Law firms hit with workplace discrimination suits

July 1, 2012

As the number of workplace discrimination claims continues to climb nationwide, law firms that saw a flood of work defending corporations against such claims are finding they’re not immune to the same types of lawsuits they’re used to handling for clients.

Several large law firms are facing discrimination lawsuits brought by former employees.

Venable this month settled a discrimination suit filed by a former paralegal from Kenya, who accused firm leaders of treating her poorly and later firing her because of her national origin.

Patton Boggs is defending against allegations of sexual harassment brought by a former business development manager in the firm’s Washington office.

In February, attorney Zorayda J. Moreira-Smith sued District firm James E. Brown & Associates for pregnancy discrimination, saying the firm illegally rescinded her job offer shortly after she told them she was pregnant.

And in April, Kelley Drye & Warren, a major New York-based law firm, settled an age discrimination lawsuit brought by former partner Eugene D’Ablemont, who sued the firm in 2010 saying its policy of de-equitizing partners after age 70 constituted age discrimination. The firm ended the policy that same year, and agreed to pay D’Ablemont $574,000 as part of a settlement.

The law firms named in those suits either declined to comment or did not return requests seeking comment, but in papers filed with the courts,they have denied claims of harassment and discrimination.

Employment discrimination charges reached an all-time high of nearly 100,000 last year, and the portion of the claims brought against law firms and legal services providers followed a similar trajectory, ticking up in 2009 after several years of decline, according to data compiled by the EEOC.

Claims against employers in the legal sector jumped nearly 7 percent between 2008 and 2009, and another 8 percent between 2010 and 2011. (Employees who want to file discrimination lawsuits against their employers must first file a charge with the EEOC, but those charges do not always result in lawsuits.)

Fallout from the downturn?

Some legal experts say the phenomenon is tied to the slow economic recovery making it harder for laid-off workers to find new jobs — and employees at law firms that underwent massive contraction during the recession are not exempt.

“A lot of law firms were hard hit by the economy, especially the large ones, and laid off a number of attorneys and other employees,” said Avi Kumin, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks, a District law firm that represents employees in workplace discrimination and retaliation claims. The firm has represented several lawyers and other law firm employees against their former firms.

“You’re seeing more cases because of the difficulty of jumping into another job,” Kumin said. “Previously, if someone lost their job, it’s possible they could’ve worked for another good firm a couple months later. Now you’re seeing [employees] being out of work for months and months ... Bringing a suit suddenly looks more attractive because there are real damages to recover.”

Employment defense attorneys at large firms are well-versed in workplace laws and are often tasked with defending corporate clients against harassment and discrimination claims. But when it comes to defending their own, they often turn to outside lawyers: Patton Boggs hired Steve McCool, a former federal prosecutor at Mallon & McCool, as its defense attorney in the sexual harassment suit.

Attorney Carla Brown, who represents the plaintiff in that suit, has sued large law firms before on behalf of employees. Ultimately, Brown said, suing a law firm is no different than suing any other type of business — except that law firm employees may have a better understanding of the law than most, and know how to seek legal representation to right a perceived wrong.

“The people who get terminated know their rights,” said Brown, of the Reston firm Charlson Bredehoft Cohen Brown & Sakata. “They might not be employment lawyers, but they know when something is wrong.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for the Capital Business section of The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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