Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Freedman, Simmons and Economic Factors

Tameka Simmons, an African-American lawyer, was employed as an associate in the New York office of the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. Her employment was terminated by the firm in 2009.  Akin Gump alleges that the employment decision was based solely on economic concerns.  In December 2010 Simmons filed a lawsuit against Akin Gump, alleging that the firm's termination decision was unlawfully based on race.

The racial discrimination suit by Tameka Simmons claims the firm cited pretextual economic reasons for her 2009 layoff. 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 said there were four black female lawyers there.

In an odd way, Akin Gump's termination decision in Simmons parallels -- or is the polar opposite of -- my job termination by Akin Gump in October 1991.

I was employed at Akin Gump as a paralegal from March 3, 1988 until my termination on October 29, 1991.  In late October 1991 I lodged a harassment complaint against my supervisor and coworkers.  I told Akin Gump's attorney managers that I believed I was being harassed on the basis of perceived sexual orientation and the fact that I was Jewish.   Within a week I was terminated.  I was told that my work was of poor quality, that there was a "lack of fit" between me and firm personnel, and that the firm could not accommodate my request for a private office.

On February 4, 1992 I filed an unlawful job termination complaint with the D.C. Department of Human Rights alleging that I was harassed and terminated because of my perceived sexual orientation (homosexual).  In its Response (May 22, 1992) the firm claimed that its investigation of my harassment complaint disclosed that my behavior was disruptive, bizarre, and frightening to coworkers.  The firm also alleged that it had consulted a psychiatrist (who did not examine me personally) who advised the firm that my harassment Complaint was the product of the "disorder" ideas of reference, and that I might become violent.  The firm alleged that my presence at the firm posed a tort risk for the employer.  Additionally, Akin Gump's Response stated that my work performance was good -- implicitly retracting its position on the day of the termination (October 29, 1991) that my work quality was poor.

What's interesting is that 1991 was a bad year for the economy.  On Friday April 5, 1991 Malcolm Lassman called a meeting of the firm's paralegals to address rumors rampant in the firm that Akin Gump had plans to lay off paralegals.  Lassman acknowledged that the firm was experiencing the effects of the weak economy; he said some clients were late in paying their bills.  But Lassman assured the paralegals that the firm had no plans to lay off paralegals.  Lassman added that as a general rule, with respect to all employee groups, the firm used layoffs as a last resort to deal with economic pressures.

I was terminated six months later.  I've always suspected that economic considerations played a role in my termination.  For one thing, I was hired as a paralegal at a salary competitive with other paralegals.  In March 1990 Akin Gump demoted me (without cause) to the litigation support group from the paralegal group.  Upon my transfer to litigation support, I was automatically overpaid for the job I was doing.  Second the economy was in bad shape in 1991 and remained so well into 1992.  In November 1991 I qualified for unemployment benefits.  In 1992 Congress passed an extension of benefits to address the weak hiring picture and I qualified for extended benefits (an additional 26 weeks).

I've often wondered whether my job termination for cause was really a layoff of convenience.  Perhaps the firm thought, well, we'd like to get rid of him anyway because of the cost savings -- and since he lodged a harassment complaint we can craft a legally-viable excuse to fire him out of that complaint.

I wonder what my case says about Akin Gump's possible use of economic pretext to conceal an unlawful, racially-motivated termination in Simmons.

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

Of course 20 years separates the Akin Gump of 1991 (when I worked there) from the Akin Gump of 2009 (when Simmons was fired).

One point of continuity can be cited, however. In 1991 my racist supervisor Chris Robertson reported directly to R. Bruce McLean, who was then head of the firm's litigation practice group. McLean tolerated and supported a racist supervisor, turning the other way in 1992 when litigation support manager Robertson and Personnel Director Laurel Digweed in all likelihood colluded in the unlawful race-based termination of litigation support employee Patricia McNeil, a black woman.

Is it a matter of no import that in 2009 when Simmons was fired -- allegedly based on race discrimination -- R. Bruce McLean served as Akin Gump's Chairman?