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Married ex-Supreme Court clerks allege legal giant Jones Day discriminates against men in parental leave

Julia Sheketoff, Mark Savignac and their infant son, Henry.
Julia Sheketoff, Mark Savignac and their infant son, Henry. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Two former U.S. Supreme Court clerks who married and worked for the Jones Day law firm allege in a new federal lawsuit that the firm’s parental-leave policies are discriminatory and that the husband was fired after he challenged its practices.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington, is the second high-profile workplace claim this year against one of the country’s largest and most politically influential law firms. It follows a $200­­­­­­­­­ million class-action lawsuit in April by women who allege that Jones Day and its “fraternity culture” systematically discriminate against female associates in matters of pay, promotions and pregnancy.

The Cleveland-based international law firm has risen in prominence since representing Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and sending a number of lawyers into the administration — headlined by Donald McGahn, who recently rejoined the firm after serving as White House counsel, and top Justice Department officials and U.S. Appeals Court appointees.

In their 44-page complaint, Mark C. Savignac, 32, and Julia Sheketoff, 36, who live in the District, allege that Jones Day grants eight more weeks of leave to all women than to men, and that it unlawfully fired Savignac from the firm’s elite appellate practice in Washington after he complained about the policy. The couple filed suit under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion, and other federal and District statutes.

In a six-paragraph statement Wednesday, Jones Day’s D.C.-based managing partner, Stephen J. Brogan, called the couple’s allegations false and frivolous and accused them of “ignoring both the law and biology” in attacking what he described as generous family leave policies that are consistent with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance.

Savignac said he learned he was fired in an email and a hand-delivered letter at the couple’s Logan Circle apartment on the evening of Jan. 22 when he and his wife returned from Shake Shack — their first meal out alone with their newborn son, Henry — three business days after the couple sent an email demanding equal treatment and threatening to bring a class-action lawsuit.

“Perhaps we were really just very naive in never considering that Jones Day would fire Mark, but we thought the law so clearly protected our complaint and our demand for equal treatment, and that this was a law firm and they would know the law,” said Sheketoff, who had left the firm’s appellate practice in August 2018 after four years to be an appellate attorney for the Federal Public Defender’s Office of the District of Columbia.

“The principle is extremely important to us of being equal parents to Henry, as well as giving each other equal opportunity to pursue our careers,” said Savignac, who worked 20 months at Jones Day and is now at Steptoe & Johnson. Savignac was earning $500,000 a year and on track to become partner at Jones Day next year, he said, but “under the law, I was not risking anything because it is illegal to take an adverse action against an employee because they make a reasonable complaint.”

Jones Day fired Savignac because he showed “poor judgment, a lack of courtesy to his colleagues, personal immaturity, and a disinterest in pursuing his career,” Brogan said. He cited Savignac’s “intemperate” email “demanding that he be given what he wants ‘or else’ . . . under circumstances that no reasonable person would view as anything but exceptionally generous.”

The firm said it intends to try the case in court and would have no further comment beyond legal filings.

Jones Day, which employs 2,500 attorneys worldwide, said it gives lawyers who are primary caregivers 10 weeks of paid leave and six weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. Biological mothers may receive an additional eight weeks of paid leave under a short-term disability policy. Adoptive parents receive 18 weeks of paid leave, regardless of gender, the firm said.

The EEOC allows employers to award biological mothers eight weeks more paid leave than biological fathers if the added time is related to recuperation from childbirth.

Savignac and Sheketoff argued that Jones Day awards mothers 18 weeks leave without regard to disability, a stance that provides “female associates more time to enable their husbands to prioritize their careers over child care.”

In the lawsuit, the couple, who clerked separately for Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, alleged that the policy reinforces archaic gender roles and sex-based stereotypes and stands against a backdrop of discriminatory pay practices.

The lawsuit states that one of the firm’s most prominent male partners needled a male associate for taking parental leave, allegedly joking, “What would a man do on parental leave — watch his wife unload the dishwasher?”

The suit also alleges that the law firm doctored a photo of Sheketoff, who is biracial, for a company website “to lighten her skin and narrow her nose,” making her appear “more Caucasian” and attractive in the eyes of the editor. After she objected, the original image was used, the suit contends.

Brogan’s statement called the allegation “sensationalized” and said Sheketoff was highly paid and earned more than her husband — $525,000 when she left the firm, according to the lawsuit — despite mixed evaluations, “below expectations” billings and focus on “idiosyncratic concerns.”

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