, she said.

The firm cut off her mentorship and partner-support system because of her pregnancy and retaliated when she complained about the bias, she said.

The evidence of discrimination that requires consideration by a jury includes MoFo’s “post hoc portrayal” of her as ill-prepared to join the Project Finance Group because she lacked renewable energy experience, William said.

That justification is fatally undercut by the group’s “full knowledge of this lack of experience” when she was hired, she said.

Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP represents Klayman and William. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP represents MoFo.

The case is William v. Morrison & Foerster LLP, N.D. Cal., No. 3:18-cv-02542, plaintiffs’ oppositions to motions for summary judgment 11/9/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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