More big firms hit with sex discrimination suits

More big firms hit with sex discrimination suits

By:  Nicolas Sonnenburg
Los Angeles Daily Journal
June 30, 2017

Steptoe & Johnson LLP has become the latest of several national law firms to be hit with a gender discrimination lawsuit from a former employee alleging pay disparity between male and female partners and a lack of female partnership promotions.

The majority of these recent cases have been filed on the East Coast. The federal claim facing Steptoe in Los Angeles is only the second to reach California. The suit might shed light on the state’s potential as a venue for such actions. The plaintiff filed her complaint under California’s Fair Pay Act, which became law in 2016.

Last Thursday, plaintiff Ji-In Houck filed a proposed class action against Steptoe, alleging the pay she received as an associate was not commensurate to that of her male counterparts. Houck v. Steptoe & Johnson LLP, 17-CV04595 (C.D. Cal., filed June 22, 2017).

Houck, who started at Steptoe’s Century City office in 2013, was hired as a contract attorney with an $85,000 salary. Her complaint alleged that, as a contract lawyer, she did the same work as male associates who were admitted to the bar the same year she was, 2011. According to the complaint, these male attorneys were paid $165,000.

A year later, Houck was made an associate and her salary was raised to $130,000. She alleged, however, that work she did as a contract attorney was equivalent to that of other associates in the firm and that other 2011 bar-passers at her firm were making $175,000 when she made associate status.

The complaint also alleged a lack of response by the firm to Houck’s inquiries into the pay disparity and a failure to involve her in women’s initiative programs in the firm, despite her request to participate.

Steptoe has denied the allegations, describing itself as a “strong supporter of women lawyers and professionals.”

“The allegations of associate pay discrimination in this lawsuit by a former junior associate who was hired as a contract attorney and stayed with the firm for less than three years are completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against such baseless claims,” the firm said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the firm was named in Yale Law Women’s 2017 “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms” survey in its gender equity category for promoting a partner class in 2016 that was at least half female.

Steptoe joins a growing list of prestigious firms facing similar charges. Chadbourne & Parke LLP, which will soon merge with Norton Rose Fulbright, is facing a gender bias claim from three former female partners in the Southern District of New York. Proskauer Rose LLP was hit with a $50 million lawsuit in the District of Columbia from an anonymous female partner.

A case alleging pay discrimination at Sedgwick LLP, filed by a female partner in Chicago, made its way to California where Sedgwick is based, but it was settled for an undisclosed amount after being moved to arbitration.

The claims all share allegations of gender-based pay disparity and a lack of female partnership promotions. Houck is represented by Lori Andrus of Andrus Anderson LLP in San Francisco, a civil attorney who lists equal pay among her areas of practice. Houck’s case, if it goes to trial, would be the first to test the viability of such a lawsuit under California’s Fair Pay Act.

Under the new California statute, Houck will not need to establish intent to discriminate in order to be successful on her claim. Under the law, an employer many not pay employees of opposite sexes different wages for “substantially similar work,” except when the employer can establish appropriately different factors between the employees like seniority or experience.

“I imagine that in this case the question will come down to what constitutes ‘substantially similar work,'” commented Ann Fromholz, a Pasadena-based labor attorney. “If other women in her peer group were making less than men, that would seem to support her claim.”

Who exactly the court considers to be Houck’s peers likely will determine how the case unfolds. Throughout her complaint, Houck compares her pay to those of “male counterparts.” The complaint does not specify whether those male associates, who also passed the bar in 2011, were hired by Steptoe at the same time as Houck or earlier.

In a section of the complaint alleging that the firm underpaid other female attorneys, Houck cites two anonymous female associates – one of whom was originally hired as a contract attorney – that made considerably less than what she describes as “male counterparts.”

“The California Equal Pay Act doesn’t require proof of intent,” emphasized labor and employment lawyer David A. Lowe of Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe LLP, who is not involved in the case. “What the associate attorney needs to establish is a pattern of paying female associates lower than their male counterparts for similar work. The key is paying a comparable rate of pay; that doesn’t require intent.”

Lisa Von Eschen, a Los Angeles partner at Lamb & Kawakami LLP who is also not involved in the case, said the salary numbers presented in the complaint removed much of the subjectivity defense available in similar gender bias suits regarding the value of things like promotions and office culture. She also said the case isn’t a home run.

“You can’t just look at the numbers without looking at more than the associate’s background. The woman here had been hired as a contract attorney. Some people say that that doesn’t make a difference, but it could make a world of difference. She could have been brought on to fill a small role originally, which would have a bearing on salary decisions,” Von Eschen said.

As to why the influx of suits now, lawyers say that changing perceptions about gender in the workplace are likely to be a motivating factor.

“It used to be that the received wisdom was that it was professional suicide to sue for this sort of issue,” said Deborah L. Rhode, a Stanford Law School professor. “I think what you’re seeing is an increased willingness on the part of women lawyers who have been subject to gender bias to file lawsuits to change it. Gender bias is nothing new. It’s been there from the outset.”

Rhode said women across the job market have increasingly found luck in challenging top corporate leadership, coming out with substantial settlements and moving onto successful careers afterward – in particular, noting major leadership changes at Uber and Fox News following allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment.

Houck herself left Steptoe in March 2016 and has been working at the Stalwart Law Group since.