Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Akin Gump's Use of Pretext in Attorney Lay-off?

An African-American associate laid off from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld claims the law firm "showcased" her at minority events to create a false image of diversity, even as it was transferring her assignments to white lawyers.

The racial discrimination suit by Tameka Simmons claims the firm cited pretextual economic reasons for her 2009 layoff, the New York Law Journal reports. Simmons says she was the only female black associate in Akin Gump’s New York office at the time of her layoff, even though the firm told NALP there were four black female lawyers there.

Simmons said Akin Gump had promised training and mentoring when it recruited her from Debevoise & Plimpton, along with a transfer to the office in Washington, D.C., where her husband works, after one year. According to Simmons, the firm did not deliver on its promise.

Simmons says she received a positive performance review in October 2008, but was warned a few months later that her job was in jeopardy because she wasn’t aggressive enough in seeking work assignments, she had too few clients and her health-related absences had been too extensive. "It quickly became clear that these new criticisms were pretextual," Simmons wrote. Her billable hours, she said, were on par with those of other associates.

She also alleged one London-based partner assigned to work with her had called her “stupid” and other names. “Instead of treating her as the star recruit she was,” the suit says, “Akin Gump assigned Simmons to work with a notoriously difficult partner in a foreign office and denied her the mentoring, training, level of work, and supervision that she had been promised and that were routinely accorded to white associates,” according to the federal lawsuit.


The following excerpt from  COMPLAINANT'S REPLY TO RESPONDENT'S RESPONSE TO INTERROGATORIES AND DOCUMENT REQUEST that I filed on January 5, 1993 with the D.C. Department of Human Rights in Freedman v. Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld details my experience with Akin Gump's failure to deliver on its employment promise.

1. Respondent’s narration of facts concerning its hiring of Complainant (R. 1) misrepresents the nature of Complainant's employment and conceals Respondent's unlawful discriminatory practices in employment.

[Akin Gump's Response to Interrogatories can be found at:


Complainant, Gary Freedman, was initially assigned to work for the Respondent law firm, Akin, Gump, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P., on about March 3, 1988 by a temporary agency, Personnel Pool, Inc. During the period of about March 3, 1988 until June 10, 1988, Complainant worked for Respondent as an employee of an independent contractor in the capacity of a temporary legal assistant and was engaged in litigation support tasks for a specific client, Eastern Airlines.

On June 13, 1988, Complainant was hired directly by Respondent as a temporary legal assistant, and assigned to Respondent's Labor Section at an hourly rate of $13.00/hour (See Attachment A). In a discussion with Respondent’s then Legal Assistant administrator, Margarita C. Babb, immediately prior to his being hired, Complainant was advised by Ms. Babb that he would be assigned to litigation support tasks to be performed for the client Eastern airlines, but that when litigation support tasks for Eastern Airlines ceased, Complainant would be assigned to the Legal Assistant program.

Although Complainant billed most of his hours to litigation support tasks for the client Eastern Airlines during the period June 13, 1988 until about mid-year 1990 (when Respondent ceased its representation of Eastern), the actions of the legal assistant administrative staff, comprising Legal Assistant Administrator Maggie Sinnott and Legal Assistant Coordinator John D. Neary, were consistent with the promise made by Margarita C. Babb in June 1988 that Complainant would be assigned to substantive tasks in the legal assistant program upon completion of his assignment for the client Eastern Airlines.

Complainant was routinely invited to attend, and did attend, legal assistant staff meetings. The legal assistant administrative staff arranged for Complainant to attend Westlaw and Lexis training both on-site and off-site on a number of occasions. Complainant was invited to attend, and did attend, legal assistant seminars including a series of weekly writing seminars for legal assistants in February 1989 conducted by one of the Respondent's associates, Gary Rubin; a cite checking seminar for legal assistants held in about early 1989 conducted by one of Respondent's associates, Michael J. Mueller; and a legislative seminar held in about early 1989 conducted by one of Respondent's partners, Edward S. Knight (?). Also, Complainant was issued personalized Westlaw and Lexis access cards for use in computer searches of legal databases. The issuance of such access cards--indeed, all of the above activities--were unrelated to the Litigation support tasks on which Complainant was engaged during that period and inconsistent with Respondent's representation to the Office of Human Rights that Complainant was employed to manage documents for the client Eastern Airlines.

At the time Complainant was hired as a full-time legal assistant on August 1, 1989 (See Attachment B), Complainant was given, on about July 31, 1989, a legal assistant orientation by Legal Assistant Administrator, Maggie Sinnott. Ms. Sinnott asked the Complainant about his availability for travel and advised Complainant that Respondent would issue him a firm credit card. Ms. Sinnott's actions at the time of Complainant’s legal assistant orientation were inconsistent with Respondent’s assertion that Complainant was hired to work as a document coder on Eastern Airlines or that he would be assigned to the Litigation Support group upon the completion of his assignment for the client Eastern Airlines. The Legal Assistant Administrator's actions at the time Complainant was hired full-time in August 1989 were consistent with the understanding that Complainant was being hired to perform substantive legal assistant assignments that would commence once the temporary assignment for the client Eastern Airlines ended. The Legal Assistant administrator, in a memorandum dated July 28, 1989 to the Respondent’s Personnel Director and Director of Accounting (See Attachment B), expressly advises that Complainant had accepted a position with Respondent as a legal assistant assigned to the Respondent's Labor Section, and not as a document coder. The starting salary of $26,000 per hour, stated in the memorandum, is inconsistent with the "industry rate" for document coders, but competitive with the salary for legal assistants.

Despite Respondent's assertion that Complainant was hired for the specific purpose of working on a document production assignment for the client Eastern Airlines, Complainant was occasionally requested, by the Legal Assistant administrative staff, to interrupt his work for the client Eastern Airlines to performs assignments typically performed by other legal assistants and not by document coders. In late March 1989, for example, Complainant was requested to interrupt his work for the client Eastern Airlines to prepare a digest of a deposition transcript for attorney John Potter for a wrongful termination matter unrelated to Eastern Airlines (See Attachment C). On July 28, 1989, Complainant was requested by the Legal Assistant Coordinator John Neary to cite check a brief for attorney Merrill Spiegel [whose office, by the way, was adjacent to that of Dennis M. Race, Esq.--they may have shared a secretary (Barbara Rufener)--I'm not sure now] for a RICO matter for the client Craig Hall, unrelated to the client Eastern Airlines.

In March 1990, when Complainant was advised that he was to be reassigned from the Legal Assistant program to the Litigation Support group, his newly assigned supervisor, Chris Robertson, told Complainant that once he was assigned to the Litigation Support group, a supervisory position was a "distinct possibility." Complainant did not object to his transfer to Litigation Support because Chris Robertson's statement that a supervisory position in Litigation Support was a "distinct possibility" reasonably led Complainant to believe that opportunities for promotion would be available to him in Litigation Support. In fact, Complainant was not assigned to a supervisory position in Litigation support, nor was he routinely given substantive assignments in Litigation Support.

Complainant's reassignment to the Litigation Support group from the Legal Assistant program was for all practical purposes a demotion. The tasks available to Complainant in the Litigation Support group required even less advanced skills than those required by the legal assistant position for which he was originally hired, despite Complainant’s consistently exemplary performance evaluations (See Attachment C), Respondent's knowledge of Complainant’s education level and professional experience (See Attachment A), and Respondent’s promise in June 1988 that Complainant would eventually be assigned substantive tasks in the Legal Assistant program.

Further, Respondent’s transfer of Complainant to the Litigation Support group denied Complainant the opportunity to interact with individuals at his level of education and professional experience, adversely affecting Complainant's status as an employee. Opportunities for meaningful interaction with attorneys would have been available to the complainant had he been allowed to remain in the Legal Assistant program.

During a meeting between Complainant and his supervisor, Chris Robertson, during the week of about August 12, 1991, Complainant requested that he be reassigned to the Legal Assistant program so that he might have the opportunity to perform more substantive tasks. Complainant was never advised by Chris Robertson that she had followed up on Complainant’s request.

On October 23, 1991, in a meeting between Complainant and Earl L. Segal, the partner in charge of the Legal Assistant Program, Complainant again requested that the Respondent consider reassigning Complainant to the Legal Assistant Program (See Attachment D), implicitly stating a desire to be provided an opportunity to perform more substantive assignments. Only four working days after Complainant requested reassignment to the Legal Assistant program, Complainant was advised that the Respondent had decided to terminate his employment. The Complainant was involuntarily terminated on October 29, 1991 by the Chairman of the Respondent's Hiring Committee, Dennis Race, without cause.

During the entire period of Complainant's employment with the Respondent, Complainant was harassed, on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, by staff persons, associates, and partners of the Respondent (See Attachment E). The Legal Assistant Administrator, Maggie Sinnott, routinely acted in a sexually offensive manner when she saw Complainant. Complainant was subjected to sexually offensive behaviors by the Litigation Support Administrator, Chris Robertson (See Attachment E). Also, Complainant was told by a co-worker on May 3, 1989 that there was a rumor circulating among Respondent's employees that Complainant was a homosexual (See Attachment E).

Respondent's actions in failing to promote Complainant, in classifying Complainant in a way that deprived him of employment opportunities and adversely affected his status as an employee, and in discharging Complainant all constituted unlawful discriminatory practices in employment based on Respondent's perception that Complainant was a homosexual (See Attachment F).

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