Biglaw, Labor / Employment, Lawsuit of the Day, Racism, Rudeness, Secretaries / Administrative Assistants, Sex, Sex Scandals

Lawsuit of the Day: Ex-Jones Day Secretary Alleges Racial Slurs, Sex Scandals, and More

UPDATE (7/25/2011): Please note that this case, making allegations that Jones Day describes as “baseless and inflammatory,” has been dismissed.

Oh boy. Discrimination lawsuits filed by former employees against law firms can get pretty salacious. But we haven’t seen a complaint this juicy since Allgood v. Williams Mullen (aka the “cucumber incident”), or maybe Braude v. Maron Marvel (girl-on-girl sexual harassment in Delaware).

This latest lawsuit is captioned Nelson v. Jones Day. It was actually filed back in September, but it only seems to be coming to light now. It was covered last week by eBossWatch, then picked up today by the ABA Journal.

The allegations — which include claims of Jones Day partners and staff supervisors using racial slurs, junior associates “treat[ing] office staff like servants,” and office affairs and sex scandals — are not to be missed….

We’ve written repeatedly in these pages about Jones Day’s tight-lipped firm culture. So we imagine the powers-that-be at JD aren’t pleased with Jaki Nelson’s tell-all complaint. Crammed with lurid allegations, it reads at points more like a gossip novel than a legal document.

Let’s start with what seems least open to dispute. Jaki Nelson, an African-American woman, worked as a legal secretary in the Los Angeles office of Jones Day for almost 18 years (from November 1992 until June 2010). Her employment was terminated as part of the firm’s June 2010 staff layoffs.

Nelson is now suing the firm. Her second amended complaint raises eight causes of action, including race-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and infliction of emotional distress. She claims that her layoff was pretextual and that the June staff reductions constituted an effort by Jones Day to “clean house” by getting rid of minorities and/or troublemakers.

Nelson begins by alleging that African-American secretaries in Jones Day’s L.A. office have been subjected to “a pattern and practice of unfavorable disparate treatment,” with regard to such matters as compensation, bonuses, and benefits. Complaint ¶ 9. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

But then we get to more colorful allegations. Here’s what Nelson claims about Frederick “Rick” McKnight, the partner-in-charge for Los Angeles:

10. …. Plaintiff is informed and believes that McKnight himself loudly proclaimed one day that “A nigger robbed me!” when discussing a situation when he was allegedly robbed….

Plaintiff is informed and believes that McKnight engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with Jones Day employees, including a young African American female, which seriously eroded his credibility and leadership in the Los Angeles office….

Plaintiff herself was subjected to offensive starting at her private areas by McKnight, which made her feel as though McKnight viewed African American females as sexual objects and not worthy of protection from harassment….

These are quite some claims. McKnight might be old — check out that shock of white hair — but he’s not Thomas Jefferson.

McKnight shouldn’t take it personally; he’s far from the only one that Jaki Nelson has complaints about. Take Pat Miller, Jones Day’s HR coordinator and/or secretarial supervisor:

Enough about the secretarial desk assignments. MOAR SEX SCANDALS!

Alas, the complaint goes on for a few paragraphs about desk assignments. Jaki Nelson wanted to work on a desk serving partners, but she — and other African-African secretaries as well, according to the complaint — were allegedly stuck working for lame junior associates. (Nelson explains her desire to work for partners by citing the need to maintain “important secretarial skills,” but we also suspect that partners give better holiday gifts.)

Eventually the complaint returns to racial epithets and secretarial supervisor Pat Miller:

Ah, but do you really care about alleged racism from a staff supervisor? Let’s turn the spotlight back on the lawyers. Alleges Nelson:

23. …. Plaintiff returned from sick leave and learned that a Mexican American secretary had covered her desk. Plaintiff asked Scott Behrendt, one of the Caucasian partners on Plaintiff’s desk, who had covered Plaintiff’s desk in her absence. Behrendt said, “Can’t you smell the odor.” Plaintiff said, “I am not sure what you are talking about.” Then Behrendt said, “A dirty Mexican, can’t you smell her.” Plaintiff immediately went to Sheila McKeowan, the Office Administrator, and reported Behrendt’s inappropriate comment. Later, Behrendt also retaliated against Plaintiff by having her removed from her desk assignment because he was furious about Plaintiff reporting his offensive behavior to the Office Administrator. Behrendt would slam doors in Plaintiff’s face and aggressively walk towards her causing her to move swiftly out of the way in order to avoid getting run into.

Using the term “dirty Mexican” seems a bit over-the-top, but that’s what Nelson’s complaint alleges — and we’re just reporting the allegations.

(A factual question: Was Behrendt actually a Jones Day partner? It appears that he might now work at the firm of Theodora Oringher, where his firm bio identifies him as a former Jones Day associate.)

Nelson next claims that Scott Behrendt and another Caucasian lawyer, Reed Aljian, harassed an Egyptian-American attorney named Emery Elhabiby. This portion of the complaint is less racially oriented, but it jumped out at us because it sounds like every associate’s worst nightmare:

(For the record, according to Nelson’s complaint, Elhabiby’s EEOC complaint was eventually dismissed.)

Jaki Nelson makes more allegations about Reed Aljian:

Threatening to throw secretaries out the window? Again, quite the claim. Either Nelson is fabricating or exaggerating, or Jones Day’s Los Angeles office has to be one of the worst workplaces around (although all the allegations of intra-office sex, if true, might take the edge off a bit).

Then Nelson’s complaint introduces a new character, Geoffrey Forgione:

If Nelson’s allegations are true, Geoff Forgione has an attitude problem. Might he be related to temperamental chef Marc Forgione, who famously threw a New York Times reporter out of his restaurant?

Delinquent in submitting his time sheets? Good thing Forgione doesn’t work at Simpson Thacher.

This post is getting long, so let’s wind things up. Here’s one more allegation about a fairly senior lawyer in the office (although it appears, from the Jones Day website, that he’s now of counsel — not a senior partner, as the complaint states):

44. Jim Childs, a Senior Partner, repeatedly called Plaintiff into his office for alleged “mistakes.” On one occasion, Childs called Plaintiff into his office and angrily said, “What is this?” Plaintiff responded, “Mr. Childs, I do not know what you are talking about.” Childs then snatched the glasses off of Plaintiff’s face while saying “You need to get some new fucking glasses!” Plaintiff was in shock and said, “Mr. Childs please, you do not have to talk to me like this.” Childs responded, “Oh Jaki, you don’t have to be so sensitive.”

As for the rest of Nelson’s allegations, we’ll summarize. She claims that she raised her complaints of discrimination through internal firm channels, but that the administrators and partners were unsympathetic. They allegedly told Nelson that she was the one with a problem, accusing of her violating firm policy in various ways and turning in unsatisfactory performance. Nelson alleges that some of these meetings and encounters featured verbal abuse and intimidation.

Finally, in June 2010, Nelson was laid off as part of what the firm described as a “restructuring.” Nelson alleges that this staff layoff was a pretext for racial discrimination, claiming that of nine secretaries who were laid off, seven were minorities — “two Hispanics, two African Americans and three Filipinos.” ¶ 53.

(If Above the Law were to lay off all its African-American and Filipino-American employees, there would be nobody left around here.)

You can check out the full complaint for yourself, which runs to almost 30 pages, over here (PDF). We’ve covered most, but not all, of the most entertaining parts. If you have the time, we recommend reading about the controversy over the firm’s “No Fragrance Policy.” ¶¶ 35-36.

Jones Day’s spokesperson, David Petrou, did not respond to our request for comment. The firm also did not respond to an earlier inquiry from the ABA Journal.

Do you have firsthand knowledge of what went down in the L.A. office of Jones Day? If so, please feel free to email us (subject line: “Jones Day”).

UPDATE (11/11/2010): Read the latest coverage of Nelson v. Jones Day over here.

UPDATE (7/25/2011): This case, making allegations that Jones Day describes as “baseless and inflammatory,” has been dismissed.

Former employee sues Jones Day law firm for race discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation [eBossWatch]
Ex-Jones Day Secretary Sues, Claims Layoffs Targeted Minorities, Troublemakers [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Jones Day Prepares for Bonus Season By Telling Staff They’ll Get Nothing
Prior ATL coverage of Jones Day

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